"God this is scary. F---!" Helen Mirren is standing in the doorway of a cramped conference room on the 17th floor of NBC's celebrated 30 Rockefeller Center, staring in surprise at a sea of producers, performers and writers who are overflowing the tiny space.
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Around 70 men and women, many dressed in hoodies and jeans, are gathered at a large wooden table, on which plates of fruit slices and sandwiches sit half-eaten. With three days to go before showtime, much of the talent is exhausted on this Wednesday afternoon — hardly surprising given that several of them, including head writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers, haven't left the building since the previous afternoon.
Within moments, Mirren has joined them at the table and is preparing for the "Saturday Night Live" read-through, which has been held at 30 Rock every show week since the program first aired in fall 1975. In any other setting, the Oscar winner would be the center of attention. But not here. One of the writers glances at an empty chair right next to Mirren, knowing that the person who matters most is the one who will soon fill it.
At 4:25 p.m., silver-haired and dressed in a comfortable V-neck sweater and khakis, Lorne Michaels, "SNL's" creator and executive producer, eases into the room without fuss or fanfare. He takes his seat next to Mirren, and immediately the group plunges into the first sketch, a spoof of the Fox News morning show "Fox & Friends," with Mirren playing a convincing redneck.
In the intense four hours that follow, which are broken up by only one 15-minute break, Michaels gives no comment, no direction and almost no reaction, speaking only to read stage directions for each sequence, always in a hushed monotone. If he likes or dislikes what he hears, he says nothing, revealing only the occasional smirk or frown.
By 6:15, the first half of the read-through is over. The crowd quickly disperses, and Michaels leaves the room as invisibly as he entered.Story: How Bethenny Frankel used reality TV to earn $120 million
If Johnny Carson was NBC's king of late-night, Michaels has become its all-powerful Oz — the network's most prolific behind-the-scenes operator and shrewd judge of talent, who has launched more Hollywood stars than anyone since Louis B. Mayer in his heyday: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, David Spade, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis — just to name a few.
"He put me on TV, and no one else would have done that," says Fey, who's been followed by other breakout "SNL" female stars like Poehler and Maya Rudolph and writers such as Emily Spivey. Fey even devotes an entire chapter of her new book, "Bossypants," to honoring Michaels' impact on her career: "Lorne created a show that's impacted culture for over 35 years. No one has ever really successfully been able to replicate it."
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Michaels' legacy as New York's most important figure in comedy is undeniable. Since "SNL" first aired in 1975, he has demanded that "funny" should always provoke, never pander and sometimes just be wacky for wacky's sake. But his tastes have always stayed contemporary, never clinging to antiquated sensibilities of the comedy giants he idolized as a child.
He featured short films by Albert Brooks in "SNL's" first season; today, "SNL's" digital shorts are arguably the highlight of every episode. He demanded that NBC let Richard Pryor, then comedy's most inflammatory voice, host the show; in 2010, he listened to fans who demanded via Facebook that Betty White be given her shot as host of television's most enduring comedy show.
At any given moment in American culture — whether it's a Sandler film opening to big numbers, Ferrell guest-starring on "The Office," Fey's latest book becoming an instant best-seller, a bored office worker watching, for the 26th time, the Emmy-winning "SNL: digital short "D--- in a Box" on YouTube or O'Brien reinventing himself as basic cable's newest comedy mascot — Michaels' grasp over the business and pop culture has never felt more formidable.
"Lorne has had a seismic impact on comedy, but in my opinion his legacy, very simply, is that he has good taste," says O'Brien, whom Michaels elevated from "SNL" writer to host of his own late-night venture in 1993 (when Michaels' deal with NBC gave him the right to name the host of "Late Night") and whom he counseled when O'Brien's run at "The Tonight Show" went down in flames. "All producers want success, but it's rare to find one who wants success on his own terms. He's a very well-read, good-mannered man who doesn't want his work to embarrass him."
Michaels also has been a crucial corporate player at NBC, where he is not only an executive producer on "30 Rock" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" but also a trusted adviser whose value has increased following Jeff Zucker's exit and replacement by Steve Burke as CEO of NBCUniversal.
"He was enormously respected by [former NBC chairman] Bob Wright," says former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. "Comcast really knows how to read a map, and if you look at the successes at NBC Entertainment, you have to point to Lorne Michaels. I am confident that is not lost on them."
Notes Michaels: "I've never actually been an NBC employee, but I think of myself as one. I've been here most of my life."
At 66, he is both corporate and uncorporate; a man who can feel comfortable in a Prada suit or khakis; a man who has counseled the highest echelons of NBC power, yet who feels beholden to nothing except the rigor of creating comedy — and the occasional glance at ratings.
"He's perceived as highbrow, snobbish," Fallon says. "But that's the type of character that's been created for him. There was a great cold-opening bit that Steve Martin did once on "SNL," where Lorne is getting his portrait painted in the hallway and drinking red wine. Lorne plays into the image that's been created for him; he gets the joke."
Joke or not, Michaels has made tough decisions to protect his image, including turning down the opportunity to make "a lot of money" hosting an "Apprentice"-style series for NBC. "It was the Scott Sassa era at NBC, and they wanted me to do a Trump thing," he recalls. "I would have liked the money, but I didn't want to be 'that.' I can't have cameras in here between dress and air. I need that freedom."
He has newer projects on his slate, like producing an NBC pilot with former "SNL" writer Spivey starring Rudolph, Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, and "My Mother's Curse," a feature he's producing starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. He also launched the quirky Fred Armisen vehicle "Portlandia" for IFC, recently renewed for a second season, and still works with Fey as an executive producer on "30 Rock."
But Michaels says "SNL" is his life and his legacy — and he runs it with a ferocious authority that's a stark contrast to the mellow manner he exhibits.
One writer describes the "sweatshop and anxiety" of working on "SNL." Others, like Larry David, have abruptly quit the show when their work wasn't used. (In David's case, not a single sketch he created made it to the air.)
And yet it's all helped Michaels achieve a legendary track record in television. As Jay, Dave and Jimmy fight viewer erosion, "SNL" is up 15 percent in ratings this season over last, with an average of 7.4 million viewers each week. What show can boast 126 Emmy nominations and 28 wins? What show helped sway an election, as "SNL" arguably did in 2008 with Fey's dead-on lampooning of Sarah Palin?
Michaels is responsible for all of this, and he knows it. It's quite a turnaround for a man one NBC executive remembers from his scrappy upstart years.
"He was an out-of-work comic from Canada and would sit and talk about comedy," recalls the executive, who knew Michaels in his mid-20s. "He was just an unkempt, funny, wanna-please guy."
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter