Jeff Melvoin '75 (Writer & Producer, ARMY WIVES, ALIAS, NORTHERN EXPOSURE)
By Kim Bendheim '81
Jeff Melvoin '75 was invited to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust's recent inauguration. Since he is a big fan of the new president, he was delighted to accept the offer to make a short film in her honor. The evening of October 11 featured "A Musical Prelude to an Inauguration" in Sanders Theatre, with different acts including Melvoin's film. Melvoin snuck in as an allegedly serious film his humorous lessons from Hollywood on leadership. It's called "A Primer for the President," complete with nine 'lessons' and several corollaries. Melvoin, an Emmy-winning TV writer and producer best known for his work on "Remington Steele," "Northern Exposure," "Picket Fences," and "Alias," had a wealth of knowledge in the entertainment business to draw from.
He put together title cards as in a silent film: "Lesson 1: Take control of faculty meetings." Then he showed a boisterous scene from "The Russians Are Coming." Harvard administrators, faculty members and department heads started laughing at the first title card. The second lesson, "Pick Expert Advisors," was illustrated by a scene from "Being There," with Peter Sellers as a gardener advising the President on the four seasons. Melvoin's presidential "Primer" was a hit. He followed it up on Saturday, October 13th by teaching a Harvardwood seminar on TV writing to twenty-some students and members of the Harvard community. The class, scheduled for three hours, went quite a bit longer as all of the participants were eager to ask questions and further discuss what they had just learned. As a teacher, Melvoin is as popular as his shows are on TV. He has also taught at UCLA Extension and USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Melvoin's own passion for the entertainment business was ignited by his drama teacher at Highland Park High School, Barbara Patterson. He describes her as "an inspiring and very knowledgeable, passionate teacher who encouraged students to use theater as a way to get to know themselves and to see the world in a new way." At Harvard, Melvoin continued to act and direct, staging two Loeb mainstage productions, "The Front Page" and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." He also directed "Philadelphia Here I Come" at Leverett House, starring twin brothers Mark and Steve O'Donnell, both class of 1976, as the private and public faces of the hero and his alter ego. Mark O'Donnell has since won a Tony for his adaptation of "Hairspray," while Steve O'Donnell was head writer for "The David Letterman Show" for many years. While at Harvard, Melvoin also directed two shows for Phillip Brooks House and, in a favorite seminar, studied with playwright Robert Anderson, best known for his Broadway hit "Tea and Sympathy."
A History and Literature major, Melvoin wrote his thesis on the development of the American detective in fiction. A graduate student reader gave the thesis a grade of cum laude and said "humor has no place in academic work." Barbara Solomon, then head of the History and Literature department, disagreed. She awarded the thesis a summa minus. That thesis came in handy later for the budding writer.
After college, Melvoin had no clear idea what he wanted to do and found himself back in his parents' home in Highland Park, Illinois, where he'd grown up. While in the Chicago area, he got a certificate from a private business school, completing a business course taught in twenty intensive weeks. He then went to NYC hoping to land a job in publishing or journalism. Having a business certificate helped him get his first job at Fairchild Publications, then publishers of trade magazines as well as fashion. An uncle in the furniture business was friendly with the people who did "Home Furnishings Daily" for Fairchild Publishing. That uncle introduced Melvoin to the editor. Melvoin used his thesis as a writing sample, because he hadn't written for any undergraduate publications. The next thing he knew, he was in Washington, DC's national press building as an intern reporter. For his first story, he went to a hearing on the Treaty of the Sea and listened to testimony on what was international and what was sovereign for international mining. Melvoin dutifully went back to the office and told the editor what happened. The editor sat down at a big old typewriter, wrote the first two sentences and told Melvoin to finish it. Melvoin did, and after a couple of months, he was asked if he wanted to be the bureau chief in Miami. It was a one-person office. Melvoin put a lot of miles on his car, enjoying being a big fish in a small pond. "They gave me plenty of work, which was to write." Two years after starting as an intern reporter, he was hired by TIME in NYC as a correspondent. He was 25 years old.
Although Melvoin knew he eventually wanted to work in show business, he "lacked both money and confidence." He had a five-year plan. He planned to quit after five years at TIME because, as he says, "I thought I could do it until I was 30 and quit and still start my professional career in show business." He credits his brother with giving him some good advice, namely: "You've never been to LA, why don't you ask TIME for a transfer?" Melvoin did. When he was at TIME, there were few bylines. As he neared his 30th birthday, Melvoin was pleased because he was given a byline on an unusual story about a police shooting in Arizona, plus his headline was used as written. Modestly, he says he "had some good luck." To him, it seemed fated that everything was going so well. Melvoin thought it wasn't going to get any better, so he quit at 30 as originally planned.
Unemployed, Melvoin called childhood friend John Scheinfeld, then an executive at MTM, now known as the producer of popular documentaries including 2006's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." His friend asked him what he wanted to do. Melvoin told him he wanted to write scripts. Scheinfeld asked, "Movies or television?" Melvoin replied, "What's the difference?" Scheinfeld said nobody tells Paramount how many movies they have to make every year, but television needs three hours of fresh programming every night. Melvoin said that sounded like a better bet. Asked what shows he liked, Melvoin answered "Remington Steele." His friend said that was just great because it happened to be an MTM show. Scheinfeld got Melvoin a bunch of "Remington Steele" scripts. Then, with his friend's help, Melvoin wrote a spec (sample) script for "Remington Steele." That spec script garnered him the job of writing an episode of the detective show "Hart to Hart." Some months later, Melvoin was hired on staff by "Remington Steele," where he rose through the ranks. Three years later, he was hired as Co-Executive Producer of "Hill Street Blues." He has worked on 10 shows since.
Ironically, Melvoin credits his undergraduate thesis, the same one spurned by a graduate student reader, with getting him his first writing job. He turned the thesis in as a writing sample to Fairchild because it was the only writing sample he had. The thesis showed he could write and had substantive knowledge of famous detectives created by Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and John D. Macdonald. Plus, Melvoin demonstrated that he had a sense of humor. He's been demonstrating that ever since, only to a much bigger audience.
In August, Melvoin wrapped production on the first season of "Army Wives," a series that got the best ratings in Lifetime's 21-year history. Melvoin worked as executive producer on episodes 2-13. He's waiting to hear back on a couple of original shows that he pitched to networks as a writer-producer. One show he pitched is about five Pan Am stewardesses in 1968. The other is a light-hearted mystery. "I was trying to get back to 'Remington Steele,' writing mysteries with a 'Thin Man' quality, a champagne taste, not quite as graphic as 'Law & Order' or 'CSI'," says Melvoin.
Melvoin and his wife, photographer Martha Hartnett, were introduced by Brock Walsh '75 and Joy Horowitz '75, a married couple who had been fellow classmates in Adams House. Melvoin has two sons, Nick and Charlie, currently a senior and a sophomore at Harvard, both in Lowell House. "Neither of them wants to follow in their old man's shoes," says Melvoin. "Thank goodness. If I'd known how tough this business can be, I would never have started."