It was a wonderful life in Everwood, Colorado.
When writer Greg Berlanti first pitched the story of Everwood — a family drama about Manhattan neurosurgeon Dr. Andy Brown, who uproots his son and daughter to a small town after his wife dies — the reaction was that it seemed like a modern-day version of a Jimmy Stewart movie. “I told them that I thought it was the closest thing to Frank Capra I’d ever seen,” recalls Treat Williams, who played the good doctor, in reference to the director of It’s a Wonderful Life. “It was just a beautiful pilot.”
Over its four-year run on the WB, Everwood was not only lauded for its brave storytelling about abortion, interracial marriage, and sexually transmitted diseases, it also helped to launch the careers of Chris Pratt, Emily VanCamp, and Berlanti — now one of the most sought-after writer-producers in TV. To mark the 10-year anniversary of the drama’s series finale, we asked the cast and crew to reflect on what made Everwood one of the best family shows of all time.
The year was 2001. Having found a niche with female-friendly series like Gilmore Girls, Charmed and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was ready to develop more dramas featuring the Y chromosome. “There was this whole boys movement,” recalls then programming-exec Jordan Levin. “I remember talking about how there was no honest portrayal of a teenage boy on the air.” After getting the green light from WB to produce a drama about a widower struggling to parent a piano prodigy named Ephram and his precocious sister Delia, Berlanti and producing partner Mickey Liddell set about finding the perfect ensemble of actors who would inhabit the fictitious Colorado community, like the stuffy town doctor, his no-bull mom, and his enchanting daughter Amy. For the leads, Williams was their first stop.
GREG BERLANTI (Creator): It’s not like Treat read for it or anything. He was Treat Williams, so we were lucky to get him on the WB.
TREAT WILLIAMS (Dr. Andy Brown): I was in Los Angeles doing a play and Greg and Mickey came to meet me. We didn’t talk about the show. I showed pictures of my family. I told them about airplanes I fly, the garden I was growing. There was a great feeling of trust that started right away.
BERLANTI: For Ephram, I wanted the male version of Claire Danes in My So-Called Life.
GREGORY SMITH (Ephram Brown, Andy’s son): I remember my agent telling me the WB really liked me but they were worried I wasn’t WB material. I was full of vinegar. I was like, “I’m an actor! My face and my hair should be a blank canvas!” Greg and Mickey helped me pick out an outfit and style my hair before my final audition.
BRENDA STRONG (Julia Brown, Andy’s dead wife): The idea was that I’d come back in flashbacks, similarly and ironically like the future Desperate Housewives role of Mary Alice. People project perfection on me a lot. I guess maybe that helped me get the role.
VIVIEN CARDONE (Delia Brown, Andy’s daughter): I was only 9. My father couldn’t come to Utah so it was just my mom and three siblings. I remember Treat walking up and saying, “Listen, I know your dad isn’t around and that must be really hard. I’m away from my family too, so I’ll make you a deal. If you promise to be my part-time daughter, I’ll be your part-time father.”
EMILY VANCAMP (Amy Abbott, Ephram’s future girlfriend): I had just finished the show Glory Days. I was still very new to the business and didn’t really know what signing onto a series truly entailed.
CHRIS PRATT (Bright Abbott, Amy’s brother): I went in there last minute. I was seriously one day away from leaving L.A. I had no time to read a script. I just decided I’ve got to pretend I am this character. They said, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “Basically this is my TV show, I’m the star, and some little freak moves into my town and wants my sister and I’m putting him in his place. Right? And they said, “Yes.” That’s what I did. After I walked out, I put my ear to the door and heard Mickey and Greg saying, “That’s the guy.”
JOHN BEASLEY (Irv Harper, Amy’s step-grandfather): They were interested in me narrating the show. Irv was kind of earthy, the caretaker of the people. He had been around for a while so he was telling the story of Everwood.
DEBRA MOONEY (Edna Abbott, Amy’s grandma): It was wonderful, the way Edna’s marriage to Irv Harper was introduced. I tell Andy I’m going out and my husband pulls up in a bus. He gets out and we kiss one another. I think we must have been one of the first mixed couples on television.
