After he turned in the pilot for HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” creator Alan Ball got a curious note from Chris Albrecht.
It was about the way the first episode wrapped up, in which patriarch Nathaniel Fisher’s will is read and his two sons Nate and David find they have to share the mortuary business together.
“It feels too pilot-ty,” Albrecht told Ball. “It all feels safe. Can you find something not as clean?”
Ball did. The episode ends with a much less obvious, existential moment — a device that would become a standard of the show.
Such instincts, Ball says, are characteristic of Albrecht’s tenure at HBO. Show creators say he has an ability to pinpoint just what a show needs, or he knows when to step back and give writers, directors and producers the space to realize their dream projects.
“I don’t think he needs to prove his power, compared to the way (executives do) in other situations I have been in,” Ball says. “You don’t get notes from 30 people. It’s ‘Here’s what we think,’ and they move on.”
It’s a style that has helped Albrecht and HBO lure high-caliber talent, a name-dropping array of feature players like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, who star in the upcoming Mike Nichols-directed “Angels in America.”
Then there’s Paul Newman, Helen Hunt and Joanne Woodward, set to do an upcoming version of Richard Russo’s novel “Empire Falls,” directed by Fred Schepisi.
So aware is Albrecht of the list that he likened HBO’s position — in a New York Times profile — as akin to the Medicis of Italy, the Renaissance patrons of the arts.
That may be a bit of show-business inspired hyperbole, but the network has dominated the Emmys in recent years, including a comedy series win in 2001 for “Sex and the City,” territory long considered sacred to the broadcast networks.
Of course, in attracting talent of any stripe, money helps. Broadcast network executives often express envy when they hear of HBO shelling out $135 million for 2001’s “Band of Brothers,” with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg attached. (Such spending may continue with new miniseries projects in development about John Adams and the Pacific theater of World War II).
HBO also is unconstrained by advertising pressures, or broadcast limits on content.
Yet show creators say other factors come into play in their decisions to take their programs to HBO. One is that broadcast executives didn’t understand their shows and passed on pilots. When Jeff Bewkes took over HBO in 1995 and set a mandate for original series,
the first skein Albrecht set into motion was “Oz,” set in the depressing confines of a prison.
Where other broadcast executives didn’t get “The Sopranos,” for example, Albrecht did.
“I think the thing about Chris is, he is brave,” says “Sopranos” creator David Chase. “He is not governed by fear. That is not where he works from. He works from enthusiasm and even defiance.”
Chase has his own, often-told story about shopping “The Sopranos” to broadcast executives. They couldn’t understand his insistence that the show be shot in New Jersey. Why not shoot in L.A. to look like New Jersey?
“They would look at me like, ‘You stupid idiot, you poor fool,'” Chase recalls. When he broached the idea with Albrecht, the executive’s response was, “Very well.”
Brad Grey, executive producer of “The Sopranos” and Albrecht’s longtime friend, says he “immediately understood what David’s vision was. He understood that, got it and gave us a chance.”
Albrecht came to HBO with extensive experience working with talent, first as a manager of the Improv, and later as an agent representing comics at ICM. He came to the network with a host of contacts and relationships.
There have been disagreements. The flap with James Gandolfini — in which the actor sued HBO and the network sued him — was a rare public look into the grandstanding that takes place when the stakes are so high to keep a hit show going.
And some shows have been misfires, like “Mind of the Married Man.” Others, like “Arliss,” enjoyed long runs but didn’t generate the critical heat of other entries.
Keeper of the flame
“You learn to trust the talent,” Albrecht says. “We are the network and we don’t always agree with the final product of the things that we put on the air. But everybody can walk away feeling a little bit better because we haven’t screwed up somebody’s good idea. They have had a chance to deliver their vision and I think, more often than not, that is how you get the best stuff.”
The creative freedom, some producers say, can follow even when Albrecht suggests a totally different genre for a show. David Milch, former executive producer of “NYPD Blue,” was pitching the executive a long-in-the-works dream project about city cops in Roman times. (In the first episode, St. Paul is arrested.)
Albrecht instead suggested a western. Milch had an idea for the premise: Deadwood, S.D., circa 1876, and all based on the lives of the real-life denizens of the town. The show will debut early next year, and scripts have drawn early praise.
“Chris is an old-timer,” Milch says. “He operates from his gut. He understands that the process is not scientific, that you can’t survey your way into thinking what the public wants.”
Michael Patrick King, executive producer of “Sex and the City,” calls Albrecht a “stealth keeper of the flame.”
Several seasons ago, King and other writers were going to give “Sex’s” Samantha a love interest. Albrecht felt it was too early for her for such romance, “too off character, too sweet pathos.” “It was a very subtle thing,” King says. “It is just basically constantly policing for ‘Is this real?’ Eventually we did give her a deep love interest, and it was time.
“In the end,” King says. “He was right.”