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How I Made It: David Nevins

David Nevins, the president of entertainment at Showtime, learned how to sell by hawking products for Time-Life Books and got his own Hollywood break.

November 04, 2012|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • David Nevins, president of entertainment at Showtime, at his office in Westwood.
David Nevins, president of entertainment at Showtime, at his office in… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The gig: David Nevins, 46, is president of entertainment for cable network Showtime, home to some of the hottest shows on television including "Homeland," the spy thriller that won Emmy Awards for best drama, actor and actress. The executive also oversees such series as the critically acclaimed comedy "Episodes" starring Matt LeBlanc and "House of Lies," a dark spoof of corporate consultants.

Pass the popcorn. The son of a lawyer-lobbyist, Nevins grew up in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington. He was something of a big man on campus, playing high school soccer and basketball. Then he got a driver's license and spent much of his time in Washington at revival movie theaters watching the films of Douglas Sirk, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah. "How's that for range?" he joked.

The art of selling: One of Nevins' first jobs after high school was as a telemarketer for Time-Life Books. His deep voice got him the gig and gained him some life lessons. "You learn everything you need to know about selling and how to get a 'yes,' " Nevins said of the experience. Nevins believes the key to success is to be able to quickly size up, based on the voice on the other end of the phone, whether to "sell them a history of World War II or an encyclopedia of greatest athletes."

I fought the law. Nevins attended Amherst College and his family expected him to get a law degree after graduating. But he still had visions of Hollywood in his head from all those old movies. "I really wanted to avoid law school, I had this notion of being in a creative business."

Go West, young man. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in American Studies, Nevins drove out to Los Angeles on a whim with a friend who lived in Brentwood and said he could crash at his parents' house. "I got there and it was clear they hadn't really bargained for me spending the summer at their house. After two days I realized I was going to have to get my own apartment." Tossed out of the tony neighborhood, Nevins found himself in seedy late-1980s Hollywood "amongst the street walkers."

Alumni connections. Nevins decided to hunt down Amherst graduates working in Hollywood and ended up in the office of television producer Lewis Chesler. "I showed up for an interview in a suit and he said, "It's Hollywood, you don't need to wear a suit.'" Chesler, whose company made the cult classic cable series "The Hitchhiker," told Nevins he could "sit at a desk and tell people you work here." A few hours later Nevins was told to make a copy of a script and he was off and running.

Learning from the ground up. Nevins started as an assistant to a story editor at Chesler's company, which gave him a ground-floor view of the television business. "We'd have to rewrite a script at the last second, and I learned how the money flowed on a production. It was that great first job where you wore a lot of hats."

Putting the suit back on. While working on a pilot for NBC, Nevins caught the eye of some executives at the network and was offered a chance to work in drama development. He was reluctant at first because he wanted to continue producing at Chesler. "Then I woke up and said, 'That's stupid.' " Nevins' instincts served him well. He ended up being part of the team behind "ER" and "The West Wing." As he recalled, "You felt like you were in the place where creativity was happening."

Man in the middle. Nevins left NBC for what on paper seemed like a great job at Fox. Unfortunately, the guy who hired him at Fox was soon out of work and Nevins was stranded. "I became that mid-level executive you never want to be. You are overseeing a lot but you are not on the line for anything." The job wasn't a total loss. Nevins did buy a script for a little show called "24."

Imagine that. After Fox, Nevins landed at Imagine, the production company run by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer, which was making "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland. Nevins shepherded and sold such classics as "Friday Night Lights" and the quirky comedy "Arrested Development" to NBC and Fox, respectively. "All the lessons from Time-Life Books came back and I ended up being a very good seller," he said.

The man behind "Homeland." In 2010, Nevins jumped back on the executive track and joined Showtime as entertainment chief. Already on a roll with "Nurse Jackie" and "Dexter," Nevins wanted to find some shows with broader appeal and hit pay dirt with "Homeland," about a bipolar CIA agent (Claire Danes) trying to bring down a Marine turned terrorist (Damian Lewis). "My best shows are ones that really sort of challenge the medium in some way."

Downtime. Nevins lives in Hancock Park with wife Andrea and three kids. When he's not reading scripts, he can usually be found in front of the television watching baseball or football.

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