Interview with Dave Hackel: Creator and Executive Producer of the TV Show 'Becker'
Dave Hackel's producing credits include such long-running hits as Paramount's comedy series 'Wings' and 'Dear John.' Hackel's first writing assignment for a series came in 1978 for the 'Barney Miller' spinoff, 'Fish,' starring Abe Vigoda. While writing episodes for several series, including one-hour dramas and variety shows, Hackel honed his expertise for comedy.
Hackel was named producer of Paramount's 'Dear John' for that series' first season in 1988. From there, Hackel worked as a writer/producer on the hit Paramount series 'Wings' for a total of 122 episodes, ultimately becoming the show's executive producer during the 1993-94 season.
Since 'Wings,' Hackel has served as a creative consultant for Paramount's 'Frasier,' 'Lateline' and 'Almost Perfect' and created the Paramount comedy series 'The Pursuit of Happiness.'
Dave Hackel answered The Writers Store's questions via email in February 2001:
(WS) You began your career in radio broadcasting. What got you interested in becoming a writer?
(DH) My time in radio was limited to high school and college. In addition to some board engineering, I wrote the local news and read whatever AP and UPI sent over the wire. When I graduated from college, I decided to try my hand at being unemployed in a brand-new field, so, I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles and started my career in television. For a number of years, I worked at a small ad agency that specialized in placing prizes on game shows. I made $125 per week. Across the hall, a group of writers were working on a sitcom. They were all making $1000 per week. I did the math and started writing spec scripts.
Well, that's only part of the truth. Those writers across the hall were having fun. In the prize business, I was having considerably less fun. And, I realized that people who wrote, who created their own material, were more in control of their careers. They could actually make jobs for themselves. Also, the chance to 'create' instead of just reacting to the creations of others was of great interest.
(WS) Was there a definitive event in your life that caused you to actually begin to define and call yourself a writer?
(DH) I spent a few years writing at home each night...spec script after spec script. During those years, writing seemed to be more of a hobby. When my partner and I sold our first episodic script, suddenly it seemed real. The community called us writers, so we supposed that we were. And, understand, it wasn't about the money. After joining the WGA, paying my agent, and paying taxes, I think I may have lost money on that deal. But it didn't matter. We'd been validated.
(WS) Did you ever study writing and under what circumstances?
(DH) I didn't study writing formally, at least not in a classroom. I studied by doing it...a lot. And I was lucky and got a few lower level positions that allowed me to learn on the job from some very, very talented people. In that regard, I'm still studying and learning.
(WS) What kind of preparation/training and ongoing study do you recommend to would-be writers?
(DH) It sounds to simple, but just write. Write often. Write a lot. Find out what you enjoy writing about. Find out if you enjoy writing. See where your talent lies. Your own personal style will emerge.
As far as 'ongoing study,' well, someone once said that being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. It's true. You never quit having ideas. And you never lose the ability to write them down. However, if you're like most of us, not getting ideas, and not writing them down aren't really choices. They're obsessions.
(WS) Where do your best ideas come from?
(DH) Real life. There's nothing funnier. There's nothing sadder.
(WS) How do you keep track of them?
(DH) On matchbooks, restaurant receipts, parking tickets, magazine covers, voice recorders, computer files and my wife's Palm Pilot.
(WS) How do you approach your work? Do you have a daily ritual or routine? Are you disciplined?
(DH) Because I currently work on a weekly television program, a daily ritual and routine are forced upon me. I must have a new script on the table each week, so my discipline is fear induced. But, even when I'm writing for myself, i.e. without a deadline, I find it helpful to set aside time each day to work. Having the structure helps. Then I throw all those high-minded plans aside and work whenever I get an idea.
(WS) Gabriele Meiringer of the Writers Store says that she sold you your first computer. Do you always use the computer, or do you draft or edit with pen and paper during any part of the process?
(DH) Gabriele did sell me my first computer. And, I vividly remember the day I took it home. MicroSoft Word 2.0 and I did not see eye to eye. I was convinced that I'd purchased a very expensive paperweight. Luckily, both the computers and I have improved over the years. These days I almost always compose and edit directly at the keyboard. Occasionally, I'll print out and work from paper, but only when typing isn't a practical option.
