In from the Cold:

An Interview with Joseph Dougherty

Observant fans will recall that writer/director Joseph Dougherty was solely responsible for 16 of the 85 episodes of thirtysomething, an impressive tally of 20 percent of the show's work. His episodes were among some of the most memorable, including "competition," "undone," "the other shoe," "the go between" and "samurai ad man" (both parts of "the towers of zenith"), "a stop at willoughby," and perhaps most notably, "fighting the cold."

Mr. Dougherty has recently contacted both myself and Ian (creator/maintainer of the thirtysomething scrapbook site) and kindly agreed to suffer our combined interrogation for the purposes of shedding some light on a TV show whose appeal has lasted far past its first run on ABC from 1987-1991.

Q. Let's start off with the 'big one' in terms what the fans who write in want to know; on a scale of 0 to 10 (zero being no chance at all), what's the possibility of a "reunion" show ever becoming a reality? Was there ever any serious talk about it amongst the creative team? If so, inwhat form (i.e. tv-movie, mini-series, etc.)? Please shed some much needed light on this oft-discussed topic.

A. One of the few things I’ve learned over the years is "Never say never." But, to be honest, I think the possibility of some sort of "reunion" is remote. That said, I’m not the one who’d be making that decision; it would be up to Ed and Marshall. I always got the sense Ed thought of "thirtysomething" in Camelot terms; as something that came together better than anyone could have imagined, did what it was supposed to do, then released its various creative elements back into the atmosphere. Although, I wouldn’t put it past them to have some sort of strange "Secaucus Seven" scenario burbling in the back of their heads.

Q. Although we understand you are somewhat reticent about your current project(s), please fill us in about what you've been up to in recent years?

A. Well, there’s my signature fragrance line at Target. Beyond that I’ve done some movies at HBO, my favorites being an occult-noir mystery with Fred Ward called "Cast A Deadly Spell," and a contemporary remake of a childhood guilty pleasure, "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman" with Daryl Hannah.

I had the remarkable experience of writing the book for a Broadway musical. I was working with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who went on to do "Ragtime") to adapt "My Favorite Year" for the stage. We had a great time, the critics killed us and we closed in a month. But that lovely CD is available in fine record stores everywhere.

One of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had was adapting Mary Chase’s "Harvey" for a new television production starring Harry Anderson and Swoosie Kurtz. It’s a fine little film...and CBS has had it for almost two years without ever scheduling it. I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer to that. The picture’s been shown overseas, but not here in the U.S.

Q. Are you still in touch with Marshall Herskovitz and/or Ed Zwick? Have you collaborated or consulted with either of them on anything since "thirtysomething"?

A. Actually, no, I haven’t been in touch with either Marshall or Ed since "thirtysomething" ended. The alumni I tend to see are a couple of the actors and some of the production people.

Q. How did you first become involved with the show? How did it all evolve?

A. Way the hell back in 1985 I broke through to become a working writer when my play "Digby" opened Off-Broadway. In the summer of 1987 I was in Los Angeles to meet with the producer of another show set to premiere that fall, "Private Eye." While I was out here, my agent sent a copy of my play over to "thirtysomething" and said I should go in for a meeting.

I met Ed and we talked and he gave me the scripts for episodes one through four which I read that night in my hotel room. There was no question about my wanting to be involved. I pitched something that would later turn into "Legacy" in season three, but Ed and Marshall and I ended up outlining "Competition." I went back to New York and started writing. I realize now, this was all before I saw a foot of film. I’d already started writing when they got around to sending me a copy of the pilot.

That first year I wrote two episodes of "Private Eye" which was this high-gloss detective show set in the 1950s (and which still shows up on the USA Network sometimes) and two episodes of "thirtysomething"; "Competition" and the notorious "Undone," the latter winning me no friends among the female staff. Gosh, I wonder why.

Then came the dreaded Writers’ Guild Strike of ‘88 which lasted into the summer. After the strike I moved to California and went on staff at "thirtysomething."

