When it premiered in 1987, the prime-time soap opera ”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 English-literature professor Gary Shepard, went on to executive-produce ABC’s mega-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 City Hall worker 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Herskovitz says. The result, says Mr. 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. In addition to producing evening soaps like ”Dallas,” the 1980s were a time of innovation in television. ”Moonlighting” tore apart the conventions of TV detective shows; Steven Bochco’s ”Hill Street Blues” and ”L.A. Law” revolutionized the cop and lawyer genres. 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 – ”a certain nagging whininess,” wrote the Washington Post’s Tom Shales – 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,” Messrs. 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 for a television run.
Many of the shows developed by former cast members of ”thirtysomething” share some of the defining characteristics of ”thirtysomething” and other creations of Messrs. 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.
The ”thirtysomething” actors who now direct credit what Mr. Horton calls the ”Ed Zwick Samurai School of Directing,” for their training. (In 2003, Mr. Zwick directed the film ”The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise.) Mr. Zwick has been a successful movie director – his credits include critically acclaimed films such ”Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2006 and ”Glory” in 1989, as well as ”About Last Night …” in 1986 – but the school of directing the actors refer to is the set of ”thirtysomething.”
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, Mr. Herskovitz says.
Mr. Horton, who began his directing career before he got his starring role on the show, remembers informal improv sessions at Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Mr. Busfield has been featured in Aaron Sorkin’s NBC shows ”The West Wing” and ”Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Mr. 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 stay-at-home mom Hope Steadman on ”thirtysomething,” has since held roles on CBS shows ”Cane,” ”Criminal Minds,” and ”CSI: NY.”
Melanie Mayron, who played photographer Melissa Steadman (Michael’s cousin) 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.
Recently, Ms. Mayron has directed episodes of two HBO shows, ”Tell Me You Love Me” and the forthcoming ”In Treatment.”
The ”thirtysomething” alumni regularly tap one another for new projects. Mr. Busfield recently hired Ms. Mayron to perform a small role as an Annie Leibovitz-style photographer in ”Lipstick Jungle” and to direct an episode of the show.
Ms. Mayron has also spent the past two years working with Ms. Draper as a director on ”The Naked Brothers Band.” Ms. Draper says she learned how to manage a cast full of friends and relatives from her time on ”thirtysomething,” where everyone was so close in age, including the writers and directors, that they formed personal relationships.
When casting the ”Naked Brothers Band Movie,” Ms. Draper hired all of her former castmates – to play themselves.