Legend, Pitt among stars taking new power role: TV producer

Music star John Legend is an increasingly active producer with projects including "Underground" and "The Black Count." (AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) – The actor’s classic mantra: “What I really want to do is direct.” The revised version: “I want to produce.”

More entertainers are getting the chance to play the role of producer as the expanding universe of cable channels and, especially, online platforms make for big opportunities on small screens.

With motivations ranging from passion projects to career advancement, stars – and even their journeymen counterparts – are getting into the game.

“Actors need to produce because they need to control material and be ahead of the business,” said Roy Ashton, the Gersh Agency’s head of TV. “With the Netflixes and Hulus and everything else, it’s really about owning content, controlling it and controlling your destiny.”

The flashiest examples remain theatrical releases from heavyweights such as Brad Pitt, who’s dabbled in TV but largely used his clout to help produce films including the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and “Selma.”

Pitt is making serious TV forays as a producer for the upcoming miniseries “Lewis and Clark” and the limited series “Feud.” Actress and film producer Reese Witherspoon (“Wild,” “Gone Girl”) is producing and starring in the announced limited series “Big Little Lies.”

While individual responsibilities vary depending on the project, a producer or production team’s tasks include obtaining financing and supervising casting, writing and the director who will guide filming.

Amid the crush of outlets and shows jockeying for viewers, a celebrity’s behind-the-camera involvement may be seen as a way to build a project’s buzz.

Actors who have a way with words can become sought-after producers, the result of TV’s traditional reliance on writer-showrunners in contrast to filmdom’s worship of directors. Tina Fey (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Amy Poehler (“Broad City”) are among the examples.

“People like Amy and Tina are being given production deals by networks looking for these people to expand on their voice,” said Steve Carell, who wears a producer’s hat for “Angie Tribeca,” TBS’ police parody series.

Music star John Legend is an increasingly active producer with projects for TV (“Underground”) and the big screen (filmmaker Cary Fukanaga’s in-development “The Black Count”).

He dismisses any notion he’s in it for the so-called vanity credit which, with a monetary bonus, can be a lure for some.

“People find out pretty quickly I don’t just do it to slap my name on things,” Legend said. “I care about the kinds of stories being told under my name, so I try to interact with writers and directors as much as possible.”

In 1919, Charlie Chaplin joined with director D.W. Griffith and other actors to found United Artists studio. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu Productions launched in TV’s early days with “I Love Lucy” eventually grew into a leading independent studio with credits including “Mission: Impossible” and original “Star Trek” series episodes.

Although today’s biggest names can’t ensure success – HBO reversed its decision to renew the drama series “Vinyl” for a second season despite the involvement of producer-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese – “Survivor’s Remorse” is returning July 24 for its third season on Starz with Mike O’Malley, a veteran actor (“Glee,” “Yes, Dear”) and writer (“Shameless”), in charge as creator and executive producer.

O’Malley describes producing as a non-stop challenge.

“There are 100 to 200 people you have to deal with, you have to make sure all the scripts are done and written on time, and you’re in charge of the casting and the tone of the show,” he said. “You really have to be ready to be in charge, and if you don’t like it, you have to learn to like it.”

The talent – as the entertainment industry collectively labels performers – may produce to ensure their own juicy roles. But as performers themselves tell it, other motivations can be equally or more compelling.


The changing world of TV offers more opportunities for stories told by and about people of color and other minorities – especially notable given this year’s all-white slate of Oscar acting nominees.

“What’s great about television right now is there are so many different avenues for content. It allows television to have real diversity,” Legend said.

“Any of us who have power should try to use that power to tell great stories that reflect what’s happening in the world and reflect the audience that’s out there,” he said. “They are thirsty for content featuring people who look like them, and it’s not just black people: it’s Asians, it’s Latinos, it’s the gay and lesbian community.”


In an industry in which men dominate on- and off-screen jobs, producing is giving women an influential path. Witherspoon’s production company, for example, has focused on film and TV projects with female protagonists.

After Joanne Froggatt read a gripping script about Mary Ann Cotton, a 19th-century serial killer in England, she used the cachet she gained as Anna Bates on PBS’ hit drama “Downton Abbey” to help drive “Dark Angel.”

As associate producer as well as star, Froggatt was tasked with getting PBS’ agreement to air the miniseries, due in 2017, and had a hand in choosing the director, hair and makeup artists, and costume designer.

“It’s not something that happens a lot in television in England, much more so in the States,” the British actress said. “It’s really nice to voice that opinion and be heard.”


The chance to develop entrepreneurial muscles and avoid employment slumps that are all too common in the acting game are other reasons to turn producer.

For Sean Hayes, the eye-opening moment came when he realized the long-running sitcom “Will & Grace” and his role as Jack were soon to end and, he says, “I needed a place to go in the morning.”

“I looked around the soundstage and all of a sudden it hit me: How did all of this come together?” Hayes said, listing actors, producers, director, network, costumers and catering service. “How did this machine happen?”

His curiosity led him, with friend Todd Milliner, to launch a busy production company whose series include “Grimm,” “Hot in Cleveland” and “Hollywood Game Night.”

Putting the pieces together “enables me to keep working and keep my mind being creative,” Hayes said.