Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why I thank God I never worked with Cybill Shepherd

Thanks to reader Mike.Pa for reminding me of this post from seven years ago.  Discussion today of Cybill Shepherd because of THE HEARTBREAK KID led him to recall this entry.   For anyone who thought the Charles Grodin character didn't get his comeuppance, imagine being married to THIS.

If the ST. ELSEWHERE/CHEERS scene is one of the more famous crossovers in television history then the ALMOST PERFECT/CYBILL crossover has to be one of the least. But since a reader asked about it and I was there firsthand, I’m going to discuss it anyway.

Quick refresher for the .000006% who never heard of ALMOST PERFECT or don’t remember it – it was a sitcom I co-created/produced/
wrote/directed on CBS for two seasons in the mid 90s. Comedy goddess Nancy Travis played a single woman juggling her personal and professional life. On the day she gets the job of her life (head writer for a testosterone heavy cop show) she meets the man of her life and both are full-time jobs. I know I sound like Roger Clemens proclaiming his innocence but ALMOST PERFECT really was a damn good show.

CYBIL featured Cybill Shepherd as an over-the-hill actress. It was on CBS for about four years and was a modest hit. Second banana Christine Baranski deservedly won an Emmy for her role. Needless to say Ms. Shepherd was not pleased. But that’s another Hollywood bad-behavior story for a later day.

CBS thought it would be a hoot to do a crossover teaser to promote both series. Usually when that happens it’s two shows from the same production team. Such was not the case here. We were Paramount and since CYBILL starred an actress who was a nightmare it of course was produced by Carsey-Werner (right alongside ROSEANNE and GRACE UNDER FIRE).

So a number of issues had to be settled. What exactly was the scene? Which staff was going to write it? Would it be filmed on our stage or theirs? Would it air on our show or theirs?

Nancy, as always, was agreeable to anything. Ms. Shepherd insisted her team write it, it be filmed on her set, and aired on her show. Otherwise she would refuse to do it. Always the team player. We went along with it, just relieved that she didn’t also insist on singing.

Fortunately, I was (and still am) good friends with the CYBILL showrunner, Howard Gould. Together we conceived the idea. Cybill’s actress character would be coming to Nancy’s producer character to audition for her show. Yes, it made sense then that the scene be shot on our soundstage since that’s where Nancy’s office was Ms. Shepherd could give a rat’s ass about that so we shot it at her place.

I was happy to let Howard write the scene. He’s terrific. I wish he could have written whole episodes of our show. When finished, our team polished Nancy’s dialogue a little and sent it back. Ms. Shepherd read it and insisted on more jokes…for herself. After two or three drafts everyone (meaning her) was happy.

Next question: When to film this? They were on a different shooting schedule than we were. Guess who had to change their whole weekly routine to accommodate whom.

The actual filming took forever because Ms. Shepherd had to be backlit in every shot. Nancy was not to be backlit at all. And I can’t say for certain because I wasn’t there, but I think Ms. Shepherd required cue cards.

All of this over a four minute scene that ran once.

One final thought:

Howard Gould has since written a hilarious play about a Cybill Shepherd-type character called DIVA. If it’s ever staged in your neighborhood see it. If you want to read it (and trust me, it’s brilliant) it’s available through Samuel French.


James said...

Ken, first of all let me say that I'm a massive fan of this blog and have been reading it from pretty much Day 1; however, this is my first comment.

I don't think Almost Perfect aired in the UK, but I can remember watching the crossover scene air as part of Cybill.

I'm a fan of Cybill (as a sitcom), but am fully aware of how difficult it was behind the scenes. It's a shame as I think fans of any show like to think that the cast and/or crew get along, but this is not always the case. In your post, you wrote "But that’s another Hollywood bad-behavior story for a later day." Is 7 years too soon for a follow-up post?

In regards to Nancy Travis, 3 Men and a Baby/Little Lady were childhood favourites and I was a fan of Becker, although it never got the attention it deserved. Ken, was Nancy's role in Becker due to her working with Ted Danson in 3 Men and a Baby/Little Lady or just a coincidence?

