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He’s thinking inside the box

Times Staff Writers

Jerry Bruckheimer grew rich churning out fast-paced, thumping action films aimed squarely at the teenage boys who rule the multiplex: “Top Gun,” “The Rock,” “Con Air.” But the 59-year-old super-producer has spent much of the past five years wooing a much different crowd -- the older and far more female-skewing audience that stays home. And now the results are shaking up prime-time TV.

In an astonishing blitz at the advertising “upfronts” in New York last week, network executives picked up four of Bruckheimer’s five pilots as new fall series, including NBC’s Pentagon thriller “E-Ring” and CBS’ legal drama “Close to Home.” When added to his existing shows -- including the three “CSI” series, “Without a Trace” and “The Amazing Race” -- Bruckheimer will oversee 10 prime-time series in the 2005-06 season, the most ever for an individual producer, eclipsing “Charlie’s Angels” impresario Aaron Spelling, who had seven shows on the air for two seasons in the mid-'80s, and “All in the Family’s” Norman Lear, who had seven network shows plus the syndicated “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in 1975.

Asked his reaction, Bruckheimer was characteristically reserved. “Can’t complain,” he said, fresh from being feted Wednesday evening at the CBS bash at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. At the end of the week, he jetted off to the Bahamas to work on the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels shooting simultaneously there.

Bruckheimer might not be known for stirring oratory (as “Amazing Race” executive producer Bertram Van Munster explained: “He’s not a man of many words, but what he does say is really on the money”). But it’s clear that he and his top TV lieutenant, ex-Fox executive Jonathan Littman, have succeeded in bringing relatively sophisticated, feature-style storytelling and production values into episodic television -- a format that a couple of seasons ago was seen as creatively and financially bereft, with tens of millions of viewers flocking to “reality” shows.

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Now millions flock to Bruckheimer shows, a fact not lost on network executives. His original “CSI” series is TV’s most-watched drama, and “Cold Case,” “Without a Trace,” “The Amazing Race” and the “CSI” spinoffs are usually in the top 20.

Bruckheimer “said in the past that his approach is that he makes ‘feature television,’ ” said David Janollari, entertainment president at the WB, which last week ordered “Modern Men,” Bruckheimer’s first sitcom, about single guys navigating the dating scene, and “Just Legal,” a wry drama. “He approaches everything like a movie, even the comedy. [It’s] a showman perspective: ‘How can we put the best look and the best values up on the screen?’ ”

A key part to Bruckheimer’s success, in fact, may be that he’s kept his film-producer ambitions, even in a business where the harried demands of grinding out 22 or more episodes per year often mean cutting creative corners and where studios are forever pushing to trim costs.

Ann Donahue, executive producer of CBS’ “CSI: Miami,” recalled that after the show’s first-season finale was edited, Bruckheimer praised the episode overall but detected something missing from the climactic chase: “You needed more cops in that last scene,” Donahue recalled him saying.

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“He notices everything,” she said. “Making television shows used to be about recording conversations; now it really is filmmaking.... One of the first things Jerry said to me was, ‘When people are flipping through channels, I want them to know there’s a unique look and feel to a show.’ ”

TV veterans are stunned by how quickly Bruckheimer has conquered the medium. Before CBS bought “CSI” in 2000, he was known as a purveyor of unapologetically escapist theatrical fare, including “Flashdance,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Bad Boys.” His relentless cinematic populism -- and occasional promotional excesses with his flamboyant producing partner, the late Don Simpson -- made him as suspect among some film fans as he was beloved by studio executives. When the Simpson-Bruckheimer partnership was at its zenith in the late 1980s, director Steven Soderbergh famously dismissed the pair in a Rolling Stone interview as “slime, barely passing for human” (Soderbergh later apologized).

Shortly after Simpson’s death in 1996, Bruckheimer began the push into TV, hiring Littman to start a television production division the following year. Colleagues say both men manage to offer writers helpful suggestions without becoming overbearing.

“At the end of the day, they say, ‘It’s your show,’ and allow you to do what you like and want to do,” said Hank Steinberg, executive producer of “Without a Trace,” a missing-persons procedural that’s grown into a hit for CBS in the crucial 10 p.m. Thursday slot opposite NBC’s powerhouse “ER.” Another selling point for writers: Thanks largely to their track record, Bruckheimer and Littman have the clout to stand up to network execs. “They’re willing to play bad cop so you don’t have to get your hands dirty,” Steinberg said.

CBS, for example, was initially tepid to the notion of casting Jennifer Finnigan as the lead in the new courtroom drama “Close to Home.” But Bruckheimer fought hard for Finnigan, who he believed was perfect for the role. “Jerry was in her corner from day one, and for me that’s important,” said Leslie Moonves, Viacom co-chief operating officer and the executive who oversees CBS.

Similarly, Bruckheimer pushed to hire Danny Cannon to direct the pilot for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The network balked because executives believed Cannon didn’t have enough mainstream feature or TV experience.

“Jerry said, ‘Trust me, this guy has an unbelievable vision,’ ” Moonves recalled. Cannon got the job and has been with the series ever since.

When a pilot Bruckheimer had pitched to NBC last season didn’t come together, he and Kevin Reilly, the network’s entertainment president, agreed to find something that would work. This season, Bruckheimer and his team approached NBC with the “E-Ring” idea with Ken Robinson, a 20-year veteran of the Pentagon, and writer David McKenna attached to create the show.

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“Those two really clicked,” Reilly said. “When we sat down and Robinson started telling his story, we just could see it. We could see the show.”

When NBC agreed to make the pilot, Bruckheimer attached “Ray” director Taylor Hackford.

“One of the assets of being in business with Jerry is that he gets the highest caliber of people to be in front of and behind the camera,” Reilly said. “So it gave Taylor the comfort to come and do a television pilot, which I don’t believe he had done before. That combination attracted Ben Bratt, who everybody in town was wooing to do a series.”

Bruckheimer downplayed his involvement, saying, “It’s about working with really talented people.” But then he added: “I’ll read every script, I’ll look at every episode. I’ll be involved in the casting for the pilots.”

Littman, closer to the day-to-day mechanics of production, came up with the initial concepts for two series, “Without a Trace,” which Littman said was inspired by his fascination with the mystery surrounding Washington intern Chandra Levy, and the new “Close to Home,” a courtroom drama centered on a suburban female prosecutor that was inspired by the Laci Peterson murder case. Both fit squarely in the genre that stirs Littman most: “When we sold ‘CSI,’ everyone said, ‘Mystery can’t be done, [the audience will] skew too old, no network is going to buy it,’ ” Littman recalled. But “I’ve never known anyone to put down a good” mystery.

By all accounts, though, it’s Bruckheimer’s sharp commercial instincts that set the tone.

“Jerry is the architect; Jonathan is the contractor,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, where Bruckheimer has had an overall producing deal since 2001.

Since “CSI” took off, they have carefully plotted their current prime-time ramp-up. At one time Littman ran the TV division pretty much by himself, but in recent years the company has hired a trio of executives to help manage details on the shows: Mike Azzolino, Kimberly Metcalf and KristieAnne Reed.

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Bruckheimer said he isn’t setting out to get a show on every network -- at the moment, he doesn’t have anything on ABC, Fox or UPN. But he sounds as if he’s just getting started making television.

“When somebody comes up with a great idea that we want to do, we’re going to do it,” he said. “I love working.” CBS, which until last week had Bruckheimer all to itself, will have to get used to sharing.

Joked Moonves: “I’m a little jealous. It’s like the girl you’re dating who wants to try dating someone else.”

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Fernandez reported from New York, Collins from Los Angeles.


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