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

Illustration by: Kyle Hilton

The bad behavior of the former "Grey's Anatomy" actress and her manager mother have hampered a film career and may impact her comeback in NBC's untitled CIA drama. Says one pilot producer: "She's not worth it."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Is there television life after box-office death for Katherine Heigl?

NBC announced Sept. 9 that it will develop a television project written by Alexi Hawley, co-executive producer of Fox's The Following, in which the 34-year-old Heigl would play the CIA's chief liaison to the president.

It's hardly unusual for a film star to turn to the small screen at this stage in the industry's evolution, but most of those who have done so (Kevin Bacon, Dennis Quaid, Glenn Close) will never see 50 again. Heigl could still have enjoyed years of film success, says one executive who made a movie with her. "She was poised," says this person. "I still see her sometimes when I flip around the channels, and she has it. She's got real big movie-star charisma."

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What's soured many in the industry, according to several executives and producers who have worked with Heigl, is more than just the exceptionally difficult behavior and demands of Heigl and her manager mother, Nancy. There also is Heigl's habit of airing her grievances in public, including her 2008 denunciation of her first hit film, Knocked Up, as "sexist," as well as her announcement later that year that she would not seek an Emmy for her performance in ABC's Grey's Anatomy because the writing wasn't good enough.

Not even five short years ago, Heigl commanded $12 million for a movie. Her 2009 romantic comedy The Ugly Truth pulled in more than $200 million worldwide. But her most recent effort, The Big Wedding, topped out at $21.8 million domestic with a paltry 7 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. To be fair, that was something of an ensemble effort with a cast that included Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. Her most recent film before that, One for the Money, managed only $37 million worldwide with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2 percent.

Hollywood has infinite patience with difficult talents -- until the box office stops booming. Asked about the state of Heigl's career, a top executive at a studio that made one of her movies says tartly, "I think she's doing the perfect thing -- going back to television."

Heigl and her mother declined comment, but a source close to the star says Heigl knows she needs to rebuild. "She's really determined to put everything behind her," says this insider. "The only way to do that is to go to work in film or television with good people and for those people to have good things to report back. And it's not an overnight thing." But this source adds that Heigl's problem primarily is with the industry. "There's a really loyal, huge fan base that's waiting to see her," he says.

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Heigl still has some supporters in the industry, including Greg Berlanti, whose TV credits include The CW's Arrow and ABC's Brothers & Sisters. He directed Heigl's 2010 film, Life as We Know It, and says: "I would work with her again in a heartbeat. She's an amazing actress, and her in a TV show that's a great idea and well executed would be something I would watch and would feel lucky to work on myself." Denise Di Novi, an executive producer on the same film, also says her experience on the film was "really good," adding that Heigl was "hardworking and dedicated."

But another insider on the project recalls "desperately difficult situations" with Heigl, from casting to wardrobe and beyond. (Heigl, who was paid $12 million, didn't have casting approval but insisted on exercising it, says this source.) "She can cost you time every single day of shooting," says this person. "Wardrobe issues, not getting out of the trailer, questioning the script every single day. Even getting her deal closed at Warners was hard. She hit that point of 'no.' "

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