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Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TVby Warren Littlefield
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Warren: I arrived at NBC in December 1979, hired by Brandon Tartikoff to work in the comedy department. I was manager of comedy development, the junior member of the department. Brandon was a newly minted vice president of development at the network, which was mired in last place. I was twenty-seven years old, and though I had watched a lot of it, I knew next to nothing about network television. Brandon, my boss, was all of thirty.
In what was just a three-way race for audience (there’d be no Fox Broadcasting until 1987), NBC was jokingly derided as number four. CBS had ten comedies on its schedule, including M*A*S*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Jeffersons, Alice, and One Day at a Time. ABC could boast fourteen sitcoms, among them Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Barney Miller, Soap, Taxi, and Three’s Company. At NBC, we had Diff’rent Strokes and Hello, Larry.
In terms of general viewership, CBS led the way with about sixteen million households. ABC was a close second with fifteen million. NBC lagged well behind at twelve million. For the 1980 season, Little House on the Prairie was our top-rated show at sixteenth. We placed only four shows in the top thirty. There was nowhere to go but up.
Worse still, NBC’s head of programming at the time was a man named Paul Klein. He had a background in audience research and had come up with the strategy of LOP, which stood for Least Objectionable Programming (I’m not kidding). The object was to piss off as few viewers as possible. The network product line was largely geared toward big events, so we became the Big Event network.
A TV critic once asked Paul Klein, “How do you know when you’ve got a big event?”
Klein said, “We sit around a table, and people throw out ideas, and somebody says, ‘That’s a big event,’ and that’s when we know.”
It was an insane form of programming, expensive and not in the least bit habit--forming. NBC had essentially abandoned weekly series as the spine of the network. As a remedy, the legendary Fred Silverman had been brought over from ABC to turn things around. Fred didn’t waste a lot of time in making Brandon the new head of the entertainment division. I hoped that would also be good for me.
By then, Fred had already enjoyed remarkable success at the other two networks. A Time magazine cover piece on Silverman had called him “The Man with the Golden Gut.” NBC was in desperate need of a programming miracle, so maybe a golden gut would do.
My first encounter with Fred was pretty alarming for me. It took place in a conference room on the second floor at NBC in Burbank. We were meeting to review the current development slate. Fred wasn’t very happy. In fact, he was screaming that it was impossible to turn NBC around if deals couldn’t be made faster.
Fred shifted in his chair, looked at me, and shrieked, “Why haven’t you closed any of those deals yet!?”
I experienced major shrinkage and couldn’t get any words out.
Finally my boss jumped in and said, “Fred, this is Warren. He’s the new guy in comedy development.”
“Oh,” Fred said. “Where the fuck is the business affairs guy?”
My only words to the legendary Fred Silverman that day were “Don’t know. Not me.”
We were so desperate for quality programming that we had to wave a series commitment at Les and Glen Charles and Jimmy Burrows. The trio had never created a show, but they had worked on more than a few iconic programs: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, The Bob Newhart Show, and Taxi. We guaranteed them thirteen episodes on the air just to lure them to pitch us. Nobody wanted to be on NBC. To get Jimmy and the Charles brothers, we knew we’d have to overpromise and overpay, and, boy, did we.
That’s a pitch meeting I’ll never forget. Over breakfast, Brandon Tartikoff, Michael Zinberg, and I first got wind of what would become Cheers.
Jim Burrows: Cheers was pitched as a Miller Lite commercial. Those commercials with the jocks, Marv Throneberry and all that. We had an athletic leading man. Sam Malone, originally, was a wide receiver. That’s how we pitched it. NBC made a deal for us--two for one. They had to put one on the air. We had to write two. The pitch wasn’t too difficult. Since the three of us had run Taxi for about three years, we knew what we were doing, and NBC knew it. It’s not like today, where they hire kids who’ve never run a show, based on one script.