P.S. Over New Year, a show aired in the UK called Britain's Favourite Sitcoms and you probably had the most interview footage featured due to your work on Cheers, Frasier and Mash.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I've liked Nancy Travis since THREE MEN AND A BABY. She's always had this subtle sexiness about her; not overt but there and apparent. Glad to know she's a nice person to boot.

And what a great line to set up your post.

"For anyone who thought the Charles Grodin character didn't get his comeuppance, imagine being married to THIS."

Nearly fell off my chair, especially with the site gag (her photo - she looks like the sister of the Emperor from STAR WARS, and about just as friendly).

Bill O said...

Chuck Lorre wrote a CSI ep about a murdered sitcom diva _ played by Christine Baransky.

An (is my actual name) said...

Far be it from be to defend bad behavior, and no doubt some of those moves were less than cool, but a lot of it seemed like "well, of course one would want that" stuff. No doubt there are many other stories to tell about behind the scenes shenanigans, but more jokes, favorable lighting and playing on one's own turf don't seem like outlandish demands coming from someone with the hit show in the crossover. I also wonder if this stuff would have been so damning if it were Bruce Willis (or a Cybill-equivalent male star) making the demands. Just something to think about.

Oat Willie said...

Leonard Hofstadter's mother!

VP81955 said...

I'm currently watching "Twentieth Century" in the scenes where Carole Lombard's Lily Garland boards the titular train, and Lily's inflated persona after moving to Hollywood -- a West Coast reflection of John Barrymore's bombastic Oscar Jaffe -- reminds me so much of Cybill (who claims to adore Carole, if you remember the opening credits of "Cybill").

While Orson Welles probably told Shepherd all sorts of stories about her (Orson knew, and adored, Carole when both were at RKO), one wonders whether he explained to her why Lombard was one of the most beloved personalities in Hollywood (no saint, mind you, but someone people genuinely liked). Instead, Cybill comes off as sort of a Lombard evil twin.

Tim Rifenburg said...

I would think if you have the opportunity to cross promote 2 shows it would be in the best interest of both shows. While Cybil was on the air it was never a top hit and I cannot imagine the cross promotion was not needed. I have always liked it when you see stars (in character or not) promoting shows or interacting in commercials or promos. Not always thrilled with cross over episodes, though that may be from having high expectations.

mmryan314 said...

I kind of agree with An- Cybill fought for her character and wanted the best portrait she could get. Back in the 80`s women who spoke up were considered annoying at best. Being downright mean to everyone is another topic. I have no idea if her demands were out of ego or character development.

normadesmond said...

never cared for her yet never
knew my instincts were so keen.

Dan Ball said...

At least Cybil didn't throw the kind of fit that Matt Groening did when the SIMPSONS crossed with THE CRITIC. He had his name removed from the episode and then griped to the press about it because he felt like it was an advertisement for a non-Groening show. (Even though it was a Jim Brooks show.) Poor CRITIC only lasted two seasons and Groening couldn't give Jim or his writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss some support by being cool with the crossover. What a weenie move.

It's a shame because it's one of my favorite episodes. "Football in the groin! Football in the groin!"

Anonymous said...

>it was a sitcom I co-created/produced/
wrote/directed on CBS for two seasons in the mid 90s.

So working for you really aged her then.

Johnny Walker said...

For anyone interested, Cybill Shepherd has a "tell all" book on Amazon called "Cybill Disobedience". The reviews speak volumes. I picked up a copy myself, fascinated, but haven't been able to bring myself to read it yet... Has anyone else read it?

Barry Traylor said...

Apparently some actors are as enjoyable to work with as getting a root canal and a colonoscopy at the same time.

VincentS said...

Wow! I think all those who blamed Bruce Willis for the trouble on the set of MOONLIGHTING owe him an apology.

MikeK.Pa. said...

At VP81955

I'm sure you've probably already read it, but there's an excellent book on Carole Lombard, written in 1975 by Larry Swindell, called SCREWBALL. She was the real deal, no pretenses, hung around with the crew, as down-to-earth as any actress. Barrymore, who was beginning his slow descent as an actor due to alcohol, made a play for Lombard (he had nothing on other than a half-opened robe and spaghetti hanging from his chest) and she blew him off. She also put Gable in his place, which is what attracted him to her.

