Saving the Best Laughs for Last: Chuck Lorre Reaches a New Milestone in the TV Biz - Hillary Atkin

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Cover image for  article: Saving the Best Laughs for Last: Chuck Lorre Reaches a New Milestone in the TV Biz - Hillary Atkin

There were many moments of learning at last week's Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame dinner and ceremony, the 21st edition of the kudos that honor the best and the brightest in the industry, dead or alive.

Everyone knows the man who hosted the event, Jon Cryer, is funny, but we learned that director Garry Marshall and producer Chuck Lorre could also be stand-ups, if they didn't have other thriving careers. And who knew that Michael Eisner could be so modest about his achievements, or that Vivian Vance had a funny younger sister, or that Latinos have received such exceedingly short shrift in this exclusive club?

It was an evening filled with laughter and reminiscing as ATAS inducted eight new members into its prestigious Hall of Fame, three of them posthumously.

Although "I Love Lucy's" Vivian Vance and William Frawley and reality TV pioneer Mary-Ellis Bunim were not there last Thursday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel to bask in the glory of the honor, memories of them and their illustrious television careers burned brightly as they joined inductees Michael Eisner, Chuck Lorre, Jonathan Murray, Bill Klages and Mario Kreutzberger.

There are now 142 members of an elite group that represents the top level of creativity, innovation and talent in the industry.

As emcee of the gala, Cryer called it the first show of the new awards season – requiring another trip to the dry cleaners for him – and immediately pointed out that none of the honorees were French. But nationality and religion were referenced many times throughout the ceremony, mostly with humor, but several times with sobering reality as it was noted that Kreutzberger, also known as Don Francisco, was the first Latino to be inducted since Desi Arnaz.

Gail Berman made the presentation to the late Bunim, who passed away in 2004, and partner Jonathan Murray, who has kept her name on their production company. "Twenty years ago, they gave the MTV audience something edgy and fresh. 'The Real World' shape-shifted the television industry and represented the birth of modern reality TV," Berman said.

Since then, Bunim/Murray Productions has gone on to produce shows including "The Simple Life," "Project Runway" and "Keeping up with the Kardashians."

"It's nice to be at the big kids' table with all these fancy scripted people," said Murray, who is working on, among other projects, the 27th edition of "The Real World."

The mood switched to one of a roast when it came time for uber-executive Michael Eisner to take his place in the HoF, inducted by longtime friend and colleague, director/producer and sometime actor, Garry Marshall.

For those who know him well, Marshall's shtick is a given. But to those in the audience who don't, it was a revelation. "There are so many people here I can't get on the phone," he said before he regaled the room with tales of the early days of "Happy Days," when very few people except Eisner thought a 1950s period piece would be popular – until "American Graffiti" came out.

In the course of a lengthy recollection of Eisner's career, which began in the programming department of ABC, Marshall revealed his own real Italian last name, how he himself was the inspiration for The Fonz and how they cast his sister in "Laverne and Shirley."

Eisner, for his part, was unduly modest during his acceptance speech, and gave Marshall 100% of the credit for "Happy Days." Adding to the origins, he told the story of how he and Barry Diller saw aspiring actor Henry Winkler, after he auditioned for the role of The Fonz, hitchhiking outside Paramount Pictures and decided not to pick him up. Each still blames the other for the cold-hearted decision to leave him standing on the street.

Another classic Eisner project from that era was "Pretty Woman," a film which he said was originally titled "3000" and for its lead character, required a hooker who was a virgin. Speaking of morals, Eisner revealed that when he was at Paramount Pictures (from 1976-1984) he forbid everyone to go to the nearby Nickodell's, a restaurant where lunch was frequently drunken rather than eaten, resulting in countless hours of lost afternoon productivity on the lot's soundstages. Surprisingly, Eisner made no reference to his massively successful tenure at Disney, transforming it from a $1.8 billion film and theme park company into an $80 billion media and entertainment behemoth by the time he stepped down in 2005.

In its time, "I Love Lucy" was its own media empire and created stardom for its second-banana couple played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley opposite Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Vance's younger sister, Lou Ann Graham, accepted the ATAS HoF honor, and recalled the comedienne and her life off-screen during a rambling but charming speech, which she ended by offering to sell the Indian jewelry from New Mexico that she was wearing.