Q. How much freedom was the writing staff given when putting together a script? Was it "everyone write on his/her own" or more of an organic sharing and developing?

A. There was a tremendous amount of what I call "vertical responsibility." You went into a room with Ed and Marshall, watched them throw around a little basketball (honest to God), worked up a mutually acceptable outline, then went away to write. I was never rewritten by Ed or Marshall. They might want stuff different, but they felt it was your script and you were the best person to take it all the way.

The writers worked as individuals. Which is one of the things that makes "thirtysomething" so unique. I can’t think of another non-anthology series where you can actually feel the distinctly different presence of individual writers. My shows don’t sound like Ann Hamilton’s which aren’t structured like Susan Shilliday’s which don’t feel like Richard Kramer’s. The more I think about it, the more unusual it seems.

The image I’ve come up with is that Ed and Marshall had this great concert hall filled with all these beautiful instruments and gifted players. And you were invited in to make the best music you could. You had to use what was there and they gave you the theme, but it was up to you to make the place sing.

Q. What was the general dynamic on the set? What were the principal actors like to work with? Any funny anecdotes (or horror stories) you can share with us?

A. I think we all felt, to one degree or another, that we were doing something special. We were working on a show that was well above average and demanded our best efforts. As a result, my memory of the set is largely a happy one. We were all working very hard, but we were working at something so rewarding; we got to wake up every morning and drive to a place we wanted to be in order to play with this terrific set of trains.

The show was so clearly writer-driven, the actors were nuts about us. These guys were getting the best pages in town and they knew it. By the same token, we knew how good they were so we never had to write down to them. The relationship between the principals and the writers was therefore very cozy. We’d hang around the set and they’d come up and hang around the office.

It’s funny, but the stuff that has stayed in my memory is very small, not particularly funny or horrible, and consists of tiny little details. The first one to surface is thinking about watching Polly Drapper perform Ellyn’s telephone monologue in "Distance." I remember standing off to one side, holding my breath and sort of willing her through it (we were doing it as one continuous shot) and when it was finally over I went over and we hugged each other. She played the thing wearing a towel having just gotten out of the shower and her hair was wet and I remember the smell of her wet hair when we hugged.

I remember Patricia Kalember coming up to me when we were shooting "Fighting the Cold." She pointed at a line I wrote for her when she’s getting in the car trying to leave. The line is: "Right. Right. Okay. Right." She looked at me and said, "This is the most ‘Harold Pinter’ line you’ve ever written." And I was happy the rest of the night.

And I remember the look on David Clennon’s face when we were talking about how Miles Drentell would throw an apple. In "Michael’s Campaign" Miles throws an apple to Michael. David was calling Michael’s name then throwing the apple. I wanted him to do it the other way around. I told him, "Miles doesn’t care about the apple. He cares if Michael is quick enough to field it. Michael catches it or he doesn’t. Either way Miles finds out what he wants to know. The apple is expendable." And I could see David get it. That’s the stuff that makes directing fun.

Then of course there was the script meeting that was interrupted by an earthquake.

Q. Are there any little tidbits of trivia that you could share (along the lines of the copy of the Updike novel on Hope's nightstand)?

A. As I mentioned to Ian, the book on Hope’s nightstand in "Fighting the Cold." is John Updike’s "Rabbit at Rest" with the bookmark set before page 322. It’s on that page Hope will read about Harry Angstrom coming home from the hospital with his wife and listening to her describe the episode of "thirtysomething" she had seen the night before. I wondered what would happen when Hope got to that page and saw herself described as a fictional character on a television series.

Other reading material: Hope’s working on Kazuo Ishiguro’s "The Remains of the Day" when Michael comes home and pulls the covers over his head in "Samurai Adman."

What else. Let’s see. There’s a man wearing a neck-brace and being pushed around the hospital corridors in "Second Look." That’s Kenneth Zunder, our director of photography.

