After four seasons of drama, ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager launches its final season tonight at 8 p.m. ET. What began as the story of high-schooler Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) becoming pregnant by Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff) tonight finds Amy buying a wedding dress and — yes — a guest appearance by Chaz Bono as himself. At this momentous point in the show’s history, creator Brenda Hampton takes a little time to reflect on the highs and highers of working on the drama through the years and reveals a handful of “secrets” behind the production.
We had such a good time doing Secret Life, we hated to see production come to an end last fall. We were hoping to keep going until the baby grew up and graduated from college. We put together a wonderful cast and crew; it was a really great group of people, and we shot at the Warner’s Bros. Ranch, best lot in town. When Steve Schirripa (Leo) left the set for the last time, in thanking everyone, he repeatedly said it was the “best job I ever had in my life.” That made me feel really good because I strive to create an environment where everyone can enjoy the work and do their best, knowing that that’s really an impossible goal. I can get a show done on time and under budget; that’s always possible when you work with Lin Parsons (our line producer/unit production manager/director), but making a production a good experience where everyone still has time for a life… that’s a rare experience in Hollywood. And this was one of those rare experiences. I owe most of the credit to Lin and to Bill Asman (our jovial director of photography). I loved going to work every day, and though the job presented a lot of challenges, I’d have to say that The Secret Life of the American Teenager was also the best job of my life.
We took a month long hiatus every August. Thank Molly Ringwald (Anne) for inspiring that idea! The birth of Molly’s twins was in August of the first season, so we took a hiatus to accommodate her. Shows are always in production in August. No one ever gets to go on a family vacation in August with their kids. We liked it so much, we set the schedule so we could do it every August after that.
Secret: I knew Molly was trying to get pregnant when she took the job. She talked with me about it, and I told her if she got pregnant, what I’d like to do was this: George (Mark Derwin) and Anne would split up. In her subsequent depression, Anne would not notice that she was getting increasingly fatter, although everyone else would, and then when Anne finally realized, she’d duck out of town and go to some weight loss camp and come back slim again. Good plan. Only when Molly actually did get pregnant, no one wanted us to go that way, not even Molly.
It took a few seasons, but Molly and I found a storyline for Anne, independent of Amy’s issues, that we both felt very strongly about and that turned into one of our best episodes — the coming-out episode, which was co-written by Anne Ramsay, who plays Ricky’s mother Nora. The couch scene where Anne tells George that she’s gay was my favorite scene for Mark and Molly. Unfortunately, because the show did not go another season, we never got to the gay wedding we wanted to do.
Another episode that I would consider one of our best was the one in which Adrian lost her baby. Francia Raisa did such a wonderful job, as did Ken Baumann (Ben), but it was Steve Schirripa who really broke my heart. He made me weep in the hallway scene, as Leo delivering the sad news to all the friends.
Not exactly a secret, but: During a hiatus on our show, Steve was in The Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood. He was a great mentor to the younger actors, and he’s a very involved father at home in New York, where he has two daughters. His youngest daughter is the starting pitcher for the fastpitch softball team at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn.
NEXT: We knew right away that Shailene was a star.
My favorite scene for Francia and Ken was in a later episode when Adrian and Ben fought over dismantling the nursery. Ken had gone from playing a freshman kid with a crush on a girl to a man suffering the loss of a child, and Francia was no longer just thriving in her comfort zone as the high-school bad girl,. She was exploding into this more complicated role where both her anger and her need to be loved rose to the surface. Francia and Ken were both already really good actors when they came in to the show, and both were amazingly better by the time we wrapped.
Secret: Francia was recently the “best man” at Allen Evangelista’s (Henry) wedding.
Another secret: I’m one of the sponsors for Ken Baumann’s dad, Bob, who races at the Bonneville Salt Flats. I really believe Bob is going to break a world record in his ’79 Chevy Camaro, the Brendavision Special. Someone should write a movie about Bob. Maybe Ken. He’s a writer too, you know.
Really, it was like a second family, the cast and crew of Secret Life. We spent so much time together and the years went by so quickly!
I remember the day Megan Park walked into the room to read for the part of Grace. Usually there’s some conversation so the actor can settle in, relax, get comfortable, but she entered in character, in the scene, and made me laugh out loud with the first words out of her mouth. Megan is a very funny woman. She and Greg Finley (Jack) made me laugh a lot, both on and off the set. Greg was just perfect as the ever-failing Christian athlete. And some of the funniest times we had on set were with the actor — Luke Zimmerman — who played Grace’s brother, Tom. He was only supposed to have a few lines here and there, play the Greek chorus to the wacky Christian family, but he was so good, we loved coming up with stories for him, and I’m going to miss working with him.
Secret: I loosely modeled the character of Grace after my niece, who is a Christian and was a cheerleader in high school. But unlike Grace, my niece stuck to her commitment not to have sex until marriage.
By the way, I don’t know which one of you posted the pictures of Josie Bissett (Kathleen) with the song “Stacy’s Mom,” but we loved that! Could Josie be any more beautiful than she is? Wow. And such a nice woman. And funny too. And a mom in real life, juggling raising two kids with working on our show and writing children’s books. I just wish we had gotten George and Kathleen together sooner. Those two have great chemistry and comedic timing. My favorite scene with the two of them is coming up this season.
Secret: Mark Derwin gets his sense of humor from his hilarious Irish mom, who was a favorite visitor to the set.
I really hope the audience is going to stay tuned for George’s final words of wisdom this season, when Amy’s final-final-final decision comes down to the wire. This follows my favorite scene of the entire series, the confrontation between Ricky and Amy where they’re both going to admit the truth. About everything.
Before Shailene Woodley (Amy) ever walked into the room to audition, I looked at her headshot, looked at Peter Pappas, who we can all thank for casting this show, and I said, “She looks like a star.” And after reading for the role of Amy, when Shailene left the room, I said “She is a star.” So no, I was not surprised when her agent called asking if she could be released to co-star in a film with George Clooney. We found a way to write the story to the actor, as we do so many times in television — whether we’re forced by an outside situation or not. Shailene wanting to leave for the film became the parallel for Amy. From the day we got the call.
And what about Daren Kagasoff? What can I tell you about our Ricky? When we were on location, crowds of girls would find us and they’d scream his name with an enthusiasm not unlike that of girls meeting the Beatles at the airport. Ricky mania! He’s got “It,” whatever “It” is, and he’s got “It” in spades. He’s immensely talented, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a kind man. He was off-book every rehearsal for every scene for every episode for five seasons. He never used sides, ever. That’s commitment.
Secret: Daren’s brother Justin, whose been an extra on the show, has Fragile X syndrome. Daren learned empathy for others and got his big heart from growing up with his brother, so really, he owes his acting career to Justin.
Secret: Justin’s favorite character on the show is Jack.
Shailene’s and Daren’s best scene will be the last scene that they do together as Amy and Ricky, so…
Stay tuned, please. And thank you for watching for five seasons. And thank you ABC Family for putting us on the air and for giving me the best job I ever had and allowing me to give the same to our cast and crew.