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Cast Away

Every time ABC runs an episode of its hit TV series Lost, Evanston’s Jeffrey Lieber gets an onscreen credit and his bank account gets a nice pop. But the twisting tale of his Hollywood triumph has left Lieber feeling a bit … well, lost.

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The onscreen castaways of the award-winning ABC drama Lost

The idea for Lost was born in the summer of 2003 in the banquet room of the Grand Californian hotel at Disney’s California Adventure, in Anaheim. ABC had gathered its executive team, some 50 or so people, for the yearly management retreat, with a goal to generate fresh ideas for new shows and suggest ways to improve its existing ones. At the time, ABC-which is owned by Disney-was desperate for hits. The network had slipped to fourth in the ratings, behind NBC, CBS, and Fox, and development executives were feeling the heat.

At one point, the group sat around the banquet room and one by one suggested ideas for shows. When his turn came, Lloyd Braun, then the chairman of ABC Entertainment, suggested coming up with something along the lines of his favorite movie of that year, Cast Away, the stranded-on-a-deserted-island tale starring Tom Hanks. “A lot of people sort of laughed at the idea,” recalls Thom Sherman, a former senior vice president at ABC, now with the CW network. Some skeptics compared the idea to Gilligan’s Island, the goofy sixties sitcom.

But Sherman liked the idea (after all, Braun was his boss), and he called his good friend Ted Gold, then at Spelling Productions, the hit-making production company founded by TV legend Aaron Spelling. As it happened, says Gold, Spelling had toyed with a similar idea-a scripted series inspired by the reality TV show Survivor-but found no takers. So, when Sherman called with Braun’s idea for the series, it seemed like the perfect marriage. And Gold had the perfect writer for the project: Jeffrey Lieber.

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By this time, Lieber was enjoying some success, at least by Hollywood standards. He’d sold his first screenplay, a postcollege love-triangle drama titled Conspiracy of Weeds, and he got hired to write scripts for Warner Brothers and Paramount. Of those projects, only Weeds ever made it to the big screen. Picked up by Miramax, renamed Tangled, rewritten as a thriller, and miscast with a teen-comedy actress as the lead, the film flopped when it came out in 2003. (Lieber recalls being in a Paris train station on vacation and seeing a poster for his film, now called Sex Trouble.) Next, Disney hired Lieber to put a new twist on a film version of Natalie Babbitt’s children’s classic Tuck Everlasting.

He’d been hired and fired from other projects-a practice that is almost as old as Hollywood itself-but he’d come to know a producer who ended up at Spelling, and she had introduced him to Ted Gold, the company’s drama chief. Gold worked with Lieber on a pilot pitch that got no takers, followed by another project that UPN hired Lieber to write but never made. Gold liked Lieber, however, and the exec signed him to a so-called blind deal-an agreement for a future project that’s not necessarily identified. Lost became that project.

Gold recalls that ABC wanted its survivor drama to be a hyperrealistic portrayal of life on a deserted island: “Thom [Sherman] said to me, ‘We want to do Cast Away-the Series.’ That’s the only line that was ever pitched.”

Lieber imagined something like Lord of the Flies-a “realistic show about a society putting itself back together after a catastrophe.” In roughly a week’s time, he concocted a general story line centered on what happens to a few dozen plane-crash survivors when they are stuck on a far-off Pacific island. The show, as Lieber saw it, would focus heavily on eight to ten main characters-in particular, two half brothers, avowed rivals, competing for leadership of their fellow castaways, who include a doctor, a con man, a fugitive, a pregnant woman, a drug-addicted man, a military officer, and a spoiled rich girl. (Sound familiar, Lost fans?)

In September 2003, Lieber pitched his premise for the show, then titled Nowhere, to Sherman and his lieutenants. “I won’t be so presumptuous as to say it was one of the best pitches ever,” recalls Gold, who was there. “I will say it was one of the more well-thought-out pitches I’ve been in.” Afterward, continues Gold, “Thom called me and he told me, quote-unquote, ‘The best project of the year.’ He greenlights it enthusiastically.”

Lieber then spent weeks writing an elaborate outline, fleshing out the characters and story lines. Spelling brought in National Geographic experts as consultants to help Lieber ground his fictional island in reality. Soon enough, Lieber made another presentation to Sherman and the ABC development team. Lieber recalls that they had only one major complaint: they told him to cut a scene in which a shark killed one of the castaways. Too unrealistic, Lieber recalls them saying.

Next came six weeks writing the pilot. Just after Thanksgiving, Lieber met with ABC executives for a session at which they made suggestions for changes. He recalls only minor quibbles-things like refining a couple of characters and tweaking some dialogue. “We’re really happy,” he says Sherman told him after the meeting. “If you don’t hand in blank pages on the rewrite, we’re shooting this thing.” Lieber was ecstatic. “Nobody tells you they’re shooting anything-ever. That’s the best news you can get.”

Indeed, the networks consider hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pitches for new show ideas every television season. Jeffrey Stepakoff says each network typically buys 100 or so projects (ABC bought 80 that season), out of which only about 15 actually get produced. And of those, only seven or so actually make it on the air, with maybe two or three of those surviving beyond the first year. “The odds are remarkable,” says Stepakoff.

Still, Lieber felt he had a good shot; so did Gold. “I thought it was a done deal,” Gold says. The last step was to get Lloyd Braun to sign off. Over the Christmas holidays, Braun took Lieber’s script with him to the La Quinta resort near Palm Springs.

“It was not received well,” Jonathan Levin, then the president of Spelling, told Lieber a few days after Christmas. So the writer went back to work, but he had little time to revise the script and little to go on. Lieber was “rewriting like hell,” he says, but he “didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t being told really what the problem was-all I was being told was that Lloyd didn’t like it.” He handed in a new draft a week later, just after the new year, and then waited nervously.

A few days later, Sherman called. “He says, ‘Great job on the rewrite,’” Lieber recalls. “‘I really like it.’” Sherman told him that he had some more notes and would call again in an hour. Lieber was hugely relieved. But hours passed with no word from Sherman or anyone else at ABC. Finally, in the late afternoon, Levin called. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. “It’s over; you’re done.”

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Photography: ABC/Mario Perez


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