The Spirit of Independence
Adelson turns real-life stories into award-winning TV
By Melanie Clarke -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/10/2004 8:00:00 PM
TV producer Orly Adelson is known for her firsts: She produced ESPN's first original dramatic series, Playmakers; Discovery Channel's first movie, Twelve Days of Terror; and Comedy Central's first original made-for-TV movie, Porn and Chicken. Since 1995, when she formed Orly Adelson Productions, she has added a host of acclaimed shows to her résumé. But unlike most Hollywood success stories, she credits her perseverance to the Israeli Army.
Adelson earned her lieutenant's stripes on the officer's track, a grueling regime that weeds out nearly 50% of female applicants. Training was so difficult, her father, a high-ranking army officer, had to force her to return to base after military leave. "If you can survive it," she admits, "you think you're the best thing."
That confidence sustained her through a tough academic career. Adelson simultaneously earned degrees from Hebrew University and Jerusalem's famed Academy of Music & Dance. But her move to the U.S. was kismet. At a party in 1981, she met Andrew Adelson, who was in Israel to promote the film The Postman Always Rings Twice. Eventually, she left one love, Israel, for another, her new husband, and moved to Los Angeles.
Though she's currently in post-production on 3 for ESPN, a biopic on NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, and just produced Hustle, about Pete Rose's downfall, she kicked off her TV career in commercials. In 1988, she joined ad agency Bozell, Jacobs, Kenton and Eckhardt. By 1990, she was ready to move from 30-second spots to two-hour movies, so she called friends at Brandman Productions. They gave her an office and told her to sell movies. Starting with NBC and Shoot First, she proved a valuable asset and was quickly elevated to vice president of development.
Soon, she was recruited to Carolco-Gimbel Productions by President Roger Gimbel. There she oversaw TNT's Chernobyl: The Final Warning, which won an Environmental Media Award. By 1994, the company had become Gimbel-Adelson Productions. "You have to learn the development side," says Adelson of building production skills. "It was good schooling."
Then, after independently producing Keeper of the Light, a documentary about the state of Israel, she decided to fly solo. Since then, she has worked on an eclectic array of projects. From Plainsong for Hallmark to D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, which won the NAACP Image Award for best TV movie, Adelson has flourished. Ever versatile, her company is also producing reality series Sorority Life and Fraternity Life for MTV. What draws her "are stories that say something or explore a character."
Ironically, she has been a hit in sports dramas, although she claims no interest in sports. In 2001, she began working with ESPN Original Entertainment, where she produced The Junction Boys, the network's highest-rated original TV movie, followed by Playmakers, which earned the AFI award. "Orly's kept her focus on the task at hand and produced the highest quality possible," says Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment. "Several actors have said she's one of the best executive producers they have ever worked with … and that's a tough bunch to please."
Adelson is especially adept at true stories.
Besides Porn and Chicken, which explored the secret porn society of an Ivy League college, she's developing Hidden in the Heartland, about Atlanta bomber Eric Rudolph for USA and The J.K. Rowling Story for NBC. With real-life accounts, she is a meticulous factual researcher. "We literally go through every scene," she says.
Bela Bajaria, CBS senior vice president of movies and miniseries, worked with Adelson on To Love, Honor and Betray and now on Canal Street Brothel. "She's a very good partner," says Bajaria crediting their ongoing relationship to Adelson's efficiency and cool demeanor. "We can have a straight, honest dialogue ... It's a refreshing approach to making movies."
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