Hamid said...

I didn't know Cybill Shepherd was/is difficult to work with. All I know is damn she was a hottie back in the day!

James - I missed Britain's Favourite Sitcoms. Which channel was it on? Hopefully it'll still be on catch-up.

Rowan77 said...

I have to disagree with An and mmryan314, There was no reason for Cybill to "fight" for her show or character at that point. At minimum Cybill should have let the two showrunners come up with ideas for the crossover, then base where the crossover should be shot, who would write it and where it would appear on the best idea. There was nothing to fight over. Cybill apparently came out guns blazing right off the bat. Then proceeded to waste money recreating an Almost Famous set on her stage (which I think was up in CBS Radford if memory serves). Cybill routinely proved herself to very ungracious if she wasn't the center of attention.

Ken, please provide your readers with the [alleged] Cybill's misbehavior over Christine Baranski's Emmy story.

Tudor Queen said...

First of all, I want to confirm Mr. Levine's statement that "Almost Perfect" was a terrific show (not that he needs me to do so). The first season really was 'almost perfect' and the first season finale has one of my all time favorite comedy scenes at the end. The second season suffered from network interference and wasn't as great, but was still fun to watch. The supporting cast was deliciously strange (David "Miles Drentell" Clennon as a hippie dippy sitcom writer? And more...)

Secondly, when I hear/read stories about how difficult Cybill Shepherd was, I think about Bette Davis pointing out that behavior that gets women labeled 'bitch' would be seen in a man as tough and strong.

As for "Moonlighting", I read from a reasonably reliable source without an axe to grind that what actually happened was A)as he became a star, Willis didn't want his character to be such a jerk, and the writers decided the only way to handle it was to make Shepherd's character alternately flaky (the marriage on the train) and bitchy and B) someone in the higher ups was angry about Shepherd's pregnancy and all the attendant time off (she was carrying twins).

Personally, I was always troubled by the fact that an actress who had just gone through a high-risk pregnancy and safely deliver twins was then asked to act out her character's miscarriage.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I would note that CYBILL, GRACE UNDER FIRE, and ROSEANNE all also had Chuck Lorre on board. (I believe Shepherd had him fired after Baranski's Emmy win, and after he left Baranski's character got noticeably bland and did Alicia Witt's. Lorre has a great essay on his site about how to write a hit sitcom that begins with being tortured by big egos through several previous shows.

All that said, I remember the scene in question, and I also remember that I always wondered why Nancy's office looked out of sync with the rest of the series.


David Russell said...

Yesterday, New Yorker ran this interesting piece, looking closely at "The Heartbreak Kid" since it was airing on TCM this week.

Russ Woody said...

I agree, ALMOST PERFECT was a great show. Would that I could have watched it more often, but I was working a lot of late nights at Cybill.
Ken's assertions about Ms. Shepherd during the situation he described, are downright tame, to the point of complimentary. Cybill Shepherd was one of the... nope, lemme restart... Cybill Shepherd was the worst person/actor I ever had to work with. I suppose it comes from a deep-rooted insecurity of some sort -- an insecurity that manifested itself in boatloads of psychotherapy for the writers on the show.
I also wrote on BECKER for its run, and Nancy was a dream to work with. Truly a nice person. And Ted Danson remains, to this day, my favoritest actor/person ever. He was so kind to my father, while my father was dying of ALS... an act that speaks volumes about a person's character.
To the person who brought in "gender" as an issue - Cybill often fell back on (or maybe "used" is more correct) "Women's Rights" to justify her horrible (often unkind) behavior. If anything, she was doing a disservice to the cause itself.
And, like Ken, I too am still great friends with Howard Gould, who showed mettle during our tenure at the show that would rival Churchill's through the Big One... (if I might be so ludicrous as to compare the exploits of TV land to a significant 20th Century conflict.)

Tudor Queen said...

To Russ Woody - Thank you for that very relevant account from personal experience. It is possible to be both sinned against (as I still think Shepherd was during her pregnancy and its immediate aftermath) and sinner. Cybill Shepherd clearly had a knack for pissing people off, and making some people's work lives a lot more difficult. Sorry if I sounded as if I was minimizing the difficulties.