One of the people you see getting fired by Michael in "The Haunting of D.A.A." is a distinguished gentleman with a beard and a great mane of white hair. That’s Nick Meglin, the editor of Mad Magazine. He visited the set shortly after the Mad parody of the show was published ("thirtysuffering") and Ann Hamilton and I sort of adopted him...or maybe he adopted us. Nick provided some of the drawings hanging in Billy’s apartment in "Never Better."

Oh, the voice on the answering machine at the beginning of "First Day/Last Day." That’s me.

Q. Completely selfish question which you may feel free to ignore: What was the tune that Jennifer the plumber (Beverly Mickins) was humming in "Samurai Adman."? (Some sources are holding out for "My Old Kentucky Home.")

A. I fear the "Kentucky Home" contingent is out of luck. The lovely Ms. Mickins is singing "On The Banks of the Wabash" which is a personal talisman of mine; I drop it in whenever I can. The song shows up in my play "Digby" and in "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman" among other places.

Q. We know that the Steadman House exterior was actually a private home located in Pasadena, CA. What percentage of stuff (including but not limited to the house) was actually shot on location and how much was in-studio? What other locations were used?

A. The Pasadena house was only used in the first season. After that the facade of the house was duplicated on the back lot of the studio. That’s why the Steadman’s front lawn disappears between the first two seasons.

The back-lot Steadman house was actually next door to the Weston house so we were constantly cheating the way the street was shot. Hang a right coming out of the Steadman house and you’d find the alley outside Melissa’s loft.

By the time we went off the air, "thirtysomething" was using four soundstages at CBS/Radford...which was a great studio, loaded with history. The Steadman house interior took up one stage. The adjacent stage had Melissa’s loft and, eventually, the large DAA space. Miles’ office and Michael’s office were tucked in corners on those stages. The Weston house interior and Gary’s apartment were on a third stage and we had access to a fourth stage for whatever had to be built for any particular episode. DAA filled the space that was originally occupied by The Michael and Elliot Company. Figures. You can catch sight of some of The Michael and Elliot Company glass brick as part of the backdrop for the copier commercial shoot in "Michael Writes a Story."

We were budgeted for five days on the lot (including back lot and stage work) and three days location for each episode.

Q. Which did you find more satisfying, writing or directing episodes (or both), and why?

A. Each has its own pleasures...and tortures. Directing is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It requires a different set of muscles and a different set of verbs from those normally used by writers. Writing makes you a better director and directing makes you a better writer. Besides, if you direct what you write, that’s one less person you have to explain things to.

Q. What are some of your favorite episodes (specifically of your own)? Favorite scenes? Were there any scenes that had to be cut for time or other considerations (in original broadcast, not counting the later edits for Lifetime) that you would give your right arm to have back?

A. This is the part where I say how I love all my children equally. Which I do...however, the more time passes and the more I think about it, the more I come back to "Fighting the Cold." as having more of what I wanted to do than any other single episode.

When you start talking about favorite scenes, its easier and more fun. On that list you’d have Ellyn’s telephone monologue in "Distance," Michael talking to Hope about seeing the baby fall out of her seat on the airplane in "Samurai Adman" (which is something I saw myself on a flight to New York), Michael talking to the memory of his father at the end of "Michael’s Campaign," the end of the scene in "Elliot’s Dad" where Elliot is talking to Ethan in the hospital room and we pull back through the door to reveal Nancy, but you never know how long she’s been there or how much she’s heard. And of course there are the Greatest Hits of Miles Drentell beginning with Miles talking about the difference between honesty and truth in "Michael Writes a Story," through the lightning punctuated scene at the end of "Samurai Ad Man" and on to Miles’ explanation of advertising in "A Stop at Willoughby."

