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July 6, 2003

Producers of 'Doc' find vehicle for faith

From: - Jul 6, 2003

By Ted Parks

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — It's a long way from Buffalo Center to Hollywood.

An aerial photo on the office wall of Dave and Gary Johnson, creators of PAX television's "Doc" and "Sue Thomas, F.B.EYE," shows the entire town of Buffalo Center, Iowa, where the two brothers were born and raised. The brothers' journey from the Midwest to the West Coast is not only about their evolving careers, but their determination to let faith shape their lives and work.

With PAX television's mission to provide quality, family friendly programming, "Doc" and "Sue Thomas, F.B.EYE" are "flagship shows for the network and put PAX top of mind," said network spokeswoman Nancy Udell. This fall "Doc" launches its fourth season on PAX and "Sue Thomas, F.B.EYE" its second season on the network.

As PAX's top-rated show, "Doc" tells the story of Dr. Clint Cassidy, a small-town Montana M.D. now working in a New York City clinic. The Midwestern doctor is played by country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. The other Johnson brothers' hit is based on the true story of Sue Thomas, a woman deaf from the age of 18 months who overcame numerous obstacles to become an agent for the FBI. Thomas is played by deaf actress Deanne Bray.

How did a couple of boys from the heartland wind up writing hit TV?

"The short version is divine intervention," said Dave Johnson. "The long version is ... I really have no idea how it all came about."

Dave "fell into" acting in college, he said, getting limited experience but somehow deciding to head to California to pursue a career. Working as an actor for eight or nine years, he then started writing. Becoming successful as a writer, Dave invited Gary to write sample scripts in preparation for the time when Dave would need additional writers for the shows he was making.

Though he didn't have television writing experience, Gary said, other kinds of work had proved good training for scripts. He had toured with a band, serving as the "funny guy" when the group would pause to talk to the audience. Those impromptu conversations later served him well when crafting dialogue, Gary said. The brother moved West after his gig with the band and a stint with United Airlines in Minneapolis. He worked together with Dave on "Against the Grain," an NBC show whose cast included Ben Affleck.

In the meantime, Dave's career was taking flight.

"I was on the A-list of everybody," Dave said, adding, "I was as high as you can get in this business."

Culture proves draining
But what he described as endemic dishonesty in Hollywood was taking its toll, Dave said.

"The joke is, sometimes they'll lie when telling the truth would actually be more beneficial," he said. "You basically never believe anything anybody tells you."

At a particularly trying moment, Dave told his wife, "I just want to forget all this. Let's just ... go be a missionary some place."

He explained that he didn't really intend to pack up for the mission field, but longed to escape Hollywood's back-stabbing and broken promises.

His wife's response would eventually spin his career in a new direction.

"Name me one place on earth that needs missionaries more than where you are right now," she told him.

"That moment changed my life," Dave said. "From then on ... I looked at what I did differently. I understood why I had been put where I had been put. I understood why I had been given the gifts I had been given."

A career change
While Dave continued the same kinds of projects he had always done, he eventually got in touch with PAX television, where he knew executive Jeff Sagansky while working at another network. Dave decided to make the change to the new broadcaster even though industry friends wondered why an up-and-coming writer-producer would leave the mainstream for new-kid PAX.

For Dave, however, making the change was following a call.

"I really felt like I was brought to that network to help build it into a contender," Johnson said. "I sort of saw everything I had done before that to be training for that moment."

Both Johnson brothers do a lot of the writing and other tasks involved in putting their shows together, they said. But as they tackle the various phases of production, a common faith shapes their perspective on their own work and the media in general.

For the Johnsons, "heart" is crucial to good television writing. Their style is about "not being afraid to ... embrace goodness" or put their characters through the rigors and joys of relationship. Humor is another key.

"A dramatic show without humor is unwatchable," Dave said, seeing laughter as essential to approaching life and art honestly.

The brothers believe the ability to write is a gift.

"It's really hard to learn how to be funny," Gary said. The creative process, Dave said, is "an opening of your heart to seeing the world through your heart" or "your spirit."

Moral compass fades
As for the modern TV landscape, Dave sees a sharp contrast between today's programming and television's golden age, when shows "clearly were moral," he said. The brothers' favorite growing up was "The Andy Griffith Show." Watching that kind of TV, Dave said, "you know what a good father is." But now, "your role models are despicable," he explained, adding, "there's no such thing as shame in our culture any more, almost."

Even with the success of a show like "Touched by an Angel," television executives refuse to open mainstream programming to faith-friendly entertainment, the brothers said. Network executives would likely see a program like "Touched" as a professional embarrassment, Dave said. Religiously themed shows wouldn't advance the standing of network moguls in a community where status is everything, the brothers explained.

As television writers and producers who are Christians, the Johnsons said they take their role as shapers of culture seriously. Gary knows he has a "forum to ... try and make things better for somebody else," he said.

With "Doc," the brothers tried to craft a show to point people in a spiritual direction without preaching. Lead character Cassidy, the Montana doctor, is a morally good person who attracts attention by his values and example. The Johnsons hope Cassidy's character will nudge audiences to ask, "I like what that guy has, how do I get it?"

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