Producer Mike Fleiss Talks About the First Show He Pitched
Mike Fleiss has had an award-winning TV and film career and has perfected the art of attracting millions of viewers. But he admits that at one point, he was just like any other person paying their dues in Hollywood when he presented his first TV show idea: Before They Were Stars.
“Back then, there were more recognizable TV and movie stars and music stars. Everybody knew who Lee Majors was, or Tom Cruise was, or Brad Pitt,” Fleiss says. “We were able to sell a show that was just clips of really famous people [like] Sharon Stone, Jack Nicholson, in their very first roles in commercials.”
It was a concept Mike Fleiss says came to him organically through many hours of devouring television. He confesses he grew up watching a copious amount of TV as a child in Fullerton, California. Like so many other kids, he says he loved all of Aaron Spelling’s shows and looked forward to programs such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Family. Growing up during a time when TV shows weren’t often shown on repeat, there was a certain level of attentiveness that people put into viewing TV that doesn’t necessarily exist anymore.
“I knew that Farrah Fawcett made [one of] her first appearances on a Partridge Family episode,” Fleiss shares. “And I’d watched Jodie Foster do a commercial as a kid for toothpaste or something like that, and then later become a big star. So I had sort of monitored that over my childhood, seeing how people started, and I thought it would be a fun little show to do. And so we did that for ABC in 1993, I think. That was my first show.”
Fleiss recalls feeling like it was a bit of a game deciphering which star was on screen.
“Sometimes, if I had a friend in the room watching TV with me, I’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ I’d show a clip and say, ‘Can you identify that person?’ So it had a game element to it too when you were watching it,” he adds. “It had a fun sort of quality to it. I had a bunch of ideas when I came down to LA, but that was the first one I sold.”
Fleiss says he has a former Fox Network executive to thank for giving him the confidence to ultimately pitch the concept.
“I was working for a guy named Stephen Chao, who was the head
of the Fox Network at the time,” Mike Fleiss says. “He liked the fact that I was prolific and generated a lot of ideas, and so he encouraged me to start, and that was when I was just working on his shows.”
Chao, who graduated from Harvard, was behind early reality TV hits Cops and America’s Most Wanted.
While Fleiss acknowledges BeforeThey Were Stars wouldn’t necessarily work today, it had its shining moment in TV history. “It wasn’t a great creative thing,” he concludes. “But I guess it was clever [at the time].”