The only two big chunks I remember losing...and you lost stuff all the time...was a scene in "First Day/Last Day" which was Michael and Elliot hiding out in the Xerox room making up baseball fantasies. And only about half of Ellyn’s telephone monologue actually made it into the broadcast version of Distance." The speech was about three pages long and, to a certain extent, we never expected to use it all. So the speech was structured to have, I think, three "snap-off" points where you could get out of the scene and still have it do the job. We got out at the second "snap" as I remember.

Would I want any of these things back? I don’t know. A television episode is such a restricted format, it can drive you crazy while at the same time present an irresistible challenge, like creating a haiku. The baseball scene was nice texture, but the episode worked fine without it. If you didn’t know it existed, you’d never miss it.

Q. Much of the development of Miles' character takes place through scripts you wrote and/or directed. Did you always have a vision for his character or did it evolve more slowly as events played out?

A. Ed and Marshall created the character and I inherited him.

Miles is sort of the anti-Christ in a great suit the first time you see him. He takes on more depth as we go along. The first thing that attracted me to the character was the access he gave me to a sort of language none of the other characters used. I saw him as the only Dickensian character on television; Ralph Nickelby in an ad agency.

Miles could say the most amazing things. Some of which to this day I don’t quite understand and I wrote the stuff. You think he’s using language to conceal, but in a strange way he’s astonishingly forthcoming. I don’t know of another character who could say what Miles says about power and advertising and get away with it.

The less you really know about Miles, the better he works as a character. He’s a playful demigod, not evil, but very curious about how things work...and not above taking them apart to figure that out. And as soon as he finishes his experiments on us, he’ll be returning to his home planet to report his observations.

Q. With or without specific examples, how much of what you put into your scripts would you say came out of your personal experience? What other influences inspired your work on "thirtysomething"?

A. All of the scripts are peppered with personal things, it was the nature of the show. My work for the series includes references to my father-in-law’s lethal Bloody Marys, the names of close friends and family, a tendency to give Hope whatever book I was reading at the moment for her night table, and on two separate occasions the inclusion of a scene from Ed Wood’s "Jail Bait" just so I could hear Dolorous Fuller say the line "I hope I’m happy to know you."

You’re always cannibalizing your life when you write. Sometimes you recreate events and scenes the way they happened...and sometimes you make them come out the way you wish they had. I know I used the characters on the show to speak very intimately to the people in my life. The rest of you just happened to be eavesdropping at the time.

Influences. This sort of makes sense if you really look at the structure of my language, but I’ve come to realize the primary hard wiring influence on my writing is Rod Serling. Beyond that I think you can hear Herb Gardner and, I hope, Preston Sturges in my work.

Q. The influence of certain films, such as Rashomon or The Dead can be strongly felt in some episodes-are there any such deliberate references made in scripts that you wrote or directed?

A. The most blatant example is not an episode I wrote or directed. It’s Ann Lewis Hamilton’s "New Baby." I suggested she lift the structure from Harold Pinter’s "Betrayal."

Otherwise it’s a pretty eclectic soup reflective of all the stuff that sticks in your brain at an impressionable age. For me that means a gumbo of John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Francois Truffaut, John Gardner, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Campbell, the aforementioned Rod Serling, Preston Sturges and Herb Gardner, and way too many science fiction matinees at the Westbury Theater on Post Avenue.

Q. There has been much speculation about the tumultuous events of the fourth season. a) Is there any merit to claims that Nancy was initially slated to die of cancer? b) At what point was it known that Gary's character would be exiting? c) Were Hope and Michael originally intended to split up in the final episode? d) How did the set in general react to news of these major developments?

A. The cancer question really goes back to season three when Ed and Marshall made the decision to commit to the story line. The writers were frankly ambivalent about it, but a television show is not a democracy. Mind you, Ed and Marshall knew how to exploit your ego. "Yes, this might be perceived as a cliché story line, but you people are such good writers, you can handle it in ways nobody’s ever thought of before!"

