Brenda Hampton Interview

Brenda Hampton

One Does Not Speak of Rope

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It's over. Safe Harbor has been cancelled and it's not coming back.

Courtesy the WB and Spelling Productions Cast and crew of Safe Harbor

The rumors of the demise had been circulating since November. The show wrapped up production during the first week of December, and the WB network didn't approve the hoped-for "back 9" episodes that would have guaranteed a full-season run. Yet, there was no confirmation from the WB. The network claimed there were unaired episodes, and that nothing had been decided. Okay, technically, networks don't announce their cancellations until May, but that's like taking the headless corpse to the coroner and waiting for the death certificate. Meanwhile, actors and crew members were moving on with their lives and moving out of Florida.

Then came the fans. When beloved shows get the axe, people turn to letter-writing campaigns, of the type that saved Cagney & Lacey to turn the tide of the broadcaster's decision. I started getting emails by the dozens, asking who should be contacted to save Safe Harbor. People wrote in to say that other networks wanted the show, that Gregory Harrison was leading a national group to revive Safe Harbor, that the show would move to a cable network. All these mailings were wishful thinking, as far as I can determine.

Then came the Big Rumor: the rumor I'd heard from fans, and from cast and crew members - - that what was happening was a power-play at the WB and Spelling Productions to "declaw" series creator Brenda Hampton. Hampton had a string of successful shows in her retinue: from Blossom, to the short-lived Daddy's Girls, to her Emmy nomination for Mad About You. Brenda was the creator of 7th Heaven, a show which could successfully be argued as having established the WB as a viable network. The rumor resembled the fate of X-Files producer Chris Carter: Carter was a300-pound gorilla at Fox, and stood to remain a powerhouse for years to come. Through a series of bizarre business actions, X-Files was syndicated to the tiny FX Network, a cable stepchild of the Fox Network. Chris Carter lost piles of syndication loot because his creation wasn't marketed to thousands of broadcast stations, and so his star status shrank. Could this same fate be awaiting Brenda?

Now, consider yourself to be Brenda Hampton. If you're in a situation where your shows are pitched to and purchased by people who may or may not be doing what these rumors imply, do you really want to validate these rumors in a public forum, even if only to deny them? Of COURSE not. You have to go to work tomorrow and you still have to rely on people to buy what you're selling.

Okay, now consider you're running the Third Most Entertaining URL on the Web [per Entertainment Weekly]- - and you want to talk to Brenda about these rumors. How do you get Brenda to agree to an interview when you KNOW she'll hang up if the subject pops up? The answer is: couch the questions in historical terms. It's not about TODAY - it's about the long line of TV Single Dad shows. So it's no biggie if a few show questions dribble into the mix of history and culture, right?

You decide, because...

The Interview Begins

[Tech note: the digital recorder was stuck on Sync mode and as a result, the recording lost a few beginning words after long pauses. I've written in the words from my notes, which may be slightly changed from the original. Words from notes are written inside brackets like these...]

Hello, Brenda?

Brenda - Yes!

Hi, this is Jim O'Kane at TVDADS.COM...

Brenda - Happy new year!

Happy new year to you! I really appreciate you getting together with me for this interview.

Brenda - No problem! I don't know how much I can talk about Safe Harbor, since it's been cancelled...

Yeah, I realize that..

Brenda - [laughs] Yeah, I don't know if there's that much to talk about there, but I could talk..about other things!

Okay! Well, I mean, if we could talk about Safe Harbor from like a historical perspective, I think that's all right.

Brenda - Allright! [laughs]

Great! Well, I don't know if you've visiting my site...

Brenda - You know what? I haven't because I'm not [computer-literate. I can write scripts on a computer, but we have people here who] do the research and get on websites and the Internet and that kind of thing, but I haven't done it yet!

Oh, okay - - - well, that's fine. You'll have a place to visit when we're done, then!

Brenda - Okay!

Okay, well great! Well, um, the reason why I've been interested in interviewing with you is that - the site that I run covers the history of Single Dads on television for the past fifty years.

Brenda - How interesting!

And you've played quite a role in the many of the Single Dad shows on television - - it seems that you have - you've wound your way through a bunch of major milestones on the road of having a lot of Single Dad shows on television - - all the way back to when you were working on Blossom, - -

Brenda - Right....

with Bill Bixby, who -played- a Single Dad - -

Brenda - Right....

and then you worked with Paul Reiser on Mad About You, who played a Single Dad with another Single Dad in My Two Dads - -

Brenda - Right....

You also had the character of Wilson West in 7th Heaven,

Brenda - Right....

And now the ..... sadly passed Safe Harbor...

Brenda - [laughs] Right!

