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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

(continued from page 2)

" '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."

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