The Happy Outsider
Joel Surnow relishes his role as a conservative in the generally liberal sound stages of Hollywood
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."
The family moved to California when he was eight. "And my father became a carpet salesman. He sold door to door. We had a rough go of it. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I would roll out a foldout bed in the living room every night. The mood in the house depended on when my dad would walk through the door and say whether or not he'd made a sale. The days he didn't make a sale, it was a bleak evening. If he did, it was a happy evening."
At Beverly Hills High School, Surnow was "the classic B or C student. Watch out for C students," he says with a laugh. "You'll wind up working for them." He got into the University of California at Berkeley, and finished up at U.C.L.A. film school.
"I spent the next five or six years working with my dad. It was a split existence. I was selling carpeting and writing screenplays, one after another. I had a little bit of success early. I had written a script about my father and it got me some jobs. I was 21, and I failed miserably because I didn't know what I was doing. I was writing out of enthusiasm. I had no real craft."
So by the time he was 22 he was a Hollywood failure. "The word got out—because your reputation moves fairly quickly here—that I was no good, that I was a flash in the pan and didn't really have the goods." So he spent time "learning the craft of writing. I would say that over the next six years I really began to understand the language of writing a script," Surnow explains.
In the meantime, at 25, he married—with "kids (two daughters) at 26 and 27." And then he got his first real writing job, on a short-lived TV series called "Bay City Blues," created by the writer-producer Steven Bochco, whose credits included the long-running hit "Hill Street Blues." The year was 1983; the show told of a group of minor league baseball players—and it lasted all of eight episodes.
But that led to work on another new series, and this one was called "Miami Vice." After a year writing most of the scripts, he had another success, "The Equalizer," about a former secret agent who becomes a vigilante.
"Here I was running a show, writing every script, with a whole year and a half of experience under my belt, which was really far too little experience to have the maturity to run a show like that. But I did reasonably well. The show was picked up for more episodes." But Surnow had just gone through a divorce (he has three more daughters from his current marriage). "And I was burned out."
But the onetime failure now had "a little bit of a reputation." He continued to work in television, as a journeyman writer and producer. And in the late 1990s he ran a show called "La Femme Nikita" on the USA cable network. The program, about a woman falsely convicted of murder who is recruited into a ruthless counterterrorism organization, was for two years the highest rated drama on basic cable.
And then, in 2000, Surnow had an idea. "Every TV season was 22 episodes," he says. "One day between seasons I was thinking that 'OK, my life is going to be a season of 22 episodes.' Then I came up with the number 24. What if you did 24 episodes and everything in an entire season took place in one day, with every episode one hour of that day? I picked up the telephone and called my friend Bob Cochran, with whom I had worked on 'La Femme Nikita.' I asked him what he thought of the idea. And he said, 'It stinks.' And I said, 'You're right. It stinks. You can't do an entire season on one day.' So we hung up the phone."
But Surnow kept on thinking. "It was an idea that just refused to go away. It lingered in my subconscious. About three or four days later, I called Bob up and said, 'I think this is a good idea.' He said he had been thinking about it too and also thought it was a good idea. We got together at the International House of Pancakes in Woodland Hills, two minutes from here. We said, 'OK, what does it mean to do a show like this, what kind of show do we do?' We said, 'What if it's about a wedding and it's 24 hours before two people get married and you follow their families?' We let the idea settle for a half hour, and we said, 'It doesn't have enough heat for 24 hours. What keeps someone awake for 24 hours? A wedding wouldn't do it.
" 'But what if you're protecting a presidential candidate and the word comes down he's going to be assassinated in 24 hours—that might keep you up for 24 hours.' And then we said, 'What if along the way your daughter was taken?' Now we jam those two things together, and all of a sudden we realized the stakes had to be high. It had to be a race against time. Everything that we basically conceived as the format of that first season was born out of that first meeting."
"When it aired, '24' was an instant hit. It ran for eight seasons, from 2001 to 2010 (Surnow left in 2008). A continuing aspect of the show was the illegal methods that Kiefer Sutherland, as Jack Bauer, used to force information out of terrorists, assassins, and all kinds of assorted bad guys. Partway into the series' run, in the midst of the Iraq war and the bitter dispute over the Bush administration's approval of counterterrorism-interrogation methods like waterboarding that many consider torture, and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the focus turned more and more to "24" and its torture scenes.
Many commentators expressed their belief that it was the conservative political views of Surnow and fellow producers that were behind the glorification of Bauer's practices. And even the military—including the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point—urged the producers to tone it down.
