Published May 29, 2012
From 1993 through 1998, NBC ruled prime time with ‘Must see TV’ on Thursday nights, attracting an incredible 75 million viewers. Overseeing it all was Warren Littlefield, President of Entertainment, who has compiled a behind-the-scenes account of how Thursday night mainstays like "Seinfeld,"’ "Cheers" and "ER" all almost got the quick hook in his new book, "Top of the Rock."
Fox411: Football player and "Hunter" star Fred Dryer was a strong contender to play Sam Malone in "Cheers."
Warren Littlefield: Fred Dryer was great in the audition. We thought, now there’s a lot of people who know Fred Dryer as an athlete, what a big upside, and it was really the Charles brothers and Jimmy Burrows (the creators) who said, ‘Fred’s great but we cannot give him the time to get the performance on the stage.’ They told us to do a drama with Fred, and we listened, and they said, ‘The guy we really believe in is Ted Danson,’ and they were right.
Fox411: It got terrible ratings the first year.
WL: At the end of its first season it was the lowest rated comedy and the second lowest rated program in all of TV, and yet we loved it and we went forward and kept it on the air, and that kind of patience being rewarded was a really important lesson. History would repeat itself in our success by being patient, sticking with things we believed in, and of course ‘Seinfeld’ took over the mantle of ‘Cheers’ and gave us a decade of strength in the same way ‘Cheers’ did. Again, a rocky start, but it became critical to our success.
Fox411: ‘Seinfeld’ had an even rockier start than 'Cheers.'
WL: In the history of pilot reports, ‘Seinfeld’ has got to be one of the worst of all time. I have it next to my desk; it says overall evaluation ‘weak.’ The audience did not like the show and that scared us, but we did manage to find money to film four episodes to hold the show intact by making one less two-hour Bob Hope special, and it did ok. It was against repeat competition in the summer and then we just took a deep breath and ordered 13 more.
Larry David of course said, ‘I don’t have any more stories to tell, Jerry turn the order down,’ and Jerry said, ‘No we’ll do 13 more episodes’ and we put it up against ‘Home Improvement’ and it got slaughtered, but we still really liked what they were doing. It made us laugh, so we stuck with it and ultimately that reward was enormous.
Fox411: How much did you offer Jerry to do another season of ‘Seinfeld?’
WL: Over $100 million. We offered him $5 million an episode. We didn’t mess around. What we put on the table was unheard of. We went in there with a staggering sum and there was tremendous confidence that no one could walk away from it.
He came to me and said, ‘I don’t have a life, I’m not married, I don’t have kids.’ We gave it everything we had, he was tempted, but in the end it was a quality of life decision.
Fox411: It seems like a lot of your job was just trusting talent.
WL: Yeah we did a lot of things that scared us that ultimately had an enormous upside. Yes we looked at the pilot of ‘E.R.’ and it was bloody, it was scary, it was also unbelievably compelling. Innovation comes to you from creators who do have a vision and a passion and that are how we succeeded.
Fox411: Were you worried about giving Kelsey Grammar a spin-off? He certainly had his problems during ‘Cheers.’
WL: There was no choice. ‘Cheers’ was going away and I said, ‘There’s got to be something we can pull out of this,’ and really the only character who could be the center of a show was Frasier Crane. Yes, Kelsey had issues; we were part of an intervention. Kelsey didn’t know how to accept his success, he felt he was not worthy of it. So he had to wrestle with those demons and fortunately for us he was successful.
Fox411: Tell me about ‘Will & Grace.’
WL: I was told not to develop it more than once, but I was not worried about it at all. Ironically, it was 14 years ago that we did that pilot, and it was only a few weeks ago that Joe Biden said that nothing has done more to change the perception of gays in America than ‘Will & Grace.’
Fox411: Tell me some memorable casting stories.
WL: I was 'in like' with the material from ‘Mad about You,’ and when Paul Reiser read with Teri Hatcher it was very good, and when he read with Helen Hunt, it was sensational. For ‘ER,’ Anthony Edwards came in and nailed it, it was riveting. He changed how we looked at the show. I only found out when doing this book that Megan Mullally and Rosie O’Donnell both auditioned for the part of Elaine in ‘Seinfeld.’ Nicolette Sheridan auditioned for the role of Grace in black leather pants that were literally sprayed on. When she asked Jimmy Burrows (the director) if there was anything else she could do, he said, ‘Tighter pants."
Fox411: Debra Messing got sent a bill for $225 for taking home a door as a souvenir from the set.
WL: That was shocking. I was gone by then. I would never have done that.
Fox411: Were you forced out by then President of the West Coast division Don Ohlmeyer?
WL:Yes, that’s absolutely true. My ego had gotten to a place where I did not want to have to deal with Don. I was worn down by the battles and didn’t want to have to deal with that. Don’s ego said, ‘I’m responsible for NBC’s success. I don’t need him.’ Both egos clashed. When all’s said and done, nothing lasts forever. Our final battle was over ‘The West Wing.’ I fought to make a multiple series commitment with John Wells. After I left, it came on the air.
Fox411: It must be hard to have watched NBC after you left.
WL: I was outraged when Jeff Zucker put ‘The Apprentice’ on Thursday night at nine o’clock with the Donald screaming, ‘You’re fired!’ I thought, ‘Oh my God don’t they understand what we built?’ That was the final destruction of the brand. I was shocked. I’m hopeful that NBC will pick themselves up and move forward. I don’t root for their failure.