My So-Called Life

This My So-Called Life origin story comes from Ed Zwick, the Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning director, producer and writer whose four astonishing decades in Hollywood include directing Glory, Legends of the Fall, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Courage Under Fire, Love & Other Drugs, and Defiance, as well as producing films including Traffic and Shakespeare in Love, for which Zwick won the Oscar.

His television career includes creating, with longtime creative partner Marshall Herskovitz, the Emmy winners thirtysomething and Once and Again. Zwick and Herskovitz continue to lead their production company, Bedford Falls, founded in 1985. 

Zwick, whose early career included writing and producing for the Emmy winning 1979-80 sitcom Family, also executive produced the groundbreaking TV series My So-Called Life, which ran from 1994-95 and starred Claire Danes as high school student Angela Chase. In this excerpt from Zwick’s new memoir Hits, Flops and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, Zwick recalls the origins of the beloved teen drama. Hits, Flops and Other Illusions is out now, from Simon & Schuster.—M.M.

While writing for an adolescent girl character on Family named Buddy, whenever I’d come up with what I considered to be authentic teenage dialogue — which is to say oppositional and disagreeable, if not downright rebellious—I would receive notes from the network in the margins of my script with the initials “N.O.B.,” meaning “Not Our Buddy.” I vowed that someday I’d get to write truthfully about adolescence.

Similarly, Marshall had once written a pilot for Showtime called Secret Seventeen that the network ultimately rejected, considering its portrayal of teenagers inflammatory. But by the time we asked Winnie Holzman — one of our talented writers on thirtysomething — to develop the show with us that became My So-Called Life, the network claimed to be open to depicting young women as they never had before.

After researching for a time by teaching middle school, Winnie found her way into the show by writing an entire diary in the voice of Angela Chase. That voice not only became the signature of the show, it presented a protagonist at once so undeniably lovable and tormented that the network had no choice but to let us make it.

Finding Claire Danes for My So-Called Life

Claire Danes was not yet 14 when we met her. Our brilliant, ever-resourceful casting director, Linda Lowy, had seen her in a small role on Law & Order and insisted we fly her out from New York. Claire was with her parents, lovely people somewhat daunted by their daughter’s genius and self-possession.

When Claire finished her audition, we were stunned. There are certain actors so preternaturally gifted it takes your breath away; what they know simply can’t be taught. That same week we had met Alicia Silverstone, a talented and appealing actress who would go on to do Clueless and several TV series. But Alicia was a sophisticated 16-year-old, and Claire, in addition to being the age of the character as written, was . . . well . . . Claire. 

A publicity photo for the cast of My So-Called Life, from ABC

Given the shooting demands of a one-hour show, no one had ever dared cast someone as young as her in a lead role. One of the reasons, we realized, was that California has appropriately strict child labor laws governing the number of hours a minor can work during a day and how much time must be spent in school. Nonetheless, we felt we had no choice; that’s how much we wanted Claire.

To make it work obliged us to reconceive My So-Called Life, and like many such compromises in a TV series, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Winnie was able to endow the supporting characters — Angela’s friends and parents — with substantial subplots.

Angela’s love interest Jordan Catalano (the sublime and inscrutable Jared Leto, actually 21 at the time), developed an unexpected camaraderie with Angela’s neighbor and wannabe boyfriend, the geeky, lovable Brian Krakow; meanwhile, Angela’s new best friend, Rayanne, and her former best friend, Sharon, forged a relationship of their own; while in the background, the trouble in Angela’s parents’ marriage cast an unexpectedly dark shadow over Angela’s world.

Also Read: Drive-Away Dolls: Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke on How Their Marriage Fueled Their Lesbian Road Trip Movie

When we read Winnie’s description of Ricky Vasquez — a gay 15-year-old Puerto Rican — we couldn’t imagine finding him. And then Wilson Cruz walked into our office. It wasn’t just Wilson’s gifts as an actor that so brightened the ensemble, it was his charisma. As Winnie came to know him well, she realized the circumstances of Wilson’s personal life were not just a living mirror to the storyline she’d imagined — he was indeed the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a leading television role — but also a source for an even deeper exploration of a kid in a tough situation at home.

Given the impact the show has had over the years, it’s hard to believe we only made 19 episodes. Our collaboration with Winnie was intense and just as intensely gratifying. Although we worked closely with her on the stories, only writing and directing occasionally, Winnie’s was the true voice of the show. Scott Winant, our co-executive producer, not only directed the pilot but gave the show its unique visual language.

There was only one additional writer who pitched in: Jason Katims. Jason was a struggling playwright in New York when I first read his work at the Louisville One-Act Festival. We brought him to L.A. for his maiden job in TV, and though Winnie would have liked to write every word, Jason’s talent was undeniable and he contributed to several scripts. It was to be the first of our many happy collaborations together — not to mention Jason’s illustrious career on his own with Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and many other shows.

Why Was My So-Called Life Canceled?

Despite rave reviews, Emmy nominations for writing, directing, and best actress for Claire, never has a show been so tortured by a network’s lack of confidence: six episodes one year, six the following season, seven more after a long hiatus. It was death by a thousand cuts. Despite the executives’ admission of how much My So-Called Life meant to their daughters, and a rabidly devoted fan base, they refused to see the culture as it was changing around them.

“We can’t program a show about teenagers,” they said. “They’re just not an important market for our advertisers.”

There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal, conversation between Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg that’s always been dear to my heart. Mayer told Thalberg he wanted to buy the rights to Gone with the Wind for MGM.

“Forget it, L.B.,” said Thalberg. “No Civil War movie ever made a nickel.”

Scenes from My So-Called Life

My point being, Claire Danes became the star we always knew she would (as did Jared), and it wasn’t more than a year later, when MTV ran a My So-Called Life marathon, showing episodes back-to-back for what seemed like months, that the show took off and finally found the audience it deserved. It’s entirely possible those 19 episodes will be the thing most remembered among all we’ve done.

Ironic, yes. Still, as Angela would say, “We had a time.”

Main image: Claire Danes as Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, from ABC.