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The Men Behind the Screens

These TV Executives Show that Not All Cigar-Smoking media Moguls Are in Film
Susan Karlin
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

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While McCormick's job keeps him looking toward the future, his tastes in cigars hearken to the past. "I've got a stash of 35-year-old cigars that a friend gave to me that are as smooth as silk," says McCormick, a smoker since college. "You know you're smoking some history right there. A good aged cigar is absolutely fantastic. It becomes more mellow and less harsh. Those I reserve for when I want to give myself a treat. You literally watch history burn up before you. The oldest cigar I ever smoked was about 40 years old. I really feel blessed to have tasted it, because it was so smooth, so mellow."

His favorite setting for a smoke is after dinner with friends, sitting outside on the porch at Nick and Toni's restaurant on Long Island, accompanied by a strong Colombian coffee. "That to me is a good way to close down an evening," he says, between puffs of a Davidoff robusto. "If you savor it and ritualize it, it's like Zen, flowing in, flowing out."

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Once, a Yankee Stadium guard refused to let him hold an unlit cigar. "He said, 'There's no smoking here,' " recalls McCormick. "I said, 'But it's unlit.' He said, 'There is no PROMOTING of smoking here.' It was like a 'Seinfeld' episode."

Fortunately, he hasn't had to convince his colleagues. "Some of them already smoke and I love it," says McCormick, who keeps a humidor in his New York City office. "It's great to smoke a cigar with a woman. Nothing is better than to give a woman who smokes cigars one of your best stash and have her appreciate it. There is a camaraderie among cigar smokers in that we have something we want to share. I never walk out of my house with one cigar, even if that's all I'll smoke."

Love At First Puff
"In college, I started having cigars after sex as an early indication of whether I could fall in love with that woman," says producer Tom Fontana. "If she said, 'Can I have a puff?' I'd immediately fall in love," he says with a laugh. "But a lot of them said, 'Get that smelly thing out of my room!' Don't forget, it was the '60s, and cigar smoking was not so acceptable among hippies. They were like, 'Isn't that a rich, fat, capitalist thing to do?' I was part of the hippie movement, but I also liked to maintain my own individuality.

"Then I got into television in the early '80s and started to make money, so I went from smoking El Stinkos to Cubans," he says with a grin. "So now it fits with a rich, fat-cat image. But I'm way too old to have to look at the rebellion side. I'm just trying to stay awake."

Fontana's mellow facade belies a mind that produces (with film producer-director Barry Levinson) some of TV's more strongly charged fare: NBC's police drama "Homicide" and HBO's gritty prison drama "Oz." In a cluttered, no-frills office at New York's Chelsea Piers, he still pens scripts longhand, sports an earring and maintains a cavalier air about everything--except creative responsibility.

"I think the trend in TV now is for mediocrity," he says. "I've been doing television for 17 years and in the last five, I've felt the corporate hand on my shoulder. Back in the '80s, it seemed the decision making was on a much more personal level and people were excited about making exciting programs. Today, the ultimate consideration is about the money, with people making programs just to fill a space, which is sad."

Fontana sees the less restrictive cable industry as the breeding ground for more innovative programming. "The freedom is extraordinary. It's amazing what they'll let you do," he says. "And I've tried to take that freedom very seriously, in that I'm going to use it to tell the stories as well as I can tell them. I also didn't want to fuck it up so the next producer would hear, 'Well, we trusted Fontana, why should we trust you?' "

His approach to cigars brings the same elements of respect and rebellion. A co-owner of the Manhattan cigar bar and restaurant Granville, Fontana prefers such smokes as Montecristos, Romeo y Julieta Churchills and the occasional Cohiba--as much for the taste as the contraband.

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