Bob Broder: Grant Tinker had hired the Charles brothers at MTM, and they’d worked their way up to executive producers on the final year of the original Newhart show. Jimmy Burrows was a director who hadn’t directed television but had been the stage manager in New York for a very unsuccessful musical, Holly Golightly, with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. It had closed very quickly. Out of that, Jimmy developed a relationship with Mary and Grant, and he begged for an apprenticeship to come out and work with the MTM company.
At the time, I was representing Jay Sandrich, who was Jimmy Burrows before Jimmy Burrows became Jimmy Burrows. Jay Sandrich was the top multi-camera director at the time, in 1970. He did the pilot for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he went on to do Cosby and The Golden Girls.
Grant Tinker asked Jay Sandrich to mentor Jimmy. Jimmy asked me, “Would you represent me? I know Jay Sandrich can’t do all the work he’s being offered. Maybe you could get me a couple of gigs.” I’ve been Jimmy’s agent since 1972 or ’73. While Jay was a star, Burrows is by any metric a supernova. He has now directed the pilots for over fifty--six series that have gone on air. Not failed pilots, broken pilots--on-air series. Fifty-six of them.
Jim Burrows: Since I come from a stage background, in comedy I kind of know what’s funny. The first show I ever watched out here was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It had four of the most powerful writers in television working on it--Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, Ed. Weinberger, and Stan Daniels. Powerhouses. The director was Jay Sandrich, who mentored me. I used to see Jay go after the writers, and Jay would say what he thought. He’d do that to protect his actors.
Writers want you to do the script, but sometimes what works in the writers’ room doesn’t work on the stage. Jay would say, “I’ll do it your way, but I’m not sure it’s the right way. Let’s show you what we can do.” That empowers the actors to feel like a larger part of the creative process.
Bob Broder: When you watch Jimmy shoot a show, he’s fascinating. He’s never watching. He’s listening. He’ll walk up and down behind the cameras, and all of a sudden he’ll kick a camera dolly to change the angle. He has a quad split in his head. He knows what each camera is seeing.
Jim Burrows: The guys we pitched Cheers to knew a lot more about television than the guys we pitch to today. We got to pitch to guys who got it. We talked about a bar but not a romance. We might have mentioned Tracy/Hepburn. I don’t remember. So many pitches under the bridge.
Bob Broder: I believe Abe Burrows, Jimmy’s father, wrote on a radio show called Duffy’s Tavern. The beauty of having set the show in a bar meant when the door opened, the story started, and any story could walk in that door. It wasn’t like doing a family comedy where you had to figure out how you were going to service your six characters. Some pretty strange people came in that door.
Warren: I remember Jim Burrows and the Charles brothers told us the only show on television with adult relationships was Three’s Company. “That’s fine,” they said, “but that shouldn’t be the only one. There is so much more territory to cover.” Charles/Burrows/Charles had a pedigree, and we, at NBC, didn’t have one at the time. We had no sense of who we were as a network, and we were desperate for a hit show.
Bob Broder: Our offices were over a restaurant called Scandia. It was the dining spot in L.A. in the late seventies. The only advantage we had as an agency was “Come to lunch; we’ll eat at Scandia.” I called Irwin Moss, who was doing business affairs at NBC. I said, “Let’s get lunch, and we’ll discuss the deal.” We do the deal over lunch on the back of an envelope. Series commitment. My partner and I had been in business a minute and a half. Good news: we had a series commitment. Bad news: it was NBC.
Warren: Being the smart agent that he is, Bob took the NBC offer and shopped it to Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner who were at ABC and were working with the team on Taxi, but ABC passed. It was too rich of a deal.
Bob Broder: I go to Paramount and say, “I have a series commitment.” They want it, and we negotiate a deal. One of the better deals ever made in television. We set precedents there it took them thirty years to get rid of.
John Pike: We made the deal without having any concept of what the idea was. We really didn’t know. We went into business with Charles/Burrows/Charles. Typically, that’s what I did when I ran Paramount Television. We let them make what they love, and we were there to provide support. We’d run interference with the network. I can recall over the run of Cheers that there was never an adversarial moment where it came to the principal talent of that show.
