Jeff was the head of programming at CBS.
My show biz “heat” subsequent to the success of Major Dad placed me in the position where I was offered the opportunity to write two half-hour pilot scripts, one of which the network would be contractually obligated to produce. This, not particularly imaginatively, is called a “Two-For-One” deal. The only better deals at that time were a “Guaranteed Pilot Deal” – where they have to make your pilot – or a “Guaranteed Series Commitment” – where they have to schedule the show – putting me two down from the best deal you can have. And substantially up from “Tell him I’m not in, and you do not know when I’ll be back.” Which I have also had.
I write the two pilots. The casting process begins for the lead role in the pilot selected to be considered first. Remember, in a “Two-For-One” deal, if the first pilot doesn’t work out, then the other one’s an automatic “Go.” Truth be told, however, I liked the first pilot idea better. (“Spoiler Alert” To My Own Blog Post: My preferred pilot was turned down; the other pilot was subsequently made, but was not picked up for series. I like to undercut my own suspense. No, I don’t. I choose to expose this information here, because my personal career success is not the central issue of this story.
The casting process continues, to find the Lead Character for The Voice of Firefly – Thumbnail Synopsis: “A New York television executive, fleeing the Big City ‘rat race’ finds a job managing a low-powered television station in (mythical) Firefly, (actual) North Dakota.” You like it? I did. “Urban-rural conflict, set in a show biz arena” –
Crank up the cameras, and send the residuals!
After an extensive casting process, as is required, we bring to the network three candidates for the “Lead Role”, any of whom we’d have been willing to go forward with, which is important because you never know which of them the network is going to pick, and then – worst case scenario – you’re stuck with a leading actor you want to hire a hit-man to “take care of.”
One of our three choices was a charming and experienced sitcom artiste. The other two were Sherry Stringfield (later nominated for three Emmy Awards for her performance on ER) and Julianna Margulies (later an Emmy Award winner for ER and an Emmy nominee for every season she was on the show, and later still, the star of The Good Wife, and an Emmy Award winner once again.) We – my Universal Studios partners and myself – went into the “Choices Presentation Meeting”, convinced that either Julianna or Sherry was a certain “slam dunk” for network approval.
You may detect where I am going with this. No, Jeff, the CBS head of programming, did not insist we go with our least favorite of the three candidates. Instead, Jeff turned them all down, curtailing any discussion on the matter with the resonating – and still memorable after twenty years – proclamation:
“I will not have any of those women on my network!”
Of which one of “those women” – for those of you scoring at home – subsequently won two Emmy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe Award, plus a bushel full of Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
A lot people think Julianna Margulies is pretty good.
But not Jeff.
This story, however, is not about making a mistake. Anybody can make a mistake, including the head of programming for CBS. Although, let’s be honest, this was hardly a run-of-the-mill mistake. We’re not talking “missing the target” here. We’re talking “aiming with supreme confidence in the entirely opposite direction.”
This story, however, is also not about making a monumental mistake.
What it is
is a story about arrogance.
There are, is seems to me, a number of ways that an, albeit surprising, “No” answer to our submitted selectees could have been delivered. Concerning the proposed casting selections that he was not onboard with, the less than gracious and humble Jeff could, alternatively, have said,
“I’m sorry, guys, but I’m just not feelin’ it.”
“They’re terrific, but not for this part.”
“They’re very good, but let me propose somebody I think is better.”
“It’s a close call. Let me sleep on it.”
Or – God forbid –
“I have some personal reservations. But I will leave it to the experts.”
There was nothing of that nature. Nothing acknowledging the subjectivity of the casting process, that would involve honest disagreement. Nothing suggesting the possibility that the decision-maker may have missed something. Nothing to indicate that perhaps the people making the shows actually knew what they were doing and, though certainly not perfect in their assessments, possessed instincts and experience in this area beyond that of a Harvard MBA. And, speaking of business training, nothing that would leave the people with whom he did, and would likely continue to do, business with the smallest shred of residual dignity.
It was, instead, as if we had delivered for his consideration, not certifiable gold, but a steaming sack of malodorous dog poop.
“I will not have those women on my network!”
The smart move is probably, “Forget about it” – file it away, as a bad day at the office from the dark and distant the past. The thing is, it is not entirely in the past.
Jeff’s words reverberate freshly in my ears whenever I see Julianna Margulies heading for the podium to accept still another prestigious award.