Phoef Sutton was born in Washington DC. He cut his eye teeth as a playwright, but first made a living as a writer in TV.
He worked on the classic NBC series CHEERS for eight years, and went on to write movies (THE FAN, MRS. WINTERBOURNE) and
also serve as consulting producer and writer for BOSTON LEGAL and TERRIERS. He lives in South Pasadena, CA and Vinalhaven
ME with his wife and two daughters.
You worked on the hit show CHEERS with NBC for eight years and then went on to film, writing scripts for MRS WINTERBOURNE
(1996, Shirley MacLaine, Brendan Fraser) and THE FAN (1996, Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes). Was it a considerable shift to go
from writing for the small screen to the big screen?
You know, it’s funny, I’ve written in just about every form imaginable: Prose, plays, multi-camera comedy, hour drama and film.
And approach every one of them from the same angle –character. If the character holds an interest for me, the form doesn’t really
make that much difference. A story is about interesting characters doing interesting things.
How did you get your start producing and writing for film and TV? Was it something you always “knew you’d do,” or was there more
to it than that?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. As far a producing and writing for TV, I didn’t really know that career existed. All I knew
about being a television writer came from watching episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – which is actually pretty accurate! I came out
to L.A. wanting to “be a writer.” Nothing more specific than that. I had a college friend, Barbara Hall, who was writing for NEWHART
and she told me to write a “spec script” – sort of an audition script for the show. I wrote several drafts and Barbara helped me with
them. I submitted it to the show. Then Barbara and everyone she knew left the show. So the script was in the office, but no one who
knew me was working there. I chalked it up to bad luck and went on with my life. THREE YEARS later somebody at NEWHART read it, liked
it and called me up to take me to lunch. I’d forgotten all about the script, but a free lunch was not to be turned down. They didn’t
have a job for me, but they encouraged me. An agent got the script to Heide Perlman at CHEERS. And the rest, as they say…
“Write. Write constantly. Write like your life depends on it. Writing is the only way to get better at writing.”
What are some of your most memorable moments working in television and film? Have you met a lot of great actors? Do you have any juicy
gossip (past or present) that you can share? Was there ever anyone who was just phenomenal or impossible to work with?
It’s been my pleasure to work with some legendary, monster talents. Aside from Ted Danson and the cast of CHEERS, I’ve worked with
John Cleese, Sheldon Leonard, Brian Dennehy, Cloris Leachman, Robert De Niro, Shirley MacLaine, Rickie Lake, Celeste Holm, Victor Garber,
Michael Chiklis, Ray McKinnon, Garrett Dillahunt, Cheech Marin… and Rob Schneider. I have nothing bad to say about any of them… except
Rob Schneider. He’s a real a-hole.
Writing for film and TV seems like the dream for most aspiring writers (novel or script), but I’m sure it’s not all “rainbows and ponies.”
What are some of the tough experiences you’ve had?
It’s funny because my “dream” has always been to write books. Writing for TV is just my job. And it’s filled with tough experience.
The toughest being also the best. It’s a collaboration. You seldom get to transfer your vision precisely to the screen.
The collaboration with actors and network and studio executives can be rewarding – and it can drive you crazy. At it’s worst, it can
block you at every turn, until you don’t know which end is up.
While it's clear what a co-writer/writers role is, what exactly is the role of a co-producer/producer?
What's the difference between a co-producer, producer and executive producer?
“The one thing I never thought about while trying to break into the business is ... how hard it is
to STAY in the business ...”
In TV, the Executive Producer is what is known as “the showrunner.” The Boss. The Head Honcho.
One of the producers is the “line producer” – roughly the same as the stage manager in theater.
The one who figures out the budget and the physical process of actually making the show.
All the other titles are generally the writing staff. The rankings reflect the pay grade.
There’s no other real difference.
Do you have future plans for film and/or TV (producer or scriptwriting wise)? Anything you can share?
I’m always doing something. Always selling something. Always writing something. That’s my job.
Do you have any advice for writers either already in this field, or seeking to get in it?
Write. Write constantly. Write like your life depends on it. Writing is the only way to get better at writing. At some point,
there’s no telling how or when, you’ll get to show your stuff to someone that matters. You better have something special to pull out
for that occasion. Or better yet, several something specials.
Like we’ve already stated, you’ve been both a producer and writer for some incredible shows on television: Cheers, Boston Legal,
and Newhart to name a few, which leads me to ask: What made you decide to give novel writing a try?
And TERRIERS! That was one that I really think was special. But why give novel writing a try? I always wanted to be a novelist.
That’s the big leagues, as far as I’m concerned.
15 MINUTES TO LIVE was originally released in 1998 as ALWAYS 6 O’CLOCK. What were some of the challenges you had, going from script
writing to novel writing? Is there a significant difference between the two, and how so?
The biggest difference is writing in complete sentences – stage directions don’t call for that. The biggest advantage is being able
to get inside characters heads and show what they’re thinking and feeling. I love that!
What made you decide to rewrite your original novel and why the change in title to 15 MINUTES TO LIVE?
One of the greatest disappointments of my life was realizing that “network interference” is [not] confined to TV.
When I sold ALWAYS SIX O’CLOCK to the publisher, I was shocked to receive numerous “notes,” designed to turn
it from Cornell Woolrich-style noir thriller into a straight romance. The end result pleased nobody and the book sank without a trace.
“One of the greatest disappointments of my life was realizing that "network interference" is [not] confined to TV.”
Was a lot changed during the rewrite process? Did you find that you added more content or removed more?
So it has always been a dream of mine to publish the original version of the book, before it was “improved.” That original
version was read and loved by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. I never thought it would see the light of day. Thank God
for electronic publishing! Now I can bring that book to the public.
You also contributed MIDNIGHT SPECIAL to Lee Goldberg’s popular series THE DEAD MAN. How did that come about,
and what was that like for you?
Lee and I have been friends for several years. We’ve pitched projects for TV shows together – none that have
been made so far. When Lee told me of his wonderful plan for the DEAD MAN, I volunteered myself. To my surprise,
he accepted! Now I’m co-writing the first in a series of full-length novels that will go with it. It’s all very exciting.
Do you have any other novels planned in the near future? If so, what can you share with us?
I have two new novels. CRUSH (a hard-boiled thriller) and FROM AWAY (a ghost story). They should be coming out
Being that you have a history in both film and TV, I have to believe you’re asked the same questions over and over
(some of which I’m guilty)—Where do you get your ideas? Can you get me a job? How did you get started? But in
closing, I want to turn the tables: What’s the one question you wish you were asked, and how would you answer?
The one thing I never thought about while trying to break into the business is… how hard it is to STAY in the
business after you’ve gotten in. There is no coasting. It is a constant struggle to stay relevant and fight
age-ism. I don’t even mention that I wrote for CHEERS too much anymore. It’s ancient history as far as the
executives are concerned.
Daniel S Boucher