Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Once A Network Executive Was Enormously Helpful. Once."

Major Dad was my greatest commercial success. It ran for four seasons (and would have run longer, had a Universal executive not botched the negotiation for a fifth-season pickup. I’m not bitter, just poorer. Okay, I’m a little bitter.)

Of my other produced series, Best of the West ran for one season, and Family Man, only seven episodes. Major Dad was unquestionably my biggest hit. It got us a swimming pool in our backyard. To this day, I do not jump in the water without snapping off an appreciative salute.

Major Dad almost didn’t get off the ground. The fact that it did, I attribute to an idea from a CBS executive that substantially upgraded the show’s concept. Which executive that was, I am not entirely sure. Though I have my suspicions.

A little background. I did not create Major Dad. I “developed” it. What that means is that someone else had the original idea and I helped them turn it into a series, by fleshing out the concept, inventing additional regular characters, and providing the show with its comedic tone and thematic direction, meaning I determined the style of comedy we’d be doing, and decided what exactly the series would be about.

The original concept was concocted by Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney, in partnership with the Executive Producer of Simon and Simon, the hour-long detective series McRaney was then starring in, who’s name was Rick.

Here’s how that came about. With Simon and Simon reaching the end of its run, McRaney engineered a deal with the studio to develop a new series, that series, to be created by himself and Rick, would be Major Dad.

The way I got involved was that Universal’s President of Television, named Kerry, asked me if I’d be interested in developing a half hour comedy for Gerald McRaney, and I said yes. The reason Kerry suggestive my involvement was because neither McRaney nor Rick had any experience in the field of comedy, And I did.

The reason I said yes was because I had a contract with the studio, and when you have a contract with a studio, you can’t keep saying no, or pretty soon, you don’t have a contract with a studio anymore. It’s a “business” thing. When they pay you, they expect you to do something. Go figure.

I also said yes, because I had recently screened an unsold pilot in which Gerald McRaney had co-starred and had found him to be understated, appealing and funny. Not quite James Garner caliber, but close. I had a feeling we were compatible, by which I do not mean me and McRaney, I mean me and his abilities. I decided to give it a shot.

The idea McRaney and Rick had come up with was a kind of gentle comedy, almost a throwback to the My Three Sons template, in which McRaney, a career Marine, is a widower, raising three young children alone. It sounded a little soft, but it wasn’t my show, so I did not feel I was entitled to criticize it. It was my job, I believed, to make what they wanted to do as entertainingly workable as I possibly could.

Frankly, it did not seem promising. But, “Worst Case Scenario”, the networks would turn the show down, and I’d return to my regular routine, thinking of ideas for new television series, lunching free at the commissary, taking naps in the afternoon, and going home around four. Hardly a terrible “Plan B.”

We pitched Major Dad to ABC. They hated it. We then went to CBSSimon and Simon’s erstwhile home for eight-plus seasons – where we received a noticeably sunnier reception. CBS seemed interested, but, as is traditional with networks, they first wanted to discuss the matter “in house.” They would get back to us shortly.

So we waited. Me in my office – when I wasn’t taking post free-lunch walks with my buddy Paul, strolling along the route of the Universal Tour, where we’d routinely wave at the passing tram passengers from the “Flash Flood” location, where the “tree” falls down, and after the tram moves on, gets back up again – while McRaney and Rick waited things out on the soundstage, wrapping up the final episode of Simon and Simon.

Finally, we received the word. The network had made its decision about the show. We would now meet, and be informed what it was.

I recall a large, white trailer parked outside the Simon and Simon soundstage, which served as McRaney’s Dressing Room. I recall a low ranking Universal executive named Brad standing beside me, as we waited for McRaney and Rick to come out, so that Brad could give us the news together. As we waited, I recall Brad telling me that the network had an idea for an “adjustment” in the concept. And that he thought I would really like it.

Three red flags immediately waved in my face. Red Flag Number One: The network had an idea. Red Flag Number Two: They wanted to change the concept that a major television star had come up with. Major television stars don’t like things they come up with to be changed. Major television stars prefer things their way. And Flag Number Three: Good news is never announced by a low ranking executive. There was no Kerry in sight. We were hearing this from Brad.

McRaney and Rick finally emerged from the soundstage, and we all climbed into the trailer, with me in the rear, not out of politeness, but because I was the one who wanted to go in there the least.

We sat down, and Brad explained that the network liked the show, but they wanted to “tweak” the concept. McRaney’s face turned ominously dark, as if he was ready to drive over to CBS headquarters and “tweak” the executives.

This was CBS’s suggestion:

Rather than Major Dad being about a widower Marine raising three children alone, CBS proposed that we instead make it about a Marine who marries a woman with three daughters.

Right away, I knew that was better. I saw the possibilities for (comic) conflict – a traditional “Man’s Man” (by the way, try finding one of them on a sitcom today), surrounded by a bevy of insistently non-combatant females. The possibilities were intriguing, in contrast to the original idea, wherein, if there were possibilities – and I was not certain Fred MacMurray hadn’t exhausted them all – it would take a monumental effort ferreting them out.

McRaney hated the “fix.” This was not what he had wanted to do. I was told, however, that this was McRaney’s standard M.O. to externally imposed suggestions – he’d blow up, and then in time, he would, begrudgingly, go along.

Which is exactly what happened. With McRaney’s “reluctant” assent, we adjusted Major Dad’s premise, which now provided me with reliable “edges” that I could deploy as points of access for the comedy. More importantly, since the concept “fix” had come from the network, our acceptance of it meant the show would now happily go forward.

Who was responsible for this extremely helpful “adjustment”? I know it wasn’t CBS’s president, a man named Kim. Kim hated the show from beginning to end, to the point of suggesting, on the night before filming, that we shut down production and re-cast the leading lady. (On “show night”, in an effort to trumpet his expertise, Kim criticized the placement of a part of the actors’ “uniform” called the “gig line”, insisting on an adjustment that would render it authentically Marine. From darkened soundstage, a Marine audience member corrected the CBS president’s adjustment with two words: “That’s Navy!” Aside from when I heard that Major Dad had been picked up, Kim’s public comeuppance was the most gratifying moment of my entire experience on the show.)

Lacking the benefit of certainty, I nonetheless suspect that the suggestion that turned Major Dad in the right direction came from a CBS vice-president of television named Barbara. Unlike almost every network executive I have ever been required to work with, Barbara’s background and training was as a writer.

Barbara had come up with a helpful “fix”, for which I was extremely grateful. Not so grateful, however, that I didn’t fight her tooth and nail on the issue of what Major Dad’s pilot story ought to be. Historically, my gratitude towards people goes only so far. It ends abruptly when they disagree with me.

I will enlighten you about this next battle tomorrow.


Monica said...

Hi Earl

Just to let you know that the London Screenwriters' Festival 2011 kicks off on October 28th for a three day festival like no other - Television screenwriters, producers and commissioners are amongst top speakers.

Best wishes,

Mac said...

Very interesting post, Earl. I'm always fascinated as to how these things came about.

There's only one "man's man" left in comedy, but he's in animation - Stan Smith of "American Dad."

Earl Pomerantz said...

From a reaction standpoint, I watch everything as a regular viewer, and I always have. From an evaluative standpoint, however, I respond from experience. My "viewer's gut" tells me something's wrong. My writer's background and training can often help determine what it is.