So, I just want to track down - - how you wound up in all of these things. One of the things I've been thinking about this, with um, a lot of different producers like Don Fedderson and George Schlatter and Jack Webb and people like that - - they create a body of work that people look back on - - on TV Land or Nick at Nite and many of those things, and people are watching them for 40 or 50 years in the future, watching these shows that people worked on. Whenever you're working on a production, do you get like a 'cultural vertigo' when you think about - "gee, somebody's going to be looking at this in 40 or 50 years" and trying to figure out what you were trying to say?

Brenda - [laughs] No! No, no - never! [laughs]

Okay - yeah, it would probably --

Brenda - No, but I do recall those shows. I do watch those old shows. [I've watched those shows since I was a little girl. My dad fixed television sets in Atlanta, and we had rooms full of] televisions, because in those days, you had to heat up the TV tubes in order to work on the televisions. So there were televisions all over the place! And I watched a lot of TV, and I also was around my [dad a lot] because he worked on TV's for 8 hours a day, and then he worked at the telephone company - - he worked for AT&T for 8 hours a day, so I have this father/role model, as well as the fathers who were on TV as role models.

Wow. A question that I usually ask is: do you have any idea why there's so many Single Dads on television? I've counted about 150 of them.

Brenda - Networks love dead parents, evidently. [laughs]

They're big selling points, I guess.

Brenda - [laughs] I guess so! I wanted to do the whole family with 7th Heaven, but it is, for some reason, attractive [to networks], and I guess stories with parents trying to have a new relationship, and I guess there are stories there to be "mined" - but I really enjoy writing for Stephen Collins as Eric Camden, because he's fun to [write for].

I guess after all the Single Dads, it's a refreshing change...

Brenda - [laughs] Yes!

Now, your first big experience with Single Dads was with Blossom,

Brenda - Yes...

Which I understand that you were the "story consultant?" You were like the series bible?

Brenda - Well I know - well, all titles on a TV show are basically writing titles - I don't know if people understand that. You start as a staff writer, and you work every day with the other writers. Your name doesn't get on the show. The Writers' Guild doesn't even list you in the book as working on a show until you have a producer title. So you roll up [through line producer], supervising producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer. All those titles are actually writers. As you become a producer, you have more to do with the casting and the elements involved.

Are you also involved in the budgeting process then?

Brenda - Um, yes. I mean, normally, yes, but not, um - - Spelling doesn't do it that way, but up until I came here, yes.

Yes, I was just wondering as you move up through the ranks there, you start - - -

Brenda - Yes you start learning about how money plays into it and you do a show [budget]

And then the recorder cut out.

Someday, after I've either finished my book or I've sold out to the Go Network, I'm going to get backup digital recorders. Brenda was continuing to tell me about the different roles producers play while I'm trying to reset the Sync volume level. The recording was going to start sounding about as clear as Neil Armstrong's voice at Tranquility Base if I didn't get it resolved. I punched a few buttons on the recorder and hit the RECORD button again.


The Interview Continues

Brenda - [A show you didn't mention I worked on was] Daddy's Girls, the Single Dad with Dudley -

Oh right, Dudley Moore! Right, one of his two in the early 90's - he had back-to-back Single Dad shows.

Brenda - Yes! Keri Russell was in that show - -

Right, Felicity!

Brenda - Right! ...and the show was low budget - I think we wrote 13 episodes not using a swing set. We had a living room, a kitchen, and an office! So, those things come into play as you become a producer. But basically all producers are writers without the writer title. There's also the line producer title or people who do just the actual production and take care of that. Most of the other titles are writer titles.

Now, one of the things that someone told me about production is, when you're designing a series, when you're at the level where you're designing a series is that, when you build the pilot, you try to think of as many standing sets as you can get away with, so that you'll have something for the series. Do you have - do you get into that at all?

Brenda - No, because when I go to create something, hopefully it's just an inspired idea, and - - and I'm doing that this morning. I'm writing out an idea and I'm staying in my stream of consciousness and I'm getting it all out on paper before I consider anything about that. And 7th Heaven, like other one-hour shows, is shot like a film. You have the sets that you use every week, but you also have stuff on location every week. So we try to keep down the number of days that we're out on location, but we're allowed to go out on location every week. So, we're not limited to - -

Now, in 7th Heaven, you've got the character Wilson West, who's become somewhat of a rarity now- - when he was first introduced into the cast - did you - -

Brenda - Well he, his management felt that he wanted to do... films.... so it was not by our choice but the choice of the actor. His choice that we um, phased him out. I loved that character.

Yeah, I would imagine that he was interesting to write for, because he did have a lot of great plots coming out of him...

Brenda - Yes. The premise was a little weak, that the 16-year-old girl had died in childbirth, but it worked for us -- [it didn't work for him] so that's what we did.

