Scripts had been written, voice tracks recorded and millions of dollars spent on DreamWorks Animation's upcoming TV comedy about the animals in Siegfried & Roy's Las Vegas show. Then tragedy intruded.
Roy Horn was mauled by a 600-pound Siberian tiger and dragged off the stage during an October performance. He was near death, his prognosis uncertain.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Siegfried & Roy -- Articles in various sections of The Times have been in conflict about the weight of the tiger that mauled illusionist Roy Horn on Oct. 3. Times reports have given its weight as 300, 550 and 600 pounds. Siegfried & Roy's publicist and Las Vegas animal control officials said the tiger weighed about 380 pounds.
Back at DreamWorks' facility in Glendale, executives were confronted with a delicate but inescapable decision: Should production continue on the computer animated show "Father of the Pride"?
"We honestly didn't know what to do," said one of the show's creators, Jonathan Groff. "We were really shaken. We didn't know how this thing was going to turn out, but we were in this zone: 'Let's just keep going.' "
"Father of the Pride," believed to be the most expensive first-year TV comedy ever created, arrives Tuesday night on NBC -- but not without a slew of questions over taste, content and decisions made by executives who pressed ahead.
"We've had all kinds of challenges and hurdles along the way and setbacks and disappointments," said DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg. "But we love the show, and we're very proud of it."
More than a few laughs are riding on the outcome.
The General Electric Co.-owned network needs new hits as it faces a fall TV season without its signature comedies "Friends" and "Frasier." NBC is spending more on "Father of the Pride" than on any of its other new shows: $1.6 million for each half-hour episode.
DreamWorks has even more at stake. The company is banking on the show's success to help entice investors to buy shares of a spinoff animation company that would be headed by Katzenberg, who came up with the idea for the program.
Some advertisers aren't certain that two of Hollywood's master performers -- Katzenberg and NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker -- can pull this one off.
"They've got their work cut out," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, an executive vice president with ad-buying firm Initiative.
Besides sensitivities surrounding the mauling, many advertisers thought the show featuring cute lions was aimed at family audiences, an impression reinforced by early clips and ads. But the first few episodes are laced with drug references and sexually suggestive humor meant for adults.
"These are cute, cuddly characters, and you just want to wrap your arms around them and take them home," Koerner said. "But then they open their mouths, and you don't know what to think."
Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, conceded in an interview that NBC had failed several times in trying to bring animation to prime time. But, he said, the network needs a breakout hit comedy. "We have to take some swings, take some risks," he said.
Zucker first approached Katzenberg in 2001. At the time, "Shrek" was a monster box- office hit for DreamWorks. Zucker wanted to make the green ogre a TV star. But Katzenberg said no. Among other reasons, Katzenberg did not want to diminish the value of "Shrek" sequels by creating a television show. About a year later, however, he came up with an alternative.
After watching the Siegfried & Roy show for "something like the 14th or 15th time" in Las Vegas, Katzenberg said he started toying with the notion of a show based on a troupe of animals living in elaborate enclosures at the Mirage Hotel.
"What would it be like to be one of these animals and to raise a family, and live in the Jungle Palace and go to work every day at a place where the CEOs are these two eccentric guys, Siegfried & Roy?" Katzenberg said.
Zucker loved the idea, and by the end of last September stars including John Goodman and Carl Reiner had recorded several episodes, which had been shipped to a Hong Kong facility for the animation process.
Then came the Oct. 3 attack.
In Burbank, most NBC entertainment executives figured they should pull the plug. They worried that the mauling would make a satirical look at Siegfried & Roy and the animals seem in poor taste. Zucker, however, continued to champion the project, as did Katzenberg.
"Siegfried kept encouraging us not to stop," Katzenberg said. "He would say, 'Roy would want you to keep going.' And during Roy's recovery, this show suddenly became really important to them."
Horn and Siegfried Fischbacher are executive producers of the show.
As Horn's condition slowly improved, Zucker negotiated an exclusive prime-time special focused on Horn's recovery called "Siegfried & Roy: The Miracle." Hosted by Maria Shriver, former NBC news anchor and California's first lady, it's scheduled to air Sept. 15.
For a while, NBC executives considered running the Shriver special on the same night as "Father of the Pride." They changed course after hundreds of advertisers were left cringing in their seats during NBC's presentation of its fall lineup in May.