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‘Murphy Brown’ creator Diane English sets sights on return to TV

SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. – Diane English has built herself a nice life here in Southern California. She has a 1930s Spanish-style home in the Pacific Palisades. She has a tidy office in the San Fernando Valley, with posters and awards from her television shows on the wall, and a few framed, screaming Dan Quayle newspaper headlines too.

English rarely comes to this office. She doesn’t need to. When she works, she writes, and she can write at home in her office, which has French doors that open to a small terrace overlooking a garden. Or she can write in New York City, where she keeps an apartment, or Martha’s Vineyard, where she owns a summer home on the beach.

English, who turns 68 this week, is financially secure, thanks to a lifetime of work as a television writer highlighted by the groundbreaking show she created, “Murphy Brown.”

She doesn’t need to work. She doesn’t need to write.

Or does she?

Every morning, when English wakes up and heads to the kitchen of her home in the Palisades, she makes breakfast and turns on the television. She watches the morning shows, and for a while now, she’s been thinking she has something to say about them – and on a broader note, about the state of the media, and women’s place in it.

And then there’s her mother. Anna Sardella, who turns 92 this week and still lives in Buffalo. She really wants her famous daughter to do it again.

“You know, you’ve just got to do one more, Diane. You’ve just got to do one more,” Sardella has said to English, who was sitting behind the desk in her Sherman Oaks office re-creating what seems to be a frequent conversation with her mother.

“And I go, ‘You know, I’m happy to just be living my life the way I’m living it,’ ” English said.

Which only sparks an insistent reply: “No, you’ve got to do one more.”

Now, with the inspiration of morning television and the help of a famous news anchor and A-list actress, that’s exactly what English is doing.

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English, who grew up in Buffalo and graduated from Nardin Academy and SUNY Buffalo State College, is one of television’s most successful writers and influential women. She’s created or run several shows, from “My Sister Sam” in the ’80s to “Love & War” in the ’90s. She wrote and directed a 2008 feature film, “The Women” (based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce), starring a full red carpet’s worth of notable actresses, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Of course, her landmark achievement is “Murphy Brown,” the sitcom starring Candice Bergen as a hard-nosed, conflicted television journalist. The sitcom ran on CBS from 1988 to 1998 and is considered a groundbreaking show in television history. It won 18 Emmy awards and redefined how women were portrayed on TV shows.

“Diane really created a female character that hadn’t been seen in television before, who is strong, who is vulnerable, at the same time had alcohol issues and was coming out of rehab,” said Gregg Maday, a Buffalo native who was a high-ranking CBS executive when English was beginning the show. “So she created a character that just hadn’t existed in series television.”

Maday knew her in high school when he was a student at Canisius High School.

English, said Maday, “had that show in her DNA. She knew that show immediately.”

That’s true: English actually conceived the idea for “Murphy Brown” while stuck in traffic on the perpetually clogged I-405 expressway in Los Angeles. But what brought English to L.A., and what positioned her to have that pop-culture-changing eureka moment, was the encouragement of a Buffalo State professor who saw showbiz stardom in a then 19-year-old student.

English was a college sophomore when she met Warren Enters, a Broadway director and Tony-winning producer who came to Buffalo in 1968. He intended to teach at the college only a semester.

“Then (he) really fell in love with all of us, and vice versa, and stayed on,” English said.

She was majoring in English education – “The prevailing wisdom was, ‘You better have a nice, solid education and degree to fall back on’ ” – but wanted to be a playwright.

English began taking theater classes with Enters, and also served as his assistant director for a play.

“She had a wonderful sense of humor, which I think is the basis of intelligence,” said Enters, 93, speaking by phone from his country home in Salem, N.Y. “She was great fun, and smart, two qualities I think are important in people.”

Through Enters, English realized “teaching was not going to be in my future,” although she kept her major and, after graduation, taught for a year at Bennett High School. At the same time, though, she saved money, hoping to move to New York City.

One afternoon, Enters recalls, he met English for lunch at Cole’s. She was unhappy with teaching, and he offered her his advice.

“I don’t say this to students, generally, but I think you should go to New York,” he told her.

