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June 18, 2015

Life with Fathers

With two shows to run and a toddler to raise, producers Carter Covington and Patrick Sean Smith lead a hectic, happy life in L.A.

John Griffiths

Carter Covington and Patrick Sean Smith seemingly have it all.

They each run a hit show that comes from the heart — Covington developed and executive-produces MTV’s gender-bending high-school sitcom Faking It; Smith executive-produces ABC Family’s drama Chasing Life. Married and the parents of a towheaded toddler, Cormac (that’s Mac for short), they share a rustic two-story in Los Angeles’s tony Los Feliz neighborhood.

But life can still shake you out of the comfiest of beds, as it did one recent morning when a neighbor’s house caught fire. “It was a few houses down, around 4 a.m.,” Covington recounts. “Everyone’s okay. Mac was so excited to see all the fire engines. But it was a good reminder to check our fire alarms."

Turns out, having it all actually takes lots of effort and attention to detail, and the couple find themselves pulled in many directions. Chasing Life returns for its second season on August 17. Faking It picks up the last half its second season on August 31, and it has already been renewed for a third.

Being a showrunner, says Covington, “is an all-consuming job.” As, of course, is parenting.

On another, particularly sunny day, Mac is darting around the living room and comes close to tipping over a pot of orchids. Smith averts disaster by scooping him up.

"He is our highest priority,” he says. “It's a challenge, and it comes with guilt on all sides, but I think we're managing it well."

Covington and Smith became fathers via an open adoption, one that came together quickly. Longing for a child — and an amicable relationship with the birth parents — they were told their chances were slim. But an “incredible woman, sweet and precious,” Smith says, came along at eight months’ pregnant.

While some adoptive parents might stay mum about their child’s way into their lives, these dads say transparency is important. "We don't want Mac to feel shame about being adopted,” Smith insists, “in the way that we felt shame about being gay.”

And, like many writers before them, Covington and Smith have each channeled their own angst-and drama-filled pasts into storylines for series that showcase young characters dealing with tough, relevant issues.

Chasing Life, for one, centers on April (Italia Ricci), an upstart journalist whose cancer has been in and out of remission.

“April was at first in denial, sort of the same way that I was in the closet,” says Smith, who grew up Southern Baptist in tiny Decatur, Texas (population: 6,261). He was 21 when he mustered the courage to come out.

“I didn't want to tell people because it can make them uncomfortable and they shy away from you. I pulled a lot from my coming-out story with how April told people.”

Meanwhile, Faking It has had Covington's imprint since MTV asked him to flesh out the initial concept (in a quest for popularity, two high-school girls pretend to be lesbian).

“I was definitely personally attached to doing a show about discovering your sexuality,” says Covington, also a Southerner, raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Back when he was struggling with coming out, “I thought everybody I loved was going to reject me. That wasn't the case, but it felt incredibly real and intense." So he made one of the girls in the show question her sexuality.

“I feel like I've taken parts of my personality and put them in each character," Covington says.

Shane (Michael Willett), for example, is comfortably out. "He is the one I wish I could have been in high school,” the producer says, “and am now, when I am at my most confident."

He relates to most of his characters, from misunderstood romantic Liam (Gregg Sulkin) to needy Karma (Katie Stevens), sexually confused Amy (Rita Volk) — even snarky popular girl Lauren (Bailey De Young) — “when I’m in a bad mood.”

Faking It garnered critical praise earlier this year when Lauren — of course, a pretty, blonde cheerleader — confided to her frenemies that she was born intersex, meaning she has both male and female chromosomes.

"That was really exciting to me, to give some hope and show what a high school could look like,” says Covington, a volunteer for Trevor Project, the LGBTQ crisis and suicide-prevention organization. He admits he was “nervous” in pitching the storyline, but “MTV was 100 percent on board. [President] Susanne Daniels said, ‘I love this!’”

The animated Covington and the laid-back Smith say that they each grew up with a lot of love and assurance.

Covington’s dad, a retired law professor, and mom, a local government worker, raised him with a “strong sense of finding something you're passionate about.” He studied foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and taught English near Mexico City, thinking he might want to be a diplomat. After coming out at 24, he moved to Los Angeles to get an MBA at UCLA, but wound up writing for The Daily Bruin and organizing the campus talent show along the way.

Discussions with a friend, TV writer Michael Green (Smallville), convinced him to write a spec script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The first sitcom pilot he sold, Just a Phase, was about a gay kid growing up in the 1980s.

