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Image: Lorne Michaels
The Hollywood Reporter
Hollywood Reporter
updated 4/23/2011 3:33:45 PM ET 2011-04-23T19:33:45

"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.

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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.

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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.

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"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."

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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.

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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."

Read the rest of the feature at HollywoodReporter.com.

Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter

Photos: Tina Fey

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  1. Staying classy

    From her days with Chicago’s "Second City" to stardom with "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," the writer, actor, comedian and producer just keeps making people laugh.

    Tina Fey and husband Jeff Richmond attend the "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" premiere in New York on Dec. 15, 2013. (Cindy Ord / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Glowing at galas

    Tina Fey arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in September 2013. On Jan. 12, 2014, Fey will host the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with comedian and actress Amy Poehler. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A grand finale

    Tina Fey appears as Liz Lemon in the series finale of “30 Rock,” which aired on Jan. 31, 2013. Over the course of seven seasons, “30 Rock” was nominated for more than 100 Emmy awards. (Nbc / Ali Goldstein/NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A win for Liz Lemon

    Tina Fey poses in the press room at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2013. Fey won for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role in “30 Rock.” (Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Funny friends

    Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globe Awards together for the first time on Jan. 13, 2013. Their hilarious performance and easy rapport got them invited back for another hosting gig in 2014. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Queen of comedy

    Tina Fey accepts an award onstage from actor Will Arnett at The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on April 28, 2012. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Another glam night

    Fey arrives at the 84th Annual Academy Awards at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 26, 2012. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. It's not Saturday night

    Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin perfom in a live episode of "30 Rock" in 2012. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Liz and Jenna

    Fey (Liz Lemon) and "30 Rock" costar Jane Krakowski (Jenna Maroney) arrive at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Her mini me

    Fey and daughter Alice attend the HBO Luxury Lounge in honor of the 69th annual Golden Globes at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverlin Hills, Calif., on Jan. 14, 2012. (Chelsea Lauren / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weekend anchors

    Fey and actress Amy Poehler arrive at the 13th Annual Warner Bros. and InStyle Golden Globe After Party held at The Beverly Hilton hotel on Jan. 15, 2012. (Jon Kopaloff / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Expecting No. 2

    Fey unveiled her baby bump during a visit to "Late Show With David Letterman" at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on April 11, 2011. Her second daughter, Penelope, was born on Aug. 10, 2011. (Donna Ward / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Author

    Fey signs copies of her book, "Bossypants," at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York on April 8, 2011. (Jim Spellman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Happy anniversary!

    Cast members from the NBC's "30 Rock" television show, including front row from left, Jack McBrayer, Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Tracy Morgan celebrate the 100th episode taping at Silver Cup Studios in New York on March 10, 2011. (Evan Agostini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rocking '30 Rock'

    Fey stars as comedy writer Liz Lemon in "30 Rock," based on her experiences writing for "Saturday Night Live." While ratings are low, the show is a critical favorite, and received Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Out on the town

    Fey teams with another comic powerhouse, Steve Carell, in 'Date Night." They play a suburban couple whose regular night out turns into an adventure beyond their wildest dreams. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Mommy's little girl

    Fey walks with her daughter, Alice Richmond, to toy store FAO Schwarz on March 9, 2010 in New York. Fey returned to work just six weeks after Alice was born. Fey's husband, Jeff Richmond, is a composer on "30 Rock." (Ray Tamarra / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rain, rain, go away

    Fey arrives at the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards on a rainy January day in 2010. She and "30 Rock" were both nominated for awards, but neither won. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Cover girl

    Fey graced the March 2010 cover of Vogue Magazine. While working on "Saturday Night Live," Fey says she lost 30 pounds after seeing herself in a role as an extra, and notes that suddenly there was a lot more interest in putting her on the air. She has been named to People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list in 2003, and to its 100 Most Beautiful People list in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Golden gal

    Fey presented an award at the 2010 Academy Awards, held on March 7, 2010, in Los Angeles. Her sparkly black gown is by Michael Kors. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Truth will out

    Fey starred along with Rob Lowe, Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner in 2009's "The Invention of Lying," which takes place in an alternate reality where even the concept of a lie does not exist. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Writing right

    Fey accepts the Emmy award for outstanding writing for a comedy series for "30 Rock" at the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2008. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'I can see Russia from my house!'

    Fey had already left "Saturday Night Live," but she returned during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, playing vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Clinton. Fey's Palin impression earned her headlines everywhere, and some people even confused some of her joke lines with Palin's real comments. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Oh, baby!

    In 2009's "Baby Mama," Fey and Poehler team up for a comedy about Poehler's character serving as a surrogate mother for Fey. The movie received mixed reviews. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Comedy inside a comedy

    Joining Fey in "30 Rock" are co-stars Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. The show has especially helped revitalize Baldwin's career, as his performance as the blustering network boss Donaghy has been widely praised. (Mitch Haaseth / NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. You like us! You really like us!

    The cast of "30 Rock" poses in the pressroom with their Emmy for outstanding comedy series on Sept. 16, 2007 in Los Angeles. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Giving back

    Fey speaks during the 2005 Do Something BRICK Awards April 19, 2005 in New York. The BRICK Awards honor leaders age 25 and under who have created innovative solutions to problems in their local communities in the areas of community building, health, and the environment. (Scott Gries / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Don't be 'Mean'

    Fey wrote and co-starred in the 2004 comedy "Mean Girls," based in part on the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and in part on Fey's own Pennsylvania high-school days. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The 'Girls'

    Fey and "Mean Girls" star Lindsay Lohan attend a private screening of the film on April 23, 2004 at Loews Lincoln Square Theater, in New York. Entertainment Weekly listed the film on its end-of-the-decade best-of list. (Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Live, from New York

    Fey and Jimmy Fallon are seen co-anchoring "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live" in 2004. Fey joined "SNL" in 1997 and was promoted to head writer in 1999. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Make 'em laugh

    Fey, Ben Affleck, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch pose backstage at the 5th Annual Directors Guild Of America Honors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel September 29, 2004 in New York. (Peter Kramer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Classy couple

    Fey and composer Jeff Richmond dated for seven years before marrying in 2001. (James Devaney / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Before fame

    After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1992, Fey moved to Chicago to take classes at the improvisational comedy group The Second City. She's seen here in 1997 during her days as a featured player with the organization. That same year, she joined "SNL," and her career began to take off. (AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (33) Tina Fey
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    Slideshow (25) Will Ferrell’s wonderful world

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