From Enters, who himself was an established name in the New York theater world, that was big advice. Rare advice, too.

“I don’t usually encourage people to take off,” he said.

In fact, over the course of his teaching career, he gave that advice to only one other student: Tom Fontana, who went on to write for “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues” and create the hit HBO show “Oz.”

“It worked out,” Enters said.

English moved to New York, got a job writing for Vogue and then for public television. After establishing her credits on the east coast, she moved to Los Angeles with then-husband Joel Shukovsky in the early 1980s.

By the end of the decade, English’s writing voice was one of the most prominent in television.

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English carries herself like a TV or movie star. She’s eloquent, speaking in calm but commanding tones. She’s tall and graceful, with round eyes, short blond hair, and – well, let’s let her friend (and now collaborator) Katie Couric take it from here.

“She has very nice legs,” said the TV newswoman Couric, who’s now the global anchor for Yahoo News. “She did a pantyhose ad. Did you know that?”

Uh, no. English doesn’t bring that up in conversation.

“I think she did it for Hanes,” said Couric, whose recollection is correct. English appeared in “The Lady Prefers Hanes” magazine advertisements in the early ’90s.

“Isn’t it funny that I remember that?” Couric said, speaking by phone. “She was featured in a lot of magazines, a full-page ad for Hanes with her legs in all their glory.”

Translation: English conveys a confident, almost regal, but relatable air.

“I always, always loved seeing her, enjoyed seeing her, and appreciated her humor and intelligence,” said Couric, who first met English as a guest star on “Murphy Brown.”

When you see English on television with the actors whom she supervised – a “Murphy Brown” reunion two years ago on Couric’s former talk show is an example – it can be tricky to tell her apart from the on-camera performers.

Performing is in English’s genes. Anna Sardella was a singer who stopped performing when she married Diane’s father, Richard English, because he didn’t want her onstage. After divorcing English, Sardella started singing again. Her daughter even cast her as the frontwoman of a band for an episode of “Love & War.”

Diane, however, had none of her mother’s desire to take the stage. Aside from media appearances and a few cameos in her own shows, she’s always demurred from the spotlight – even as a little girl. Sardella took little Diane to ballet school but “she hated it,” Sardella said.

“I would learn all the new steps, not her,” she said.

Sardella tried to get her daughter to sing, too.

“I took her to an amateur show so she could perform, and she hated that,” she said. “That was never her thing, to be in the front. She always wanted to be in the background doing her writing, creating. That was Diane.”

English’s desire to be in the background was tested in 1992. She wrote a storyline that had Murphy Brown getting pregnant and having a baby as a single mom. That drew the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle who, when giving a speech on values, walloped the fictional character.

Which, in essence, was slamming English.

“It doesn’t help matters,” Quayle said, “when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

The media reaction was loud: CBS anchor Dan Rather called English and asked her to appear on the evening news. The news magazine show “60 Minutes” wanted English to debate Quayle. (Didn’t happen. “He didn’t want to debate me. I had better writers, I guess, than he did,” said English, who unlikely would have agreed to it anyhow.)

The New York Times made it the lead story, including a picture of Bergen, as Murphy, with the baby. That front page is mounted in a black frame and hanging on the wall of English’s Sherman Oaks office.

So is a New York Daily News headline: “Quayle to Murphy: YOU TRAMP!”

English has a T-shirt with the New York Post’s headline: “Murphy has baby, Quayle has cow.”

Aside an issued statement, English avoided the media fray, which was – and remains – a seminal example of politics and pop culture intersecting. Sitting behind her desk and gazing at the framed headlines, English sees a connection between that spat nearly a quarter-century ago and the media environment of today, one in which she says “the evening news and ‘Entertainment Tonight’ have now become the same show.”

“In a way, it feels like all of what’s happening now almost started around that time, when what was happening with a fictional character bled so deeply into our political system,” said English, noting that her goal was to make people feel like Murphy was a real person.

“So I obviously succeeded, because Dan Quayle did treat her that way,” she said. “But that blending of fiction and nonfiction and not being able to separate what happens on television to how you go to the polls was, I feel like that was sort of the first explosion of that.”

