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They're Producing Their Family Values for TV : Comedies: Bill Bickley and Michael Warren have worked for three of the most prolific producers in the industry's history. Now they're on their own.

October 07, 1994|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Bickley and Michael Warren are two TV producers who will probably never fall under fire for their lack of family values. In an industry where business relationships are forged over lunches, behind cocktail bars and inside conference rooms, Bickley and Warren met at church.

Together, they make smiling sitcoms designed to entertain families at 8 p.m. Together, they write friendly characters who learn from their mistakes. And, together, they are ignored by critics.

"Oh, I think we're sort of dismissed as being irrelevant a lot of times," Warren said.

They're not too concerned. For one thing, they practically rule ABC's highly promoted "Thank God It's Friday" lineup of sitcoms. Bickley and Warren are executive producers of "Family Matters" and "Step by Step," which they created, and of "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," which they were asked to take over last summer.

While the two producers may not get respect from the critics, they certainly get ratings from viewers. "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" easily won their time slots last season.

"These shows are speaking for an audience who craves this kind of entertainment," said Tony Jonas, executive vice president of creative affairs for Warner Bros. TV.

He hopes Bickley and Warren can work their magic on his studio's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," starring Mark Curry, which has already gone through two sets of producers in two seasons.

"The truth is, while critics may say their stories and themes are lightweight, that's not the case," Jonas said. "Because these shows are striking a chord with millions of young people in America. When my kids are watching TGIF on Friday night, I'm sitting watching with them."

Bickley, 47, and Warren, 51, have produced 400 episodes of sitcoms while at Warner Bros. in the last eight years, spending $60 million annually in production budgets. They learned under three of the most prolific TV producers in the industry's history.

They were first paired up as a team in 1976 by "Happy Days" creator Garry Marshall. In recent years, they have worked under or in association with two more "Happy Days" alumni, producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, whose shows include "Perfect Strangers," "Full House" and "Bosom Buddies."

"They know how to utilize characters and go through their growth and development--not just in a single episode, but over the course of a season," said Boyett, who hired Bickley and Warren to take over producing chores on "Perfect Strangers" in 1986. "That distinguishes them from everyone else out there doing it. Because the theory some producers have is that once you get a prototype show, you just keep doing that show every week."

Bickley and Warren were not always so clear on who they are.

In 1971, both were young and cynical. Warren was a USC cinema school dropout making documentary films for evangelist Billy Graham. Bickley was a recent graduate in English literature from Baylor University in Texas, who cashed in his dreams of becoming a novelist to pursue TV writing. He had just moved to Los Angeles, where he got his first assignment on "Love American Style," followed by episodes of "All in the Family" and "The Partridge Family."

By chance, the two separately sought refuge at a popular revivalist church off Sunset Strip called First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills. The youthful outreach program appealed to street kids, homeless people, struggling musicians, drug users and other "unusual Christians," as Bickley described them.

"It was a place that attracted people who were going through what I was going through at the time--a real disillusionment of anything mainstream," Bickley said. "But it was a real safe place."

That's where Bickley and Warren met. "We'd get together and talk about television and films and found that we had common interests," Warren said.

Bickley added: "We made each other laugh."

The two eventually found their direction in mainstream television, where they could instill their sense of right and wrong into the TV scripts they wrote, without shoving it down people's throats.

*

Marshall recalled Bickley and Warren's spirituality fondly: "They seemed to be in the ministry at some point. They were lay ministers or something. Since most of the comedy writers on 'Happy Days' were fast-talking ethnic guys from New York, Ron Howard would get scared. So I said, 'Here are the ministers--they write for you.' Finally, everyone got along real well."

Actually, the two did some evangelizing and public speaking, but they were hardly ministers, Bickley said with a laugh. "That's Garry. He had us write any episode with a nun or a priest, although neither of us were Catholic."

"Everybody brings a value system to their work," said Warren, whose unsold pilot series with Bickley include one called "Pastor Prine" in 1978. "I think everybody does that. They see the world and characters and interaction through the eyes of what their world view is. There's places we don't want to go in storytelling. There's behavior we don't want to endorse."

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