Hitmaker Takes Winding PathFrom Protégé to Powerhouse

Last month, executive producer Bill Lawrence, who has already racked up his share of hits, surpassed his own expectations with a rare TV trifecta: All three of his pilotswere greenlit. The slate includes Undateable, NBC’s series about a Casanova who gives his romantically clueless friends a crash course in dating; Fox’s father-son comedy Surviving Jack; and TBS’ Ground Floor, about a banker who falls for his maintenance woman, which will share a network with yet another Lawrence production, Cougar Town.

It’s a significant feat in an a stellar career, the origin of which Lawrence traces back to a life-changing encounter with two Hollywood legends.

In 1990, the Connecticut native and recent college grad chased his dream to L.A. After six months of waiting tables and doing stand-up, a family friend put him in touch with Howard West and George Shapiro, executive producers of Seinfeld and principals of the Shapiro/West management agency. “I said, ‘If you read a script of mine, I promise to never bother you again,’” Lawrence recalls. It took him two tries, but the pair eventually signed him to Shapiro/West and got Lawrence his first writing gig a few weeks later, at age 22.

After bouncing between shows for a couple of years, Lawrence caught the eye of Friends creator David Crane, who put him in touch with producer Gary Goldberg who hired him on a show called Champs. The two hit it off instantly and, a year later, they collaborated to create Spin City.

Spin City debuted in 1996 on ABC, marking the return to TV for Michael J. Fox, who led an ensemble cast of quirky coworkers as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty. Goldberg, who had worked with Fox on Family Ties, suggested bringing Lawrence on board.

Within a week, Lawrence was on a private jet to meet Fox, who embraced the show—and Lawrence. “Mike’s a hugger—in a good way—and that meant that he wanted to do the show,” Lawrence says. “It was a very cool moment for me. I don’t think I realized how important it was at the time because I was an idiot kid and had peroxide blond hair.” Spin City was picked up for 24 episodes.

Doctor in The House

On the heels of Spin City, which was nominated for numerous awards and won Fox an Emmy, Lawrence debuted 2001’s Scrubs, an offbeat comedy about young doctors that gained a devoted following and featured a memorable role for Lawrence’s wife, Christa Miller, as the strong-willed Jordan Sullivan (the couple met in 1998 at an ABC party). In 2009, Lawrence launched Cougar Town, costarring Courteney Cox and, once again, Miller, as members of the wine-guzzling “cul-de-sac crew.”

ABC last year canceled Cougar Town, but it was picked up by its current home— TBS—though it lost Lawrence’s services as showrunner. He remains a consultant on the series. (“I can’t completely escape it because my wife is there, and if I try to, she’ll kill me,” he quips.) Cougar Town is now averaging 2.6 million total viewers. Its season-four finale attracted 2.1 million viewers in liveplus- three-days numbers, with 1.3 million adults 18-49 and 641,000 adults 18-34. “If you get to create a show that you’re passionate about and it actually stays on television, you win,” Lawrence says.

A Full Plate

Lawrence is preparing for two of his pilots to hit the air this fall (Ground Floor will start at midseason). His coproducer, Randall Winston, and his production company, Doozer (which Lawrence coruns with Jeff Ingold), handle a lot of the heavy lifting so Lawrence can stick to what he loves most, writing.

“One of the weird things about creating shows sometimes is that it drags you a little further away from what got you into it in the first place,” Lawrence says. “I’m a writer. That’s why I do this.”

He will be showrunner on two of the new shows, a skill set he learned from Goldberg. “He was my mentor,” Lawrence says. “He essentially taught me how to do everything.”

West calls Lawrence “one of the few who can nurture the actor, run the writer’s room and placate the network/studio at the same time. He will have four shows on the air during the 2013-2014 season. If he gets off the basketball court, he might have a fifth.”

For now, Lawrence is looking forward to building his company and possibly venturing into movies. He also looks forward to catching up on such favorite shows as Parks and Recreation and Game of Thrones.

Even with all Lawrence has on his plate, one of the most important things to him is ushering new writers through their careers. “The truth is, anybody who’s had any success will tell you stories about the people who, out of generosity, helped them through the system and got them in the door. So to be in a position to do that for other people is very cool,” Lawrence says. “It’s a gift.”

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