I get a lot of mail about that character, asking what happened to him.

Brenda - I liked - I liked that character - giving teenage fathers a responsible role model.

Yes, there really haven't been many teenage- - well, there was Kirk Cameron in the show Kirk, and way back when, there was a show called Hank, where - -

Brenda - I don't remember that show - Who was Hank?

Um, it featured - he was going to college, and what happened was, he was also the guardian of his 8-year-old sister, and what happened was, he couldn't get into college, so he wound up sneaking into classes and getting credits and - -

Brenda - Interesting

he was always getting into - Dick Kallman portrayed Hank. But it was on for about two years and it was in the early 60's. But that's about the only "kid-parents" I can think of, offhand that are similar to Wilson in that - in terms of trying to deal with not being an adult and having to be a parent.

Brenda - Yep.

And it had been a while since the Kirk show, that there had been a character like this on television.

Okay, we covered every show BUT the show with the questions that needed asking.

It's an adage that one does not speak of rope in the house of a hanged man, but I was about to skim the line. I hoped Brenda wouldn't hang up. I started with some easy questions and worked my way into...

The Safe Harbor Part of the Interview

One thing that I had noticed, if we could just talk a little bit about Safe Harbor, is that you had Michael Stoyanov from Blossom -

Brenda - Right.

cast. Did you cast him from your experience with him on Blossom?

Brenda - Yes. I think he's a brilliant actor. He's very funny, and he can also play the dramatic side. One of the most fun things about doing that show was Ron Zimmerman and Michael Stoyanov as the dog dies. [laughs] Because those are two characters you have NOT seen on television before! - - - -and they were VERY amusing. [laughs] To ME, anyway!

When you're writing a show, do you prefer the audience sitcom? Or the filmed series?

Brenda - I prefer the filmed series because for me, the hours have been shorter.

Yeah you can kinda stretch it out. The way I was understanding it was that Safe Harbor had a ten-day schedule, so you can kind of

Brenda - Well, no, what you do is - you shoot every day but - you shoot Monday through Friday, always, but for me, as a writer, I'm not on the set. I have Burt Brinkerhoff, who's the line producer and produces, I mean, directs maybe six episodes a year of 7th Heaven, so he's there every day, on the stage every day, and he takes care of the stage and I can go home and he can call me at home if there's a problem.

So, he gives you the low-down on things going on. Was he working on - - Safe Harbor as well as 7th Heaven?

Brenda - No, Safe Harbor was made in Florida, so we had Peter Dunne. That was more difficult because it was out of town, and there was the time difference, and it was that much more difficult to do. It would have been better when we launched the show if I could have had time on that set. But you know, things work or they don't work. That show DIDN'T work.

How did you pitch that show? Did it just come up as a - as something that they wanted to do, or?

Brenda - The pitches for the show were for something entirely different. [laughs] That's what it was - it was an entirely different show from the time that I pitched it.

I had seen the presentation pilot, with the Wetherill brothers and Scott Vicayrous - - -

Brenda - Well, it was even different from that. I started out with a - family who was at the end of their rope, and they had twin daughters and a son and a married couple and they lived at this motel and they had just run out of business, run out of money. And the kids had just, uh, run out of sanity! That's where the series began. The network came back and said that they would like to do something more like My Three Sons, and The Andy Griffith Show, so - and they wanted the dad to [be a cop] - that's what they wanted. So, I gave it some thought and I said, you know, that's a really interesting area, because you don't really see any Real Men on TV today. So, I'd like to do a series about a Single Dad who's a Real Man, and have sons. And *about* raising sons, today, [because you don't see that]. That's different - I haven't seen that on TV, so that's what I wanted to do. And I pictured the sheriff having to walk away from a dead body, and go home and do math homework with the kids. As the show went through the process of development, it got softer and softer and then we blended in the female side of the show, and the vision became so diluted that it was not what I wanted to do, but I certainly tried to do the best I could and give the network everything they wanted. In the end, it just didn't work, for a number of reasons.

Was it not working for the network? I mean, it wasn't giving them the numbers that they wanted, or - -

Brenda - Right. It was not giving them the numbers that they wanted. I think people - we had plenty of positive fan mail about the show, but it was not giving them - they wanted to retain the 7th Heaven audience in the 9 o'clock hour and they - the show didn't do it. No show has done it since either.

Right, well that timeslot has always been a Dead Zone - they tried it with Hyperion Bay and Rescue 7-7 and - -

Brenda - I don't think anything's done the numbers that Savannah did, to tell you the truth. I think Savannah had the same or higher numbers in that time slot. And not anything that they've put on since.

Did the lateness of the production affect it at all? I mean when you had to change out the [cast members]?

