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Harper leads cast of TV movie based on Ronda Rich book

A book tour for a writer can sometimes lead to peculiar turns and twists.

In the case of a visit that syndicated columnist Ronda Rich made in Arkansas some time back, they led to a surprise date with a town dignitary and a chance later to meet herself — or at least an actress portraying a character based on her — on the set of a made-for-TV movie.

The movie, currently filming in Vancouver, is based on Rich's 2005 novel, "The Town That Came A-Courtin'," which recounts one of her most unusual book-signing experiences.

"It's the only novel that I've ever written," said Rich, whose weekly columns appear Saturdays in the Gwinnett Daily Post, said in a telephone interview from her north Georgia home Thursday. "It's based on the fact that I was on a book tour with my second book, which was my (2002) NASCAR memoir, 'My Life in the Pits,' and I went to a little town called Blythel, Ark."

There, the community took a keen interest in her personal life. Her talk at a civic club led to a number of the Blythel residents taking on an unusual civic duty of sorts.

"I spoke at Rotary," she said. "At Rotary they found out I wasn't married. And by the time I got to the book signing, men and women were lined up to get a book signed. And every one who came through the line said, 'So, you're not married. Our mayor isn't married either.'"

A town-wide matchmaking effort ensued.

"It became such a delightful story," said Rich, who has since married TV writer and producer John "Tink" Tinker. "This little town cared so much about their mayor.

"I did end up going out with him the next night and it just inspired this book, 'The Town That Came A-Courtin'."

The character in the book that Rich based on herself, Abby Houston, is being played by Lauren Holly, known for her roles in movies such as and "Dumb & Dumber" and the long-running CBS television procedural "NCIS" and the series "Motive."

The movie, which will air in January on the UP Network, also stars Valerie Harper, who has been fighting a public battle against brain cancer. The signing of Harper, known for her beloved Rhoda character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," has everyone connected to the project excited, Rich said.

"I'm really excited. It's a lot of fun, and it's a lot of fun to have Valerie (Harper). That was something that we weren't expecting at all."

She said she learned of Harper's involvement via email.

"We (Rich and her husband) were in LA last week and they said Valerie Harper's just signed to play Charlotte," she said. "And we were both stunned. We're real excited.

"All the producers I talk to on the set are totally in love with her already. She's just magical. Everyone is loving her."

Harper's husband, Tony Cacciotti, will play Charlotte's movie husband, Charlie. The real-life spouses playing fictional spouses is "a first ever for them," Rich said.

"NBC is doing a documentary," she said. "They're following her during the course of her dealing with her brain cancer, so I'm sure they'll be there, too, filming."

"UP is thrilled to have the always inspirational Valerie Harper as part of our talented 'The Town That Came A-Courtin'' cast," said Barbara Fisher, senior vice president of original programming for UP, in a statement Thursday. "Joined by Lauren Holly, Cameron Bancroft and Lucie Guest, this uplifting, sometimes bumpy romance showcases how a community's spirit and good will can help people connect and find each other."

UP describes Holly's character as a "smart, beautiful, successful author and fiercely independent Southern woman," who, during a visit to Bliss, Miss., finds herself being held captive in a remote cabin by an obsessed fan.

"The town of Bliss, local Magnolia Blossom B&B owner Charlotte (Valerie Harper) and their well-meaning prayer chain have big plans for her — as the perfect match for their widowed Mayor Spencer Alexander (Cameron Bancroft), a single dad of two," UP's synopsis says.

The two go on a whirlwind romance, but Alexander, reminded of his late wife, pulls away. Hurt, Abby decides to leave Bliss — and runs into her obsessed waiting fan. "With phones buzzing and the town mobilized," the synopsis says, "what happens next will determine her future."

The movie about an event in Mississippi that's loosely based on Rich's experience in Arkansas is being filmed outside Vancouver, British Columbia, in "a picturesque little town," Rich said. She was heading up there this weekend for her cameo role in the movie, a scene in which she'll meet Holly.

"And then I'll get my little cameo," she said. "And, of course, they having an actor playing Dixie Dew (Rich's dog, who "writes" her weekly column from time to time). She didn't get to play herself. ... She just can't take direction, so she didn't get the part."

Rich said she's excited to be working with UP, whose president is Charlie Humbard, son of the late evangelist Rex Humbard.

"He just has a vision for a network that just gives wonderful entertainment and inspires people and makes you feel good when you watch it," she said. "It's going to be uplifting entertainment. And this is their first major movie.

"We had a lot of people who wanted this movie and we decided to go with them (UP) because we loved everybody over there. They're based in Atlanta, actually, and they're just a delight to work with."

The main thing, Rich said, is capturing the sincerity and love of the people she met in Blythel.

"This is what I said in all the pitch meetings with all the networks we met with," she said. "This is not a figment of my imagination. A town this sweet and kind and loving really exists.

"And that's the best part of this book. It's about real people in a real town that just loved unconditionally. That's what I love the most about it."

Shooting on the movie started last week and is expected to wrap up Aug. 12. The release is set for January, leading to the Valentine's Day period.

In addition to Holly, Harper and Bancroft, the cast includes Lucie Guest ("Heath Nutz," "Blackstone") and is being directed by David Winning ("XIII: The Series," "Andromeda"). Sheryl J. Anderson ("Charmed") wrote the adapted script. Odyssey Media Inc., which is producing the movie, is based in Vancouver.