Oh, and thank you for confirming what I always believed about Ted Danson - that he is a mensch.

Anonymous said...

"Una Merkel" says...

Thank you too, Russ Woody, because when Bette Davis said what she said "when women are strong, they're called ##"it was about 50 years ago. When Cybill Shepherd acted the way she did, times had changed. Same with Roseanne.

It's not fair to either gender to defend bad, cruel, hurtful behavior based on the assumption that such histories are based on gender. No one thinks difficult or destructive male actors are any better. They're called "bastards" or "assholes" or any number of things. There is a gender name for anyone who wants to fling it, male or female. Using Bette Davis' or Roseanne's justification is seriously out of date.

Smart performers are like Jack Benny and Kelsey Grammer, who let their cast use their talents to their fullest to better the show. Imagine if Grammer felt that David Hyde Pierce was getting all the good lines and fired people right and left?

And Shepherd's behavior was so well known that even a mainstream magazine as TV GUIDE did a report on it. Baranski was given a funny punch like that Shepherd ordered taken away from her. Baranski got the set up line: "I miss the ozone layer," and made it so funny it got a huge laugh. She has talent. Smart people use it well, and she has moved on to many many fine projects -- including being excellent in INTO THE WOODS.

As for Bruce Willis, he was no picnic either, but he was the object of satire on CYBILL. Jon Tenney played a co-star who was a direct spoof of Willis. Was that nice?

So many words and phrases have been considered inappropriate in this enlightened day and age, can we please retire that dated "if a woman is strong, she's called a ##" thing? It's not that it isn't true sometimes, it just implies that men get off scot-free and that is just NOT true.

Dixon Steele said...

Not to pile on, but I saw Shepherd a few years ago in the Broadway revival of THE BEST MAN (she replaced Candace Bergin).

Not a great role perhaps, but she was stiff as a board...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

So, here's a Friday question: If Shepherd is horrible to work with *and* (as I agree) an acting stiff, how on earth does she keep getting work?


VP81955 said...

I'm sure you've probably already read it, but there's an excellent book on Carole Lombard, written in 1975 by Larry Swindell, called SCREWBALL. She was the real deal, no pretenses, hung around with the crew, as down-to-earth as any actress. Barrymore, who was beginning his slow descent as an actor due to alcohol, made a play for Lombard (he had nothing on other than a half-opened robe and spaghetti hanging from his chest) and she blew him off. She also put Gable in his place, which is what attracted him to her.

Indeed I've read that book -- it's quite good.

Some more on Lombard and Barrymore: Three years after "Twentieth Century," the tables were turned...Carole had become a first-tier star, while John's star was in decline. Lombard, whom Barrymore had called the finest actress he'd ever worked with, returned the compliment by insisting he get a crucial supporting part in her film "True Confession," even making sure he got third billing. (Oh, and the two made several steamy promotional stills for "Twentieth Century" that were rejected by Joseph Breen's office -- and this was before the Production Code was enforced.)

Matt from Los Angeles said...

Glad this story was re-posted and great to see Russ Woody's comments as well.

I attended a taping of this show, and having seen other shows taped as well, knew what to expect. The cast gets introduced first, tape the episode in sequence and then a curtain call at the end. Not this show. It was so obvious how her ego dictated how things were done.

As they were about to start,the warm up guy says we'll be bringing out Cybill in a moment. To prepare us, he goes "know what I'm thinking?, standing O." So we were basically told to give her a standing ovation. As they moved on to shoot the first scene, we were told it was actually the last scene of the show. Christine comes out for the scene and the warm up guy points her out and she waves to the audience. once they finished the scene, he then tells us it's time for Christine to leave so she waves goodnight. An audience member in earshot of her asked if that was her only scene to which she replied, "no I've preshot some wonderful scenes for you to see."

So the A story centered on the women was all preshot and shown to us in between shooting the scenes of the B story of the men. During this time the warm guy tells us Cybill is ready to leave and is coming out to say goodnight and then he says, "know what I'm thinking?, standing O."

Pretty sad when the rest of the cast were treated like extras and we get told not once but twice to give the star a standing ovation.

