Hot List 2005: Shonda Rhimes

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Shonda Rhimes, the creator and executive producer of ABC’s midseason medical series “Grey’s Anatomy,” said her family finds her newfound success as a television hit maker “hysterical.”

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs with her five older siblings, Ms. Rhimes described herself as “the weird kid who ate dirt and didn’t speak until she was 8.”

Things have changed since she was a girl. As the creator of the first successful network prime-time hospital drama since the debut seasons of “ER” and “Chicago Hope” more than a decade ago, she has helped add to ABC’s ratings turnaround on Sunday nights with a successful lead-out from the phenomenon “Desperate Housewives.”

Her success in television, however, was unexpected, since Ms. Rhimes came to Hollywood with the hopes of working in features.

Ms. Rhimes, a Dartmouth graduate, came to California by way of San Francisco, where she lived with her sister and wrote advertising copy.

“I hated it,” she said. “I didn’t want to write stuff people turn away from.”

She left advertising and entered the University of Southern California film school in Los Angeles. Off of her final film school project she got an agent, who asked her to write a spec script, which promptly got sold. She then wrote the screenplay to HBO’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning TV movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”

“I really was lucky enough to have a fine, simple career writing movies for a long time,” Ms. Rhimes said, but three years ago, something in her life changed. She adopted a baby.

“I discovered something,” she said. “You can’t ever leave your house again. Next thing I knew, I was writing a pilot.”

Ms. Rhimes’ first foray into television was a gritty pilot script profiling four female war correspondents, which garnered attention from television executives across Hollywood.

“They sort of ran with the boys,” she said of the characters in her script, but real-life events killed the project.

“I wrote the pilot and then we went to war,” Ms. Rhimes said. “Then women having sex and covering wars was not a good idea anymore.”

Her second attempt at pilot writing was “Anatomy,” a look at the lives and loves of a group of medical interns at a Seattle hospital.

“I wanted to find something as exciting as the world of war correspondents but something less likely to be messed up by our country,” she said. “Everybody, at some point in their lives, walks through the doors of a hospital.”

The key for Ms. Rhimes with Touchstone Television-produced “Anatomy” was focusing on the doctors.

“The show is not about the patients, the show is about how the doctors feel about the patients,” she said. “On a good day you save someone’s life, and on a bad day you kill someone,” she said. “There’s no stakes higher than that.”

Ms. Rhimes’ ability to mine comedy from the world of medicine makes the show work, said Channing Dungey, VP of drama series development for Touchstone Television. Soon after “Anatomy” premiered, Touchstone approached Ms. Rhimes about a two-year development deal, which began in June.

“Her sense of humor is just off-kilter enough that she really finds the humor in situations that would be dark and depressing,” Ms. Dungey said.

For her part, Ms. Rhimes said “Anatomy,” which has become a top five show in adults 18 to 49, is successful for a number of reasons.

“This is a most incredible piece of real estate,” she said of the Sunday night time slot. “More importantly than that, we had this incredible cast, a cast of really good, watchable actors who are dramatic and funny. And there are a lot of cute boys, and I believe television requires a lot of cute boys.”

Scouting Report

Title: Creator and executive producer, “Grey’s Anatomy”

Date of birth: Jan. 13, 1970

Place of birth: Chicago

Big break: Selling her first spec feature, “Human Seeking Same,” to New Line in the mid-1990s.

Who knew? Ms. Rhimes describes herself as “creepily crafty.” “I have several hot glue guns and know how to use them,” she said.