'Hot in Cleveland' Creator on Show Secrets, Eve of "Betty White Fever" and Ultimate Dream Cameo
This story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Five years ago, TV Land was at a crossroads. The cable network had subsisted since 1996 on reruns of classic sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but now there was a push to create original series for its over-40 target demographic. In came Hot in Cleveland, a sitcom from Frasier veteran Suzanne Martin centered on three Hollywood-industry types (played by Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli) who uproot from L.A. and move to the Midwest. "It had everything we wanted," says TV Land president Larry W. Jones.
Landing legend Betty White — then in the throes of her most recent career reinvention — solidified the show's future: Cleveland debuted June 16, 2010, as the network's highest-rated telecast with 5.9 million viewers. The show will be syndicated on various networks starting in September in most of the U.S., is now distributed in more than 210 global territories, has spawned a spinoff (Cedric the Entertainer's The Soul Man) and a Russian version premiered in 2013. On the eve of the show's 100th episode (airing Aug. 27), Martin reflects on how the show became one of cable's hottest properties.
What inspired you to create Hot in Cleveland?
I was driving to a meeting with movie producer Lynda Obst — it was the day Estelle Getty died [July 22, 2008] — and there were clips of The Golden Girls playing on the news. I started to think about women in their 50s and what the show meant for women now. I met with Lynda and she had a similar idea: What if women in that age group landed somewhere in America and they were "hot again" there?
In 2009, TV Land was looking to reinvent itself with its first scripted series. What made the network a natural fit for Hot in Cleveland?
I was actually working on another project at the time and I got a text saying that TV Land wanted to buy Hot in Cleveland — and I didn't even know what TV Land was. Lynda and I had initially pitched it to CBS and they didn't think they could sell it — I think because it involved women older than the demo they were looking at, which is unfortunate.
One of the show's stars, Betty White, originally was supposed to appear only in the pilot. How difficult was it to convince her to stay for good?
I have to say the good and the bad of Betty is that she'll say "yes" to anyone, to a certain extent. But the most wonderful thing about her is that she truly loves to work and she lives to work and it keeps her going. She loves to laugh, and one of my favorite things in the world is when we'll do a table reading and something will crack Betty up. She'll give me a wink that says, "Good job, kid." That keeps me going.
When did you know the show was going to work?
After our network run-through of the pilot, Larry W. Jones, president of TV Land, turned to me and said, "I'd like to pick it up for seven years." That was his note. We all had this feel-good feeling about it, and the most exceptional thing is, 100 episodes later, it's the happiest set and crew I've ever had. Betty says the same thing, and she's been on many, many, many sets.
It was a rare, quick hit. To what do you attribute its swift success?
The concept was new and funny. It tapped into the sense that a lot of women over 40 start to feel like they're invisible and wouldn't it be nice to be visible again? Especially in TV, where there are many actresses over 40 who don't get work. The other thing was, when we cast Betty, "Betty White fever" hadn't taken hold yet. She had just been in The Proposal, but the whole Saturday Night Live [online campaign to have White host the show, sparked by her memorable Super Bowl Snickers commercial], hadn't yet started. Then suddenly everyone rightly recognized that we had a national treasure.
Cleveland has been called a modern-day Golden Girls. How intentional was this homage?
I was inspired to think about what pushing 50 looks like now and what it didn't look like then. I was interested in the modern world of what that age group looked like. But it was very much thinking about the camaraderie of women living together and being each other's best friends.
In 2009, TNT launched the critically acclaimed dramedy Men of a Certain Age, about three male friends approaching 50. It lasted only two seasons and there haven't been many attempts since to directly cater to this age group in primetime. Why is there such a dearth of shows centered on people over 40?
It's the idea that, to get that 18-to-49 demo, you can't have anybody on the show who's over 45 or 49, which surprises me. When Golden Girls was on, I was in my early 20s and I loved it, so I don't know why there is that thinking, but there is.
You've had numerous TV legends guest-star on the show, from Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner to Mary Tyler Moore and William Shatner. Do any jump out to you as favorites?
There was one episode we did that reunited all the women from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In another episode, we had Jesse Tyler Ferguson from Modern Family and George Hamilton. It was just phenomenal. That was an instance where I stepped back and watched my show like a fan.
Are there any on your wish list?
We would love to have Robert Redford on the show because he's Betty's ultimate crush. We'd love to have LeBron James, with him heading back to Cleveland, which we're looking into.
For how many seasons would you ideally like the show to last?
I approach every year with, "Let's just do our best and see where we end up." But I'd love to do at least eight seasons.
Have you encountered any surprising celebrity fans?
[Actress] Elizabeth Banks once wrote on her Twitter feed, "Just watched Hot in Cleveland. Hilarious and smart and funny." I was like, "Thank you! I'll take that!"
The Hotties of Cleveland Tell All
Hot in Cleveland's quartet of leading ladies — all comedy veterans — reveal their favorite episodes, dream guest stars and biggest pinch-me moments:
Jane Leeves, 53
The Frasier alum reunited on Cleveland with Suzanne Martin, who'd been a writer on the hit NBC comedy. She plays U.K. native Joy Scroggs, a former Hollywood beautician.
► Memorable moments on set: Her former Frasier co-star John Mahoney in a pop-in role and guest star Steve Lawrence's stories about Frank Sinatra and Hollywood's golden days.
► Favorite episode: "How I Met My Mother" in season two: "I meet the son I'd given up for adoption, but I accidentally shoot him," says Leeves. "It was one of the funniest episodes, but it ended on a touching note."
Betty White, 92
The Emmy-winning veteran of such hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls stars as Elka Ostrovsky, an outspoken caretaker who maintains the home where Cleveland's ladies live.
► Favorite episode: "Canoga Falls," season four: "When Carol [Burnett] came in, the audience went crazy. I stood there for five minutes delighting in it," says White. "She is still so deeply loved."
► Favorite furry co-star: A Pomeranian named George Clooney. "He was absolutely adorable," laughs White.
► Dream cameo: "Robert Redford, of course!"
Valerie Bertinelli, 54
The former teen star (One Day at a Time) plays Melanie Moretti, a divorced writer and mom to two grown children.
► Memorable moments on set: "Our show bloopers are some of my favorite things to watch," she says. "If we work late on Friday nights, I sit and watch and laugh out loud."
► Dream cameos: Local Cleveland talent like chef Jonathon Sawyer; singers Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Elton John. "Elton singing for my character would be ridiculous because I've loved him since I was 12," says Bertinelli.
► Biggest job perk: "I get to work with Betty White every day. Hello!"
Wendie Malick, 63
The former Just Shoot Me! star plays Victoria Chase, a washed-up, Emmy-winning soap opera actress (and six-time divorcee).
► Biggest childhood fantasy come true: "Working with Carol Burnett was the pinnacle," she says. "I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show and thought, 'One day, I want to do that.' That she played my mother was a dream come true. We're hoping to get her back!"
► Favorite episode: "Where's Elka?" in season two: "My character decides to become Amish. It was madness," laughs Malick.