John Wells: Hollywood Weighs In on One of the Good Guys
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As a kid growing up in Denver, John Wells dreamed of being a working writer. The fact that he became one, in a big way, doesn't surprise people who have worked with the writer-director-producer-showrunner on such series as China Beach, ER, The West Wing and Third Watch. To hear them tell it, Wells' work ethic and unflappable disposition are among the keys to his success (not to mention his legendary ability to multitask). As of Jan. 12, the multiple Emmy winner's accolades includes a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wells, 55, who recently directed his first feature, 2010's The Company Men, and executive produces TNT's Southland and Showtime's Shameless, says he doesn't work in a silo. "I surround myself with talented people that I delegate to," says the former WGA West president. "That lets me roam and be involved in a lot of things."
Actress, The West Wing
"The bottom line is that John has great taste and he's a born leader. I've never seen him lose his temper. He's a very controlled and even-keeled man. On The West Wing, he was always a nice energy to have in the room, very gracious. I'm sure he's had people say otherwise because he can't have gotten as far as he has without having stepped on a few toes -- but mine are still intact, and I'm very grateful that he's in my life."
Screenwriter and former WGA West vp
"I first met John when we were together on the Writers Guild negotiating committees in 2001. He was the chair of every subcommittee, so I got to see his amazing depth of knowledge about the business. He knew the guild contract backward and forward like nobody else, and he could almost quote the entire Minimum Basic Agreement, which is hundreds of pages long. He knew every detail about everything, which is staggering in itself because, really, who wants to know that stuff? But he knew, and that made him a great resource for us -- and a formidable negotiator against the other side. Nothing was going to slip by him. He was also incredibly imaginative in helping everybody figure out different ways to get what we wanted."
Director, Mildred Pierce, I'm Not There, Far From Heaven
"I love his political and social consciousness in his work -- everything from ER to The Company Men. I'm intrigued by his interest in bringing Paul Abbott's really provocative and economically specific work Shameless to the U.S. I love that he decided that it was something that would make sense here, that needed to be seen here, that the bottom rung of the economic experience was something that could be amusing but disturbing in all the ways that the original was in Britain."
William H. Macy
"John doesn't have a tendency to look back too much. He moves forward. He loves input from everybody, but after all the input has been gathered, at a certain point he makes his pronouncement and moves on. Though he gives the appearance of it, he's not a democratic leader. He's absolutely in charge, and I say that with great respect. There's nothing worse than a production that is a democracy. It cannot work. It's chaos. You need a strong leader."
Actress, China Beach, Presidio Med
"We met in 1988 on China Beach. He was mostly a writer then. He wrote this beautiful two-part episode called 'The World: Part One' and 'The World: Part Two,' where my character goes back to the U.S. I won my first Emmy from that episode, but I would say 90 percent of it was the writing. In that episode, John had my father [Donald Moffat] quote me this Yeats poem ['When You Are Old']. You know, the best writers just steal from peoples' lives, and John had heard me talking about how I used to stand on my father's feet and dance when I was a child. He put that in the episode. My character, a woman in her 20s, stands on her dad's feet and dances with him. And of course, he dies in the next episode. It was very moving and beautifully written. A lot of people now know John as a director and a mega-producer, but I still think of him as a really good writer."
"One of the reasons I decided a few years ago to do TV again was because I had a 12-year-old son at home and didn't want movie projects that would take me out of L.A. for extended periods of time. When I met with John about Southland, without telling him why, I asked him about the hours. He said: 'Talk to your friends who have worked on my shows; family is really important to me. No one is working 16- or 18-hour days. You might have a day that ends up being 14 hours, but the next day you're not going to be working like that.' I was impressed that someone with his level of success still cared about the importance of family and allowed his cast and crew to put family first."
"John is no pushover. I did almost 300 episodes of ER, and I can count on two fingers the times I felt that I had a legitimate cause to ask him about some writing that he had done for my character. And both times he was incredibly kind and receptive but firm about why he had written what he'd written. There wasn't a lot of room for compromise, but I totally get that. Ultimately, my gratitude stops at his desk. He gave me the job that changed the course of my life."
President, Warner Bros. Television
"Early in his career, John learned quickly -- and this is part of what makes him such a great showrunner -- to know what he doesn't know. He now lectures others that, as a showrunner, it's as important to be able to examine and analyze a spreadsheet as it is a script. He knew it wasn't just enough to be a great writer and creative force and to be able to galvanize talent to do their best work. He also knew he had a responsibility to the studio and the network financially, practically, logistically and physically. He has that rare combination of right and left brain that enables him to do it all: He's a creative talent, leader, wonderful physical producer and incredible organizer."
Actor, Third Watch
"Third Watch was my first big show. I remember auditioning for John a couple of times and then going into the network reads. Every single time I looked over at him to get some feedback -- I knew him from China Beach and ER, and I was a little starstruck -- he had this kind face and smile that was very warm and reassuring."
Actor, The West Wing
"John did the nicest thing that anyone has done for me professionally. I was going to direct an episode of The West Wing for the first time. I pitched an episode idea to him about sexuality rumors and how innuendo can bounce around on the Internet and, even though there's no truth to it, it can have some political power. He said, 'Just write an outline on a page and give it to me tomorrow.' The next day, he read it and said, 'OK, make it three pages.' After I did that, he told me: 'Listen, I'm supposed to write this episode, but I think you could write it -- but you have to give me 70 pages next week. I'll back you up if you get in trouble.' I did it and had a wonderful experience -- and I got to write more. John moves people up and gets frustrated in a very healthy way with the sort of artificial limitation that the business puts on people. He really loves to develop people and has a total lack of ego."
Producer-director and Wells' longtime collaborator, ER, Third Watch, Southland
"John is one of the smartest people I know. He's a great multitasker and manager. He's a delegator and has no ego about him. He's also a wonderful writer -- clear and concise and emotional and clean. We're a good fit for each other because he's very intellectual and can compartmentalize. I'm the emotional one. On ER, where we first met and collaborated, he was the executive producer and I was the line producer. I also directed. We had the same basic philosophical ideas about how to produce a television show: You want to put the money on the screen; you want to be able to do the work and send people home at night so they can come back fresh the next day. We work in a business that is very transient. Longevity isn't a staple. We were very lucky to have this thing called ER. We were able to bond and get to know each other. Fifteen years later, John has become my best friend."