The show's producers denied that the show was pro-torture. And Surnow, to this day, dismisses the criticism. "Jack Bauer had been beating the crap out of people for five years," he says. "It wasn't until there was an article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, in which she basically made a cause célèbre out of the use of torture on the show, that I was declared to be a Hollywood Republican and friends with people like Ailes and Limbaugh. It wasn't until then that people began to squawk. Kiefer Sutherland shot a guy in cold blood and beheaded him in the second season and there was never a word."
To prove that Surnow couldn't stay away from controversy, he took on "The Kennedys." "After '24' I partnered with my friend Jonathan Koch. He told me that the History Channel was interested in starting a scripted division and that the first idea they wanted to develop was based on the Kennedy family. A good friend of mine, who worked for me on '24,' Stephen Kronish—who by the way is a liberal Democrat from New York—was a massive Kennedy fan. He knew everything about them. He came to my house and spent two hours telling us the comprehensive story of the Kennedys."
The conversation led to a script written by Kronish, and eventually to an agreement for the miniseries. And then, in early 2010, the documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald saw the early script and attacked. He called it a "right-wing political hit job" whose aim was to disparage the Kennedy family's accomplishments.
Work on the miniseries continued. Surnow and his fellow producers hired Greg Kinnear as JFK, Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson as Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the family patriarch. The series was filmed and was being readied for broadcast.
Surnow says that the script was "very, very accurate in terms of known history," that the History Channel had been insistent on precise sourcing. "These were not things we made up. The swimming pool scene was documented. The 'strange ass' quote was something he said to Harold Macmillan," a British prime minister. And, he adds, most of the "salacious" material was cut in the final script, because "we had decided without Robert Greenwald's help that we wanted ultimately to make a patriotic series." And then, in January, the History Channel pulled the plug.
The ReelzChannel came to the rescue, but Surnow still criticizes the Left for allowing the cancellation to happen. "We live in a town that has had their panties in a twist for more than 50 years about Senator Joseph McCarthy and somebody trying to censor you. But I didn't see Hollywood getting up in arms about an attack on civil liberties. I didn't see anybody rush to my support."
The talk turns to a more relaxed subject: How did Surnow develop his love of cigars? "In the early 1990s, I had a friend, a wonderful writer and producer, who used to smoke a lot of cigars. He had Cuban cigars, and we would work together and sit around and come up with story ideas while smoking. But I can't really tell you I loved them. I wasn't a committed smoker."
And then, one of his daughters fanned his interest. "She went to flamenco dancing school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and they did a week in Cuba. And when she came back she brought a dozen Cuban Punch cigars. I smoked one, and it was the most delicious thing. And that moment, I got it."
In addition to the Serie D, he enjoys the Montecristo No. 2—"it's like driving a Rolls-Royce." What he loves most is the sense of camaraderie that smoking among friends entails. "A friend calls it a portable campfire. It's a wonderful way to slow yourself down, to relax and enjoy the company of people in an unhurried fashion." He smokes three or four times a week. "It's been a cold winter. I usually smoke in the backyard. When it gets to be summer I'll be there after dinner. Though I do enjoy it more when I smoke with friends. It makes it a more pleasurable experience. That's what it's about. Cigar people are good people. You find you instantly like people who are fellow smokers."
While he smokes, he sometimes thinks about the future. And he's not certain about it. He feels, he says, that he has "conquered" his worlds. There'll be no more writing, he says, and as for network TV, it's too "grueling," a job more suited for people in their 20s, 30s or 40s who still have something to prove. He is thinking about teaching, giving back, passing his knowledge on to the next generations.
And then there is golf.
"Golf has ruined my life," he says with a laugh. "My family doesn't recognize me anymore. I was a competitive tennis player for about 40 years. Friends told me I was going to love golf. But I hated the idea because as a tennis player I considered myself an athlete. And then a friend took me golfing. I had never played, and I was pretty much creating divots. But I had a couple of good shots. And it was like getting the idea for '24.' It just stayed in my subconscious. And suddenly, a couple of days later, I thought, my body hurts from tennis, I'm going to go out and hit some golf balls. And within two or three months-it's about a year ago-I bought my first set of clubs. And then by summer it was half golf and half tennis. And by winter I had given up tennis and was playing golf full time."
What is it about the game? "Golf describes human behavior perfectly," he says. "Ninety-five percent of the time you're stymied, frustrated. And five percent of the time you're given the reward."
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