‘Masterpiece’ producer answers the call

Eaton has guided franchise for 26 years

In 1985, two phone calls on the Friday before Labor Day weekend changed Rebecca Eaton’s life.

The Boston-born, Pasadena-raised, Vassar-educated Eaton had been working at public television station WGBH when her doctor’s office called to inform her she was pregnant with her and new husband, Paul Robert Cooper’s, first child.

“The second call was from my boss, Henry Becton, offering me the job of executive producer of ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ ” recalls Eaton, at the time primarily a hands-on producer of documentaries who was used to being away from the office for weeks at a time. “Those two calls were 15 minutes apart. The timing was perfect. I needed a desk job.”

The fit was perfect, too, for a voracious reader of English literature who’d grown up in Southern California, she says, “praying for rain so I could walk outside and pretend I was a Jane Austen heroine.”

After years in the early days of public television working on documentaries and very little drama, she saw the “Masterpiece” offer as a chance to “reconnect with my love of English literature, films and theater. I’d learned how to do television, now it was about words and performances.”

It’s been a 26-year tenure for Eaton at the 40-year-old television institution, now simply called “Masterpiece” since she spearheaded a successful rebranding in 2009 in the wake of diminished corporate sponsorship.

“It was clear to me we needed to do something,” says Eaton. “As executive producer, I had been entrusted with this jewel in the PBS crown, and it needed some work.”

When she took over “Masterpiece,” the focus was creative, the money (then underwritten by Mobil) assured, the viewers steadfast. Lately, she says, “so much of what I do is marketing. That’s the world we live in.”

However, it’s still a “dream come true” job, she says, citing the number of prestigious figures she’s collaborated with — hosts like Alistair Cooke and Vincent Price, actors such as Paul Newman and Derek Jacobi — as a personal highlight.

“It’s the opportunity to work with them,” says Eaton. “Not just meet them, but roll up our sleeves and work together, which is how you really get to know somebody.”

More from Masterpiece at 40:
‘Masterpiece’ fresh at 40 | Co-creator excited to return ‘Upstairs’ | ‘Masterpiece’ producer answers the call | ‘Master’-ful moments