As the son of a television producer, Jon Turtletaub grew up hanging around the sets of his father's iconic 1970s TV shows. But while Saul Turtletaub let his son visit Love, American Style and What's Happening!, junkyard sitcom Sanford & Son was usually off-limits. The reason: Redd Foxx, the notoriously blue comic who starred in the show.
"He was just too dirty off-camera," says the younger Turtletaub. "I was 12, and hearing it when I did get to go on set was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life."
It was enough to inspire him to go into show business. After starting out as an actor at Beverly Hills High School—where he beat out a young Nicolas Cage for the lead in Thornton Wilder's Our Town—Turtletaub went on to a successful career making feature films. But despite his early exposure to TV production, he only recently broke into network television as executive producer of CBS' post-apocalyptic drama Jericho (see related technology story, p. 17).
Riding the success of '3 Ninjas'
It wasn't for lack of trying. After attending the University of Southern California's film school with an eye toward feature-film directing, Turtletaub spent time hanging around sets of shows like Murphy Brown, but nothing came of it. "I guess I had the fortunate misfortune of not being able to break into sitcoms," he says.
In 1992, after he'd written and directed a couple of low-budget films, he directed an independently produced kids movie pitched as a cross between Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Through a family connection, someone at Disney saw the film, and two days later, studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg called.
The timing was auspicious: The next week, Los Angeles erupted in riots sparked by the acquittals in the Rodney King case. "One week later and the Disney guy might never have seen the movie," Turtletaub says.
The film, 3 Ninjas, became Disney's most profitable film of the year, grossing nearly $30 million domestically. Turtletaub went on to direct a string of major hits, including Cool Runnings and Phenomenon, and contributed an installment of Tom Hanks' 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Most recently, he directed Nic Cage in the 2004 thriller National Treasure.
In the spring of 2005, he caught wind of a script for a TV series about life in a small town after a nuclear attack—a tough sell for primetime network television.
"I knew it was awesome," Turtletaub says of Jericho. "But everyone we talked to said it would never get on the air, it was too dark and gloomy."
After getting shot down all over Hollywood, Turtletaub turned to CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler. The two had met in the 1980s through Tassler's brother-in-law, actor Willie Garson, who was a college buddy of Turtletaub's.
"The first time we met," Tassler recalls, "[Turtletaub] sat down at a piano and did this impromptu musical number about how theater people sing with high elbows. It was hysterical, and he captured my heart right away."
An unlikely home at CBS
She and Turtletaub had been trying for years to find a TV project to collaborate on, and Jericho was it. "Nina loved it right away," he says. "She saw the same thing we did."
An edgy serial would seem an unlikely fit with CBS' traditional sitcom and procedural fare, but Jericho has been one of the few success stories of the fall. And now that he's finally made it in TV, Turtletaub hopes this show won't be his last.
"I love it. As insane as it is, you never get bored," he says. "In movies, you are prepping, then shooting, then editing. In television, you do it all constantly."
For now, Turtletaub will take time away from the show to reunite with Cage for the sequel to National Treasure. So, after all these years, does he still needle the Oscar-winning actor about his early acting defeat back in high school?
"I don't need to," Turtletaub laughs. "He is still very aware."