WILLIAMS: During the first season, a lot of actors came to guest on the show [with the attitude], “Oh, boy, now I’m on a teen show, what’s happened to my career?” The following season, we got James Earl Jones, Beau Bridges, Betty White.
BERLANTI: We had Kristen Bell play a young teenager who wanted breast enhancements! J.K. Simmons played an auto mechanic who could see your future but he didn’t want the gift.
SCOTT WOLF (Dr. Jake Hartman, the town’s third doc): Because of Party of Five, I was weaned on emotional family dramas. I definitely spoke the show’s language. I was designed to be an irritant.
One of the hallmarks of Everwood was its honest portrayal of social issues. “This show was always meant to be in the vein of shows like Picket Fences that dealt with relevant topical issues that we could humanize,” explained Berlanti. But some of the plot points didn’t always sit well with the morality police.
BERLANTI: Since we were on after 7th Heaven, people were expecting it to be like that. Ephram had a wet dream about Amy in the pilot episode! It made certain people uncomfortable.
VANCAMP: I remember being a little bit shy about that.
RINA MIMOUN (Executive Producer): We were trying to find things that would cause a stir in a community like Everwood. In the third episode, a teenager walks into Andy Brown’s office and gets diagnosed with gonorrhea of the throat.
BERLANTI: I wanted to talk about what happens when a young child says a bad word so we had Delia say s—. We literally had the standards and practices people on the stage. The only way they would allow it was if I dropped the T when she said it.
CORDONE: I remember my mom sitting me down and saying, “Listen, this is a big word that big people use but this is part of your job. This is part of what comes with being an actor and just because you have to say it doesn’t make you a bad girl.”
BERLANTI: Originally, the show was supposed to be about an abortionist who moves his family to this small town. The WB execs said, “If you want to deal with abortion, we promise you we’ll let you deal with it in the first year. But don’t make it the central idea of the series.”
MIMOUN: First they said no. Then they said, “Okay, but Dr. Andy Brown can’t be the one who does it. You have to switch to [Dr. Harold Abbott, Amy and Bright’s dad, played by Tom Amandes],” which was the only part of the process that actually made the storytelling better.
LEVIN: I think the Salt Lake City station wouldn’t carry it, the irony being today that no one would think twice about a story like that. But at the time it was a heavy lift.
MOONEY: One that stands out for me was when my daughter [played by Marcia Cross] tells me she has AIDS. I hold it together when I’m with her but then when I go home and walk up the stairs, Irv comes out at the top and I just loose it by crying.
Having changed time slots four times in its fourth season, Everwood’s viewership average dropped from 4.3 million to a 3.6 million — making it a prime target for cancellation in the wake of the WB/UPN merger to the CW in 2006.
BERLANTI: It became about who is going to make the switch to the CW. It was us, Veronica Mars, and Supernatural that were all fighting for our lives, and we had heard that two of the three would basically make it.
WILLIAMS: I was in the middle of renovating a very large house. I was in the middle of it and the show got canceled.
MIMOUN: We created two endings because we weren’t sure whether we were coming back. The one that aired had Amy [revealing her feelings to Ephram]. The other one, which we shot but no one ever saw, had Ephram about to go downstairs to meet Amy but then he gets a call from Madison [his old girlfriend who had their baby], which keeps him in the apartment. We were going to play it out with the return of Sarah Lancaster.
VANCAMP: It would have been really disappointing for the fans had Ephram and Amy not ended up together.
MOONEY: I had that RV. I always thought that Edna should just take that and set out and go around the country. We could have done a new series called Edna on the Road.
MIMOUN: There is no good-God reason why this show isn’t on Netflix by now. It’s so frustrating. [Ed. note: The full series is available on Amazon for purchase].
BERLANTI: It was so magical, what happened every step of the process. I’ve never really quite had the same kind of experience since on any of the shows I’ve worked on.