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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

A Hollywood Ending

As a kid in the Midwest, Barry Kemp knew--at age 4--that he was headed for Tinseltown. Now that he's a mogul, he's trying his touch with the Ice Dogs.

December 22, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Considering it's Hollywood, and taking into account that a handful of actors is working in close proximity, the mood is surprisingly convivial on the set of the ABC-TV series "Coach." The cavernous stage on the Universal back lot is dank and cold on this Thursday, camera blocking day. The cast is walking through scenes, scripts in hand, muffing lines and laughing.

Their boss, Barry Kemp, has been and gone, managing to do a mass schmooze in a brief visit, but his presence has cast a calming spell over the actors and crew. Kemp has that effect on people. His nice-guy persona violates the Hollywood-mogul copyright: He's a high-powered television executive who's basically a hard-working son of the Midwest. He's the owner of a professional hockey team--the Long Beach Ice Dogs--whose charitable contributions with his wife, Maggie, make him one of the biggest givers in town.

Kemp is the too-good-to-be-true devoted father and faithful husband who is also a successful writer. Who has learned how to be a darn good salesman.

"Coach" is just the latest of his projects. The show premiered in 1989 as a spring replacement for the departing "Hooperman" and ended the season in 63rd place. By the second season the show was in the Top 20, and last year it finished in the Top 10.

Originally set at the fictional Minnesota State, the show centers on the fluctuating fortunes of the university's football team, the Screaming Eagles, and its coaching staff, led by Hayden Fox, played by Craig T. Nelson. The show has never been a towel-snapping locker room romp; indeed, it has explored such topics as steroid abuse, gay athletes, adoption and the coach's low sperm count.

The touchy-feely vibes of "Coach" seem to emanate from its creator. In a town where the long knives are easily drawn, they remain strangely sheathed when it comes to Kemp. His writing pedigree has helped. He came into the business under the considerable wing of James L. Brooks, whose MTM Productions is regarded as the high water mark of taste in the business.

In his second year at MTM, he joined the writing staff of "Taxi" and its antic New York-based humor.

"One of the things about the room [of writers] that was intimidating was the rhythm--the one who could talk the loudest would get their stuff in. I was not used to that. I was always watching. I felt my job was to learn more than to influence. I was writing a lot of scripts. As soon as I would finish one, I would get right on another one."

Kemp was churning out material on an electric typewriter whose biggest drawback was that it didn't have correcting tape. Sitting alone in his office / cubicle, he was unburdened by knowledge of the conventions of the craft and, in his naivete, he became an innovator.

Kemp looked up and found he was living out his childhood fantasy, or at least inhabiting the parts his Midwestern mind could envision. He was making $20,000 a year, and he and Maggie and baby Justin were living in a condo in Chatsworth. In his second year, after getting a $10,000 raise ("I thought I was rich"), he had the money to move his family to the land of his dreams--a rented house in Canoga Park.

At last, this was the life he had seen for himself, on television.

"I thought writing for television would be like the old 'Dick Van Dyke Show,' " Kemp said, laughing. "I thought it looked great: You'd go to the office and have fun with the people at work, then you'd come home to the house with the living room and the kitchen and the twin beds."

In all, he wrote 14 episodes for "Taxi," earned an Emmy nomination and two Writers Guild award nominations. After being lured away from Brooks and MTM, Kemp created and produced "Newhart" for Universal in the '80s. But it was his apprenticeship under Brooks and MTM that set the template for Kemp's style.

"I was clearly in awe of their talent and how facile they were," he said. "Their work ethic--I probably learned more from those guys, how to keep digging, to keep turning a story over. I probably got more consideration [from others in the business] early on, simply because I had worked with them."

The reputation Kemp has forged in television is for creating quirky characters and successful shows, and for managing to maintain high personal and professional standards. His niceness seems to have engendered spaniel-like adoration from those who work with him.

Veteran actress Shelley Fabares, who plays Christine on "Coach," enthusiastically makes time to talk about Kemp.

"He's a man of enormous integrity and honesty," she said. "I'd work for him for the rest of my life. I've never worked with somebody who's so good at what he does as Barry."

Nelson, the show's fragile center, admits to a not-always-happy relationship with Kemp in the early years as the two struggled to find his character's essence. What could have become a dangerous mutiny was cleverly neutralized when Kemp deputized Nelson as co-executive producer.

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