Warren Littlefield was the President of NBC television from 1991-1998 and was the decision maker behind the launch of NBC’s Must See TV era that brought audiences such iconic and embedded pop culture shows as Cheers, The Cosby Show, Will & Grace, Frasier and Mad About You.
Littlefield’s reflection of those years and how these shows grew from ideas to franchise tentpoles is outlined in ‘Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV’ a new book written by Warren Littlefield with T. R. Pearson.
Warren takes us on a magical ride back through the glory years of the network and we get behind the scenes details on almost every show that was green-lit by his administration including Law & Order, ER, Seinfeld, Just Shoot me and The West Wing.
The book is a brisk read thanks in large part to the format which breaks his tenure an NBC down in chapters that coincide with the birth of its most popular shows, and it’s writing style that has everyone and anyone that was working at NBC at the time a voice with each page consisting of various quotes and observations by all those involved.
Actors such as Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Lisa Kudrow (Friends), Helen Hunt (Mad About You), Sean Hayes (Will & Grace), Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier) and Noah Wyle (ER) all contribute multiple observations in the book as does television visionaries James Burrows (Cheers), Dick Wolf (Law & Order), John Wells (ER) and Peter Casey (Cheers/Wings) just to name a few.
Warren can be full of himself at various times throughout the read, but considering his track record, who can blame him for the chest pounding.
The insights into each of the hit shows is, in a word, fascinating. We learn that Fred Dryer (Hunter) was going to be Sam Malone on Cheers (a role that went to Ted Danson). We read about Kelsey Grammer’s personal issues with substance abuse and how his personal life was thrown into arrears (“Warren: Kelsey’s father and sister were murdered in separate incidents. His twin half brothers died in a scuba-diving accident”). How ER was a script that was laying around from the 1960’s before NBC dusted it off.
Anyone who ever wanted to know about the dealings behind the scenes or how a successful show gets put together should invest themselves in this book. For our money, the chapter on ER (a show we never watched) was the most fascinating. How George Clooney asserted himself as the ringleader right away with the ensemble even though he had about 20 failed pilots on his resume. That when the show premiered to huge ratings that Noah Wyle took two women back to his hotel room for the first time. Or how Julianna Margulies’ character was meant to die in the initial pilot.
Chapters on the Seinfeld show’s rise and Jerry’s idea to walk away from a $110 million/year contract; how John Lithgow was possibly going to play Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs until he got offered Third Rock from the Sun; and how NBC sabotaged other shows to get the cast they wanted for Friends make for an exceptional and absorbing read that unfortunately only lasts 321 pages.
Even the board room fights and battles between Warren and his NBC boss Don Ohlmeyer were riveting pages of fly-on-the-wall information.
Dan Harrison (now senior vice president of development at CBS) writes that “Working at NBC in the Must See era was like playing for the 1927 Yankees”. No statement can possibly be more on the mark. And Warren Littlefield has given us a behind the curtain look at what it was to be the Babe Ruth AND the Lou Gehrig of that time.
Top of the Rock is the best insider book we have ever read on the entertainment industry and we hope that Warren has an encore still in him.