Berg Brings His “A” Game

Versatile actor/director hopes for very good things with Friday Night Lights

If Peter Berg were a football player, he’d play running back. And linebacker. And quarterback. And maybe punt, too. The executive producer of high school football drama Friday Night Lights, which debuts this fall on NBC, brings uncommon multitasking skills to the game. He directs, he produces, he acts and he writes. He has already had a hit with the 2004 film version of Lights, based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, and has high hopes for the series as well.

“When we were making the movie, we felt there were so many parts of the book we weren’t able to explore,” says Berg from the set of The Kingdom, a film he’s currently directing. “It seemed like it lent itself naturally to the concept of a television show. Once I presented it, NBC kind of leapt at it.”

Dr. Kronk on Chicago Hope

Berg’s big Hollywood break came about 15 years ago. His performance in the play Boys Girls Men and Women at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles got him an agent. Then David Kelley cast him as Dr. Billy Kronk in CBS medical drama Chicago Hope. Roles followed in such films as The Last Seduction and Cop Land.

But Berg’s desire to create stories, not just inhabit characters, stuck with him. He wrote and directed episodes of Chicago Hope. He made movies, too. His 1998 film Very Bad Things, about a Vegas bachelor party that goes really, truly wrong, starred Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater and Jeremy Piven and earned Berg a reputation as that rare Hollywood hybrid: the bankable risk-taker.

That helped him get a TV show. He created, wrote, produced and directed Wonderland, a drama about a psychiatric hospital that aired on ABC in 2000. Just four episodes ran, but Wonderland did find a few hardcore fans—including filmmaker Michael Mann, best-known for acclaimed pictures like Heat and Ali, as well as the upcoming Miami Vice.

“He was a big fan of the show,” says Berg. “I got a phone call from him, wanting to have lunch, and we’ve been very close ever since.” So much so, in fact, that Mann is producing The Kingdom, a thriller set in Saudi Arabia. “He’s always given me very good advice and been very inspiring to me,” says Berg.

Friday Night Lights also has some big names on board. Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) and David Nevins (Arrested Development) are executive producers. Jason Katims (Boston Public), meanwhile, serves as showrunner. (The series is set in the present, unlike the movie, which took place in the ’80s.)

Berg hopes Lights shines in its 8 p.m. ET Tuesday slot. NBC’s Sunday-night NFL telecasts will help with promotion, but it’s nonetheless lined up against the most formidable of opponents: American Idol returns midseason on Fox. Berg is realistic about the fight: “Hopefully, we’ll establish some sort of audience base, or NBC moves us to another time slot.”

Berg, who grew up rooting for the NFL’s Giants in New York, knows that one key to establishing a base is connecting with those who may not know a safety blitz from a safety pin.

“Obviously, football’s a big component of the show, but we’re gonna try and branch out very quickly,” he says. “What the book did so well was explore not only high school culture and sports culture but American culture in general. That’s what we’re aspiring to do.”

“A Force of Nature”

Angela Bromstead, president of NBC Universal Television Studio, which produces the show with Imagine Television, says Berg had her at hello. Calling Friday Night Lights one of her all-time favorite movies, she says she was blown away by its transformation to series. “I never thought I could love the pilot as much as the movie, but after we saw the rough cut, we sat in stunned silence,” says Bromstead. “Pete’s a force of nature. To be around someone so creative and so talented is a treat.”

A few months before the series premieres, Berg is armed with the lessons learned running Wonderland. Talk about very bad things: The show’s pilot saw a pregnant woman stabbed in the stomach with an HIV-infected needle. “That caused about 90% of viewers to turn off their televisions,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not gonna do that anymore.”