A Hollywood Ending

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Considering it's Hollywood, and taking into account that a handful of actors is working in close proximity, the mood is surprisingly convivial on the set of the ABC-TV series "Coach." The cavernous stage on the Universal back lot is dank and cold on this Thursday, camera blocking day. The cast is walking through scenes, scripts in hand, muffing lines and laughing.

Their boss, Barry Kemp, has been and gone, managing to do a mass schmooze in a brief visit, but his presence has cast a calming spell over the actors and crew. Kemp has that effect on people. His nice-guy persona violates the Hollywood-mogul copyright: He's a high-powered television executive who's basically a hard-working son of the Midwest. He's the owner of a professional hockey team--the Long Beach Ice Dogs--whose charitable contributions with his wife, Maggie, make him one of the biggest givers in town.

Kemp is the too-good-to-be-true devoted father and faithful husband who is also a successful writer. Who has learned how to be a darn good salesman.

"Coach" is just the latest of his projects. The show premiered in 1989 as a spring replacement for the departing "Hooperman" and ended the season in 63rd place. By the second season the show was in the Top 20, and last year it finished in the Top 10.

Originally set at the fictional Minnesota State, the show centers on the fluctuating fortunes of the university's football team, the Screaming Eagles, and its coaching staff, led by Hayden Fox, played by Craig T. Nelson. The show has never been a towel-snapping locker room romp; indeed, it has explored such topics as steroid abuse, gay athletes, adoption and the coach's low sperm count.

The touchy-feely vibes of "Coach" seem to emanate from its creator. In a town where the long knives are easily drawn, they remain strangely sheathed when it comes to Kemp. His writing pedigree has helped. He came into the business under the considerable wing of James L. Brooks, whose MTM Productions is regarded as the high water mark of taste in the business.

In his second year at MTM, he joined the writing staff of "Taxi" and its antic New York-based humor.

"One of the things about the room [of writers] that was intimidating was the rhythm--the one who could talk the loudest would get their stuff in. I was not used to that. I was always watching. I felt my job was to learn more than to influence. I was writing a lot of scripts. As soon as I would finish one, I would get right on another one."

Kemp was churning out material on an electric typewriter whose biggest drawback was that it didn't have correcting tape. Sitting alone in his office / cubicle, he was unburdened by knowledge of the conventions of the craft and, in his naivete, he became an innovator.

Kemp looked up and found he was living out his childhood fantasy, or at least inhabiting the parts his Midwestern mind could envision. He was making $20,000 a year, and he and Maggie and baby Justin were living in a condo in Chatsworth. In his second year, after getting a $10,000 raise ("I thought I was rich"), he had the money to move his family to the land of his dreams--a rented house in Canoga Park.

At last, this was the life he had seen for himself, on television.

"I thought writing for television would be like the old 'Dick Van Dyke Show,' " Kemp said, laughing. "I thought it looked great: You'd go to the office and have fun with the people at work, then you'd come home to the house with the living room and the kitchen and the twin beds."

In all, he wrote 14 episodes for "Taxi," earned an Emmy nomination and two Writers Guild award nominations. After being lured away from Brooks and MTM, Kemp created and produced "Newhart" for Universal in the '80s. But it was his apprenticeship under Brooks and MTM that set the template for Kemp's style.

"I was clearly in awe of their talent and how facile they were," he said. "Their work ethic--I probably learned more from those guys, how to keep digging, to keep turning a story over. I probably got more consideration [from others in the business] early on, simply because I had worked with them."

The reputation Kemp has forged in television is for creating quirky characters and successful shows, and for managing to maintain high personal and professional standards. His niceness seems to have engendered spaniel-like adoration from those who work with him.

Veteran actress Shelley Fabares, who plays Christine on "Coach," enthusiastically makes time to talk about Kemp.

"He's a man of enormous integrity and honesty," she said. "I'd work for him for the rest of my life. I've never worked with somebody who's so good at what he does as Barry."

Nelson, the show's fragile center, admits to a not-always-happy relationship with Kemp in the early years as the two struggled to find his character's essence. What could have become a dangerous mutiny was cleverly neutralized when Kemp deputized Nelson as co-executive producer.

