Just before Diane English stepped onstage Friday evening in the Buffalo History Museum, she checked her phone. The storied television writer, who was about to be honored as part of the museum’s Giants of Buffalo program, was awaiting word from HBO on the fate of her next project.
“It’s a Friday afternoon,” she told a reporter on the steps of the museum, overlooking a scenic strip of parkland where high schoolers were shooting prom photos in gowns and tuxes. English was referring to the time in Southern California, where she now lives, and where executives from HBO have been reviewing her pitch for a new half-hour comedy called “Good Morning!”
The show, created by English and being developed with the help of famed TV newswoman Katie Couric, is a satire on the state of morning television – a state that, in a May 15 Buffalo News profile, English described as having “degraded into infotainment.”
English, the writer, creator and executive producer of several television shows – most famously “Murphy Brown” in the late 1980s – has been developing “Good Morning!” with HBO for more than a year. She’s written a script for the pilot and a narrative for the full first season. She has a star lined up: Michelle Pfeiffer, who is no small catch for the role of a mid-50s newswoman who’s dumped by her network in favor of a model half her age.
These issues – the state of media, and perhaps above all, women’s place in television – are important to English, who turned 68 this week.
That’s why she was checking her phone for updates. It’s not that she needs to do another show – the success of “Murphy Brown” alone, not to mention her other shows and movies – is enough to make a career.
But two decades after wrapping the last show she ran, Fox’s “Living in Captivity,” English wants to do this one.
“I was hoping to hear,” said English, minutes before taking the stage with the evening’s interviewer, Anthony Chase, the assistant dean of arts and humanities at SUNY Buffalo State.
No luck. But in the meantime, English treated the audience that filled the small auditorium with stories from a career that took her from Nardin Academy (graduation: 1966) to Buffalo State (1970) to a year teaching at Riverside High School, followed by a move to New York City, where she began her professional writing career, and finally Los Angeles, where she became an off-camera star.
The crowd, which included English’s classmates, former students and family (her mother, Anna Sardella, was celebrating her 92nd birthday Friday), learned how English’s Buffalo roots have played out in Hollywood: Phil the Bartender from “Murphy Brown” was named after a bartender from the Parkway Grill during English’s Buffalo State days. She mentioned the “Murphy” character Frank Fontana then said, “The real Frank Fontana is here,” and introduced him; he’s the brother of another successful Buffalo television writer, Tom Fontana.
When English stepped away from “Murphy Brown” after the first four seasons to create a new show, “Love & War,” she ended up hiring three writers from Buffalo – without knowing until after they got the job that they shared her hometown roots.
“We call it the Buffalo connection,” English said. “I felt their energy.”
English talked about CBS’ attempt to convince her that Heather Locklear was perfect for the part of Murphy because the network wanted the character to be “30 and hot.”
But English preferred Murphy to be 40 and complicated – namely, fresh out of rehab from the Betty Ford Clinic. So she ultimately persuaded CBS to go with an actress who could capture that complexity: Candice Bergen, even after she bombed her network audition.
“I have more at stake than she does,” Bergen recalled telling the network executives in making the case for Bergen. “They actually bought it.”
English was asked whether she ever ran into Vice President Dan Quayle, who in 1992 infamously took her task over family values for having Murphy give birth and become a single mom.
She hasn’t, English said, but added that she saw him on the “Today” show a few days ago talking about the current election.
“I have to say in the ensuing years, he’s gotten a little smarter,” English said as the crowd roared. “He seemed articulate. So I don’t know what happened there.”
She had serious moments, too, especially when talking about the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, who starred in English’s series “My Sister Sam.” Schaeffer was shot by a stalker who used to show up on set and who obtained her home address at the DMV for a dollar fee.
After the tragedy, English testified to California lawmakers in Sacramento in an ultimately successful effort to put more stringent privacy laws in place.
When talking about the trend of using real-life journalists on fictional shows, something English used to do on “Murphy” and a casting approach today on series such as Netflix’s “House of Cards” and CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” she commented on the difficulty of being an authoritative news voice.
“When you’re always going on the evening talk shows and kind of performing,” she said, citing NBC’s Brian Williams without describing his well-publicized suspension and demotion, “it’s hard to be the Walter Cronkite that used to be (or) the Mike Wallace.”
Maybe her new show will address that very concern. Maybe. But it needs a green light first.
“Any day now we’re going to get a call,” English said. “It’s going to be, ‘Thank you very much,’ in which case we’ll go right over to Showtime” – the crowd cut in with laughter – “or time to pull the trigger and let’s get going. So we’re on pins and needles right now.”