Review by C.J. Bunce
The Virginian, Ironside, Amy Prentiss, Kolchak: The Nightstalker, and CHiPs. For modern TV watchers and students of film and production, these series from the 1960s to 1980s won’t come to mind as the most memorable TV series to use to teach a TV production course. But they are enough for Cy Chermak–TV executive producer, producer, story editor, and writer of those series and more–to incorporate into a step-by-step narrative providing an insider’s view of show process and studio politics in his new book The Show Runner: An Insider’s Guide to Successful TV Production.
Nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards, Chermak successfully–and sometimes not so successfully–negotiated the tiers of studio department hierarchy to create a lucrative career for himself. In this autobiographical account he provides dozens of golden nuggets that any prospective TV writer will find insightful in understanding how an episode of television is created, from idea to final edit. In addition to Chermak’s anecdotal lessons, he simplifies the duties and relationships of the production department from a show runner’s standpoint–a biased view, but a unique and interesting look from the top. He uses an episode of his short-lived series Amy Prentiss–a 1974 series with Jessica Walter (Archer, PCU, Ghost in the Machine, Play Misty for Me) as the first woman chief of police in San Francisco–to take the reader on a walk-through as assistant to mentor Chermak as executive producer.
Along the way Chermak introduces us to the difficulties of ego and personality that seem to go with the territory of both studios execs and actors. His examples include his personal interactions with Raymond Burr and Darren McGavin, who Chermak presents as particularly difficult to work with. Chermak remains completely personable along the way, as if he’s putting his arm around the reader’s shoulder and giving the full studio tour, complete with interesting name dropping. Chermak is quick to point out his own shortcomings and missed opportunities, like letting go by a young, yet-to-be-discovered Steven Spielberg making his way onto the studio lot as if he worked there to bump elbows with anyone who might screen his student film, Amblin. Chermak’s first screenplay for the big screen was a movie called 4D Man, literally the first 4D movie (in addition to the 3D visuals it included physical effects, a concept taking off again at select theater chains today), featuring well-known actors Robert Lansing (Star Trek, Simon & Simon, The Equalizer), Lee Meriwether (Batman, Star Trek, Barnaby Jones), and Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker, The Streets of San Francisco).
For kids of 1970s and 1980s television, look for Chermak’s discussion of the problem of dual lead actors, as he recollects a battle of ego between CHiPs stars Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada, which ultimately spelled doom for Wilcox and Chermak, and cancellation of the entire series a year later. “A year later” becomes a theme for Chermak. He notes several instances of a series folding a year after he was removed as show runner of the series.
Chermak appears proud to recount the survival and fan following of the 20-episode series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Of all the series he worked on it is the one that a modern generation of fans surprisingly still flock to similar to fans of Firefly. Chermak explains his take on the show’s success and failure to survive. But he commits far more of The Show Runner to less-remembered series like The Virginian and Ironside and only 16 pages to Kolchak. Similarly, Chermak was a story writer on the episode “The Wounded” on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he does not mention that project at all in the book (Chermak also worked with a young Michael Dorn on CHiPs, also not mentioned). These missing pieces don’t detract from the real value of the book. It’s an interesting read, quick, and not bogged down with boring details of business found in other memoirs, plus it offers some valuable mentoring by an industry veteran in the thick of production into the 1980s. Despite the fact that his last work in the industry was 20 years ago, it appears likely that the basic framework of TV studio process is not so different today. Titles may change and salaries may increase, but human nature and office politics is a constant.
The Show Runner is the latest in a series of detailed accounts of the history of television from Jacobs Brown Press that began with These Are the Voyages: Star Trek The Original Series, Volumes 1-3, and Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series, Volumes 1-3, both by Marc Cushman. Like Cushman’s books, The Show Runner is an obvious recommendation for students of television history and a suggested selection for film studies coursework. The Show Runner: An Insider’s Guide to Successful TV Production has a street publication date of August 15, but can be ordered now here at Amazon.