O’Donnell wings back into politics

Ex-primetime scribe a host, commentator for MSNBC

Throughout March, Lawrence O’Donnell chewed over details of the healthcare reform debate, keeping Keith Olbermann’s seat warm as the fill-in host of MSNBC’s New York-based “Countdown.”

Given his druthers, though, O’Donnell would rather be ensconced on the opposite coast, plotting dramatic twists and breaking stories in a writers’ room.

Few people enjoy the simultaneous perspective on power bastions in Washington (politics), New York (news media) and Hollywood (entertainment) as O’Donnell, who moves among those spheres. From that perch, he also enjoys a front-row seat of what he calls an “absurdly outdated attitude” in Gotham and D.C., where the prevailing attitude is to dismiss Hollywood activists as dabblers and dilettantes.

A former Democratic senate staffer turned regular MSNBC commentator, O’Donnell spent several years as a writer-producer on “The West Wing.” There, his political acumen helped inform the show’s eerily prescient final season in 2006, which uncannily played out this scenario: A presidential campaign where a virtually unknown young minority congressman defeated a veteran, moderate Republican senator from the West. In terms of art predicting life, the arc marked the kind of effort upon which one could happily retire.

We got lucky,” O’Donnell says. “We reached for some dramatic choices, and it turns out history did too … using the real gravitational forces of real American politics.” For all that, he adds, “We had no earthly idea that would be the next presidential election.”

Still, O’Donnell’s stint on one of primetime’s most acclaimed programs gave way to the customary TV-industry frustrations. He developed “Mr. Sterling,” an NBC drama starring Josh Brolin, which was quickly canceled.

Then the Writers Guild of America strike happened and “sent me rushing into the arms of MSNBC” — a relationship, he says, that “saves me from desperately trying to get a job on a series that I wouldn’t like,” the lot presently faced by so many TV writers.

The modern cable news era has become a boom time for pundits, “strategists” and partisan hacks, and O’Donnell concedes the Obama presidency is “a fantastic time to do this kind of work.” Nevertheless, he still considers MSNBC “a hobby, no matter how many hours of the day I spend here,” and insists he feels “like George Plimpton all the time” whenever stepping into the anchor/hosting role, referring to the late role-playing literary journalist.

Admittedly, toiling in cable news requires an adjustment of expectations after producing for a primetime hit. At MSNBC, people treat with great seriousness rating fluctuations roughly equal to “the number of people who would go to the bathroom during a ‘West Wing’ episode,” as O’Donnell wryly puts it.

O’Donnell’s background also provides him with an interesting perspective on the nexus of Hollywood and politics, a subject he discussed in Barry Levinson’s recent documentary, “Poliwood.” Most notably, O’Donnell maintains that liberal celebrities have polished their game by educating themselves on pet issues, creating “a real long list” of Hollywood stars who are astute observers of the political scene.

Unlike the celebrity press, which craves access to stars — and where they can be “coddled” in exchange for such access — O’Donnell suggests that in the political sphere, “You must control the imagery you’re putting out there, and the only way you can control it is by being really smart.”

As examples, O’Donnell cited a recent Sean Penn appearance discussing the suffering in Haiti — “I haven’t heard a better report, or better analysis … of what’s needed in Haiti tomorrow,” he says — as well as Rob Reiner’s activism regarding early education and George Clooney on Darfur’s humanitarian crisis.

As for O’Donnell, he faces the opposite problem: While cable talk opportunities would appear to beckon, he remains eager to return his focus to some fictional world, currently finishing up a pilot script for HBO.

Granted, there’s a degree of irony in that. At a time when many in Hollywood yearn to get their voices heard in the political realm — even if it means enduring derision from foaming-mouth pundits in opposing camps — what O’Donnell really wants to do is write and produce.

Until then, as they say, look who’s talking.

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