How I Made It: TV writer James Duff

Profile: James Duff
“No matter what any writer tells you, you’re always writing about yourself,” says James Duff, creator and an executive producer of “The Closer.”
(Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images)

The gig: James Duff is the creator and an executive producer of the long-running TNT crime drama “The Closer” and its spinoff “Major Crimes,” which is filmed in Los Angeles and will launch a new season Nov. 25. Born in New Orleans and raised in Dallas, Duff, 58, was adopted when he was 3 months old. After quarreling with his parents about his future — his dad wanted him to be a lawyer, but he was more interested in music and theater — Duff ran away from home when he was 17 and joined a theater camp in the small northern Texas town of Lubbock. “I’m probably the only person who moved from Dallas to Lubbock, but that’s what I did,” he said. “My family took a year to get over it.”

Meeting a mentor: After graduating from high school in Lubbock, Duff enrolled at Texas Tech University, where he met his mentor, actor G.W. Bailey, who was teaching an acting course. “He was a big influence on my life. He told me I didn’t have to be a lawyer and that I didn’t have to do any of the things that I didn’t want to do and that I could follow my passion.” Duff never forgot the early advice and would hire Bailey years later to work on his TV shows. Bailey plays police Lt. Louie Provenza on “Major Crimes” and “The Closer.”

From the stage to the page: Duff began his career as a stage actor, appearing in Dallas and later moving to New York. He took up writing, initially as a way to fill time between acting auditions in New York. “I noticed that there were about a billion actors for every part and there were not very many plays,” he said. “I thought maybe writing plays would be the way in.” One of his plays became the Broadway drama “Home Front,” which was later turned into a 1996 feature film called “The War at Home” with Kathy Bates, Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen.

Early struggles: In the late 1980s, Duff hit a low point. His HIV-positive partner died and work was so scarce that he ended up getting a job as a host in a restaurant, waiting on the same people he had worked with on stage. “It was so humiliating. I thought this is never going to work. I decided no matter what happened to me, I was going to write anyway. That commitment changed my life.” He sold a screenplay for a TV pilot, and got his first big break with the TV movie “Doing Time on Maple Drive.” The 1992 film about a dysfunctional family featured a young Jim Carrey in one of his first dramatic roles and was nominated for three Emmy Awards.


A lesson in perseverance: Duff worked his way through 18 pilot scripts before he hit pay dirt almost 10 years ago with “The Closer,” about a dogged police detective who heads a unit of the LAPD that handles high-profile murder cases. Duff created and produced the show with Greer Shephard and Michael Robin, who also worked with him on an earlier TV series, “The D.A.,” which was canceled after four shows. “There’s no better teacher than failure,” Duff said. “The lesson I’ve learned in my journey has been persistence and to continue working no matter what happens, because things are not always going to go your way. You’re not always going to produce great work. Not everything you do is going to be brushed with gold.”

Write about what you know: “No matter what any writer tells you, you’re always writing about yourself,” Duff said. He said Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson in “The Closer,” was a female version of himself, channeling some of his mother and his sister. “I don’t like being told what to think, and I think that’s a very good description of the character,” Duff said. “She doesn’t like preconceived notions. She’s less interested in the big picture than what is right in front of her.”

Get our daily Envelope newsletter