Howard Gordon has built a career producing suspenseful shows — “24,” “Homeland” and now “Legends.” Back in 1986, though, the biggest suspense was where his next paycheck would come from. He and writing partner Alex Gansa had moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast, and were shopping spec scripts. When they finally made a sale to the producers of “Wizard of Elm Street,” Gordon earned his first ink in Variety.
What do you remember about that mention?
It’s like losing your virginity. That was in the day when you could actually be a freelance writer. You’d schlep story ideas from show to show like Willy Loman. Alex and I went to those guys at the “Wizard of Elm Street” and pitched three ideas. The character carried around this huge carpet bag — I guess it was an early version of Kiefer’s man-purse on “24.” We went to a prop store and bought a carpet bag. We pulled a plastic horse out of it and put it on the table. But we sold the pitch!
How did you and Alex get teamed up?
We were both creative writing majors and would-be novelists at Princeton. We had met over our mutual love for Saul Bellow. I had been in L.A., and written a script, so I had always had TV as my secret aspiration. I said to him one night, “How about a movie or miniseries on the life of Lord Byron?” It seemed like a great idea at the time. So we deferred a year of grad school to try to write it. We drove out in my Datsun B210 from New York.
What was the best thing about that time in your life?
I would say the hope. Everything was possible. We were too young to recognize how difficult and how crazy the plan was. We literally sent our scripts to Steven Bochco in a manila envelope. David Milch wrote back saying he really liked the script. He didn’t give us a job, but encouraged us to keep writing.
What was the worst thing about that time in your life?
In retrospect, it was pretty great. Even though we were broke, there was a kind of an exuberance. There’s nothing like that first time. If it’s your first time getting mentioned in Variety or the first time you get paid for writing or the first time you see your credit onscreen, it has a profoundly outsized impact on you.
If you could go back what would you do differently?
I would probably for lessons of youth I would probably take things a little less seriously. I was very serious and very driven. If I had any regrets it’s that I didn’t necessarily enjoyed being young as much as I could have. Even bad experiences, I learned from them and in the future learned what not to do or how not to run a show.
What have you learned about how not to run a show?
I’ve learned that you can’t do everything. At some point, you have to trust other people. I probably held on too tightly in the early part of my career thinking I was the only one who could do anything. But I also learned you have to hire well. You can’t ever underestimate the importance of good luck in everything. Hiring the staff, hiring the cast, hiring the directors – you have to get lucky. You have to exercise judgment and it gets a little bit better.
What’s the secret of your longevity with Alex?
We’re old and dear friends, and we’re a very good team. When the ego stuff has gotten in the way one of us would always back down to spare the friendship.