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A Drama Club President, Once and Forever

Production designer John Shaffner was nominated for his first Emmy helping David Copperfield escape from Alcatraz (yes, he knows the illusionist's secrets; no, he won't give them up). He is responsible for Golden Girls' distinctive orange floral sofa, and modeled the look of the New York apartment in Friends after his own one-time Manhattan abode.

Before all that, he started out in New York theater and then in TV, where he first worked for variety legend Bob Banner (The Carol Burnett Show) and radio DJ-turned-producer Sam Riddle. He worked with them on, among other things, Star Search, for which Shaffner came up with the name (the pilot's title was Talent Challenge).

Few people, in fact, have had a hand in as much landmark TV as Shaffner. But he insists the important thing to know about working in television is actually the converse: How many different hands it takes to make great TV.

“One of the things that attracted me when I was younger to the theater was the sense of community, but also the collaborative process with many people who bring different kinds of talents to the process,” he says. “The challenge of how to make all these puzzle pieces come together was always ultimately my incentive to go into show business and to go into production design.”

The mosaic of people who play different roles in the TV industry also motivated him to get involved in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS). He's now chairman and CEO.

“Los Angeles is a really big city and if you don't have a lot of family in town, there's something kind of neat about the community of people who work in television,” he says.

Prior to his installation as chairman-CEO in January, Shaffner was involved for years in a variety of positions with ATAS, which administers the Primetime Emmy Awards. He ran unopposed last year for the top job, which is voluntary, largely with a goal to continue his work enhancing “existing programs and build new ones that speak about and to our community of TV makers.”

The first thing he did along those lines was to get The Television Academy Honors rolling. The program is now an annual recognition of TV programs that best present societal concerns, according to ATAS, “in a compelling, emotional and insightful way.” The academy held a ceremony in May to honor nine recipients.

It seems that if ever there were a TV academy chairman who saw it as a calling, it's Shaffner. “I was president of the drama club in high school,” he says. “Sometimes you can't help yourself, once you do that kind of thing. I was never heavy duty into school politics per se, but into organizations that benefitted people who worked in that sort of business.”

Shaffner also emits a sort of reverence for TV. “Storytelling is an important part of our culture because this is what goes on from this generation about the last generation,” he explains. “We depend on the storytelling. If you want to look back into the '50s and you're curious about what life was like, you watch an old movie now or you watch I Love Lucy. To watch an episode of I Love Lucy is to see the style of language and work clothing and interior decoration and what was on people's minds, and the simplistic but charming view of the roles that men and women played in that time.”

Performing arts are in Shaffner's blood. His mother started community theaters and also did stage-based tours of food and nutrition product demonstrations along the Eastern Seaboard; after World War II, she worked in the station business in Cleveland. And the arts were a big part of his Missoula, Mont., upbringing, he adds.

In addition to being chairman-CEO of ATAS, Shaffner along with Joe Stewart, his partner in design firm Shaffner/Stewart, provided the production design on the Primetime Emmy Awards this year for the fourth time. They've done it the previous two years and also about a decade ago.

Some of the content of the 2008 show last month didn't come off as well as hoped. Critics panned the reality hosts' opening in particular, but from a design perspective, it worked out, Stewart says.

“There was a lot of flap about the hosts. From my point of view, scenically and everything, it was a delightful experience. The set went up on time, came in on budget and shot well. I enjoy big shows. You get to work with so many people.”

If Shaffner and Stewart sound like they are in sync with their appreciation for teamwork, it is for good reason: They've also been partners personally for 33 years. As Stewart says, he is Shaffner's “partner-partner.” The duo met in 1975 while working on a computer project at Carnegie Mellon. “We just said, 'This is it, let's team up for life,'” Shaffner says.

They founded Shaffner/Stewart in 1987, and the company always has several projects going on at once. The duo has won four Primetime Emmys, among other awards. Shaffner has not slowed down since taking on the bigger role at ATAS, Stewart says: “John's role with the academy is like another project, just a really long-term one.”

Stewart says their success is pretty simple: “We tend to have very good conversations and listen to what the other one says.” Stewart says Shaffner has “all of the attributes of a good Boy Scout.”

Now that California has legalized same-sex marriage, Shaffner and Stewart are considering planning another production: a wedding. But says Shaffner, after more than three decades together, “That would be sort of anticlimactic, wouldn't it?” 

To see a gallery of Fifth Estater caricatures, click here.