‘Suddenly Susan’ Arrives From Out of the Blue

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NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield tried to put on as much drama as he could standing on the stage at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center arts complex.

Several thousand advertisers, media members and network employees had gathered there Monday afternoon for the presentation of the network’s fall prime-time lineup. They already had sat through two hours of semi-interesting stuff: a speech by Littlefield’s boss, Don Ohlmeyer; several tunes by the Max Weinberg Seven; a stand-up routine by Jerry Seinfeld; and seemingly endless clips of every NBC show on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 18, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 18, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 3 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
TV comedies--An article in Wednesday’s Calendar incorrectly stated that “Suddenly Susan,” a comedy series that was picked up this week for NBC’s fall schedule, had started out as a drama. In fact, it did undergo a stylistic transformation but was always envisioned as a comedy. The story also misidentified Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore as co-creators of “Martin.” The credited creators are Martin Lawrence, Topper Carew and John Bowman; Van Zandt and Milmore were co-executive producers of the Fox series. The story also did not note that Clyde Phillips was also a creator and executive producer of “Suddenly Susan.”

“Now it’s time . . . the most coveted time slot in television, between ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘ER.’ And the winner is, Bob?” Littlefield got a few laughs as he turned to Bob Balaban, who played Littlefield in the HBO film “The Late Shift,” the story of the war over Jay Leno and David Letterman. Balaban gave him an envelope.


“Brooke Shields and ‘Suddenly Susan,’ ” Littlefield blurted out in mock-Miss America style. Shields came on stage and Littlefield gave her a dozen long-stem roses. She ad-libbed a few sentences about how happy she was to be on NBC, and then a few scenes from the show’s pilot episode were put up on a giant screen on the stage.


Most of those in the audience already knew that “Suddenly Susan” had been awarded the most prime of new-show slots, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.: Word of these things always leaks out in advance.

What they probably didn’t know is that, just one month before, neither “Suddenly Susan” nor most of its parts were even a glimmer on a page of sitcom script paper.

Shift the scene to April 12. Producers Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore were leisurely doing what producers do in their offices at the two-story TV building at Warner Bros. in Burbank.

“We were casually writing our play for back East,” Van Zandt said. He and Milmore write and produce a play each spring at the New Jersey shore, where they grew up. “We were talking about doing a midseason show for CBS and another one for NBC, which was supposed to be in the talking stages for the middle of June.”

Into their leisurely lives popped Littlefield, with what seemed like a deathly proposition. NBC had a deal with Shields and was dissatisfied with a drama script that had been submitted for her. Shields had gotten decent notices for a goofy character she played on the post-Super Bowl episode of “Friends,” so the network decided to dump the drama idea and make the Shields vehicle a comedy.


Van Zandt and Milmore had a middling producing track record. They had created “Martin” with executive producer John Bowman, and “Daddy Dearest,” which starred Richard Lewis and Don Rickles and got poor reviews before Fox canceled it at midseason.

They had also “saved” Warner Bros. twice in the last two years, taking over as executive producers after the pilots of “The Wayans Bros.” and “Bless This House” had already been made. Essentially, Littlefield was asking them to do something similar here.

“We told him, ‘The only way you can make this work is if you do this, you do this, you do this, you do this,’ ” Van Zandt said, referring to scenarios and characters they were concocting on the spot. “He said, ‘It’s exactly what I want. Can you do it?’ We’re looking at each other and saying, ‘We have no choice now.’

“He said, ‘OK, it’s Friday at 2 o’clock. We’re going to table Wednesday [for a script reading] with actors,’ ” Van Zandt said. “We started with a blank piece of paper on Friday at 2.”


Now, many sitcoms, as a matter of course, get written over the weekend for a table reading. But this was a pilot and, save for Shields and Maggie Wheeler (Matthew Perry’s ex-girlfriend from hell on “Friends”), Van Zandt and Milmore had no cast, no crew, no director, no set, no script--and a good 4 1/2 days to gather it all.

What’s more, they had to be back in New York on April 26 to start producing their play, which was OK, since they would have to shoot the pilot episode on April 25, 13 days after Littlefield chatted them up.


Over the weekend, the casting people and the producers auditioned actors over the phone and came up with a rather distinguished cast. Nancy Marchand (“Lou Grant”) would play Shields’ hip grandmother. Elizabeth Ashley (“Evening Shade”) was hired as a larger-than-life romance novelist, whom Shields edits in her job at a small Pasadena-based publishing house. Philip Casnoff, who was the title character in the “Sinatra” miniseries, signed on as her self-absorbed boss. Wheeler would play her co-worker and best friend. Dan Luria (the dad on “The Wonder Years”) and Jenny O’Hara were available to play her parents. Barnet Kellman (“Murphy Brown”) was hired to direct the pilot.

Since the original Shields project was a drama with her working in the restaurant business, Warner Bros. had to scramble to build a boutique publishing house set. For convenience, the pilot was shot on the Warner sound stage that usually houses “Family Matters.”

“Either this will be the most brilliant move we’ve ever made or the stupidest thing we’ve ever done,” Van Zandt said three days before shooting the pilot.

Van Zandt and Milmore have been writing together for more than a decade since meeting in New Jersey. Milmore is married to a WB Network executive, Van Zandt to actress Adrienne Barbeau. His brother, Steve, was a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Several of their sitcom producer friends, some of whom had been working on pilots for months, came to their offices on emergency call to listen to and help write jokes and scenes. The crush of time became a rush.

“It is exciting, but it is strange,” Milmore said.

Filming on the pilot was finished in the wee hours of the morning of April 26 and Milmore and Van Zandt flew out of Los Angeles International Airport for New Jersey later that morning. Warner Bros. and NBC sent editors with various cuts to them by plane. “They said Fed Ex was too slow,” Milmore explained.


Warner Bros. handed the final pilot to NBC on May 5. Eight days later--a mere month from Littlefield’s first contact--NBC decided that “Suddenly Susan” would be given the best spot in prime time.