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One man juggles ‘Eli Stone,’ ‘Brothers & Sisters’

When Greg Berlanti learned last spring he would be running three different prime-time dramas at the same time, he remembered some advice he once got from veteran series juggler Norman Lear.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Greg Berlanti learned last spring he would be running three different prime-time dramas at the same time, he remembered some advice he once got from veteran series juggler Norman Lear.

“He just sort of said, ‘You just do it,’ like, ‘It just gets done,”’ says the 35-year-old executive producer of ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Eli Stone.”

“But really, there was no kind of experience that would have prepared me, or any conversation probably with anybody,” he says, “that would have prepared me for this.”

Then the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike flipped the script, especially for his freshman shows. Just as things were getting dishy with the Darlings, the lights went out on the Manhattan family drama “Dirty Sexy Money.”

Production on the quasi-spiritual “Eli” continued during the strike because all the scripts were finished before the walkout. But the strike prevented guild member Berlanti from tweaking the episodes during filming, as he would have normally done.

“It was a weird kind of thing,” Berlanti says over a plate of fries and a shared artichoke at a West Hollywood eatery. “I’d see a scene and think: If we just did this one line we could fix this scene. Little things like that.”

Episode six of “Eli,” starring Jonny Lee Miller, airs Thursday at 10 p.m. EST. Although a second season of the show is uncertain, writers for “Dirty Sexy Money,” were to reconvene soon to begin scripting 13 new episodes of the series for fall.

And Berlanti and the “Brothers & Sisters” scribes were scrambling to do four new shows to begin airing April 20 at 10 p.m. EST. “Then we’ll go right into breaking stories for the first six (episodes) of next year and do like 10 straight weeks full force, so that’s the one taking up the most time.”

Preparing for the ‘Green Lantern’Yet Berlanti seems to have an endless amount of energy for lengthy story meetings, jaunts between sets and production offices, and nonstop phone calls. But he just promoted “Brothers & Sisters” writers Alison Schapker and Monica Owusu-Breen to handle the day-to-day show-running duties on the series’ Burbank set, so that should help some.

“One of his greatest strengths is the confidence he builds in the people around him,” says “Brothers & Sisters” star Sally Field. “I watched some of the younger writers that were on board before he came on, or even that he brought in, completely step up to the plate.”

Delegating duties to his producing partners and writing staff frees Berlanti for his other passion: filmmaking.

Currently, he and two collaborators are penning the Warner Bros. live-action DC Comics adventure “Green Lantern,” with Berlanti directing. It is his second film since the 2000 “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy,” which he wrote and directed.

“I came to Hollywood to do movies,” the admitted comic book “geek” says, inspired by the work of Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson and Ron Howard. “They were storytellers in a way that I like to try to do with TV, which is really smart, emotional stories that are hopefully still heartfelt and funny. I’d like to try and do that for film.”

At 27, Berlanti became the show-runner for The WB’s “Dawson Creek.” At that time he was the youngest person in television to hold the position. Then in 2002, he created the multigenerational series, “Everwood,” for the network.

‘He’s so young and clever’“It’s sickening that he’s so young and so clever — it’s kind of annoying, but there you go,” offers “Eli’s” Miller. “I can’t get my head ’round the amount that he juggles, the amount of successful stuff that he puts out there. It’s amazing to me.”

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Taking charge on “Brothers & Sisters,” however, was a huge undertaking for Berlanti.

The show had been wrought with cast changes, story rewrites and behind-the-scenes disputes even before it aired. Berlanti, nonetheless, liked the pilot and agreed to come on board, despite being told it would be more like boarding the Titanic.

But, says series executive producer Ken Olin, Berlanti turned the ship around “in less than a week. It was extraordinary his ability to turn something that was in real danger of becoming dysfunctional and make it highly functional and exciting and successful.”

Could it be that Berlanti is on his way to becoming TV’s next-generation David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco or even Norman Lear?

Berlanti — a charming man who, it’s probably safe to say, is as handsome as the men starring in his shows — just smiles.

“I made a commitment to myself a few years ago that whatever sort of train came in, whatever my destiny was, I have no say in it,” he says. “All I could do is focus on the story I’m doing now and trying to do whatever’s handed to me.”