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Remember how English’s mother wants her daughter to create “one more” show?

It’s happening – she hopes.

With the assistance of her friend Couric and actress Michelle Pfeiffer, English is developing a half-hour comedy set around morning television. The idea was sparked by the programming English sees every morning over breakfast in her Palisades home.

“I’ve been fascinated by how morning television has sort of degraded into infotainment, primarily, and how it covers the gamut,” she said. “They’ll have like a half hour of actual news and the rest of it is just a free-for-all.”

Couric, who hosted NBC’s “Today” show from 1991 to 2006, and Pfeiffer are joining English as executive producers for the show, tentatively titled “Good Morning!” English has written a pilot and a “bible” (essentially, a narrative description of the story arc) for the first season of the show, which is under consideration at HBO.

“And it’s not ‘Murphy Brown’ 2016,” English said. “It’s a very different kind of character and a very different kind of show.”

If “Good Morning!” advanced through the development process, which has been underway for a year, Pfeiffer will play the lead character: a mother and journalist in her mid-50s who is wooed into morning television. But, like English in real life, the character becomes disenchanted with programming decisions. She pushes for change, but instead gets pushed out, and ends up taking a job on the fourth-rated morning show.

Pfeiffer’s character, English said, is “not as edgy” as Bergen’s Murphy. She has a daughter bound for college and is married – although, drawing from her own life, English plans to have Pfeiffer’s character get divorced. (English and Shukovsky divorced six years ago.)

“That’s a character I don’t see explored in television very much – a woman in her mid-50s,” English said. “When I went to HBO and pitched this, they said, ‘You know, we’d like to make the show as much about that as morning television.’ And I said, ‘Would you repeat that please?’ Because never in my life have I ever heard a television executive say, ‘We want to know more about what it’s like to be a woman in her mid-50s.’ So that’s been a real pleasure. I get a chance to write a lot about my own experience too.”

Couric, who’s 59, is providing English with insights on the television business, from anecdotes for creative inspiration to logistics that help make the show realistic.

“Katie knows where the bodies are laid,” English said. “She’s been incredibly helpful. The stories that she tells, it’s amazing.”

Couric, in a separate conversation, said, “I’m providing a lot of material, just because I’ll say to her, ‘Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened to me today.’ Or, ‘This was such a funny moment.’ ”

Couric declined to share specific examples of that material, but said she and English have talked about “the transactional nature of fame” and “the social pecking order,” such as a celebrity’s ability to get a large or short-notice reservation at a trendy restaurant.

“Funny things like that,” Couric said. “Those are just very ripe for satire and social commentary.”

English and her collaborators could hear back from HBO soon, perhaps even by the end of May. If the network green-lights the project, it will be English’s first television series since 1998, which means “Good Morning!” will be the first show she’s produced in the era of quick-feedback social media, where viewers can double as unfiltered, instant critics.

“I’m not sure I’m going to like that or think that that’s very productive,” English said. “It’s a little scary, actually.”

But she’s feeling excited, too. Remember, she doesn’t have to do this. She wants to do it. The HBO approach appeals: Each season would be a lifestyle-friendly 10 episodes, not the standard 26 she did annually for other shows. Over the past several years, English has strived to strike a balance in her life, one she never achieved while in the ’80s and ’90s.

“I look back on an intense 15 years without a break, and the stress level, the lack of personal time, the inability to travel, just the sheer responsibility,” English said. “You’re not carefree, you know, and those were really important years of my life, from the age of 35 until the age of mid-50s. Those were important good health years, and I was really in a room this size” – imagine a small conference room – “with seven other people and it went by really fast. So now I’m trying to make up for it.”

But she’s also trying to say something about the state of the media. And, of course, follow the advice of her mother: Do it one more time.

Anna Sardella, like her daughter, anxiously awaits word from HBO.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they accept it – I’d like to see her win another Emmy,” said Sardella, who attended awards shows with her daughter as Diane won Emmys, Writers Guild prizes and other honors. “I wouldn’t miss any of them. She has so many trophies, so many awards, it’s unbelievable.”

But there’s always room for one more.

email: toshei@buffnews.com