Hollywood loves a buddy story, so picture this:
Two bright college graduates set off for California in search of fame and fortune as screenwriters. They struggle for a while, but through an improbable connection a producer discovers them and they find themselves writing for a hit television series. One grows unhappy, and they split up. Fifteen years later, they reunite. The magic is still there! They create one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television. The sealed envelope is opened, their names are called, and they jubilantly hoist their Emmy Awards as the music swells.
Perhaps, but it’s not a bad synopsis of the career arc followed by ’84 classmates Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. The two created and co-produce the hit cable show Homeland, now in its third season on Showtime. In 2012, they won a pair of Emmys, one for outstanding writing and another for Homeland’s being named outstanding drama series. They also have had their hands in several other popular shows, including The X-Files and 24.
The Homeland credits list the pair as executive producers and co-writers, but those titles tell little about what they actually do. Although the two still hash out each season’s story line, Gordon spends most of his time running a production company, Teakwood Lane Productions, which develops pilots for a number of networks. His role on Homeland is more that of “consigliere” (Gansa’s word) or “crop-duster” (Gordon’s word), flying over occasionally to contribute ideas for the plot.
Gansa is Homeland’s showrunner. That’s an industry term for the person responsible for every aspect of getting an episode on the air — polishing the script, coaching the director, overseeing the editors, giving notes to the sound mixer, you name it. The role “is generally acknowledged to be the worst job on the planet,” Gansa says, adding that his partner likens it to “piloting a plane through a storm with people throwing rocks at your head.”
But we’re getting ahead of the narrative. Cue a flashback to fill in some of the back story.
A San Francisco native, Gansa attended Groton and started out in Princeton’s Class of ’82, playing soccer until an injury ended his career. He took up creative writing and cites as influences a long list of professors in the English and philosophy departments. During his spare time, he also edited the Nassau Lit.
In an ironic plot twist, Gansa’s greatest disappointment as a student indirectly launched his career. In December of his senior year, he submitted the first 11 pages of the novel he was writing as his thesis (“the best 11 pages any 22-year-old had ever written,” he still insists) to his adviser, writer Joyce Carol Oates. Several days later, Oates called him to her office at 185 Nassau St. With a screenwriter’s eye, he still recalls the scene: “She was sitting at her desk, with her back to the window, when all of a sudden the sun broke through and lit up her glasses, those big glasses. My 11 pages were sitting there on the desk, not a red mark on them. That’s a good sign, I thought. Then she passed them across the desk and said, ‘Well, these aren’t good enough, are they?’
“I died. I cellularly died.”
But then Oates went to her bookshelf, took down a copy of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, and suggested that reading it might help Gansa fix his stalled novel. Over the next week, he plowed through everything Bellow had written, becoming an “instant disciple.” What moved him, he says, was the “sheer confidence” of Bellow’s writing and his “ability to open up the floodgates and let this inner voice come out.” Gansa’s friends grew tired of listening to him. There’s another Bellow nut on campus, they said. If you want to talk about Bellow, go talk to him. That “nut” was Gordon.
An English major from Queens, N.Y., Gordon had helped found the University Ballet Theater and the Expressions Dance Company before leaving Princeton for a year to study with the Harkness Ballet in New York. He recently had returned to campus and was another one of Oates’ thesis advisees. The two bonded immediately.
Graduation was soon upon them. They convinced each other to postpone graduate school and went west, driving cross-country in Gordon’s Datsun B-210 while hashing out a screenplay about the life of Lord Byron that they were sure would make them stars. When they couldn’t finish the Lord Byron story, they decided to write a script on spec for the hit TV medical drama St. Elsewhere.
Too young to be daunted by inexperience, they approached the task academically, working out of their shared apartment in Santa Monica. “We took what we had learned at Princeton,” Gansa says, “which was how to be students, how to become experts in a field or subject.” They taped the show’s episodes and watched each one again and again. After many drafts, they produced a script they liked. NBC rejected it.
Everyone hoping to break into show business has a day job, and so did Gansa and Gordon. They had opened a franchise of an SAT-tutoring service, and one of their first students was the daughter of the Hollywood producer running the show Spenser: For Hire. He read the St. Elsewhere script, liked it, and hired the two as freelancers.