When Jason Katims received a call 18 years ago from Ed Zwick, a famed filmmaker and producer in Los Angeles, he didn’t even know who the caller was. “He called and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said no, [and he said], ‘As a way of resume, I directed “Glory”, I created a show called “thirtysomething”…’ and I said, ‘OK, I think you can stop there.’”
Katims, who studied theater at Queens College in New York after abandoning a farfetched dream of becoming a rock star, was working as a playwright for local theater. Zwick had stumbled upon a play Katims wrote and liked it so much he called and offered him a job in Los Angeles, where he was developing the ABC series My So-Called Life along with Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman.
Katims accepted and, beginning in 1994, spent a year traveling coast-to-coast for the job, living in New York until he and his wife, Kathy, finally “took the plunge” and migrated west. The job cost Katims countless hours of flying time, but the experience was invaluable, he says.
“It was really much more than a job—it was really sort of like a graduate-school experience for me, because I was able to really learn,” Katims recalls. “I had never really been on a set before. I was able to learn how making a television show worked, and I was learning from the best between Ed, Marshall and Winnie.”
Katims’ “graduation” from My So-Called Life (which lasted a season) led him to write and coproduce the 1996 movie The Pallbearer alongside director, writer and producer Matt Reeves. “It was the only time I’ve worked in a formal way as a team writing something…I always look back on that and think, rather than sitting by myself at the computer, sitting with someone and writing every word together was just a great experience to have.”
That same year, he created a series with Zwick and Herskovitz called Relativity, which featured Katims’ actor father, Robert. The ABC series was only on the air one season. Katims got his next big break a few years later when he created Roswell, which aired on the former WB network in 1999. The series spawned a dedicated fan-base that decried its cancellation in 2002.
After working on a few more shows that faltered, Katims struck gold in 2006 with Friday Night Lights. The series is based on the 2004 film of the same name, directed by Peter Berg—who also served as executive producer of the television show. The show, while wellreceived by critics, did not fare well ratingswise on NBC. After the second season, the network partnered with DirecTV, which gave the satellite provider the ability to premiere the subsequent seasons first, with NBC airing them later in the year.
Working on Friday Night Lights offered Katims the chance to understand the freedom television allows writers. “I know one of Pete Berg’s frustrations in doing the movie was that there was so much in the original book of Friday Night Lights that he just wasn’t able to explore… but over 76 episodes of television, we got to explore so many aspects of that world.”
That exploration has earned Lights some Television Academy Honors—awards that acknowledge “television with a conscience”—which is recognizing the show’s pilot episode for its honest portrayal of a young girl facing the decision to end an unwanted pregnancy. Katims wanted to tell a story that “hasn’t been told,” he says. “We really wanted to do it in a way that was not trying to make a statement politically, but instead to really observe what this girl would be going through if this happened.”
It is not only Friday Night Lights that the Television Academy Honors is saluting. Katims’ 2010 NBC television series, Parenthood, based on the 1989 movie and subsequent 1990 TV series, is also being credited. The honored episode explored the effects that a diagnosis of Asperger’s would have on a family, a departure from the original scripts.
Katims chose the story line “for personal reasons”— his son was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and as he explains, it was “just something that I felt like I needed to write about. But it wound up being something that has been really important to a lot of people who have families with children with autism and Asperger’s, and they feel heard; they feel like their stories are being told,” he says. The story lines following Parenthood character Max Braverman, the 8-year-old son of Adam and Kristina Braverman, reflect upon Katims’ own experiences.
David Nevins, Showtime entertainment president and producer on both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, believes it is a sign of bravery that Katims is willing to share such a firsthand experience. “[Katims] is brave as an artist to write very honestly from his own life,” Nevins says. “I think, especially with Parenthood, there was a moment where he was uncertain about writing about his own family, writing about what it is to be autistic, or to be the parents of an autistic child, and I think he totally rose to that challenge.”
With the final season of Friday Night Lights now airing on NBC, Katims has moved from running two shows concurrently to having Parenthood as his focus. Although his roots remain in playwriting, show-running is such an involved position that it leaves no time for him to return to theater. “I would love to do a play again at some point,” he says. “The problem with television is also what’s great about television: It’s so time-consuming, particularly when you’re show-runner, you have such little time to do anything else.”
Although, given that Katims’ career shifted gears with a random phone call, there’s no telling what other creative roads he may one day suddenly move to.
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