Profile in Excellence: John Wells
John Wells hopes that when his star is added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it’s in front of a tattoo parlor.
“I’d like customers to come out and go, ‘Oh yeah, I know that guy. I watch his shows,’?” says the award-winning television producer, writer, director, and two-time Writers’ Guild of America, West, president, known for creating dramas as raw and real as fresh ink.
The jaded denizens of Hollywood Boulevard may be the ultimate test audience when it comes to what Wells has always wanted viewers to get out of shows such as “ER” and “The West Wing” — the feeling that what they’re watching is true to life.
“We try and portray real worlds,” says Wells, who almost never talks about his own accomplishments when discussing the shows that have reached hundreds of millions of viewers for four decades. “We tell stories from the inside out. It’s not ripped from the headlines.”
Wells has sought out profoundly personal tales since showrunning “China Beach,” a drama set at an American evacuation hospital in Vietnam during the war. To gather material and better understand the world portrayed onscreen, he interviewed hundreds of combat veterans, doctors, and nurses.
He used the same technique with his signature workplace dramas “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Third Watch,” and continues it with current TNT cop show “Southland” and 2010 feature, “Company Men.” He always has writers with relevant work backgrounds on staff.
“One of the things I enjoy the most about the work is meeting these interesting people who have had different experiences than I’ve had and who confide what has happened to them,” Wells says.
If Wells’ success as a storyteller comes from digging deep into personal narratives, his achievement as a showrunner arises from his unrufflable nature.
Bradley Whitford, who won an Emmy for his role in “The West Wing” says, “With crazy lunatic actors, writers and directors slopping around like fish, John was always very level headed and calm. I never saw him lose it while everyone else was losing it, including the craft services guy.”
The composure was an asset during in his terms as Writers’ Guild president. He got involved with the guild early in his career during the 1988 strike and saw serving as a chance to give back to the org that looked out for him when he was first starting out.
Whitford observed Wells’ diplomatic skills in support of creatives in action at “The West Wing.”
“John provided an incredible safety shield for Aaron (Sorkin) and Tommy (Schlamme),” Whitford says. “That really protected us from a lot of the developmental interference from the network.”
But meddlesome suits aren’t the only thing writers have to worry about nowadays. Wells points out that scribes are making less money. Many work on cable series where they get paid for 12 or 13 episodes instead of the traditional network 22. And many of those scribes are hired on a freelance basis, which means no benefits. New digital formats mean their work may reach larger audiences, but the writers aren’t reaping bigger profits.
Still, Wells says: “I’m optimistic about people who create content. There has been no slacking of desire or interest in that. People still want to hear stories.”
Wells’ own passion for the craft was instilled growing up in Colorado where his art-loving father took him to the theater, symphony, ballet and opera.
After studying production design and directing at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Wells did some helming and then went to USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program.
“I was always interested in naturalistic theater and the work of the great American playwrights,” Wells recalls. “I was at USC when I first saw ‘Hill Street Blues’ and I thought, ‘Wow, those are the kind of stories I’d like to be telling.’?”
To do that, he found like-minded people such as producer-director Christopher Chulack, whom he first worked with on “ER,” and stuck with them year after year. Another highly visible example is William H. Macy, who had a recurring role on the first seasons of “ER,” and now stars in Wells’ raunchy Showtime drama “Shameless.”
Wells wishes his sidewalk star was big enough to hold the names of all the producers, writers, directors, actors and executives he’s worked with over the years.
“I am the standard bearer, I guess, for a large group of people who have made my personal success possible and I hope that my being involved with them has helped them be successful,” Wells says. “While my name is on the star, it’s actually a whole bunch of people.”
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