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Michael Wright trades in costume for a suit

Once a struggling actor, he now oversees some of the most popular shows on cable as head of programming for TBS and TNT.

November 14, 2010|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Michael Wright went from struggling actor to hotshot TV executive. As executive vice president and head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, Wright oversees some of the most popular shows on cable, including "The Closer," "Rizzoli & Isles," "Men of a Certain Age," along with Conan O'Brien's comeback show "Conan" on TBS, which made its debut last week.

Prodigy on a playground: When Wright was 7, he was clowning around on a playground in Sacramento and caught the eye of a woman looking to cast the part of the title character for a local production of the hit musical "Oliver." He was bitten by the acting bug after he did a scene on top of a ladder towering over the rest of the cast and audience. "This is fantastic," he thought.

Gridiron vs. footlights. Like the football player character Finn in Fox's "Glee," Wright was a high school jock who tried to keep his theatrical ambitions secret. "I was on the football team and it wasn't considered cool to be an actor or in the theater in my particular high school." It all worked out in the end. Wright teamed up with the head cheerleader to put on "Guys and Dolls" and cast the jocks to play the gangsters. "It was like this awesome party where matter and antimatter got together and had a great time."

Big break. Wright got his first acting break living out every high school kid's fantasy when he was cast as Justine Bateman's date on an episode of the 1980s NBC hit "Family Ties." His character didn't have any sparks with Bateman's character, Mallory Keaton. Nonetheless, a few seasons later he was invited back to play a younger version of Michael Gross' character, Steven Keaton, in flashback scenes.

So much for the big break. His quick entry into Hollywood led Wright to think an acting career was going to be easy. "It probably wasn't representative of what was to follow," he said. Wright spent the next several years on "the desperate audition circuit." When he wasn't doing plays, he was appearing in films like "The Malibu Bikini Shop." On a road tour of the stage show "A View From the Bridge," Wright had an epiphany. "I'm an OK actor, but I'm not great. I'm OK looking, but I'm not Hollywood great looking and Lew Wasserman's not my uncle."

Trading in the costume for a suit. Wright figured he'd been reading scripts since he was a kid and had "earned the right to have a pretty strong opinion about what I think is good." So he decided to get an industry job. He signed up with a temp agency known for its Hollywood connections and ended up at Creative Artists Agency, then headed by Michael Ovitz. Wright started as an assistant and then became a "packaging" agent, putting together projects for talent. He specialized in TV movies, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a robust business. Ultimately he grew frustrated. "You build this ship and it sailed off and you're like, 'I want to be on the ship.' "

Finding a lifeboat. When CBS approached Wright about joining the network to develop movies and miniseries, Wright jumped. There was only one problem. He said yes without getting Ovitz's blessing. "I incited the wrath of Ovitz for a brief period … which is weird, because I was such a low-level guy." Fortunately, other agents came to his defense and eventually Ovitz, then the most powerful man in Hollywood, cooled down. Wright spent almost nine years at CBS and was involved in the production of 107 movies and miniseries ranging from the tawdry to the tasteful. His favorite was a classy live telecast of "On Golden Pond." "You made some really lame movies, but you also made a handful of great movies that you're really proud of," Wright said.

Wright knows drama. Passed over for a promotion, Wright begin exploring his options when Turner Broadcasting came calling. This time he left the right way, getting the approval of CBS bigwig Leslie Moonves. Although he first focused on movies and miniseries, Turner wanted to expand into series programming and Wright persuaded his bosses he could get the job done. He recalled Phil Kent, Turner's chief executive, telling him, "There's no reason in the world I should give you this job. Make me happy I did this." Wright delivered. His first series was "The Closer," a cop show starring Kyra Sedgwick that quickly became the top-rated drama on cable. Turner now has more than a dozen original series.

Wright's words to the wise: "Once the audience knows what you are and likes what you are, embrace who you are." Oh, and Conan O'Brien doesn't need anything more than "a network that will say we love what you do, so go do it."

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