Bruckheimer knows when to tighten the grip, and when to loosen the reins

CBS topper Les Moonves provides a hint of Jerry Bruckheimer’s inimitable, take-no-prisoners approach to running a mini TV empire. The network chairman relates a back-and-forth conversation between the two last year when attempting to come up with the title of a new procedural about a district attorney who tries cases in the nation’s heartland.

“The original title was ‘American Crime,’ but we didn’t think ‘Crime’ in a title was a good idea,” Moonves recalls. “I liked ‘Someone You Know’ and Jerry preferred ‘Close to Home.’ The message came back, ‘Jerry has a gun in his mouth if you use ‘Someone You Know.’ I sent word back, ‘Tell Jerry to take the gun out of his mouth. We’ll go with “Close to Home.” ‘ Now it’s going into its second year.”

On the surface, Moonves’ recollection appears particularly peculiar to Hollywood culture, which is precisely what Bruckheimer brings to the table. A producer of blockbusters dating back to 1983′s “Flashdance,” Bruckheimer claimed little experience in TV before helping launch “The Amazing Race” in 2001. But what he did possess through years of orchestrating bigscreen tentpoles proved vital in helping to create hit shows.

His eye for casting — be it for popcorn pics, episodic TV or the neighborhood kindergarten play — is one of his more distinguishing assets, at least according to Bertram Van Munster, creator of the three-time Emmy-winning “Race.” “We don’t cast without him,” says Van Munster.

“Jerry gets personally involved in casting,” agrees Meredith Stiehm, showrunner and creator of CBS’ “Cold Case.” “For (lead character) Lilly Rush, we watched (Kathryn Morris) and thought she’d be perfect. He looked at tape for every one of the supporting characters, too.”

Stiehm, who met Bruckheimer TV topper Jonathan Littman while writing for Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210″ and didn’t have any knowledge of what it takes to produce a show, wasn’t sure how to proceed once “Cold Case” was picked up for a fall 2003 launch. But Bruckheimer and Littman gave Stiehm the assurance that she’d receive sound guidance as the series came into focus.

“I needed to know how to move on and didn’t know what to expect,” she explains. “They had strengths where I didn’t — picking a director and finding a look for the show.”

Stiehm isn’t afraid to admit she was a bit awestruck by Bruckheimer.

“I was intimidated by him,” Stiehm recalls. “I had never met him but was wary of someone so powerful being my boss. Since then, I’ve been surprised about how unassuming and quietly respectful he is. He trusts you to do your job and doesn’t overmanage.”

Van Munster, who was teamed with Bruckheimer through his agent, Michael Camacho at CAA, says their relationship has flourished because each is intent in making sure even the smallest detail in “Race” isn’t overlooked.

“We’re both perfectionists,” he reveals, “which is a must.”

“CSI” is the most-watched scripted program on television, drawing an average 25.2 million viewers every Thursday at 9 p.m. Later this fall, however, “CSI” will face its greatest challenge when ABC moves “Grey’s Anatomy” to that same timeslot in an attempt to land some of that lucrative Thursday-night ad coin.

And Bruckheimer’s “Without a Trace,” which owned the Thursday 10 p.m. spot for its first three seasons by garnering a healthy 18.7 million viewers per week, also is on the move. It now has the challenge of grabbing part of “Grey’s” old Sunday audience when it goes up against ABC’s new Calista Flockhart series, “Brothers & Sisters.”

But Moonves is confident Bruckheimer’s ability to transform box office success into Nielsen ratings — and bank millions of dollars for the network — will prevail.

“He brings so much,” Moonves says. “What he brought to ‘CSI’ was its unmistakable style; its look and feel were groundbreaking. He’s also brought ideas for advertising and promotion, offering a different point of view for television that’s helped a great deal.”

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