"Barry and I had major problems," Nelson said. "I was called to the principal's office a few times. One day Barry came on the set and asked me to be co-executive producer. I didn't really want to go that way, but he showed the faith in me to ask."

*

Trams gorged with tourists rumble past Kemp's Bungalow 78 Productions, which occupies an entire building at Universal. It's an unassuming structure, and the covered parking space numbered V57 is for Kemp's black Bentley.

Upstairs in her husband's spacious corner office, Maggie Kemp has applied her professional interior design talents. Tasteful, cool and low-key is the theme with blond wood furniture and custom couches. Two banks of shelves are given over to an unusual and humorous sports memorabilia collection, with its foundation in mixed metaphors: A baseball signed by Johnny Unitas, a basketball autographed by Wayne Gretzky, a Mickey Mantle football, an Arnold Palmer boxing glove, a Magic Johnson hockey puck.

Sports are a recurring but not pervasive theme to Kemp, who seems to have drawn the good and the uplifting from a lifetime love of sports and rejected that which is cynical and crass.

As a child he adored his local teams, falling asleep with a transistor radio pressed to his ear. The imprint of that connection with a sports team can be made at a tissue level, which was Kemp's experience.

"That's one thing about the Midwest--you find things to root for and your loyalties never change," he said. "The teams I follow today are from where I lived [as a child]. I can't lose it."

His other incongruous passion was show business. What are parents to make of a child who, at 4, announces his intention to strike out for Hollywood? He didn't know what it meant to wish it, but he knew what it was to feel it. TV, with its ability to transport a child to exotic places, fascinated him.

Kemp's parents, who had endured the Depression, were mildly alarmed at their son's intention to pursue such an unstable profession. They wanted him to be a salesman, with all of its perceived solidness and dependability.

The dialogue continued as Kemp enrolled as a speech and drama student at the University of Iowa. There, he acted--and soon discerned that his talents and interests lay in writing and directing.

During one rehearsal he met a young acting student with whom he established an immediate, mutually negative bond.

"It was hate at first sight," said Maggie Kemp, laughing at the memory of their early encounters. "We later worked on one production where we argued so much that a friend of mine sitting watching rehearsal turned to someone else and said, 'Those two are going to fall in love before the end of the production.' He was right."

They married in January 1972, just before they moved to Phoenix for what was expected to be a temporary stay while helping Kemp's family relocate to Arizona.

Maggie, despite placing fifth in a prestigious national drama competition, found little opportunity to act in Phoenix and contributed to the household income by working at Sears. Barry sold life insurance to newly discharged servicemen. Even with their combined incomes, the Kemps were, like many young couples, scraping along.

"Barry was selling insurance to people who lived in a shack and had dirt for a frontyard," Maggie said. "We were no better. We had $17 in the bank, but we had this gorgeous baby blue convertible. It was odd."

The car--a 1972 Mercury Cougar--was the first of many convertibles Kemp would stubbornly buy, and the source of a ritual he shared with his sales partner. If they sold a policy, the top came down. No sale, no wind in the hair.

Writing was not yet his day job, but still his passion. Kemp was rising every morning at 4 and furiously writing. He did most of his work at the kitchen table or on a TV tray. He wrote anything: television scripts, screenplays, full length plays, one-acts, material for dinner theater, short stories. He sent his work everywhere and, from everywhere, his work came back. He made just enough money from writing to pay the postage.

Then, as if torn from one of his scripts, his break came. Kemp was collecting unemployment and was as discouraged as he'd ever been when, on New Year's Eve 1975, he and Maggie went with another couple to watch Jerry Van Dyke perform. Kemp was goaded into introducing himself to Van Dyke between sets. Kemp said he was a writer, and Van Dyke, in a practiced shining-on maneuver, invited Kemp to drop off some material at his hotel.

Kemp rushed home, pondering the fact that he'd never before written stand-up. For three hours early on New Year's Day--in a house rendered meat-locker cold by a failed heater--Kemp wrote a comedy routine while sprawled in front of a fake-log fire. At about 6 a.m. Kemp drove to Van Dyke's hotel and dropped off the six pages of material. Van Dyke, an early riser, read the work and called Kemp just as he returned home. Come over, Van Dyke told him, I've been waiting 20 years for someone like you.