(WS) Which specific software programs do you use?
(DH) I'm currently using Final Draft for script work. MSWord for correspondence.
(WS) Do you use the Internet to research material for your work?
(DH) Google.com is one of my most valued associates.
(WS) Earlier in your career, you wrote for one-hour dramas and variety programs. How did the half-hour situation comedy become your specialty?
(DH) When I was first starting out, I was so thrilled to be offered work that I took any and all that came my way. Each assignment was a terrific learning experience. But, as the years went on, I realized that I most enjoyed working on comedies, so I began to concentrate on those.
(WS) You have worked in many capacities (writer, producer, executive producer, creative consultant) on some of television's most acclaimed programs (Wings, Frasier, Lateline, Becker, Dear John). How do these various roles differ and how do you juggle them when there's more than one at a time?
(DH) First of all, understand that in almost all cases, all of the titles you mentioned involve writing. Television comedies are very writer driven.
An Executive Producer is kind of like a CEO. Everything passes by the executive producer's desk. He hires the writer, director, actors, guides the story process, works with the budget, the studio, the network, etc. Now, understand, he or she has a lot of help in every category, but, in the end, he or she is the one ultimately responsible.
The writer gets the 'Written by' credit. They come up with the original story and first draft of the script.
Creative Consultant describes a writer who comes in one or two days per week to provide a fresh eye to the show. At that point, writers who work full time on the show need a new viewpoint from someone who's not been so close to the process. A consultant's opinion is invaluable for spotting story holes, performance, and staging problems.
Associate Producer, in our genre, is usually dedicated to post-production responsibilities.
Also, on comedies, Co-producer, Producer, and Supervising Producer are all writing titles with varying degrees of production responsibilities.
(WS) You created the current series 'Becker,' whose lead character says most anything that is on his mind. Is he based on someone you know or someone you possibly would like to be at times?
(DH) I suppose that there is a bit of John Becker in me. We share disdain for idiocy, rudeness and inequity. But, more and more, I've become convinced that there's a bit of Becker in everyone. He's far too honest for his own good, and he says what most of us are too polite to say.
(WS) What is your most memorable experience working in television?
(DH) I've had some wonderful experiences over the years, but I'd have to say that one of the most thrilling times I can remember was when Dick Van Dyke was a guest star on 'Becker.' Everyone on our stage just could not stop smiling. I'm smiling now just thinking about it. He was amazing.
(WS) What is your most difficult job as a producer?
(DH) Keeping everybody happy.
(WS) Whose work do you admire most?
(DH) The list of people I admire is quite lengthy. If I were to start naming names, I'd certainly forget someone.
(WS) Which project of yours are you most proud of and why?
(DH) I'm most proud of 'Becker.' It's been the project that has afforded me the most personal expression. It's also been the best collaborative work experience of my career.
(WS) Are you working on a feature length screenplay in your spare time?
(DH) What spare time?
(WS) Has your success ever re-directed the path you had in mind for yourself as a writer?
(DH) When I became accepted as a television writer, more and more production opportunities came my way. As those responsibilities have increased, I've had less and less time to actually write. One day, I hope to produce less and write more.
(WS) Which are your favorite TV shows aside from 'Becker?'
(DH) I have very eclectic tastes. To name only a few -- 'Malcolm In The Middle,' 'Antiques Roadshow' and HGTV's 'Extreme Homes.'
(WS) Do you have a list of must-see films/TV shows for would-be writers?
(DH) No, not really. Watch what you enjoy. You'll be inspired by what you admire.
(WS) Are there books you would recommend to new writers honing their craft?
(DH) Read 'Adventures In The Screen Trade' by William Goldman.
(WS) Any advice you want to share that didn't fit into any of the above?
(DH) Yes. Don't forget to enjoy your work. It's too easy to forget that.
Thank you Dave, and best wishes for a continued successful career!