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For Don Bellisario, Good is Not Enough

May 2, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Most of broadcast television is run by relatively youthful producers, directors and writers. Older creative types, writers in particular, often find it difficult to get assignments.

Conventional wisdom among many studio and network executives holds that it takes a younger writer to create material that will attract a younger audience, which is what advertisers want most. Over the years this has led to charges of ageism by some writers, various guilds and others, often with justification.

Just don’t tell that to Donald P. “Don” Bellisario, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in August. He is busy executive producing the CBS series “NCIS,” for which he also writes many of the scripts and often directs. He was so busy recently that he had to pass on taking an active role in the making of Sci Fi Channel’s “Quantum Leap: A Bold Leap Forward,” based on the hit science fiction series he created and executive produced for Universal and NBC from 1989 through 1993.

Getting writing and producing assignments when you are old enough to qualify for Social Security “has nothing to do” with ageism, according to Mr. Bellisario: “It really goes down to talent. God gave you talent. If you’ve got it and you work hard at it, you can succeed. What I find with most writers who are older is that they’ve lost the fire in the belly, if they ever had it. What they do is they just do the old, `That’s good enough. I’ve been down this road. I’ve done it before.’ Well, it’s not good enough. I can tell you I have never said, `That’s good enough.’ Never.”

That attitude has helped make Mr. Bellisario one of network TV’s most prolific creators over the past quarter-century. His hits have included “Magnum, P.I.,” “Airwolf” and “JAG,” which this season is concluding a 10-year run. He has also had his share of flops, like “First Monday,” but even those were fairly noble failures because they were well made.

While the cancellation of “JAG” doesn’t surprise Mr. Bellisario because he knew it was drawing too old of an audience, he is sorry to see it go. “What hurts me is that I have to lose people that I’ve worked with for a long time,” he explained. “They’ll get other jobs and that’s fine, but it’s not the same thing. You try and keep your people together. I’ve worked with some of those people for 20 years on different shows.” Is that out of loyalty? “It’s because if I find somebody who does a good job,” he replied, “I keep them.”

Not everyone sticks. Mr. Bellisario can be highly critical when convinced someone is not living up to his standards. He is known for giving a lot of young talent an opportunity, but some who have worked with him said that’s partly because he wears some veterans out and they move on.

Mr. Bellisario said he has high standards as well as a strong work ethic. “I do get frustrated at times,” he added. “There is a difference between meeting my standards, doing the best job you can do and not being able to do it. That’s one type of person. The one I have a difficult time with is the person who says, `That’s good enough’ and just lets it go at that. Or the person who doesn’t really work at it or gives up or takes the easy way out, or in other words, takes a shortcut rather than do it right. That’s when I get very harsh, or not harsh, but say, `This is unacceptable.’ And I have picked up the pieces from those kinds of people on every show I’ve had.”

Mr. Bellisario learned the meaning of hard work early in life. He was raised in coal-mining country about 25 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Shortly after prohibition ended, his dad opened the only tavern in a three-town area filled with immigrant Serbs, Italians, Poles and others. “It was a melting pot,” he recalled. “They were very hard-working, dedicated people who came to America to make a new life. And that work ethic stuck with me.”

When he wasn’t working in the bar, the young Mr. Bellisario worked in factories, mowed lawns, did road construction and held other low-paying jobs. He went to Penn State for a short time, then joined the Marines and learned to fly. By the time he returned to finish college, he had a wife and two children. “I never envied anyone who had something,” he recalled, “because I always felt some day I’ll have something.”

His first career was as a newspaper reporter. His second was in advertising, during which time he taught himself how to use a 16millimeter motion picture camera so he could shoot commercials. By the time he was 39, he was a senior VP and creative director of an ad agency in Dallas. But as his 40th birthday approached, he hungered for a third career.

After spending a year trying unsuccessfully to convince his wife that he should quit his job, pack up and move to L.A. to make movies, he just walked away from his old life. They got a divorce and he was on his way, though it was a bumpy start. He found some work as a TV commercial director but learned it wasn’t easy to sell movie screenplays. Then he found an agent who asked him if he had ever considered writing for TV. With his money about to run out, he was willing to try.

He wrote his first script for the show “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” a military action hour starring Robert Conrad, drawing on his military and aviation background. Producer Stephen J. Cannell was so impressed he made Mr. Bellisario, then 42, a story editor. Soon he was writing and producing for a number of action hours at Universal, which was then a major supplier to NBC and other networks.

Actor Tom Selleck read some of his scripts and remembered Mr. Bellisario when he was offered a new series. That became “Magnum, P.I.,” which was an instant success and, from its second season on, a huge hit. And he has been at it ever since, through show after show, several more marriages and more children (he has nine, including stepchildren).

“I never see myself retiring,” he said. “I see myself slowing down. My wife hopes I’ll slow down. I mean, I keep a pretty heavy, active schedule. Most of my friends my age are retired. What I’ve noticed is they all retire and then come out of retirement because they’re going nuts … What I want is a life where I work on my shows, or a movie, or whatever, get in the action and do it, and then take some time off and enjoy it. Because I have never had the time to enjoy what I’ve done. And that’s what I really want to do.”