BBC America announced that its first original production would be a show called “Copper,” a period drama co-created by Tom Fontana (and produced by Fontana and his longtime producing partner Barry Levinson). I’m excited about this, not just because the premise sounds interesting but because I’m always glad to see Fontana get a show. They don’t always work, and he’s created a lot of shows that didn’t succeed; in the ’00s he had “The Jury” and “The Philanthropist,” and his “Borgia” series recently got lost in the shuffle because of Neil Jordan’s competing series. But he’s done so much interesting work. Here’s his Archive of American Television interview.
He also, it has always struck me – and I might have mentioned this before – just missed out on fame, or the TV producer version of fame. Producers are almost never as famous as the on-camera people, of course. But the convergence of the premium-cable era (and networks that wanted to emphasize how much freedom they gave to their creators) with the internet era (which made more people aware of the names of major TV writers) turned several creators into reasonably well-known public figures. It happened to HBO’s three Davids: Chase, Simon and Milch. Fontana was Simon’s mentor in TV scriptwriting and comes from the same MTM pool of drama writers as Milch. He ran two of the most important broadcast network dramas of all time, St. Elsewhere and Homicide. And in Oz he more or less codified the HBO drama style, two years before The Sopranos came along. But while he commands exceptional and deserved respect within the industry, I don’t think he’s quite as big a name outside it as some of the people who have worked with him.
A lot of that is a combination of timing and credit. Of the three successful shows he’s done, two were shows he did not create, St. Elsewhere and Homicide – so while the shows reflect his sensibility as much as anyone’s, they aren’t completely associated with him. Mostly, though, all three of them came along before the explosion in showrunner recognition. People were up in arms about the finale of St. Elsewhere, but few people at the time specifically named the men in charge of the show (including Fontana and the late Bruce Paltrow). When The Sopranos had a controversial ending, everybody knew who to blame or praise. And while Oz helped create the HBO style of drama, it was more of a trail-blazer than a culturally iconic show; it was left to The Sopranos and even Six Feet Under to get really famous among non-subscribers.
Someone suggested to me that Fontana’s whimsical streak keeps him from being bigger. Of course David Chase has a whimsical streak too, but I think there’s something to the idea. He takes TV drama very seriously, but there’s a genuine – albeit controlled and purposeful – wildness in a lot of what he does.