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John Landgraf: Character in Chief

5/21/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

FX has made its name in programming,
thanks to a memorable collection of highly original
characters on shows ranging from It’s Always Sunny in
Philadelphia
to Sons of Anarchy.

So imagine a show about a guy who bounced around the
country with his parents — Detroit for his early years, before
moving to Southern California for elementary school, Arizona
at 11, New Jersey at 13, and Oakland at 16. Introverted by nature,
the kid, an only child, gets tired of always starting over
and turns to books, movies and television for companionship.

Inspired by memorable characters on shows like All in the
Family
, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues, he
starts down the path to television programming greatness.

Or how about this one: An anthropology student in college
measures the greatness of a civilization not just by its
buildings and systems of government and justice but by the
stories that it creates.

LOVE OF CHARACTERS

In both series, the protagonist would have the same name:
John Landgraf.

The president and general manager of FX Networks is being
honored with a Vanguard Award for Programming. For Landgraf,
who oversees all entertainment and business operations
for FX, FX Productions and Fox Movie Channel, it all comes
back to what he watched growing up. “For me it has always
been about the love of characters and good writing,” he said,
noting that the breakthrough Hill Street provided was showing
that “dramas could have a comedic element.”

FX’s Rescue Me “pushed the mix of comedy and tragedy
more than any other show,” he added proudly. Rescue
Me was just being launched when Landgraf arrived, but
FX has continued its impressive run of dramas that have
earned critical acclaim or strong ratings and often both —
Damages, The Riches, Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American
Horror Story
. All but the latter have either won or been
nominated for Emmy Awards, including Damages star Glen
Close’s back-to-back wins for Outstanding Lead Actress in
a Drama Series in 2008 and 2009.

Landgraf also pushed the network into new territory with an
impressive slate of unique comedies, most notably It’s Always
Sunny
, Wilfred, Archer and Louie, the last of which earned Louis
C.K. two 2011 Emmy Award nominations in the comedy category,
for Outstanding Lead Actor and Outstanding Writing.

“What makes John special as a programmer is his ability to
attract talented creators, identify culturally resonant ideas and
then work with creators to shape those ideas into TV shows
of the very highest quality,” said Landgraf’s boss, Peter Rice,
chairman, entertainment, Fox Networks Group. “John is also
a natural leader with enormous integrity.”

While Landgraf’s track record makes it sound like this was
always his calling, he actually stumbled into television accidentally
and initially resisted the siren call of working for FX.

After failing to get a Rhodes Scholarship, he bounced back
by landing a fellowship that provided him a series of highlevel
internships — he spent time at local utilities and working
for the California Association of Realtors before landing at
a video-production company making industrial films.

“It was the first time in my life I got to go into an editing
room and see how you marry the words, music and pictures,”
he said. Although Landgraf was actually working in the company’s
sales department, he was “absolutely sold” — so much
so that he persuaded the company to let him produce his own
videos, if he could get clients on board, and he walked away
from a public policy master’s just six months before finishing.

Though he had moved back to Southern California for college,
Landgraf was, metaphorically, still a long way from Hollywood.
“I remember being in a corn-canning factory in
Milwaukee in the summer when it was 120 degrees in there,”
he said of one film shoot. “It was not glamorous, but it was a
start. I gave myself two years. Then I’d go back to school and
teach college.”

But just before the two years were up, Landgraf was offered
a job as director of development at Sarabande Productions by
David Manson, who served as a mentor during Landgraf’s six
years there. “I learned about budgets, production, post-production,
everything,” he said.

That experience garnered Landgraf a gig at NBC, where he
worked on shows like Friends, ER, West Wing and, most importantly,
Profiler, where he met his wife, actress Ally Walker.
(They have three children.)

After four and a half years, however, Landgraf was tired of
the network environment, the corporate mentality. So he left
to join Danny DeVito, Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg of Jersey
Films, co-founding Jersey Television. Landgraf got five of
nine pilots on the air. While Reno 911 succeeded on Comedy
Central, his dramas all failed in their first seasons, one on each
major broadcast network: Karen Sisco (ABC), UC: Undercover
(NBC), The American Embassy (Fox) and Kate Brasher (CBS).

Landgraf said the real issue was that basic cable wasn’t yet
looking for dramas at the time, and broadcast television wasn’t
always a good fit for Jersey Television’s shows. Still, when Peter
Liguori asked Landgraf to join FX as president of entertainment
in 2003, he said no.

“I was skeptical that a network could be artist-friendly in
a corporate environment,” Landgraf said. “My days at Jersey
were the happiest of my life. It was an incredible place.”

EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS

But Liguori eventually returned to Landgraf and persuaded
him to take the job, giving him a chance to create the very opportunities
he had found lacking in the network environment.
And he was pleased to find that his corporate bosses were less
corporate than they had been at NBC, trusting him as he trusts
the writers and producers he’s hired to create quirky and original
shows.

“To say my time here at FX has exceeded my expectations
would be an understatement,” Landgraf said.

He added that although he has made plenty of mistakes
and has had his share of disappointments, like the criticallyacclaimed
but little-watched Lights Out, he continues to look
ahead, seeking the next great show.

“It’s the reason I got into the business in the first place,” he
said, “to help foster the next All in the Family or Hill Street.”

September