The two met that day and Van Dyke agreed to pay Kemp to write while he'd shop the material around Hollywood. Van Dyke would take 50% of whatever Kemp earned. For months Van Dyke got nowhere. Finally he got one of Kemp's "All in the Family" scripts into the hands of Brooks.

"Jim read it and after four pages looked up and said, 'Bring him in,' " Van Dyke said, shaking his head at the memory.

It was the break Kemp had always hoped for and known he'd get. He had worked for it.

"This was as big as you got," he said. "Maggie was pregnant. They gave me a three-year contract. I went from nowhere to everywhere, but it took five years to get there."

*

Ten minutes before game time and the Long Beach Arena is empty. The Ice Dogs are first in their division, but last in the league in attendance, averaging 2,400 per game. If Kemp's team were one of his shows, some executive might decide to cancel it.

In this venture, Kemp has gone from the gilded corridors of television to the stairs-sticky-with-beer ambience of the International Hockey League. The IHL, in its 52nd season, has teams in 19 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Although no league official would agree, it's best termed minor league hockey. It is third in professional hockey's pecking order, with the National Hockey League on top, followed by the American Hockey League. The IHL has on its rosters the very young and the very old.

Kemp bought the former San Diego Gulls in December 1995 and arranged to move the team to Long Beach. The league quickly approved the move.

His purchase of the team reflected his love of sports, hockey in particular, but was also a calculated business decision. Three years ago he made the rounds to various professional leagues, seeking knowledge and a team to buy.

Jerry Colangelo, owner of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, met with Kemp and was persuaded to sell 5% of his team.

"Barry came highly recommended from Gary Bettman [commissioner of the National Hockey League] and from David Stern [commissioner of the NBA]," Colangelo said. "I've been around. I've dealt with everyone there is. I was not in a mode of need. I could be very selective in terms of who I associate with. He was very personable, he's a nice guy, he's been very successful. He was also interested in learning. That's a positive trait--humility."

Carl Peterson, president and CEO of the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, was also paid a call by Kemp.

"He wanted to know if the Chiefs were for sale," Peterson said. "I told him they were not. Then he asked if the Royals [baseball team] were for sale. I said yes. That didn't work out, but I got to know him.

"After meeting him I could tell that he was a down-to-earth, sincere guy. He had some Midwest roots. He was very personable. Of course, I knew of his success in television. I'm a Southern California guy--I grew up in Long Beach and I went to UCLA--I've known people in television. He doesn't fit the stereotype of the Hollywood Guy."

Peterson and Kemp frequently talk about the increasing interaction between sports and entertainment. Both agree it's a natural fit. But Kemp can't help notice something else: the blurred line between his chosen course as a writer and his father's insistence on sales.

"My dad and I would argue about it," Kemp said. "I wanted to be a writer; he wanted me to be a salesman. It's funny, it's exactly what I've ended up being. A salesman. You're selling all the time, not only selling your shows, but every single day you're selling writers on your concept, you're selling the cast on this week's episode, you're selling the network on keeping the show on. Sales is exactly what it all is."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Barry Kemp

Age: 47.

Early years: Born in Hannibal, Mo.; grew up in Chicago, Kansas City and Iowa. Now lives in the Hollywood hills.

Family: Married for 24 years to Maggie. One son, Justin, 19.

Passions: Family, writing, sports. Wants to own an NHL franchise.

Favorite charities: Kemp Family Foundation supports the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, Human Rights Watch, the Venice Family Clinic, Shoah, On Your Feet. The Kemps underwrite the annual Playwrights Festival at the University of Iowa and are donors to various programs at the university.

On Hollywood: "I like this art. I don't care for the business."

On college life in the '60s: "I wasn't that rebellious. My memory of the '60s was a time of optimism, not unrest. It wasn't that I thought I was angry at the world, I just thought we've got a better way."

On the sort of athlete he was: "I don't remember being picked second-to-last, but I certainly wasn't an effortless athlete. If I had been, I wouldn't be a writer. I played sports well enough to write about them."

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