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Local-access cable's 'Ralph the Robot' now 'Enchanted'
Elk Grove screenwriter finds his break in Hollywood
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/1/2007 12:22 AM

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Writing about a fairyland princess who finds herself in the real world has propelled screenwriter Bill Kelly from his real-world upbringing in Elk Grove Village to the heights of Hollywood.

"It's a nice birthday," says Kelly, who turned 46 just before his "Enchanted" became the No. 1 movie in the nation.

Had he been this accommodating to Daily Herald reporters 20 years ago, we could run this story alongside an old one headlined "Local-access cable's 'Ralph the Robot' heads to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune."

"I worked for the Park District's Channel 6 in Elk Grove Village. I was the voice of 'Ralph the Robot.' I created that part," remembers Kelly, whose cable television work became the suburb's "Wayne's World" of the early 1980s. "I started getting recognized as a minor celebrity at the gas station, and I realized I had to move quickly."

At age 26, with an associate's degree in journalism from Harper Community College in Palatine, Kelly says he went from too young to think about Hollywood to too old not to try it. But he turned down the Daily Herald's interview request then because he didn't need the added pressure of putting his goals in print for his suburban neighbors to see.

"I said, 'No way. I'll end up a criminal and a felon and have this article haunting me,' " Kelly quips.

Instead, he's the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, beloved not only by movie fans but by critics.

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"The script is a zinger," says Dann Gire, Daily Herald film critic. "At the same time, it sends up classic Disney fairy tale cliches. It pays affectionate homage to them."

Kelly could walk that tightrope because one of his earlier jobs was writing character voices for Disney's many spin-off products.

"I think I had a dubbed line of Jiminy Cricket in one of the sing-along tapes," Kelly says of what had been his claim to fame before his screenwriting success.

He worked with film companies, where he read unsolicited scripts -- all the while, writing his own.

"I was just about to move home when I sold 'Blast from the Past,' " Kelly says.

That script was made into a movie released in 1999 that starred Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek and Dave Foley.

"I sold 'Enchanted' that same year in a bidding war," Kelly says. "I sold it in one day. Five studios bid on it."

Disney outbid Pixar and a host of others, but then inexplicably farmed out the story to other writers. It wasn't until they gave it back to Kelly that that script clicked.

"What's interesting to me is what-ifs," says Kelly, who also wrote this year's "Premonition," starring Sandra Bullock.

Frustrated while writing "Enchanted" back in the 1990s, he had a breakthrough during a heated discussion with producer Sunil Perkash.

"It sounds like she's a cartoon character," Kelly complained. Then he realized, "the only way the story would work was if she was a cartoon character."

Now he's got that "top of the world, ma" feeling.

"You suddenly go from being an idiot to being an idiot with ability and some legitimacy," Kelly says, recalling some critics' harsh assessments of his abilities before the universally good reviews of "Enchanted."

People who knew Kelly during his years at Elk Grove High School, where he helped write the annual variety show and starred as Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls," and at Channel 6 knew he had talent.

"He was such a good writer. The script would always be good," says Madeline Currier, the original host of "The Ralph the Robot Show" on Channel 6. "It didn't talk down to children. Adults could listen to it and say, 'Oh, that's a good point.' "

Former theater director Scott Lebin of Geneva remembers Kelly as more than a star of "Guys and Dolls."

"He was excellent in that, but he was just a lot of fun. He was clever and very bright," Lebin recalls. "He had a passion for it. It was never like work for him, yet he was very good at taking direction. He was always very positive and interested in growing and being as good as he could be."

When Channel 6 resurrected his creation for "The New Ralph the Robot Show," Kelly "called here out of the blue," says Debbi Dennison, host of the new show (see channel6.elkgrove.org for a clip). "He was happy we were starting the show up again."

Just as Kelly's success might inspire young writers, Kelly says he went to Harper in the hopes of being the next Reinhold Weege -- a Harper grad who wrote for several TV shows before creating the hit comedy "Night Court."

"It just seemed like a template I could follow," says Kelly. "I interviewed him once for our class paper, and my hand was shaking I was so nervous."

But Weege's advice about being true to yourself, working hard and not getting caught up in the trappings still ring true, says Kelly, a single dad with a 16-year-old son named Keenan.

"I love my upbringing. I love coming from Elk Grove," says Kelly, one of seven kids. His dad was a dispatcher for American Airlines and his mom was a nurse.

"We joke that every creative gene in our family went right into him," says his sister Tracy Otto, a teacher at Eisenhower Junior High School in Hoffman Estates.

"We're not surprised (by his success)," Otto says before admitting with a chuckle, "Well, maybe a little surprised at this one."

Writing a top movie leads to more opportunities for Kelly, who currently is on strike with other members of the Writers Guild of America. Normally, he writes about three scripts a year. Still, he doesn't feel as if he can relax.

"All it really is, is a tiny little ledge to lean on," Kelly says, describing his current writer's perch between a wall of rock and a sheer cliff. "I figure I'm one move away from Home Depot, aisle 13 in the orange vest."

His live-action "modern-day Aladdin story" is in the works with Disney. He also has written a comedy for Paramount about a Century 21 salesman who discovers he was put on Earth to fight the forces of evil -- "all in a gold blazer."

It's a different world than his old local-access days.

"At the rate he's going," Gire says, "Kelly won't be going back to 'Ralph the Robot' any time soon."

Unless some major studio requests a script for a "Ralph the Robot Goes to Hollywood" movie.

'Enchanted': Writer currently on strike, but in the works with Disney on another film