Cast: (back row) Marcus Giamatti, Richard T. Jones; (center row) Jessica Tuck, Tyne Daly, Amy Brenneman, Dan Futterman; (front row) Karle Warren
The Verdict is inBarbara Hall's 'Judging Amy' is a kinder, gentler smash hit
Amid the gritty, parental-guidance-suggested dramas on nighttime television, veteran television writer and producer Barbara Hall ('82) has supplied Judging Amy, a slice of kinder, gentler prime-time fare.
Not without its own edge and subtle wit, Judging Amy deals with the professional, social and family life of a juvenile court judge and divorced mother (Amy Brenneman), her social worker mother (Tyne Daly) and 8-year-old daughter. The men in the show revolve around the women.
Now one of CBS' top-rated dramas, Judging Amy almost didn't make it. Hall is the creator and executive producer of Judging Amy and is credited with resuscitating a show that was near death. When the networks were looking at all of the other new pilots, Judging Amy was still stuck in development. Called in at the last minute, Hall finished the script in five days and the overhauled Amy became the last ordered by CBS for the 1999 fall season. It soon became an audience favorite.
"I think of myself as the audience," Hall told The New York Times News Service. "What I changed when I came in was the tone of the story. It was a woman's story: I told it from a woman's point of view. This particular one really spoke to me ó it's a personal story about single motherhood. It's so much like my own life: single motherhood, being in a male-dominated profession. I don't get into these issues in big ways, we get into them in subtle ways."
While Amy's future was uncertain for awhile, Hall cannot say the same about herself. Among friends and family, there was never any doubt that Hall was going to make it to the big time. The youngest of three children, Hall often collaborated on stories with her older sister, Karen. And at 8 years old, she already knew what career path lay ahead. As features editor of The Breeze, she breezed in, edited her stories, pasted up her pages and breezed out again. She was efficient, driven and compulsive about writing. None of that has changed. Today she's producing Judging Amy for CBS, writing novels and playing in a folk band. She's also married and has a daughter.
Two days after graduation, Hall headed for Los Angeles, where her sister, Karen, had already made a name for herself writing for M*A*S*H and Hill Street Blues.
While living with her sister, Hall wrote her first novel, Skeeball and the Secret of the Universe, in six months. Skeeball attracted the attention of an agent, and, consequently, producer Gary David Goldberg. Soon after, Hall sold her first story to Family Ties and was then hired by Newhart as a comedy writer.
Since that time, her credits have ranged from co-producer of Moonlighting and co-executive producer of I'll Fly Away to consulting producer of Northern Exposure and Chicago Hope. She says her proudest achievement other than her daughter, Faith, is having the chance to work with some of the best people in the business.
She worked with Joshua Brand and John Falsey on A Year in the Life and Northern Exposure. She also had the chance to learn from David Chase while working on I'll Fly Away.
"Working with David [Chase] without having to make all the decisions was fun, and I'm glad I had the experience. I wanted to know how to do that top job when I get there, because as a woman, I can't mess up. You don't get as many chances as a woman, and when you get the chance, you have to nail it."
Hall indeed made the most of the chance she was given to revive Judging Amy, touted last year as CBS' surprise new hit.
"Amy was basically dead when they brought it to me," Hall says. "But it became the highest-rated new drama, and it won the Producer's Guild Award. It happened because I and others believed so strongly that there was an audience for a smart TV show. And I believed in Amy [Brenneman] and Tyne [Daly]. They prove that you can have a show that makes you laugh one minute and cry the next."
As executive producer of Judging Amy, Hall has eight writers who work on the script with her each week. She remains heavily involved in writing the outline of each show, and tells the other writers what works and what doesn't about the characters and dialogue. She even re-writes scenes herself when necessary, frequently drawing on her own life parallels.
In one episode, Amy, who plays a single mother working in the high-powered judicial world, begins laughing and then crying on her mother's (Daly's) shoulder when she considers growing old without a man in her life.
"Like Amy, I was a single mother working in a male-dominated profession, and I had a period of starting over myself. My first marriage ended, and my daughter and I moved to New York, where I was concentrating on writing a novel. I was very isolated, but not lonely because the city is very invigorating and exciting."