If Ed and Marshall originally intended for Nancy to die, they never told us. I do know that once the story line started to play there was a reaction from the public. Some people wrote in and essentially said, "I know how you people do things on that show, so I can’t watch this, it’s going to be too hard." There was a particular response from people with cancer in their lives. They felt it was important for Nancy to survive. This was articulated to us very strongly and I believe it was at least a factor in the decision that was made.

I think Ed and Marshall always intended that somewhere along the line one of the major characters would die. It was something they wanted to explore and it was something they thought the show could handle well.

I’m pretty sure Ed and Marshall discussed the Gary scenario with Peter Horton before they let any of the rest of us in on it. But for the life of me I can’t remember the precise circumstances under which we learned that was how things were going to play out.

The idea was to leave Michael and Hope wounded, but committed to each other.

I can only speak for myself about reacting to these things. I was openly against the entire cancer arc, but came around to it when I saw the legitimate and tangible good we were doing...and also rose to the bait of writing "The Other Shoe." I thought Gary’s death was a non-cliché way into some very interesting territory.

In all honesty there’s a lot of the fourth season I’m not happy about. If you look at the shows you can see the writers turning away from each other; it starts to look like three or four different series that happen to use the same actors and sets.

Q. Please talk a little bit about the significance of Gary's death, it's proximity to Nancy's apparent recovery, and the ultimate end of the series. As both writer and director, how did you approach the pivotal episode "fighting the cold"?

A. Ed and Marshall wanted "thirtysomething" to be a show where no topic was off limits. If it was a valid aspect of life, then it was a valid subject for us to explore. Like it or not, mortality is a valid aspect of life.

Drama is a place to go where you can safely try out different emotions and experiences. It’s also, at least as far as I’m concerned, a place where you can pick up useful navigational beacons that might help you down the road if you ever find yourself in a situation analogous to what happened to fictional characters you cared about. The catharsis and potential tools are your reward for trusting us to walk you through the scary parts.

Mind you, that meant we had to have the courage and confidence to walk through those scary parts with you.

So, we all pushed off together when Nancy got sick and hoped we’d make it safely to a horizon we couldn’t see at the start. We made it, but we lost someone along the way. Joy lives next to sadness, redemption does not exclude loss. It’s all part of the dance.

Ann Lewis Hamilton was the person I was closest to on the writing staff in terms of temperament and expectations. We’re very different writers, but I think we "got" each other’s stuff better than anybody else on the show, so I was very happy that we’d be responsible for this material. I think there’s a flow through the three episodes ("Sifting the Ashes," "Second Look" and "Fighting the Cold") that makes them feel like a small trilogy inside the series.

There’s so much I like in "Fighting the Cold." Mostly because it’s so simple. It consists of the sort of scenes that were something like my signature on the series: Two people in a dim room finally telling each other the truth.

These characters had been through so much, I wanted them to be able to exchange small awkward gifts of love in the aftermath of an awful loss. So I locked them all in a house with no heat and wouldn’t let them leave until they talked to the person they were supposed to talk to.

The thing about "Fighting the Cold" that amazes me when I look at it, and I’ve gone back to look at it more than any other episode I worked on, is that it seems much wiser than the person who wrote it. I don’t know where much of it came from.

I’m very pleased with it and everybody in it. To the extent that I feel I can take conscious credit for it, I think it’s the best thing I did on the show.

Q. Was it merely falling ratings or were there other contributing factors to the demise of the show? What were your feelings about the show's cancellation? How did the writing staff go about handling the final episodes?

A. I don’t remember the ratings being a factor. I’m pretty sure ABC would have gone for another year (certainly MGM/UA would have wanted it) if there’d been a way to do it. But we were all so tired. Tired? I was downright punchy.

Susan Shilliday had already left and I think other writers had made the same decision I’d made which was not to return to the show if there was a fifth year. I’d written something like seventeen episodes at that point and you can pretty much hear how I was feeling when you listen to Michael at the end of "A Stop at Willoughby"; it was time to do something else.

