Nina Tassler Opens Up About Firing a Horse, a Rebooted 'Two and a Half Men' and What's Next for CBS
The No. 7 entry on THR's Women in Entertainment List went from a struggling actress to the head of the No. 1 network for eight of the past nine years.
Ask 2 Broke Girls creator Michael Patrick King to come up with a great anecdote about Nina Tassler, and he'll ask you to give him a moment as he gives it some thought.
It's been only six months since the CBS entertainment president picked up his comedy, and he's still proving to her that it belongs on a schedule of long-running hits from the CSI shows to The Big Bang Theory. "Let's see," the producer says, buying time by hurling adjectives you hear often about Tassler: "smart," "maternal," "passionate."
And then, bam -- he has it: "Nina had the balls to fire a horse."
The horse, in this case, is Chestnut, a vestige of the former life of one his "broke girls," the now penniless daughter of a Bernie Madoff type. King had cast a blond buckskin, more fitting for Westerns, which was waiting for its scene when Tassler came to set for a run-though. The native New Yorker, who grew up riding, knew the equine actor had been miscast.
"That horse wasn't the kind they kept at the Central Park stables," says Tassler. So she saw to it that her promising freshman comedy recast the horse, hiring a more appropriate, chocolate-colored thoroughbred.
Tassler keeps a replica of the horse propped up in her office, as much a reminder of her past as it is indicative of her hands-on style that has helped make CBS the most-watched network for eight of the past nine seasons. Now, in a fall that was supposed to be upended by casting overhauls -- Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men and Ted Danson in for Laurence Fishburne on CSI -- CBS has managed to lure more viewers than any of its broadcast rivals, actually growing its audience in a shrinking network environment.
Two months in, CBS can claim 12 of the top 15 scripted shows and is the first since 2002 to have the No. 1 comedy (Men), No. 1 drama (NCIS) and No. 1 new series (Two Broke Girls) among the prized 18-to-49 demo, putting to rest the perception of CBS as just a place for the senior set. New entries like Unforgettable, Person of Interest and 2 Broke Girls were quickly granted full seasons, and Men became the first comedy in a decade to rank as the No. 1 program four weeks into the season.
Tassler, 54, credits Kutcher's social-media fan base along with creator Chuck Lorre's creative ingenuity for Men's renewed strength, preferring to leave the conversation there for fear of having to delve into the still uncomfortable, and tired, topic of Sheen. "We turned disaster into success, and she had a lot to do with it," says her boss, Leslie Moonves. In fact, it was Tassler who had a longtime relationship with Kutcher's lawyer, Robert Offer, and put the deal in motion.
In recent months, Tassler's hands have been all over CSI, first as the show was recasting Fishburne's part and then as it was setting up Elisabeth Shue to step in for Marg Helgenberger later this season. "Nina is in that trench with you making decisions if not in body, in spirit -- though most of the time in body too," says CSI showrunner Carol Mendelsohn. "If you come in with a great idea, there's nobody more passionate than she is."
Tassler loved the arts before she knew there was a business in show business. As the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic Puerto Rican mother raised in a quiet dairy farm community in upstate New York, where her parents ran a sleepaway camp, she was drawn to the theater. "It felt like an environment where you didn't have to fit a mold," says Tassler, the oldest of three kids.
Upon graduating with a theater major from Boston University, Tassler moved to Manhattan to become an actor. In between auditions, she got a taste for the business at the Roundabout Theater Company. She remained there until her husband, Jerry Levine, whom she has been with since she was 18, landed a part in the film Teen Wolf. The married couple soon moved to Los Angeles, where she struggled initially to find work. (Today, Tassler and Levine have a 23-year-old son, a 13-year-old daughter and a close-knit family who have followed them west.)
After answering a series of want ads, a young Tassler scored a gig as an assistant at the Irv Schechter Agency, where she rose up the ranks to become an agent before making the leap to the bigger Triad Artists. "I had this crisis. 'What do I do? Oh, my God. I'll never be an actress. My career's over,' " Tassler recalls of the decision she was forced to make. "My husband said, 'Play the hand you're dealt. If you want to be in the business, take whatever job you can get.' " She did, amassing a portfolio of clients that included Tony Curtis, Victoria Principal and Meredith Baxter, before deciding she wanted a job where she got to stay with the material.
In what would begin a two-plus decade creative partnership, Tassler put all of her effort into securing a position at Lorimar Television, now Warner Bros., where Moonves was in charge. "I began a full-scale assault on Leslie and everybody at Lorimar to get me a job -- everything short of someone having me arrested," Tassler says, chuckling at her own chutzpah.
Moonves was struck by her persistence. "I'd already decided she was someone I wanted to have on my team, but she had 50 people call me. Finally, I said, 'All right, I'm going to hire you, now please tell them to stop, I have a job to do,' " he says. "Hiring her was one of the best moves I ever made." Tassler remained there from 1990 to 1996, working on series like ER and Sisters before following her boss and mentor to turn around a then ailing CBS.
When the pair arrived at CBS, Moonves a year or two ahead of Tassler, the network had lost the NFL and its average viewer was well outside the 18-49 demo. But by 2001, Moonves, then entertainment president, had Survivor and the Tassler-developed CSI, which catapulted CBS to No. 1 on Thursday, TV's most lucrative night. From there, Moonves and Tassler, head of drama development at the time, continued to add series -- Without a Trace, Cold Case, NCIS and a suite of CSI spinoffs -- and viewers.
Today, as the business' longest-running network chief -- the petite Tassler took the reins as entertainment president in 2004 -- she presides over a pair of billion-dollar franchises, NCIS and CSI, and the kind of ratings consistency that makes her the envy of the industry. Even the knock on the CBS lineup as a somewhat formulaic schedule of broad-based comedies and down-the-middle procedurals is a backhanded compliment given the results it yields.
Still, there are genres she'd love to try -- or in some cases, try again. Among them: musicals, Westerns, performance-based reality shows and a drama with a young female voice. "Science fiction is something I'd love to find a way to do so our audience could really embrace it … Oh, and I'd love to try a funny hourlong comedy," she says with her trademark enthusiasm.
Sitting beside the executive as her wheels spin with ideas, it's easy to imagine all of the trenches Tassler has yet to dive into. No matter what comes at her, she declares, "I'm still standing. Like I always say, 'I'll stop when I'm dead.' "
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