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Talent vanity fair

Forget directing, what thesps really want to do is exec produce skeins

Dick Wolf and David E. Kelley, meet your colleagues Kelsey Grammer and Sandra Bullock.

Some of primetime TV’s hot up-and-coming producers are names you’ve heard of before — but from their highly successful day jobs.

Thesps like Grammer and Bullock have managed to turn their vanity production labels into the real deal, producing shows and getting them on the air.

As a result, those celebs are increasingly popping up in places you’d least expect them. That includes Grammer’s production credit on UPN’s hit sitcom “Girlfriends,” or Bullock’s exec producer role on ABC’s Latino-led laffer “The George Lopez Show.”

Beyond those two, Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) is developing “underExposed” at Bravo; Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are behind HBO’s “Project Greenlight” (and produced ABC’s short-lived “Push, Nevada”); Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have the UPN sitcom “All of Us” on tap; and Bruce Willis exec produces USA Net’s upcoming crime drama “Touching Evil.”

“It’s a way to extend people’s brand,” says one high-level agent. “I encourage this. You want your clients to be all over the place without being overexposed.”

And nothing spells credibility like producing credits.

“It’s all about noise,” a tenpercenter says. “You want to turn your talent into a production company.”

Actors and actresses have branched into TV production since the dawn of the medium, of course. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz built one of TV’s most powerful studios, Desilu, while Mary Tyler Moore was behind the fabled MTM shingle.

The modern celeb production deals aren’t quite as ambitious as those full-fledged studios — and most celeb shingles ring hollow.

Studios will entice talent with a small monetary seed to hire a low-level development exec (there’s even a derivative title for those legions of glorified assistants — d-girls), but never expect any return.

“If this is going to be an afterthought, and they’re primarily focused on their own careers, then chances are (their production label) will fail,” says Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth.

But the actors and actresses truly taking a stab at production are much more willing these days to roll up their sleeves and get dirty — even though it means staying mostly behind the scenes.

“There are certain people who are very serious about this, who are throwing themselves into production and not making a halfhearted effort,” says Roth, whose studio produces “George Lopez.”

“Sandy (Bullock) is there at every step of the process. We’ve even hooked her up with the ability to watch a taping of the show no matter where she is,” he says.

UPN entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff, who frequently took telepic pitches from celebs back in her old gig at Lifetime, says she’s never seen star producers more involved than Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The Smiths, who based “All of Us” on their own life, took part in the show’s writing, casting, taping and editing process, Ostroff notes.

“I think some people are passionate when they start out, then realize how much work it is, particularly TV,” she says. “One great thing about Will and Jada is they really know the TV business. I’ve been so impressed by their level of commitment.”

For actors, producing lets them take the reigns and exercise creative control that they wouldn’t have on a movie set, where they are essentially hired hands.

Not all celebs, however, want to tack on the extra work that brand building entails. But execs say producing doesn’t have to be labor intensive.

“Talent has plenty of free time, being on hiatus or between projects,” says Nickelodeon senior VP of talent Kaplan. “It’s an easy gig for them.”

While stars may see a production deal as a chance to get their passion project made, agents and studios can take advantage of the fact that talent are quicker to nab meetings with net execs.

“It’s very exciting to have a promotable name. You have a double whammy,” ABC Family programming VP Robin Schwartz says. “But for the most part, the pitches I’ve taken are really well thought out.”

Of course, celebs don’t have to be in the production business to hawk an idea to network execs. As a matter of fact, star pitches at cable nets have particularly exploded following the advent of “The Osbournes” (and, more recently, the success of MTV’s Ashton Kutcher-fronted “Punk’d”).

“You have people like Britney, J.Lo and Beyonce — pop superstars wanting to make the transition to TV and film. Celebrities want to prove how multifaceted they are,” says MTV prexy Van Toffler, whose channel is also home to Magic Johnson’s “Who Got Game?” and “The New Tom Green Show.”

“Celebs think they can conquer the world, and they can,” he says.

Toffler estimates the music net screens up to 25% of its pitches from celebrities per month. MTV is a virtual nesting ground for commitment-phobic celebrities to come with their ideas — the typical series lifespan on the music net can range anywhere from six to 24 segs.

But the cabler says that celeb-friendly reputation brings with it both good and bad.

“We’ve had a lot of horrible pitches from celebrities. They’re these products of passion they lived with since childhood and they think they would make compelling TV,” Toffler says.

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