Frawley was recalled as a daily regular of Nickodell's with his own table in the rear, and a soft spot in his heart for the child actors he went on to work with on another classic sitcom, "My Three Sons," one of whom realized how

fond Frawley was of him when he gave him a 9 foot long surfboard for his birthday one year, found lodged in his dressing room.

Univision president Cesar Condé had the honor of inducting his role model and mentor, Mario Kreutzberger, more commonly known as Don Francisco, the host of the Spanish-language variety show "Sábado Gigante," ("Giant Saturday") which has been on the air for, drum roll, please, 50 years. It airs on Univision on Saturday nights, and Don Francisco has missed only one appearance—in 1974 when his mother passed away.

After attending college in New York, Kretuzberger returned to his native Chile and jumped into its fledgling television industry, becoming a huge player in the business who has also turned his attention to philanthropy. Modeled on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, he started a similar effort in Latin America to help children with special needs, which has raised more than $300 million to date.

The character of Don Francisco was born during Kreutzberger's early days as a stand-up comic, when he created it as an impersonation of a Jewish man who didn't know how to speak Spanish. When the young entertainer won a talent contest sponsored by a local radio station, the host asked if he had another name, saying he couldn't pronounce the Germanic "Kreutzberger," and thus the newly adopted name Don Francisco stuck.

"I like to tell people that my show is part Letterman, part Carson, part Larry King and part Jack Paar," said Kreutzberger. "Sabado Gigante," based in Miami since 1986, has also been spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."

Award-winning lighting designer Bill Klages recalled his early days in the business with Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, before moving on to work with Dick Clark and Barbra Streisand, who told him that he did the "worst lighting ever."

Clearly, members of the Hall of Fame committee disagreed with that assessment. In lauding him for his work on award shows including the primetime Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards and the Golden Globes, not to mention several Olympics, inaugurals and specials for entertainment luminaries including Streisand, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler. His credit list encompasses more than 300 titles over a nearly 60-year career that has continued into the 21st century.

Along the way, he has developed techniques emulated by other designers and currently consults on television facilities design.

No television producer could have possibly had a brighter light shone on him – in a negative way – then Chuck Lorre did last year during the meltdown of his "Two and a Half Men" leading man, Charlie Sheen.

But in his introduction, Warner Bros. television president Peter Roth skipped over that part and lauded Lorre for his exceptional work ethic and comedic writing skills. "Years from now, Chuck Lorre will be in his grave, rewriting his own headstone," Roth said.

Egged on by a sizable audience contingent from Warner Bros. and CBS, Lorre first said he would not say anything mean, and then went on to skewer other talent he's worked with that are known for, shall we say, being difficult, including Roseanne Barr and Brett Butler. Self-deprecatingly, he called himself an "incredible shit magnet."

"Perhaps it's a Jewish thing," he mused before going on to say that he had been already held to a higher standard by his colleagues after they heard that he was going into the Hall of Fame. "I guess it's too late to get it posthumously," he said. "Another year like last year would do the trick."

In other rip-roarious remarks, Lorre let it all hang out. "Most people in these speeches thank their agents and managers. Fuck those people," he said. "It's the writers that are important. And I stand on many of their shoulders, with cleats."

After more such bluntness, he said, "Listen closely. You can hear the sound of Peter Roth's sphincter tightening."

Talent from his three current shows, among them Ashton Kutcher, Melissa McCarthy, Johnny Galecki, Holland Taylor, Billy Gardell, Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons and Swoosie Kurtz, roared with laughter. The Lorre talent stable in attendance also included "Dharma and Greg's" Thomas Gibson.

Lorre looked back at his early days as a musician trying to break into the business when he wanted to join the WGA mainly to get dental insurance for his two children, lamenting that he may not have been the greatest dad to them, but in the long run, as he put it, "You'll remember your dad left you both insanely rich."

Hillary Atkin is the editor and publisher of The Atkin Report, and has written extensively on media and entertainment for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Daily and Weekly Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, TelevisionWeek, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Observer and LA Confidential. She is an award-winning journalist who began her career as a television news writer, reporter and producer. As a broadcast producer at KCBS in Los Angeles, she won numerous Emmy, Associated Press and Golden Mike Awards for live coverage and entertainment special events programming, and then produced and directed biographies on Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Linda Darnell and Nicolas Cage for A&E and E!. She can be reached at

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