Creative differences, direction of show led to dismissal

Fox has fired Larry Wilmore, the Emmy- and Peabody-award winning creator and showrunner of the net’s two-year-old comedy hit “The Bernie Mac Show.”

Wilmore is now expected to end up with an overall deal at NBC Studios.

Capping a battle of wills that stretches back to 2001, when the show was in the early stages of development, Wilmore was officially informed Tuesday that his services would not be needed when the 20th Century Fox/Regency TV-produced show returns next fall.

Though Wilmore has won numerous awards and critical praise, execs at the network and 20th have long believed he was not the right person to lead the show and that the series was, simply put, not as funny as it should be nor as big of a hit as it might be.

While it’s not unheard of for nets to make showrunner changes, it’s very rare for an Emmy and Peabody-award winning creator to be kicked off the show he developed.

“It’s a good show that has great potential, a huge star and great concept — but audiences aren’t embracing it the way they ought to,” one Fox insider said.

In addition to winning an Emmy for writing and a Peabody, Wilmore’s show has been honored with a Humanitas Award and an NAACP image award. After a strong premiere, ratings for the show trailed off during the second half of last season and the skein didn’t perform well this fall when it was placed opposite ABC’s “My Wife & Kids” Wednesdays at 8.

Since “Bernie Mac” moved back to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, with an “American Idol” lead-in, its Nielsen numbers have jumped substantially (though Fox execs are still said to be troubled by aud drop off during the course of the half-hour laffer).

The first sign that Wilmore would not be asked back came last fall, when 20th told Wilmore’s reps that the studio wasn’t interested in signing the scribe to an overall deal. Wilmore’s UTA reps soon began talking to other studios about making a deal for Wilmore and are now in final negotiations with NBC about a development pact.

There have also been regular disagreements between Wilmore and Fox over the creative direction of the show, with execs maintaining Wilmore needed to bring in more “B” stories and figure out a better way to wrap up episodes.

Indeed, Wilmore told Entertainment Weekly that one episode came back with the note “no more poignancy.”

About six weeks ago, word began leaking out that 20th and Regency were searching for potential replacements for Wilmore. Among the candidates who have been mentioned (but not necessarily approached yet): Steve Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”) and Michael Borkow (“Malcolm in the Middle.”) There’s also been talk of promoting current “Bernie” co-exec producer Steve Tompkins and Warren Hutcherson to showrunners.

Series star Bernie Mac was approached about the decision to move on without Wilmore and did not put up a serious fight, numerous industry sources said. His lack of opposition was likely key to Fox’s final decision to part ways with Wilmore.

Nonetheless, the star bid an emotional farewell to Wilmore on the set Tuesday night, after the scribe announced his exit following the wrap of production on the show’s second season.

Ironically, when Mac first struck a deal with Fox to do a pilot, he said he was signing with the net and 20th/Regency because of his desire to have creative freedom. “If I do TV, it’s because I like the creative control they’ve given me, the ownership in the show,” he told Daily Variety in 2000. “I like the way they empower the talent. They stand back and let you grow.”

Fox, 20th, Regency and Wilmore declined comment.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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