Television show runner Tony Phelan chats with Tommy Burke about his career in television. Best known for his work on Grey’s Anatomy, Madam Secretary, and Law & Order, Trial by Jury, he’s been nominated for two Emmys and three Writers Guild of America awards (he won a WGA award for Grey’s Anatomy). He is married to and collaborates with television producer and screenwriter Joan Rater. Their series Doubt premiered last week on CBS, and runs on Wednesdays at 10pm/9pm central time.
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Tony and Joan have been collaborating for years. In their early days, he was a theater director and she was an actress. Tony would see Joan at parties, telling stories of her earlier dating life. He suggested that Joan do a monologue, based on them. She would write and perform; Tony would direct.
Later, when they did a show off-Broadway, a friend suggested they come to Los Angeles to perform the show. A woman, who managed TV writers, suggested that Tony and Joan write for TV. Around the same time, Tony and Joan were both fired by their William Morris agent.
Taking it as a message, they moved to LA to get into TV in January 2000. They wrote a spec script, interviewed for their first show in March, and got it. They’ve been working ever since. However, it took a while to get on a show that would last; they’ve done nine shows in five years.
Grey’s Anatomy & Developing Your Team
Tony and Joan started on Grey’s Anatomy in season two as a writing team. By season ten, they were running the show. Tony was directing two to three episodes per season, while Joan was pretty much the head writer of the show. By the end she did the lion’s share of writing and rewriting, while Tony (the producing director) actively broke stories with the writers.
Tony and Joan were on Grey’s Anatomy for nine years. After that much time, you have to come-up with ways to keep things interesting, he shares. It’s also important to impress upon the crew how much you value them and their work.
When Tony left the show, he shared advice with show runner William Harper. He told William: Every day when you arrive, walk through the stages, say hi to everybody, see what they’re shooting that day, identify what scenes you want to watch in rehearsal, and know everybody’s name. Then, at the end of the day walk through that stage again.
It’s really important for the person in charge to set an example. Nobody on the team should keep hours that you don’t keep. Everybody needs to feel vital to the process. Put together a team that is contributing, engaged, and creative.
At the beginning of each season, Tony would sit down with each of the actors and ask: What do you want to do this season? How can we keep this interesting for you? How can we challenge you? Because playing a part for that long, you get burned out.
To the crew challenged and excited Tony and Joan told them, if there is a department or job you’re interested in exploring, we’ll find a way for you to shadow that job and experience it.
Ultimately this does not cost anything, but makes the experience much better. On Grey’s Anatomy, they were able to break about five or six directors from editorial, AD, Dolly Grip, and other areas. They also had an actor who was interested in the writer’s room, as well as others who wanted to shadow and learn from other departments.
As Tony and Joan were looking for where to go after Grey’s Anatomy to develop a show, his friend Craig Turk (The Good Wife), suggested they try CBS. While CBS does not have a lot of real estate for shows, the development team helps producers realize the show they want without too many notes. Tony and Joan sat down with the studio and the network, and everyone was very interested in working with them. But they stayed on for one more season at Grey’s Anatomy to make sure things transitioned smoothly, because they felt they owed it to show creator, Shondra Rhimes.
When the team was ready to go to CBS, they met with Carl Beverly (Justified, Elementary) and his company, who do quality shows and have worked with CBS. Tony and Joan teamed with Carl as a non-writing producer, and worked on an idea that was meant to be a cable show.
However, the studio called, asking for something for CBS Network rather than for cable on a short deadline. Tony and Joan had nothing at that point to pitch the network. They brainstormed through ideas that could work. They could do a law show, but what kind of law show was not already on the air …
Since 9/11 there have been a glut of shows about catching bad guys and putting them in jail. But if you look at what’s happening in the world now, it was time to put on a show about criminal defense. There had not been a show like that since The Practice (a show they admired). In fact, Tony and Joan had written a spec script for The Practice and had broken two stories for criminal defense attorneys, so they had a hook to start with that would eventually become the show, Doubt.
Then they thought about what kind of law firm and characters should be in the show. Because their son is transgender, they decided to create the transgender character, Cam, who’s a woman. They originally thought of Laverne Cox, but figured she was too busy with Orange is the New Black. They released the script to agents and immediately heard from Laverne’s agent that this part must be for Laverne. It turns out that she was wrapping Orange is the New Black. The timing work worked-out perfectly, and she’s great in the part.
Thinking more about it, Tony and Joan have always been fascinated by the tradition of left-wing radical attorneys who came of age in the 60s and 70s. They were also fascinated with radical activists from that era, like The Weatherman. They wondered what was going on with those people now.
They came-up with a story about a female Weatherman, who was jailed for killing a highway patrolman. When she was arrested, she had a two-year-old daughter, who she entrusted to be raised by her lawyer. That daughter is now grown-up and is in the law firm, played by Katherine Heigl. Elliott Gould plays the attorney who raised her, while Judith Light plays her mom who’s still in jail.
So the basic premise of Doubt is: what happens if you find yourself arrested and the full weight of the government is doing everything to put you in jail? Who do you turn to and who fights for you?
The great cast also includes Dulé Hill, Dreama Walker and Kobi Libii. Then there are excellent actors to play prosecutors and judges. The first season revolves around a serialized mystery around a defendant played by Steven Pasquale, but there are other cases each week. The studio has been very supportive.
Tony and Joan’s actual pitch to the network starts around a conjugal visit between a lawyer and client in prison. That scene was boldly used to sell the show, but never made it into an episode.
Doubt premiered Feb 15 on CBS and runs on Wednesdays at 10pm (9pm central time).
Tony and Joan also wrote for Madame Secretary part time for two seasons and Tony directed an episode. The show is written in LA and filmed in New York. The cast is incredibly talented with Téa Leoni, Tim Daly, Zeljko Ivanek, and Bebe Neuwirth.
It was a challenging show to create in eight to nine days, because the stories take place around the world. Yet, it’s shot in and around New York. They were able to use the greater New York area to create locations around the world, including African villages, deserts, and even Cuba. For an episode set in Cuba, they found some condos ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and furnished them to stand-in for Cuba. It was challenging, but a lot of fun.
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The Not Just Sunglasses & Autographs podcast is hosted by Tommy Burke, who has been working in TV and film production for more than 25 years as a First Assistant Director. Download the podcast, listen on iTunes, and write a review.