The Cheers relationship with Paramount was unique in the network world at that time. There was a pure partnership--Paramount TV and Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions. C/B/C didn’t need Paramount. Everybody wanted to be in business with them. They had a series commitment from NBC. Paramount had a great distribution arm. We had a great track record with comedy--Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, et cetera.
The deal was a fifty-fifty proposition, a true partnership. We’d produce the program for a certain amount of money, and there would be a distribution fee that was lower than most typical fees in the industry. My job was to manage the ball team. I had the three most-sought-after creative people that there were. Ours was a trouble-free partnership. We all had a common goal.
Bob Broder: The boys took this germination period--they were still doing twenty-two episodes of Taxi--and Cheers just started to percolate. They wrote a great pilot. Notes were easy, and then they did something that had never been done before. The boys came up with three pairs of actors to audition.
Jim Burrows: We had six finalists. Fred Dryer and Julia Duffy. Fred Dryer was Sam Malone. We had Billy Devane and Lisa Eichhorn, and Ted and Shelley. We got the Bosom Buddies stage, which had a bar. We fed the network, always good. We had the three couples each do a scene.
Bob Broder: Probably the most inhumane process in television is the casting process. There couldn’t be a more demeaning way to treat people, even if they are actors.
The actors had been rehearsed for two days, and the boys made slight changes in the scene to accommodate each of the pairings. There must have been thirty people there. The actors were in wardrobe and makeup. We had lights. It was very nice.
Jim Burrows: I remember me and Glen and Les wondering how we could possibly say no to Bill Devane. But it was obvious it was Ted and Shelley. They were wonderful with one another.
Warren: From Burbank we drove over to the Paramount lot, and then we were taken in golf carts over to stage 23 next to Lucy Park. Yes, named after Lucille Ball, who with Desi Arnaz had started Desilu Productions there and had purchased the lot from RKO Radio Pictures. This was show business, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
At the network, we were keen on Fred Dryer. He had a lot of upside. Former professional football player. Leading-man looks. His acting skills, however, were . . . evolving.
Bob Broder: Fred Dryer was the Howie Long of his time. He wasn’t an actor, but every time he ran the scene, he got better.
Jim Burrows: Fred didn’t have the comic chops at the time. Later, he was in two episodes of Cheers where he played the sports guy. “‘I’ on Sports.” He was great.
Warren: Ted was great, but if it had been up to the suits, Fred Dryer would have had the job. That was a valuable lesson learned for me. When you get into business with talented, creative people, listen to them. Jimmy Burrows and the Charles brothers were convinced Ted Danson was their guy, and they were right. We were too hung up on what Fred Dryer could be. Jimmy told us to put him in a drama. It wouldn’t take us long after that, with the help of Steve Cannell and Frank Lupo, to launch the Saturday night staple Hunter.
Jim Burrows: Ted Danson is as far from an athlete as you can get. He’s a farceur from Carnegie Tech. I took him to his first baseball game. Not a clue. So I told Ted, “You watch Fred. Watch how he moves. Watch how he preens. He’s a peacock. That’s who Sam Malone is.”
Bob Broder: We even changed the character from being a football player to a baseball player so Ted would be more believable.
Jim Burrows: I’ve often thought about what would have happened with different pairs. Devane felt a little old. He dropped a glass when he did his scene and made a joke about it. He was wonderful, very creative, but we got the best two. That was obvious.
Bob Broder: I first caught wind of Ted Danson when I saw a busted pilot from the year before. He’d done a wonderful role in The Onion Field. He may have already done Body Heat.
Jim Burrows: Ted had read for Best of the West, a pilot I did in ’79 or ’80. He didn’t get the job, but his name stuck in my head. We cast him as a gay hairdresser in Taxi. He was hilarious.
Bob Broder: We did the first five or six shows and were never quite sure if Teddy was going to be believable as a baseball player. But it worked.
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