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The Happy Outsider

Joel Surnow relishes his role as a conservative in the generally liberal sound stages of Hollywood
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jim Nantz, May/June 2011

Joel Surnow walks through the door and sits at a wooden table not far from a couple of guys playing backgammon. The sign outside says Old Oaks Cigar and Wine Company, and the mood inside is convivial. Surnow smiles and lights a Partagas Serie D No. 4, his "go to" cigar. There are about a dozen men inside, but not one even remotely resembles Jack Bauer, Surnow's famous—or infamous—fictional creation of the last decade. So it looks as if, at least this day, the United States is not in danger of nuclear annihilation in the next 24 hours.

Surnow, 56, is the cocreator and co-executive producer of the classic popular TV series "24," on which year after year, for eight seasons, Bauer toiled hour by hour to foil terrorists and their evil deeds. He is also behind this season's controversial eight-part miniseries "The Kennedys," which was canceled by the History Channel in a liberals-vs.-conservatives dispute over how President John F. Kennedy was portrayed and was presented instead on ReelzChannel in April.

It's a little after 6pm on a cool evening in early March, and Surnow has just finished 18 holes of golf with friends (golf is his other passion, besides cigars) and has retreated to Old Oaks, a cigar bar in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks, California, where he is a habitué. It's where cigar lovers gather for a good smoke, fine wine, a game or two and relaxed conversation.

"The first nine holes were bad," Surnow says of his afternoon on the fairways—and in the rough. "The last nine were good. I won $14."

Surnow is known more for talking about his conservative politics than his golf game. He is a good friend of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. Surnow once sarcastically described himself as a "right-wing nut job," and the phrase, however inaccurate, was eagerly picked up by the media.

His "24" incurred liberal wrath for Jack Bauer's persistent use of torture against terrorists to save America from evil deeds. "The Kennedys" raised liberal objections in part because in an early script President John F. Kennedy discussed his frequent need for "strange ass" in the White House and kept a Secret Service agent with a vital message waiting while the president had swimming-pool sex. The furor led the History Channel, which had commissioned the program, to say goodbye in January; it remained homeless until ReelzChannel picked it up the next month.

The real essence of Surnow, though, isn't that he'd rather be Right. It's that his life, as he himself calls it, is a quintessential "American story," the tale of a disadvantaged kid who made good.

"It's about being this person on the outs," Surnow says. "I was this poor kid in Beverly Hills. I'm the Republican in Democratic Hollywood. As Tom Wolfe used to say about living in New York, I live with them but I'm not of them. I don't live on the west side of L.A. I live in the valley. The people I've surrounded myself with have rarely been the people I work with, although I love many of the people I work with. I'm fundamentally very much of an American-suburb guy. That's how I like to live my life. It's not tremendously glamorous—except that what has happened to me is very glamorous."

It's eight hours earlier, and Surnow has not yet wielded a five iron this day. He has sat down in a hotel lobby to talk about his life. He's dressed for golf—tee time is noon—in a white golf shirt and ribbed ivory pants. His neatly cropped hair, more white than black these days, matches his attire. He sports, as he has for some time, a rectangle of hair centered under his lower lip—a soul patch.

When it comes to the essence of Surnow's own soul, it's clear that it was formed in his childhood, spent, as he describes it, "in the slums of Beverly Hills," the part without the mansions. He was born in 1954 in Detroit; his parents were much older—"they had me when they were in their 40s." He had two much-older brothers. "My father was a furniture salesman back then, and my mother sold on the floor of a women's clothing store. I come from multiple generations of salesmen."


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