'Apprentice' producer Mark Burnett clarifies: 'I am not pro-Trump'

Television producer Mark Burnett again tried to distance himself from the TV personality who helped catapult his career: Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president.

“I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy.  I am NOT ‘Pro-Trump’,” Burnett declared in a strongly worded statement released late Wednesday.

Burnett’s statement was intended to defuse the debate over whether Burnett and his company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had a moral obligation to release outtakes of “The Apprentice” reality TV show so that voters could get more unvarnished looks at the controversial candidate.  

The firestorm over “The Apprentice” footage erupted last weekend after the leak of a 2005 audiotape that captured Trump making vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush, then a co-host of the NBC show “Access Hollywood.” On the tape, Trump said that his fame enabled him to grope women.

Burnett, a Brit who got his start in Los Angeles more than two decades ago hawking TV shirts on the Venice Beach boardwalk, scored with his first major show, “Survivor,” launched on CBS. But his career achieved even greater heights after “The Apprentice” debuted on NBC in 2004. Ratings soared, and Trump became a nationwide sensation with his signature line: “You’re fired.”

In the wake of the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape, a former producer of “The Apprentice,” Bill Pruitt, said Saturday on Twitter that “there are far worse” Trump comments caught on tape.

Pruitt’s tweet prompted petitions and calls from various interests, including a representative of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. They demanded that Burnett and MGM release unedited footage of the so-called boardroom sequences from “The Apprentice.” During those scenes, Trump would dissect the skills and attributes of various contestants in the reality show.

Burnett also was being hammered on social media because an ex-employee of his former production company complained on Twitter that Burnett would hit anyone who leaked footage from “The Apprentice” with a $5-million leak fee. 

“MGM, not Mark Burnett, owns ‘The Apprentice,’” MGM attorney Marvin S. Putnam, of the firm Latham & Watkins, said in Wednesday’s statement.

Late last year, the studio completed an acquisition of Mark Burnett Productions in an effort to bulk up its television operation and its library. MGM paid more than $500 million, in two installments, for the production firm. Now, Burnett serves as the head of MGM’s TV unit.

“MGM has agreements with artists across a wide spectrum of creative properties, including “The Apprentice,” Putnam said. “These agreements typically contain provisions related to confidentiality and artist’s rights.”

The flap has been a source of embarrassment to Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, who have burnished a reputation as Christian programmers. Earlier in the week, MGM released a statement saying Burnett “consistently supported Democratic campaigns,” but stopped short of providing the producer’s position on Trump.

But that didn’t seem to go far enough, prompting a more pointed response. “Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign,” Burnett said.

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meg.james@latimes.com

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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