The last episode of "thirtysomething" is not what any of us really wanted. I think we all wanted something different, but what’s there is not what any of us had in mind. If I sound vague about it, it’s because I’ve never actually seen the last episode. And over the years I’ve learned I’m not the only writer who simply didn’t have the heart to watch the final show.

Q. Were there already ideas and story lines in the works for what would have occurred in the fifth season? If so, could you give us a general sense of what those would have been?

A. I’d made my intentions clear about not coming back and was officially out of the loop. If there were plans for a fifth year, I never heard them.

Q. Briefly, what do you see as the "thirtysomething" legacy?

A. Legacy. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if there is one. I look at episodic drama the way it’s done today and I don’t see anything near as interesting as what we were doing. Certainly I see stuff that’s derivative of what we were doing, but nothing that really builds on what we tried and reaches for something more.

Maybe Ed was right: It was Camelot and it will never happen again. But as long as we’re picking musicals, maybe it was Brigadoon and we just have to be patient.

Q. What relevant points haven't we touched upon that you could share about your experience with the show and its ongoing popularity in syndication on Lifetime (and other networks around the world)? What do you have to say to the "thirtysomething" fans of today and tomorrow?

A. Well, you never asked why nobody ever locked their doors, how come they drank so much coffee, or why Hope was always folding laundry, but I figure you’ll get around to the more important issues later in the semester.

In the meantime, I can say that working on "thirtysomething" was an incredible education for me as a writer and director and just a plain old human being.

The fact that people are still watching it and discovering it for the first time is amazingly satisfying. You have no idea how satisfying.

As for the fans, I want to personally thank you for allowing me the opportunity to screw around with your heads.

It occurs to me that the people coming to the show now, removed from its creation by all these years, actually own the series more than we do. It’s yours now. Take good care of it.

Q. And finally, please project for us if you will your own personal vision of where Michael, Hope, Eliot, Nancy, Melissa, Ellyn, and Miles are today (presumably Gary is still right where we left him). What do you imagine has happened in their lives since we all left off?

A. I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to give them all one last gift. I’d be a creampuff of a God, that’s for sure. Mind you, this is completely unilateral on my part, but here goes:

Michael and Hope remained together and in the east. They both voted for Ralph Nader in the last presidential election. I’m not sure if Michael returned to advertising, but I know he teaches creative writing at a community college. He also worries a great deal about Janey being a teenager and wanting to get something pierced. Hope works in grass roots politics which she has come to believe is the only level at which anything can be accomplished. She’s currently focused on bucking Republican moves to dismantle American public education. At the age of three Leo fell out of a second story window and landed in a bush in plain sight of Michael and Hope and a dozen backyard guests. Michael and Hope ran to the bush and found their son, laughing and unhurt, surrounded by forsythia.

Elliot and Nancy remained together in California. Elliot directs episodic television, most notably "Xena, Warrior Princess." Nancy has had two more dances with cancer, going through radiation and chemo each time and each time coming out more alive than when she went in. She co-owns a bookstore in Toluca Lake and has published three more books, one a volume of poetry. Ethan wants to be a writer or a shortstop. Brittany has seen "Titanic" eleven times.

Melissa adopted a baby girl, named her Ruby, and is currently in a long term relationship with the man who rear-ended her car in a parking lot. His given name is Duke, but he likes people to call him Paul. Melissa calls him Snidley Whip-lash.

Ellyn and Billy are still together. Ellyn is thinking about running for city council again and had her tubes tied as a birthday present for herself.

Miles Drentell is moving out of advertising and into computer software, the Internet and satellite delivery systems. His daily affirmation now is to get up each morning and before the sun sets do something to irritate Bill Gates.

Susannah and Emma live on West 57th Street near Tenth Avenue. Susannah hasn’t remarried and isn’t currently seeing anyone.

At last count, six novelists, three poets, fifteen teachers and one dental hygienist credit their career choice to taking a course from Gary Shepherd.