Except for her petite frame and that little black dress, you’d never know Nina Tassler once wanted to be an actress. She was entirely in her element at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Once In 100 Years party last week, working the 1,300-plus crowd scattered across Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar, many of whom had come to see Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment, honored for her work as chair of Federation’s Entertainment Division. Too tiny to be bigheaded, Tassler even wandered to the back, where media entrepreneur David Lonner and director Jon Turteltaub were sitting.
“I feel so blessed to have the life I have now,” Tassler, 54, said by phone a few days before the event. “But there is a part of me,” she added wistfully, that wonders what it would have been like to be a theater star. “I tried my hardest. I used to call myself ‘the callback queen,’ but it got very frustrating having your life being subject to somebody else’s decisions.”
It’s no small irony, then, that Tassler has become The Decider, making and breaking the dreams of other artists who long for a spot in the CBS lineup. And since she took over as chief of the network’s entertainment programming in 2004, Tassler has proved her taste; she is credited with launching some of the most successful dramas on TV, including the “CSI” franchise, “Without a Trace,” “The Mentalist” and “The Good Wife.” But though the ratings race demands her choices have wide appeal, they are not arbitrary.
“Before I go to bed, sometimes I’ll just sit outside and philosophically assess the day,” she said. “I feel it’s our responsibility to keep our ear tuned to public discourse. There’s a lot of noise out there, and our responsibility is to pick up on the themes and issues that work their way through all of society. You have to present characters an audience can relate to.”
Tassler’s own journey echoes that trope. She grew up variously in Manhattan, upstate New York and Miami, in what she describes as a “politically progressive,” multicultural family. Her late father was a Jewish audiovisual engineer and her mother, born in Puerto Rico, converted to Judaism. Holidays, she said, were steeped in an awareness of the social movements of the day — the civil rights movement in particular — and when her father inherited a bungalow colony in upstate New York, the family ran it as a camp, welcoming African American and Native American children, in the 1960s, when such was not common practice.
Tassler’s worldview was shaped as much by this exposure as it was by the broad-mindedness of the theater world, and it’s one of the reasons she never felt hobbled by being a woman in male-dominated Hollywood.
“I’ve always seen the world as very gender-neutral,” Tassler said. “I mean, I’m a feminist, but as far as having any greater or lesser opportunity because of my gender? I never thought of it that way.”
It didn’t hurt that Les Moonves, the entertainment titan and current president of the CBS Corp., took Tassler under his wing more than 20 years ago and has given her some big breaks. “He’s always been a huge supporter of promoting women,” she said. And while being female hasn’t defined her, it has informed her style. “Because I’m a mother and a wife, I’m the consummate multitasker, and in terms of caregiving, I’m predisposed to making sure people are content and enjoy coming to work.”
Through Federation, Tassler has also helped buttress Hollywood’s relationship with Israel. In 2009, she traveled to Israel to participate in a Los Angeles-Tel Aviv master class connecting Israeli artists with Hollywood tastemakers. “What we’re trying to move toward is taking that art and the dialogue that has been ongoing and build joint-venture commerce out of it,” she said.
For an industry leader so comfortable in her Jewish skin, it must have been awkward when one of the year’s most unsavory anti-Semitic episodes came from within her own network. Last February, when former “Two and a Half Men” star Charlie Sheen erupted in a diatribe aimed at his Jewish boss, Chuck Lorre, it was an embarrassment for CBS, which swiftly canceled the season’s remaining shows, fired Sheen and shortly thereafter replaced him. It was a debacle Tassler would like to forget — and prefers not to discuss. “We’re beyond that now,” she said. “We’re looking to the future and not talking about the past.” But Tassler admits the year’s spate of anti-Semitic ranting — from Oliver Stone to Lars Von Trier is “frustrating and disturbing.”
“I do feel that because of the Federation and the network of Jewish artists and their strength of voice, that there is a system in place whereby there is a swift response from the Jewish community when these kind of remarks are made.”
In the meantime, she’s focused on other pursuits, like her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more spiritual and more active in the religious life of our family. We’re at this place right now where we’re kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, so finding that time to pray and reflect has become more important in my life.”