For the last year and a half, I've been moderating a salon series with Hollywood creators and executives for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ entertainment division. By and large, the events are geared towards young Federation supporters who work in the entertainment industry and want the chance to meet and mingle with a Hollywood bigwig that just might osmotically bequeath to them the secret of success. The focus of each gathering is an interview and Q-and-A session in which yours truly is invited to grill the guest of honor about the arc of their career and personal life. So far, the hot seat has been filled by CBS Entertainment Chair Nina Tassler, "The Hunger Games" producer Nina Jacobsen and Emmy-winning television director James Burrows, among others. Last week, writer/producer Darren Star, best known for his trifecta of TV hits – “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the City” joined me in United Talent Agency’s screening room to dish on his life and work.
“You can ask me anything,” he said when I met him over hors d’oeuvres minutes before we began. (Note to Darren: Never say that to a journalist.) Because of the friendly context, I’ve discovered that most guests assume it will be “interview-lite” and end up quite surprised when I ask them about New York Times articles written in 1983, infamous feuds with former friends and if they believe in God. Even though it’s a volunteer, showcase-y kind of thing, I still do it my way.
I haven’t written about these events, until now -- mostly because I put so much work into executing them that by the time they are over, all I have the energy for is a bottle of wine and dinner. My hope, initially, was that each of these interviews would be professionally filmed and available on this blog for your viewing pleasure, but alas, the Federation has to save Jews round-the-world, and their budget for videography is apparently limited to Jewish camping spots. It’s a shame, really, because I’ve found these conversations to be extremely illuminating and meaningful, especially if you are interested in what greases the wheels that make Hollywood run.
Most talks tend to go deep, like the time I made Nina Tassler cry when I asked her what it was that she prays for. Or really funny, like the time I stumbled while asking James Burrows a question and he chimed in: “I’m married.”
But let’s talk about Darren, who, frankly, could die tomorrow and leave a lasting creative legacy. But since he is tireless, and perhaps, somewhat of a workaholic, he has yet another show coming out next January – the half-hour comedy “Younger,” about a forty-something single mother (played by Sutton Foster of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” fame) who returns to the workforce after a long hiatus of child-rearing. It’s based on the YA novel of the same name by Pamela Redmond Satran; Star screened the pilot last week for the 60 or so attendees, which included his first agent UTA’s Steve Rabineau (formerly of William Morris), and Jonathan Littman, president of Jerry Bruckheimer TV, who handled “90210” back in the 90s as a young up-and-comer at Fox.
In person (as I recently tweeted) Star looks like a Jewish version of Javier Bardem – tan, dark, ruggedly masculine with bulging brown eyes and an ample physique. He laughed when I announced this at the beginning of the interview, but when I asked him about the recent Israel/Gaza war, he shared how he really felt about the Spanish actor. Bardem and his wife, actress Penelope Cruz (who guest starred on the film “Sex and the City 2”) recently led a large group of Spanish entertainers in signing an open letter accusing Israel of genocide.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s the role of actors or personalities to make those kind of statements, pro or con,” Star said. “I think it’s a very complicated issue… and I think a lot of people just don’t know enough to have a position. That’s part of the problem… Personally, I don’t like to see actors like Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz come out and have their opinions matter because then it just becomes a war of celebrities’ opinions.”
At a time when many in Hollywood have avoided publicly commenting about Israel, one way or the other, Star said what he finds most frustrating is that those who are the quickest to offer public statements are often the people with limited knowledge of the conflict. “People should have the freedom to speak their mind about anything but I think they have to have a real understanding of what they’re talking about and a lot of people just may not have the understanding,” Star said.
When I asked him to describe his own relationship to Israel, Star talked about the year he studied in Israel during high school and the many times he has visited since, including to teach a master class.
“I grew up feeling Israel is very important and I’m very supportive of Israel. At the same time, I think you can be really supportive of Israel and not look at it as a black-and-white situation. One thing I found from spending time in Israel is that [Israelis] don’t look at it like a black-or-white situation. We’re much more to the right [when it comes to the conflict] than they are. We’re raised to have this real, sort of, blind support, but we don’t spend the time to really understand it all, and people that are living through it see it in a much more complex way.”
I’m not sure exactly who Star was referring to as “we,” perhaps Hollywood Jews in general, or American Jews in general, because it seems people in the organized Jewish world are obsessed with the nuances of the conflict, but the comment is instructive in that it reflects some truth about his Jewish network.
