Top of the Rock
Warren Littlefield's oral history about NBC in its Must-See TV prime recounts the hits, skips the misses and snipes at Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Zucker.
One night, before she made Friends, before Brad Pitt and before her hair became a national topic of conversation, Jennifer Aniston ran into Warren Littlefield, then the president of NBC Entertainment, at a gas station on Sunset Boulevard. "Jennifer had been in our weak attempt to do [a show based on] Ferris Bueller," says Littlefield. "We cast her in a few more pilots, but none was very good." As he gassed up his car, Aniston asked, "Will it ever happen for me?" Littlefield remembers thinking, "God, I wanted it to."
This is just one of many behind-the-scenes stories told by Littlefield and a huge cast of stars, writers and executives he recruited for his first book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV. A chronicle of the last golden age of network television, it is the literary equivalent of a former NBC Thursday night lineup: a little humor, a little drama, a little dreck (but not enough to ruin the fun), plus a surprising dose of smarts and a bit more self-congratulation than necessary.
"Working at NBC in the Must See era was like playing for the 1927 Yankees," recalls programming executive Dan Harrison. Like the 2011 best-seller about ESPN,Those Guys Have All the Fun, Littlefield's book is structured as a group oral history, with chapters arranged in rough chronological order around the hit shows he helped develop in the '80s and '90s, including Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, ER, Will & Graceand The West Wing. But unlike the ESPN book, which was compiled by two outsiders, Littlefield -- as Brandon Tartikoff's lieutenant for a decade then head of NBC Entertainment from 1993 to 1998 -- is the ultimate Must See insider.
The mini-histories are a blast. Some of the tales (Seinfeld's unlikely rise) are well worn, but others are full of fresh detail, including how Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane nailed their pitch meeting. "Kauffman and Crane were magnetic," recalls Littlefield. "They owned it."
Particularly poignant is a candid recollection about the disorienting effects of sudden fame from Friendsstar David Schwimmer: "I don't think I responded very well … to the loss of privacy. There were several moments that were quite traumatic for me. An actor is an observer of life and people. … But I suddenly found myself with a baseball cap, with my head down."
On ER, George Clooney laid down the law. As co-star Noah Wyle tells it: "George pulled us all into the trailer … 'I've done a lot of shows, and what's killed all of them is a lack of cohesion. This show is going to be different. We're going to be nice to everybody. We're going to know our lines. We're going to be on time.' … and we were young enough and green enough to fall in lockstep behind him."
If the book engagingly details the hits, it does neglect the failures. A chapter on the flops (Union Square), the near-misses (Single Guy) and the prematurely canceled (Madman of the People) would have been fun and illuminating.
That also might have helped Littlefield's underlying goal of explaining the role of network executives in the creative process. This is probably the first book dedicated to TV's unsung heroes: development executives. "Behind every successful television series," writes Littlefield, "is a development executive who, at some point in the insanity, puts his ass on the line so that the show might live." Still, with a few exceptions about casting or giving a poorly performing show a chance to grow, their influence remains opaque in the book.
What's clear are the book's villains, Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Zucker (who, unsurprisingly, are not interviewed). Ohlmeyer, brought in to oversee Littlefield, gets the harshest treatment with cheap shots about his drinking. (How to tell if Ohlmeyer had a hangover and was in a bad mood? Check how neatly he parked his car.) Worse, he comes across as a bully with bad taste. Among the shows Littlefield was reluctant to air, he thought Friendswas too slow, West Wingtoo elitist and that ERwas "star f--ing" producers Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg.
Zucker, who took over as president of NBC Entertainment in 2000 on his way to becoming CEO of NBCUniversal, embodies for Littlefield the creative anti-thesis of Must See TV's heyday. "If you're a network president, you'd better believe in what you're doing," observes Frasier producer and Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan. "You'd better believe broadcast television is relevant. Jeff just wanted to go back to New York from day one. ... 'Why am I at the kids' table?' "
Development executives might not be creators, but in Littlefield's view, they have to be creative to succeed. If networks are run solely by bean counters, you get -- well, you get Zucker's schedule filled with endless hours of Dateline and The Biggest Loser.
BIZARRO NBC: Top of the Rock tells which stars almost got cast in the network's hit-making heyday.
♦ Will & Grace's Grace Adler
Eric McCormack, actor: "Nicollette Sheridan said: 'Any notes? Anything?' [Director Burrows] told her, 'Wear tighter pants.' "
♦ Cheers' Frasier Crane
John Lithgow, actor: "I just said, 'No.' … I barely even remembered that. It was like swatting away a fly. … I just wasn't going to do a series."
♦ Friends' Monica Geller
David Crane, creator: "When we originally wrote the role, we had Janeane Garofalo's voice in our head -- darker and edgier and snarkier."
♦ Seinfeld's Elaine Benes
George Shapiro, producer: "We got a note that we needed a young lady. Rosie O'Donnell read. A whole lot of people read before Julia."