Behind the Lines with DR: Creating a TV Show While Managing Actors’ Egos, Part 1

A few years ago, a studio executive invited me to pitch a TV idea to producer David Zucker, president of television for Scott Free, Ridley and Tony Scott’s thriving production company. The studio said if David liked the story, they would buy it for us to develop together. David politely listened to my pitch. I could tell right away it wasn’t for him. But instead of closing the meeting there, he decided to return the favor and pitched me an episodic show idea involving the U.S. Coast Guard. Not being a fan of episodic TV, I honestly had no clue how to approach the endeavor. It did, though, remind me of all the impressive news footage I’d seen of Coast Guard heroics during and after Hurricane Katrina.

creating a tv showThis is when I spoke without really thinking:

“The only show I could imagine doing about the Coast Guard would be something like an old-fashioned disaster movie,” I said. “Like one of those big Irwin Allen pictures. Melodrama in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure.Only this would be a twenty-two episode TV show whipped over by a hurricane.”

“Expensive,” David whistled.

“You’re telling me?” I agreed.

Our meeting ended. I moved on and expected nothing at all to come from the conversation. The next day my TV agent called.

“They love your idea,” she said.

“Who loves what idea?” I retorted.

“Scott Free loves your disaster movie TV show. They want to meet again,” she said. “Oh. And there’s an actor they want you to meet who’s attached to their Coast Guard thing.”

“Who’s the actor?” I asked.

When I heard the actor’s name, my stomach flipped. For the sake of propriety, let’s call him Johnny Brylcreem. I’d never met the James-Dean-Marlon-Brando wannabe but was still quite familiar with the name, having heard plenty of horror stories from an attorney pal who’d once represented the trouble-making thespian. My friend finally dumped the young star and the fat commissions he was receiving because the talent didn’t outshine the hassle.

“Yeah,” I said. “Think Johnny’s on the life’s-too-short list.”

“Seriously?”

I explained my misgivings. Relayed some of the hair-raising tales I’d been privy too. She said she understood and would pass my regrets along to David Zucker and the studio who’d been so kind to put us together. And there it ended.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks later I was happily on vacation in the southwest of Ireland. I recall I was alone at the time, hitting a bucket of golf balls to a wind-swept practice green when my cell phone trilled. On the other end was the studio executive who’d first introduced me to David Zucker.

“We really love your disaster movie serial,” she said.

“Nobody’ll make it,” I hedged, not really wanting to bring up Johnny Brylcreem. “Wayyyyy too expensive for a TV show.”

“Not too expensive for us,” she said. “It’s an event kind of show. And it’s exactly the kind of project we hoped to make with Scott Free.”

“Well,” I continued. “There’s another problem.”

As it turns out the studio exec had spoken to my agent and respected my issues concerning Mr. Brylcreem. At the same time, she added how much their sister network adored the star. So much so that the network president was convinced the actor could be the next Kiefer Sutherland.

“I get you,” I said. “But if a TV show is full of problems, why start off with a problem star before it’s even a script?”

Then she answered with a bit of truth I’ll never forget:

“Listen, Doug. If the show turns out to be a hit, tell me the actor who doesn’t turn into a problem star?”

Check and mate. If I were still determined to create a television show, then I would need to accept the obvious obstacles and potential personality clashes that came with the territory.

“Just meet the guy,” she recommended.

So I did just that.

Upon my return from my wife’s homeland, I met up with Johnny Brylcreem. He and his “producing” partner seemed agreeable enough. And along with the star’s natural charm and ridiculously gleaming smile, it appeared to me that Johnny could probably sell flies in the Sudan. No wonder the network boss wanted to package that grin into a one-hour drama.

Soon I was sketching out the characters, the pilot, and the arcs for first season. Then, Zucker and the Scott Free crew along with the Johnny Brylcreem and I, trucked our act to both the studio and network. Deals were made, and I was green-lit to begin drafting a pilot outline.

Somewhere between the outline process and the first draft I began to hear rumors. Our “star” and his producer had set up a competing project at the same studio and network.

I asked David Zucker about it.

“Not to worry,” said David. “Johnny’s just trying on his producer wings.”

“Only so many hours of TV at any network,” I said. “Is it cool that he’s competing with us?”

“I’ve spoken with his people,” said David. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Now mind you. Though this wasn’t my first rodeo, it was one my earliest endeavors into creating a television show. Business practices in TV are somewhat different than in movies. And from what I’d been told by others with more knowledge and experience than I, I couldn’t have had a better or more straight-shooting partner than David Zucker. One of the true nice guys in showbiz.

Still, I couldn’t help tweaking Johnny Brylcreem after one of our meetings.

“So what’s the deal?” I said to the star in the parking lot after one of our many development sit-downs. “You’re attached to more than one project?”

“Not attached as an actor,” he said. “I’m just producing the other thing. Got this producing partner so I might as well make more than one show out of it.”

“Johnny,” I reminded, “I’m building a TV series around you as the star. So you can understand my concern.”

“As an actor I’m committed to our thing,” he said. “So don’t sweat it. Write us a great script.”

And so I did. Or at least thought that was what I was doing. As the development process goes, everything was on cruise control. Everybody appeared to be in the same boat, oars in unison, full-steam ahead. Producers, studio, and network in rare and blissful lockstep.

Then a mere week before I was to deliver the finished pilot script, I get a call from David Zucker.

“Bit of a problem,” said David. The polite-to-a-fault producer had an edge in his voice. “I just got word that Brylcreem’s committed to the other pilot.”

“As star?” I asked.

“As star,” confirmed David. “It’s a whole package. His agents and managers also handle the writer-producer team.”

“Have you talked to him?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But I have a call in to him. Maybe you should do the same.”

I hung up and dialed. Johnny Brylcreem had given me his cell number. I wondered if it was because he didn’t recognize the incoming number that he picked up my call.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“Listen,” he explained. “What you heard about me committing to this other thing is bullshit.”

“It better be because I’m just days away from delivering.”

“When will I have the script?”

“Friday,” I said. “Can you wait until Friday?”

“Sure, I can. This is our thing. We’re partners.”

Within the hour, I’d heard back from David Zucker. He’d pretty much had the very same conversation as I’d had.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t be bothered over it,” said David, assuring and most likely hoping his air of calm would keep my exploding brain in the script. “I’ll hold all the horses. You just make sure we have the draft by Friday.”

Next week, PART 2.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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