However, it's hard to work in television and live on the East Coast, so Hall soon returned to Los Angeles. But she refuses to choose television over writing novels or vice versa.
"I tried just writing novels and it drove me crazy," Hall says.
Hall's seventh book, A Week in New Orleans was published this year. Like her television shows, her literary work has received awards as well. Her novels were recognized by the American Library Association Best Books & Best Notable Books. For relaxation, she writes song lyrics and plays guitar in a folk-rock band with long-time friend and fellow JMU grad, Michael Guidry ('82).
Guidry and Hall both play guitar and sing. Hall writes the lyrics, and Guidry writes the music.
"We started playing together about four or five years ago because we were both looking for something to do," Guidry says. "We just got together to play this past Saturday night. I'm not sure how she finds the time to do it all, but she does. She always has a lot going at once. Even at JMU, she would be out with us having breakfast at Hojo's [Howard Johnson's] at 3 a.m., and yet she always seemed to have time to do everything else too."
Although Hall has known Guidry for years, his telephone number escaped her memory. She had to ask her secretary to find it. "Can you believe it?" she asked. "I've turned into a man."
Still very much a woman, Hall has learned to be successful in a man's world, something she says is not easy in Hollywood.
"Girls are raised to be liked by everyone and to be polite. It's hard for us to leave a room without trying to make everything better. In this business, you have to learn to be comfortable with some people not liking you. I'm not saying you have to be a monster. You can't hurt people, but you need to understand that everything is fair game, and not everybody is going to love you."
Hall found love herself recently, marrying writer and University of Virginia graduate Paul Karon in 1998. They live in Santa Monica with her 8-year-old daughter, Faith.
"She's my proudest accomplishment," Hall says. "I don't feel naturally talented as a mother, and yet she's this incredible person that I somehow managed not to mess up."
Halls sings to her daughter, and they are avid moviegoers. They saw The Mummy eight times.
"She's a musical prodigy," Hall says. "She plays the piano. She's also obsessed with reading. She was reading on a first-grade level when she was 4."
Although she has a cameo appearance as a young Amy in a photograph as the opening credits roll on Judging Amy, Faith has not done any other work in Hollywood, and Hall would like to keep it that way for the moment.
"That really came out of necessity because models were not available at the time we wanted to shoot it. But the experience gave Faith the idea that she is going to be an actor. I think that only works for children if their parents are there all the time as ëstage parents,' and we just can't do it."
In addition to writing seven novels and an album's worth of lyrics for her band, Hall has penned two screenplays and has won a raft of awards for her work as one of television's top women producers. She has received three Emmy nominations, was a Writer's Guild Award nominee and was given the Humanitas Award, Viewers for Quality Television award, the NAACP Image Award and TV Critics Association Award. She attributes her considerable list of achievements to hard work and not much of a social life.
"I always wanted to be a writer," she says. "I never spent time wandering around Europe or anything because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. But I've paid a price too. In order to carve out time to work on my novels, I don't have time for parties or extracurricular activities."
Ironically, now that she has worked her way up the Hollywood ladder to a position of power, she has more time on her hands.
"If the show is yours, you set your own hours," Hall says. "There are fewer demands on my time because I can delegate and surround myself with people I trust."
She is in the office 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, but works at home a lot at night and just about every weekend. Just like her days at The Breeze, she does her work and goes home.
"I had no idea what I was doing as features editor of The Breeze," Hall says. "None. I was just writing articles that interested me, and trying to find my voice. It was baptism by fire and learning by doing. Chrysalis is where I really took my first steps as a writer."
Hall also recalls the impact that the Film as a Narrative Art class had on her.
"That really opened the visual world for me," she says. "Movies are just another means of storytelling, and I learned to transition from writing prose to writing for film."
At 38 years old, Hall knows what she is doing now. She proved her worth several times over by resurrecting Amy.
"They [CBS executives] told me if I'd just do this, then I could do my own project next. We'll see if they remember telling me that," she says with a laugh.
When Judging Amy has run its course, Hall will be ready for that chance.
Story by Sane Snead Fulk ('82)