'Thirtysomething' alums find behind-the-scenes success

  • Ken Olin now produces, directs, writes and acts on

    Ken Olin now produces, directs, writes and acts on "Brothers and Sisters."

Published: 1/17/2008 12:12 AM

When it premiered in 1987, "thirtysomething" was unlike anything else on television. An homage to yuppie angst, the show developed into a lower-rated but critically adored antidote to the "Dallas" and "Dynasty" genre that otherwise ruled that decade.

Now, 20 years later, "thirtysomething" isn't even available on DVD, and none of its cast members have gone on to acting stardom. But nearly all of them have become highly influential in the entertainment world in other ways, stepping behind the cameras to write, direct and produce hit television shows this season.

Peter Horton, the heartthrob of "thirtysomething" as Gary Shepard, went on to executive-produce ABC's hit "Grey's Anatomy." He is now the executive producer of this year's modest hit "Dirty Sexy Money" on ABC.

The new prime-time soap "Lipstick Jungle," making its debut Feb. 7 on NBC, is executive-produced by Timothy Busfield, who played adulterous ad man Elliot Weston on "thirtysomething." Ken Olin, best known as the show's conflicted yuppie protagonist, Michael Steadman, produces, directs, writes and acts on ABC's drama "Brothers and Sisters." And Nickelodeon's hit show "The Naked Brothers Band" is the creation of Polly Draper, who played driven Ellyn Warren.

The move behind the cameras by so many of the show's stars is no coincidence, the actors say. To achieve the unusual look and feel of "thirtysomething," creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick took a novel approach to running their show, involving everyone in all aspects of the creative process. The writers directed; the directors acted; and the lead actors took on levels of responsibility that they say made it impossible for them to go back to just acting.

Over the four-year life of "thirtysomething," the show had around 40 first-time directors, including several editors, two producers, five of the seven lead actors and the show's costume designer, according to Herskovitz. It also cultivated some more-experienced writers and directors, including Paul Haggis, who would go on to write and direct the 2006 Oscar best-picture winner "Crash."

"We found it was easier to train somebody new than to break somebody old of what we considered their bad habits," Herskovitz says. The result, says Zwick, was that the "thirtysomething" set became an informal graduate program in television production.

"If we were painters, you might say that we created a school, in the way of the Barbizon school (of 19th-century French naturalist painters)," he says. "Together, we were reacting against a lot of what was on television at the time."

They were also setting the stage for much of what was to come. The 1980s were a time of innovation in television. For its part, "thirtysomething" brought a new focus on the small moments of life -- the arguments, accidents and bad dates of a group of friends.

Some critics found it a bit self-serious and arty, but its fans were fervently loyal.

The show is so popular even now that its fans launched a noisy online campaign to get the program released on DVD. MGM, the studio that owns the show, says the release of the DVD has been delayed because of "legal complications."

Since the demise of "thirtysomething," Zwick and Herskovitz have produced other TV shows with dedicated audience followings, including angsty teen drama "My So-Called Life" and angsty blended-family drama "Once and Again," both for ABC. Their most recent project, "Quarterlife," about twentysomethings, originally aired online and has been picked up by NBC.

Many of the shows developed by former cast members of "thirtysomething" share some of the defining characteristics of "thirtysomething" and other creations of Zwick and Herskovitz. "Brothers and Sisters," "Grey's Anatomy," "Dirty Sexy Money," "Lipstick Jungle" and even "The Naked Brothers Band" all take as their subject the drama of everyday work and family life and aim to take an intimate look the interior lives and relationships of their characters.

One hallmark of "thirtysomething" was that the show never established a uniform aesthetic sensibility. Different directors were encouraged to use different techniques and styles of shooting, depending on the episode they were handling, Herskovitz says.

Horton, who began his directing career before he got his starring role on the show, remembers informal improv sessions at Zwick's house dating back even before "thirtysomething" that emphasized these governing principles. "We all kind of developed this school of directing from the inside out, of taking a script and trying to filmicly describe the inside of a scene as opposed to just the spectacle of the scene," he says. Horton has borrowed from the style of "thirtysomething" and the atmosphere that produced it on every show he's developed since, to varying degrees of success, he says.

On the acting front, the show's former stars have had fairly quiet careers since the ending of "thirtysomething," mostly appearing in supporting roles on TV dramas. Busfield has been featured in Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Olin's wife, Patricia Wettig, who played Nancy Krieger Weston, a mother and aspiring illustrator on "thirtysomething," is a regular on "Brothers and Sisters." Mel Harris, who played Hope Steadman on "thirtysomething," has since held roles on CBS shows "Cane," "Criminal Minds," and "CSI: NY."

Melanie Mayron, who played photographer Melissa Steadman on "thirtysomething," has turned to directing -- partly, she says, in response to a problem all of the cast members encountered after the show's demise: typecasting. "When 'thirtysomething' was canceled, the tragedy of it was that we were so known by our characters that as actors, it became difficult to go up for other roles because people would say, 'Oh that's Melissa. That's Hope. That's Michael,' " she says. It hit the women especially hard because by the end of the show, they were leaving their youthful acting years. "Suddenly we were getting into that lousy period as an actress that I call the mom/lawyer era," she says.