Smith says his “jack-of-all-trades” dad (who worked as a police officer and at one time owned a used-car lot) always cheered him on with his “great sense of humor.” His mom, a school cafeteria worker, was also “incredibly supportive.” Not liking football as a kid — in a town straight out of Friday Night Lights — Smith says he was instead “the heavy-set kid who spent all my time at the video store.” First crush: John Schneider on The Dukes of Hazzard.

While studying radio and TV at the University of Texas, Austin, he finagled summer internships in L.A. and, after graduation, landed a production-assistant job on Law & Order. Soon he was writing episodes for Everwood and Supernatural. In 2006 he created Greek, ABC Family’s socially aware dramedy about fraternity and sorority life that ran for four years.

Finding love wasn’t as easy. "I had always played the relegated gay sidekick,” Smith says wryly. “It took me a while to mature enough emotionally to take relationships seriously.”

Meeting Covington through mutual friends was kismet. They circled each other for a couple of years, then began dating in 2006. Their exclusivity was confirmed on a hike followed by some froyo.

Early on, they were shocked to discover they had both just sold a pilot to ABC Family and that Smith’s project — the greenlit Greek — mirrored Covington’s life.

“It was so weird,” Covington says, still floored. “Just like on the show. I went to college — followed my sister there. She was in the sorority across the street from the fraternity that I joined. We had a very cantankerous relationship and college brought us closer. And Sean was never in a fraternity!"

They were perhaps bound to write together. Soon after Smith moved in with Covington, the two ended up working on Greek together. The experience ultimately “brought us closer. It was like we had a child together."

In 2007, Covington popped the question while the two were trekking up a trail in Yosemite. “He stopped me, got down on one knee,” recalls Smith, as sentimental passersby took photos. The following year, they married in Hawaii. Honeymoon: a safari in Africa.

Though they stopped officially collaborating in 2009 — ABC Family had asked Covington to adapt the teen-world satire 10 Things I Hate About You into a series — the two still gave each other notes. After 10's 20 episodes, Covington spent a season coproducing the CW's Hart of Dixie.

No matter the project, “We are each other's most important fan, supporter and also sounding board."

Now, when they’re not on separate sets, the happy pops live a fairly Modern Family-esque life on L.A.'s east-ish side. They bought their faintly Moorish three-bedroom home five years ago, partly because it's nestled alongside a section of Griffith Park. Built in the 1930s, " it reminded us of our rural roots," Covington says.

Outside of a prop from Greek (a fraternity pledge paddle), there’s little that winks "Hollywood" here.

Cherry-blossom print wallpaper covers the dining room, warmed by a collage of wedding photos and a soothing view of trees, trails and mountains beyond. In the kitchen there’s an antique plate emblazoned with a sassy rooster, an heirloom from Covington’s beloved grandmother. Nearby, the giant walnut slab of a dining table, created by furniture designer Matt Monroe, is propped up by parts of salvaged iron machinery.

“I have a strong affection for things that are a little worn, that have a little bit of character,” Covington says. "I find what I like, show it to Sean and strongly encourage him to agree!”

The backyard, which the couple redid, features old-fashioned brick, lush gardenias, a fountain centerpiece and an inviting outdoor kitchen. "We have friends over, grill and sit outside,” Smith says.

Adds Covington: "We splurged because we knew we weren't going out ever again!"

It’s a happy confinement, though, what with Mac’s bounding smile and energy (pastimes include playing faux drums and cooking).

To decorate their son’s bedroom, the men unleashed their inner fanboys, accenting the room with nods to their favorite movie as kids: Star Wars. An R2-D2 hamper–turned–toy bin, a gift from Smith’s dad, looms in a corner, while one wall carries the message: The Force Is Strong With This One.

They do occasionally leave home for non-work reasons, such as dinner at local restaurants or walks with Pepper, their black Labrador-Wiemaraner mix. And both men are scuba-certified, but they likely won’t be going underwater anytime soon.

Navigating two series and guiding a young life that’s hit the tantrum-laden twos (”Carter's more the disciplinarian, I'm more the pushover,” Smith says) doesn’t leave much spare time.

That could explain the sixty-five-inch plasma TV above the living-room fireplace. When they first perused the house, the duo was impressed by the then-current resident’s grand mirror over the mantel. They thought maybe they’d put up their own mirror.

“After about an hour,” Smith says, “we realized that wasn't us. So we got the biggest TV we could find.”

Storyboarding the future is tricky. Ten years from now, “we just hope to be working because we love what we do,” says Covington. “And that we keep challenging each other to grow closer and stronger. Mac will be 12 then. I'm so excited for the day we can play video games!”

Photographs by Ray Kachatorian


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