Since Deedee Pfieffer and Alicia Witt were in preshot scenes only the audience never even saw them.

Would love RussWoody's thoughts on this!

VP81955 said...

Matt, I've attended filmings of "Frasier" in March 2000 and "Mom" and "Hot In Cleveland" late last year, and both followed the usual sitcom run-scenes-in-order format. No ego trips for anyone -- not Kelsey Grammer or David Hyde-Pierce; not Anna Faris or Allison Janney; not Betty White, Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli or Wendie Malick (unlike the self-centered characters she plays so well).

This past Friday, I met a guy who works at KNX radio whose uncle is an associate producer at "Mom," and he had nothing but nice things to say about the cast and people associated with the series. One doubts anyone who worked on "Cybill" (aside from Ms. Shepherd herself) has similarly positive recollections.

I should note Cybill has had a musical career, with several albums to her credit, and is a competent singer. Wonder what her recording sessions have been like? Any engineers around?

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, I had no idea that Chuck Lorre created CYBILL and GRACE UNDER FIRE. That guy is pretty prolific... and apparently very talented at being put at the helm of star vehicles.

SER said...

Wendy Grossman asked how Shepherd got work if she was as difficult as reported.

Apparently, through accepting Jesus Christ as her savior:

From a 2014 article in the Christian Post:

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Speaking as part of a cast panel for the upcoming Christian film "Do You Believe," actress Cybill Shepherd revealed that she has been reconnecting with Jesus after long forsaking her Christian upbringing.

""I was born a Christian, sang in the choir then I lost touch with my savior Jesus Christ. I stopped talking to Him and praying," she told the audience. "Then I just started talking to Jesus and I started to feel really good and I got the offer to do this film."

Johnny Walker said...

I'm not convinced she IS working all that much. But either way, she undeniably has star power, which makes her valuable: People like watching her. and who knows, maybe she's calmed down a bit lately. Maybe.

Also, I just discovered her tell-all book CYBILL DISOBEDIENCE is now free to download on her website:

You can read about the 'Cybill Sandwich' for free.

Aaron L said...

Great story but why is there a picture of Emperor Palpatine heading the story?

VP81955 said...

I'm not a person who questions those who say they have "found religion" -- the old "judge not, lest ye be judged" sort of thing -- but I will say that if Cybill has done just that, it might be good, for both her reputation and her peace of mind, to mend some fences with those she's worked with (and rubbed the wrong way) these many years.

joanneinjax said...

I always thought Nancy Travis was a class act. Frankly, the reason I read your blog is that you created ALMOST PERFECT, and said such lovely things about Ms. Travis. I just loved that show. (I actually found you through Mark's NEWSOFME for some unknown link.)
The only real reason I watched CYBILL was Christine Baranski playing her 'absolutely-fabulous' character, one never before seen on TV. Just the thought that Ms. Shepherd was so insecure/jealous that she treated this marvelous woman poorly is unforgivable. I would think she regrets her behavior, not because of her 'born again' status, but because of her 'unemployment' status.

welcome2ukraine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ShadyShade said...

Johnny Walker - You were asking about Shepherd's book.

Let me give you a summary of the book's general narrative:

She just tried to do her best, and everyone haaaates her because she's pretty.

She doesn't understand why she has problems with EVERY single person she works with.

Nothing, ever, has been even remotely her fault or the result of any action of hers. She was in the back, eating grapes and innocently fanning herself.

(Watching old eps of Cybill on Hulu Plus. The first few seasons were fun, but you can cut the on set tension with a knife, even on screen, in later episodes.)

Anonymous said...

Silly. It's an interesting, entertaining book.

Cindy P said...

I’m 6 years behind on this. But I’ve been watching Cybill all week as I get over covid. I watched the show during the first run…because I was in college, and had nothing better to do on Monday nights. As I watch it again, I’m painfully aware of what a horrible actress she is. Just. Plain. Bad. Had it not been for the stellar writing and amazing supporting cast…it would’ve been unwatchable.

Frank State said...

Chuck Lorre's nightmare must be he produces a hit sitcom starring Cybil Shepherd, Charlie Sheen, and Roseanne Barr.