Since it was the first show on television (besides “Friends”) that I watched with religious devotion growing up, we spent a good deal of time talking about “90210.” Star was a tender 27-years-old when Fox approached him about writing the series and was quickly paired with veteran TV producer Aaron Spelling to make it happen. Even though the show wasn’t an instant hit, it ultimately became one of the most watched television shows in the country, breaking new ground in terms of what could be shown about teenagers on television (it was so racy in its time, my mother actually forbade me from watching it for the first several years, even though I tape recorded it behind her back). The show remains significant because it was instrumental in helping the fledgling Fox network gain a foothold in Tinseltown. But for Star, the inaugural TV experience was a chance to work with the legendary Spelling, who became his mentor.
“I think I learned a lot just by osmosis, by being around him,” Star told the audience. “It was like a real crash course or graduate course in TV production to be working with someone who had been doing it so prolifically and successfully for so long -- you learn just being around that person; there’s so much that seeps in. [Spelling had an] eye for storytelling, an eye for casting and [an] attitude that he never saw anything as a failure. ‘90210’ at some point wasn’t looking like it was going to be a hit show and he always had this belief that it would be.”
What was revolutionary about it, at that time, was how it depicted a more “realistic” view of teenage life – sex and drugs, included – even though it was situated in the highly specific and socioeconomically slender milieu of white privilege. In Star’s words: “’90210’ was looking at teenagers from a perspective that hadn’t really been seen on television, though it had been seen in movies like some John Hughes films. I don’t know if you want to say ‘90210’ was real, but what the characters were going through was relatable – in a very glamorous environment.”
Star would tackle another highly-specific milieu – that of single, sexually liberated, stiletto-obsessed women in their 30s with “Sex and the City.” By selling the story to HBO, Star had another opportunity to break boundaries and scintillate even more so than he did with previous shows, “90210” and “Melrose Place,” the soapy drama about twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles. A sensibility Star undoubtedly picked up from Spelling was what ‘90210’ actor Jason Priestly described in a New York Times interview as Spelling’s secret-to-success: “Fun, sex and bonding,” he said, quoting Spelling. “That’s all a show’s got to be.”
That recipe could easily describe the raison d’etre of “Sex and the City,” which over the course of six seasons made friendship its enduring theme. And although the show had its fair share of real and fictional bonding, the set also become host to infamous rumored spats between cast members Kim Catrall and Sarah Jessica Parker. Later, Star himself became the subject of a rumored fallout with “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell, upon whose life the series (and subsequent two movies) is based. I asked Star about reports of a rift between himself and Bushnell, first reported in The New York Times in 2007, when the longtime colleagues and even closer friends, both tried to mount TV shows about the exact same subject.
According to reports, Star tried to option Bushnell’s 2005 book “Lipstick Jungle” for $200,000 but was outbid by NBC, who offered Bushnell $500,000. The authoress told the Times that Star went ahead and created the similarly-themed “Cashmere Mafia” for ABC, but never thought to tell her about it; it wasn’t until her show was picked up as a pilot that she called the silent Star and he confessed to have sold something “similar to ‘Lipstick Jungle,’” as Bushnell described it to The Times. Neither Star, nor “Cashmere’s” network, ABC, ever commented.
When I brought it up, Star winced a little, and then offered this roundabout explanation for what had happened:
“Certainly when, you know, you put a lot of creative people together, there’s ego and tension and all that stuff comes into play. But on the flip side, there’s a lot of camaraderie and closeness. So I think part of it is that, for me at least, that you learn your lessons from every experience. And I think definitely the longer I am in this business, my feeling is, you just want to be kind. Because it’s always better to be kind. And try not to leave people hurt. Part of it is that people pursue their own agendas and they don’t realize that other people are hurt; or that people can get their feelings hurt really easily. The one thing I’ve learned is really to respect everybody’s feelings, and don’t underestimate how easy it is to hurt people’s feelings. I’ve certainly had my feelings hurt, and I certainly have hurt other people’s feelings; and in the end, we’re making entertainment and that part of it is not worth it.”
After more than two decades in the business, Star explained that he still can’t rest on his laurels. Even with all those hits and that Bel Air home, you’re only as good as your next hit show.
“The blessing and curse of working in this business is that whatever your success is, it doesn’t stick. Whatever you’ve done in the past doesn’t accrue to your next project – you’re always thinking about what’s next. The minute you say ‘Oh, great, I’m successful’ then it kinda feels like it’s over. I think it’s really, for me, about feeling like now I can do this, and I can work more. I think you start from scratch every time you start a new project.”
So what advice would Star give his 27-year-old self on the eve of helming a major series?
You can catch Darren Star’s next project, “Younger” when it premieres on TV Land in January 2015.