From 'Knocked Up' to Nyquil Ads, Can TV Save Katherine Heigl's Career?

 Illustration by: Kyle Hilton

As has been the case since the days when Heigl was a child model, her mother was fiercely protective. "I have never experienced anything like Nancy Heigl," says this source. "It's about the mouth. 'F--- you. You are a f---ing liar.' … Whatever you'd say, you were an idiot. The call would be, 'This is the worst craft service we've ever had! There's nothing to eat! This is the worst wardrobe!' You knew that every day, you were going to get slammed. The frustrating part is [Heigl] is incredibly talented and smart."

Executive producer Di Novi calls these comments "way exaggerated," adding that Heigl and her mother "are not shrinking violets. They're very straightforward and tell you what they think. That doesn't bother me."

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Whatever new leaf Heigl now proposes to turn over, it doesn't appear to involve a diminished role for Nancy, who will be an executive producer on the NBC project (as will Heigl). Heigl has said that her mother handles every aspect of her career and learned the ropes fast. "She didn't care if she made any friends in this town," Heigl told Vanity Fair in a January 2008 cover story. "This is a fear-dominated industry … and my mother refuses to be intimidated by that. This is all a game of chicken, and my mother is really good at chicken."

Heigl spent most of her childhood in Connecticut and was brought up in the Mormon faith, though now she smokes and drinks. A child model and actress, she broke through in 2005 playing Dr. Izzie Stevens on Grey's Anatomy. She won an Emmy for her performance in 2007 and that year became a budding film star in Knocked Up, which grossed $219 million worldwide.

Things began to go awry the following year. Heigl had her first full-on starring role in the romantic comedy 27 Dresses, but in the Vanity Fair cover story to promote that film, she vented about the negative turn that her Grey's character had taken. Izzie's arc was "a ratings ploy," she said, because the show was in its fourth season and "there's not a lot of spontaneity left." (The show is about to begin its 10th season). Heigl also disparaged Knocked Up, and the notion that she was not only ungrateful but disloyal began to take hold.

Production had gone smoothly on 27 Dresses, says a high-level source involved in the film, until it was time to promote the picture overseas. "There were movie-star demands -- big rooms, the mother there, all the stuff," says this person. " 'We need the presidential suite at The Bristol!' It was just a sense of entitlement. The biggest stars don't do that kind of thing." The prospect of working again with Heigl lost its allure.

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In June 2008, Heigl announced that she would not seek another Emmy for Grey's, citing a desire "to maintain the integrity of the academy organization." The show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, deflected questions about Heigl's behavior at the time but told Oprah Winfrey in December 2012: "On some level, I was not surprised. When people show you who they are, believe them." Heigl's last appearance on the show was in January 2010, in the midst of season six.

In April 2010, Heigl's publicist, Melissa Kates, took the unusual step of severing their relationship. Heigl then hired veteran Kelly Bush but dismissed her after only five weeks. She since has returned to her rep from earlier in her career, Jill Fritzo at PMK/BNC.

As Heigl's films faltered at the box office, she proclaimed in January 2012 that she wanted to return to Grey's. That plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Now Heigl's trying to return through her CIA project, and sources familiar with the pitch say her agents have promised that she's changed. One Heigl veteran says she heard the same promise three years ago.

There seems to be little doubt about Heigl's talent, but still, not everyone is convinced that her television comeback will be successful. "If you make your picks based on stable actors, it'd be a small list," acknowledges a top television executive. But given Heigl's reputation, he says a project would have to be blazing hot for a network to consider getting involved. A top producer at another network says there were reservations when Heigl's name came up a few months ago for a project that had been greenlighted to pilot: "On many levels, she would have been perfect for the role, but all of us said, 'She's not worth it.' " But sources say NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt personally pushed for the deal. He declined comment.

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Meanwhile, Heigl has finished filming North of Hell, a low-budget dark comedy from Darko Entertainment. (The movie does not yet have a release date.) Director Anthony Burns says the picture is in the vein of Fargo and that his only concern is that Heigl's fan base might be offended.

Burns says he'd heard the negative reports about Heigl and her mother but says he was "confused" by them. "I'm from Texas. I like honesty and to be cool and have a beer and laugh, and they are most definitely like that," he says. "Hopefully the next people [Heigl] works with will get to know her like I did. … She's just a good old girl who likes to speak her mind."

As for the problems of the past, Burns speculates that those might have arisen because Heigl got bored doing one romantic comedy after another. So it might be a good thing, he says, that her past few movies fell short. "She can take a step back and do a movie like mine," he says. "And it's not a lot of pressure on you because they're not paying you millions and millions of dollars."

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