Donald Trump’s journey to becoming the Republican frontrunner for the presidential nomination began in earnest on Jan. 8, 2004 — the night “The Apprentice” premiered on NBC.

True, the real estate mogul had been a media darling for 20-plus years before he teamed with producer Mark Burnett on the business competition series. From the early ’80s, Trump was a fixture in the New York media firmament. His excesses, his love life and his personal boom-and-bust cycles have long been fodder for the tabloids, as well as the tonier pages of Vanity Fair and other high-brow publications.

Trump often raised the stakes in his business dealings by orchestrating press conferences that made for great copy. His running feud with Ed Koch became a spectator sport for most of the New York mayor’s years in office.

But Trump’s image to the vast expanse of the American electorate was cemented by “The Apprentice” more than anything else. The reality show was the perfect controlled environment for Trump to strut his tough-talking brashness and no-holds-barred bravado in front of a fairly worshipful group. The show, in which 16 contestants competed for the grand prize of a yearlong job with the Trump Organization, was an overnight success for NBC and a windfall for Trump.

“The Apprentice” not only made him a hugely important star for the network, it loosed a torrent of Trump-branded products, from bottled water to steaks to the Trump University venture now at the center of a contentious lawsuit.

Trump’s experience in front of the camera on 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” and its successor, “Celebrity Apprentice,” undoubtedly has helped him in his current starring role in politics.

Those who were present at the show’s inception say Trump came to the set of “The Apprentice” camera-ready. He needed little coaching in the technical details of hitting a mark, delivering a line and interacting with contestants.

“The Apprentice” was designed to star a different business leader each season. But with Trump, the show scored big ratings out of the gate. Courtesy of NBC

Eden Gaha, who was showrunner of “Celebrity Apprentice” for four seasons, calls Trump “a one-take wonder. … He could look at a task-sheet for maybe a minute and almost word for word perfectly deliver it in one take,” says Gaha, now president of unscripted TV at Endemol Shine North America. “He’s blessed with a very good memory. He was always a total pro and terrific to work with.”

He was, by many accounts, a natural, particularly in the closing act’s boardroom sequence, where he would famously deliver the “You’re fired” verdict to one contestant each week.

Trump mastered the art of reality TV in a veritable nanosecond because he channeled his storied ambition into becoming a TV star. Those who’ve worked with him say it’s foolish to underestimate his drive to succeed.

“Here’s a guy that many people think is an idiot. He’s not,” says a longtime “Apprentice” producer. “Trust me, this guy had been working the media for 20 years before [‘The Apprentice’] came along.”

In fact, Trump had sought to move into the role of reality TV host a few years earlier. “Billionaire,” which would have seen him challenging randomly selected people to spend $1 million in 30 minutes, drew a nibble from NBC in 2001. Show creator David Anson Russo recalls that Trump was great in the pitch meetings and was gracious to him even when the show failed to sell. “He was pissed at NBC for passing,” Russo says. “He called [then chairman] Bob Wright directly.”

Russo first connected with Trump via a cold call to his office. Just before their first meeting at Trump Tower, Russo received sage advice from the mogul’s longtime assistant, Norma Foerderer. “She told me, ‘Don’t touch his hair, and only shake his hand if he shakes your hand,’ ” he recalls.

Jim Griffin was Trump’s representative at the William Morris Agency when “The Apprentice” came together. Griffin started working with Trump shortly before the show surfaced, when CBS dropped the Trump-produced Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and it fell to Griffin to cut a new deal with NBC. That partnership stayed intact until Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants during the announcement of his presidential campaign last June forced NBC to sever business ties with him. (Trump had already bowed out of future “Apprentice” work after announcing his intention to run for president.)

After “The Apprentice” hit, Trump delivered an off-camera “You’re fired” to Griffin. There were no hard feelings, says the rep, now a senior agent at Paradigm. Griffin had simply outlived his usefulness, in Trump’s view. “It was not a tough parting,” the agent says. “Donald pretty much decides what he wants to do, and that’s the way it goes.”

