Warren Littlefield’s Twisting, Turning, Frigid Road to ‘Fargo’

We got a chance to sit with Warren Littlefield, former NBC entertainment president and current exec producer on FX’s Fargo, during TCA. Soon as we were done talking, Littlefield was off to the airport—headed to Calgary to shoot the upcoming season of Fargo.

My story about Littlefield and Fargo appears in our new issue.

Fargo’s tortuous trip to the TV screen begun back when Littlefield ran programming at NBC, and the network was enjoying its unbelievable run of success, thanks to the likes of Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends and ER. Before departing in 1998, he developed what he describes as a “straightforward adaptation” of the Coen brothers’ beloved movie, and the resulting script was good but did not attain the level of greatness that Littlefield said anything bearing the Fargo name deserves.

The project was killed, then resurrected by CBS, where a pilot—developed by Bruce Paltrow and starring Edie Falco as Police Chief Marge Gunderson—was shot. Episode two did not happen. (You can see the pilot on YouTube, compliments of the brilliant but canceled Trio network’s series Brilliant But Canceled.)

Produced by MGM Television and created by Noah Hawley, FX’s Fargo is anthological. Debuting in 2014, season one had Billy Bob Thornton as one of the creepiest baddies to hit TV in some time. Season two featured an organized crime family headed up by Jean Smart’s character and a massive ensemble cast that included Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson. Set in 2010, season three’s cast includes Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, with McGregor playing a pair of brothers.

Littlefield promises something “more intimate” this time around—“a family drama.”

The 10-episode seasons, each offering a fresh batch of actors and characters, are attractive to film stars. Said McGregor at a Fargo TCA panel Jan. 12: “To explore a character over ten hours as opposed to over an hour and a half or two hours is going to be very satisfying.”

Littlefield acknowledges the pressure to maintain the franchise’s quality and says the cast has a “give us the ball” attitude toward delivering on the high expectations of the new season, which is scheduled to role in late April. “There’s a wonderful cockiness, a sense of ‘let’s play,’” he says.

If the cast had one complaint at TCA, it was the sub-zero temps up in Calgary. (It is 18 degrees as I write this, but the mercury is expected to climb over the freezing mark Tuesday.) McGregor spoke about how he feared he’d done permanent damage to his face while walking around town on a particularly cold day off, prompting an emergency turn into a warm shop.

Littlefield, for his part, credited FX and MGM for letting the Fargo producers take the crime drama to places that TV series don’t normally go. “They're not even sure sometimes where we're going to go,” he said, “but they embrace it, and they've been outstanding in allowing us to create the show that you've embraced.” 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.