John Masius finds ''Providence'' on NBC -- The ''Touched by an Angel'' producer divines a mid-season hit

By Bruce Fretts
Updated March 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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John Masius points out a missile casing he’s converted into a planter in his office on the set of Providence, which is shot on the grounds of an old munitions factory. ”My fear,” cracks the creator, ”was that I was going to make another bomb.”

Far from it. Providence, which stars Melina Kanakaredes as an L.A. plastic surgeon who moves back to her Rhode Island hometown, is the season’s most surprising smash. It’s also the hard-earned peak of Masius’ rollercoaster TV career. ”He’s had a rough go of it the last 10 years,” says Tom Fontana, Masius’ St. Elsewhere writing partner. ”It’s nice when people who’ve been through s— get a little sweetness.”

Masius got his first taste of showbiz in 1978 when producer Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth’s dad), whom he had waited on in an L.A. eatery, hired him as a gofer on CBS’ high-school-hoops drama The White Shadow. Within three years, the waiter was promoted to producer. ”In a lot of ways, the jobs are similar,” says Masius. ”Except the tips are better as a producer.”

Paltrow brought Masius to NBC’s St. Elsewhere, where he and Tom Fontana formed an award-winning team. Despite their divergent current work — Fontana runs the dark-souled Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz — their sensibilities were similar back in St.’s day. Recalls Masius: ”As much of the sweet stuff was his, some of the crazy, wack s— was mine, and vice versa.”

Masius eventually set out on his own, working on a succession of short-lived series, including CBS’ down under family drama Dolphin Cove (Jaws scribe Peter Benchley’s pilot was ”a little darker than it had to be,” says Masius), NBC’s Ferris Bueller knockoff (his theory why the Charlie Schlatter starrer failed: ”It didn’t have Matthew Broderick”), and CBS’ dramedy Brooklyn Bridge, for which Masius won his second Humanitas Prize for showcasing positive values.

Then, admits Masius, ”I made a huge career mistake and went to work on L.A. Law.” Hired in 1992 to ”shake up” the NBC serial’s seventh season, he ”found the cast to be incredibly mean-spirited…. We were caught in a show that quite frankly was on its last legs.” Fired after 12 episodes, he endured an annus horribilis that also included one of his sons being diagnosed with autism (ironically, a condition that Masius had written about extensively on St. Elsewhere).

He channeled his energy into the pilot for CBS’ Touched by an Angel, but got axed before the first episode aired because he refused to temper the script’s skepticism about God’s goodness. Nonetheless, as its creator, Masius has cashed in on Angel‘s ascension. ”It’s like watching a stock,” says Masius, who still earns residuals from the series. ”I deserve it. I didn’t ask to be fired. It’s called a contract.”

Masius turned to sitcoms with NBC’s The Single Guy (”I enjoyed the people, but the process was hideous”) and sci-fi with the Fox flop The Visitor (”The sci part was bad, the fi part I got,” admits the technophobe). Finally, he created his own Providence.

Providence

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  • NBC

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