Brenda - No, I don't think so. It's just one of those things - the show works, or it doesn't. It doesn't, and if you start analyzing why, then you start placing blame, and the bottom line is: it just didn't work, for whatever reason.

That's the nature of the business. You go through so many cancellations.

Brenda - Right.

Do you think you'd have other Single Dads in your future? I mean in future series work?

Brenda - Possibly - for a while, I was a Single Mom. I adopted late in life. I adopted a 10 and a half year old girl from North Vietnam. So, I was single the first year, and she came here - and I wound up marrying her teacher. So, for the second year she's been here, I've been married. So, I have a lot of stories from my year as a single parent! [laughs] It may be that I might want to write a single parent show again.

Yeah, there's always so much you can draw out of it with the juggling of the career - -

Brenda - Yes, right! I also like writing for 7th Heaven because it's the whole family, and that's where I came from. I came from a family where the parents, um, my parents have been married for over 50 years, and I had a brother and sister and we were I guess a fairly functional family![laughs]

Where did you grow up?

Brenda - In Atlanta.

Just a few more questions - when Joe Connoly and Bob Mosher were writing Leave it to Beaver, they would come up with script ideas where Ward turned into a werewolf and things, and they'd sit around and laugh about these things at lunchtime, while they were doing the show. Eventually they collected all the things that they had written, and they created The Munsters out of that.

Brenda - [laughs] I didn't know that!

I was just wondering if you have like, scrap plots that come out of 7th Heaven and things that you've worked on that you think "well, maybe I can't do that in this show but - it doesn't go with the characters but I can carry this on to something else." Does this - does anything grow out of that? Just things that don't seem to work in the setting that you have and move it on to something else?

Brenda - I haven't thought in those terms. I have to say I haven't.

When you were a kid growing up watching these shows, can you name a few Single Dads that just pop in your head?

Brenda - Well, they weren't Single Dad shows. I loved Leave it to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show - well, he was a Single Dad - Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show,

Did you watch Bachelor Father or My Little Margie?

Brenda - I barely remember My Little Margie. I was born in '51 -

Okay that was on in '52, so

Brenda - So, I would recognize it if I saw it, but I wouldn't - -

Probably Bonanza would be the most familiar -

Brenda - Bonanza, I watched.

and of course My Three Sons.

Brenda - My Three Sons I watched - I still watch!

In watching Safe Harbor, I figured you watched a lot of Flipper, too.

Brenda - No, I never saw that one!

Really? Because that's about a police officer raising boys in Florida.

Brenda - - - - No, I think that was a network idea, and my best friend across the street growing up, her father was - - eventually became the chief of police for Atlanta, so that's where some of that came from.

Oh, okay. When you were working with Bill Bixby, did he ever tell you about any stories about how The Courtship of Eddie's Father went?

Brenda - No. I was friends with him, but I was probably closer to the woman he married the last year, Judy Kliband. She would come and sit in the booth, with the writers, because he was directing the show, and I knew her better, and I was friends with the two of them but I don't think we talked about that show.

I get questions sometimes about how much of an effect The Courtship of Eddie's Father had on Blossom..

Brenda - I don't know, you'd have to ask Don Rio, who created it and who really told us what he wanted and what direction the show should go. I had no input into it - that was his show. I learned a lot from him.

If you were asked to summarize what you'd like to be remembered for, in what you've created in television, you know, when they do a Nick at Night retrospective of you in the next century, what would you want to be summarized as, in what you've created?

Brenda - Wow - -

That's a big question, I know.

Brenda - [laughs] Um, I'd like to make family television funny. A lot of family television from the old days I didn't watch because I'm drawn to comedy. And although we do very serious things on 7th Heaven, although there's a moment where you get a tear in your eye, there's a lot of funny stuff in 7th Heaven surrounding that! [laughs] And I think that's what makes it palatable for the whole family. I think that's why adults can watch it because there are little hidden political jokes and there are funny things that the kids won't pick up but the adults will. And I think that's also true of Blossom, too. Don Rio did that with that show.

Yeah the fantasy sequences - there were lots of other things going on with it than just the straight plots.

Brenda - Right.

And that was it.

The rumors will continue. Brenda can't analyze the reasons why the show didn't stay on the WB in a public forum, obviously. She has to work with these people and turn out product.

Consider this: the WB network is TINY. It needs home runs and not base hits to make its budget work and show profits. A million and a half viewers won't cut it. The WB needs Buffy and Dawson- sized ratings in every hour. Safe Harbor didn't do it right away. It had no champion in Brenda, because the show wasn't Brenda's vision anymore.

Don't cry for Safe Harbor. There will be more television series in the future - series you'll love, and series you'll watch for every week. Stay tuned is the best advice I can give you.

Click here for a message from Brenda Hampton.