It’s telling about the divisive nature of Trump’s presidential platform that several of the key players who worked closely with him in the early days of “The Apprentice,” including series creator Burnett, declined to comment on their experience.

But back in 2004, NBC couldn’t get enough Trump. The network’s biggest note as the first “Apprentice” episodes came together was: More Donald.

“Once we saw the rough cuts, we all loved the boardroom scenes,” says Jeff Gaspin, who headed alternative programming at NBC when “The Apprentice” went on the air. “We identified pretty early on that those scenes were the heart and soul of the show.”

Trump, by multiple accounts, didn’t spend much time behind the scenes with contestants or crew members. Production of the series was designed to give its star maximum flexibility to attend to his other endeavors. The show was produced out of two floors on his Fifth Avenue Trump Tower building; when it was time for Trump to shoot his boardroom scenes, he would ride down from his office suite on a private elevator with an assistant who would roll calls during his downtime.

“He could look at a task-sheet for maybe a minute and almost word for word perfectly deliver it in one take. He’s blessed with a very good memory.”
Eden Gaha, former “Celebrity Apprentice” showrunner

When the show went out on location, however, Trump would often emerge from his limo to shake hands and sign autographs for the crowds that inevitably gathered. He seemed to feed off his instant recognition by the general public, a level of celebrity that was only enhanced by “Apprentice.” One producer recalls seeing a homeless man get up from his meager encampment in Central Park to shake Trump’s hand and tell him, “It’s a pleasure to meet you” — an encounter that speaks volumes about Trump’s current appeal as a candidate. “He so embodies the American dream for a lot of people, and he’s tapping into that now,” the producer says.

NBC was already in business with Trump on the Miss USA/Miss Universe pageants when Burnett pitched “Apprentice.” The show was bought on the spot, not because of Trump but because NBC was desperate to be in business with Burnett.

“The Apprentice,” which Burnett owned outright, was originally designed to have a different business leader at the helm with each new edition. That idea went out the window when the show began pulling in 20 million viewers each week with Trump.

In a foreshadowing of things to come on the campaign trail, Trump quickly picked a fight with CBS chief Leslie Moonves after the show came out of the gate strong. Trump called the exec “the most highly overrated person in television” at the January 2004 Television Critics Assn. press tour, reflecting his lingering bitterness about CBS having dropped the Trump-produced pageants the year before. Moonves went for the jugular a few days later: “If you had hair like mine, I could understand why he’s jealous,” Moonves quipped.

The success of “The Apprentice” energized Trump to a degree that’s rare even by Hollywood rags-to-riches standards. He was known to call NBC’s ratings research team at 6 a.m. after each airing to get the earliest numbers, which he would then discuss at length with producers and NBC execs. He proved a quick study in dissecting demographics and using the data to guide the direction of episodes.

Long after viewership of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” was on the wane, Trump never missed an opportunity to proclaim that the program was one of TV’s biggest hits.

“As far as he was concerned, the show was No. 1 because at some point it had been No. 1,” Gaspin recalls. “It didn’t matter that it was six or seven years later. The show managed to be No. 1 in something in its time period, so to him it was always No. 1. People would call him on it, but it didn’t matter. Just like he does now, you’d ask him 100 times, he’d say the same thing: ‘We’re No. 1.’ ”

Before and during the run of “The Apprentice,” Trump talked about the possibility of running for office, with an eye on the White House or the governor’s mansion in Albany, N.Y. But few people took him seriously. One former “Apprentice” producer said he figured there had to be too many skeletons in his closet. Griffin says he’s been surprised to see Trump hang in so long, given that he has many other businesses to run. “I figured when push came to shove, he’d walk away from it,” the producer says.

But after years of 6 a.m. phone calls with Trump, Gaspin is not surprised at Trump’s determination, even as the mudslinging has increased. “He so gravitates toward winning and success,” Gaspin says. “Honestly, like nobody else I’ve ever met.”