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April 08, 2014

The Woman Whisperer

No one writes women characters like Marc Cherry. Now, from the office that once belonged to no less than Walt Disney, the man behind Desperate Housewives is back in his own Happiest Place: putting words in the mouths of fabulous femmes on Lifetime’s Devious Maids.

It’s a Monday afternoon on Burbank’s Walt Disney Studios lot, and Marc Cherry is giving a tour of his office.

Located in the legendary Animation building, where classic features like Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp were dreamed up and drawn, the sprawling 3rd-floor corner suite — with its own receptionist area and kitchenette — is the structure’s crown jewel, created for and originally occupied by Walt Disney himself.

Nearly 50 years after the death of that iconic entrepreneur, the space reflects its current occupant’s more modern aesthetic, right down to the (what else?) cherry-red walls.

But its layout is recognizable to viewers of the recent film Saving Mr. Banks, which starred Tom Hanks as Disney, who worked from this office to realize a film adaptation of P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins.

“The experience of watching those scenes [knowing] I’m in here now was weird,” says Cherry, who keeps a framed photo of Disney whipping up a salad in the kitchen prominently displayed in that room. “Really surreal.”

Especially considering the writer-producer’s inauspicious start. As a 21-year-old aspiring actor performing in parades at Disneyland, Cherry was — sorry, Walt! — downright miserable at the Happiest Place on Earth.

“I was Stromboli on the Pinocchio float, and they treated us like crap,” he says, popping some Excedrin and settling in for an interview.

“The parade employee was the lowest level of employee you could be. You did a parade at 1:30, then you were on your own for 2 1/2 hours [until] you came back and did a 2nd parade — and they didn’t pay you for the time in between.

“It was super-hot that summer,” he continues, “but they didn’t have a place for us to hang out that was air-conditioned. So we’d try to hang out in the bathroom, but there would be too many of us, so they’d come and throw us out. It was horrible.”

Cherry, casually clad in a polo shirt, jeans and sneakers, pauses to consider his history-drenched digs: “I remember thinking when they moved me in here, ‘I’ve come a long way within the Disney corporation!’”

As his prime office attests, Cherry is indeed 1 of the company’s MVPs, the TV maestro behind Desperate Housewives, 1 of the defining hits of the past decade for Disney-owned ABC.

He has followed that with Devious Maids, which made history in its debut last year on Lifetime (also a Disney asset) as the 1st U.S. primetime series featuring an all-Latina leading cast.

The latter — about a quintet of ambitious housekeepers who work among the rich, often immoral and occasionally murderous Beverly Hills elite — premiered to so-so ratings last June. But by its season-1 finale, ratings had increased by 50 percent, making the series the fastest-rising in Lifetime’s history.

Which, naturally, means expectations are high for season 2: the show returns April 20 with stars Ana Ortiz, Roselyn Sanchez, Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez and Edy Ganem.

“We think it’s going to be a big launch for us,” says Robert Sharenow, executive vice-president and general manager of Lifetime. “And with the way Devious Maids went [last season], we have every expectation that it will continue to grow.”

The glossy soap — loosely based on a Mexican telenovela, Ellas son la alegría del hogar (“They Are the Joy of the Home”) — is smartly plotted and bitingly funny as it skewers the upstairs entitlement of the 1 percent while championing the downstairs heroes who dream of better lives.

The ABC Studios series was originally developed for the ABC network, with Cherry as executive producer and its creator for American television. To say he was disappointed when the pilot was passed over by the network would be an understatement.

“I was stunned,” he admits. “I hadn’t considered what my life would be without a show. I walked around my house depressed. I rearranged the books on my shelves and looked at my bank statement. I knew that Lifetime was talking about buying the show and I kept going, ‘Please let it happen.’”

Sharenow, convinced the series was an ideal fit for his female-focused cable network, wasn’t about to let Devious die.

“From the moment we heard about it — when all I knew was the title and Marc Cherry — I was in,” says the exec. “There’s no one that writes women quite like him. His tone is unique. A Marc Cherry show is almost its own genre because it combines humor with great characters with murder. He’s a craftsman. Every frame and every word is his vision.”

Before viewers even got a look at that vision, though, the show came under attack by some critics and members of the Hispanic community, who expressed concern that it would play into a Hollywood stereotype.

“Like everybody else, I had reservations about Latinas being [portrayed as] maids,” says former Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, whom Cherry reached out to early in the show’s development.

“But once Marc told me the show centered around these amazing women who were complex, deeply flawed and deeply entertaining, and that they were the moral compass of the show, I said, ‘I’ve never heard of something like this!’ He wanted to focus on who these women were, not what they did. It was groundbreaking, and I wanted to be a part of history with Marc.”

Longoria is an executive producer on the show and, by all accounts, a hardworking one. (Other exec producers on the series are Sabrina Wind, Paul McGuigan, Larry Shuman, David Lonner, John Mass and Televisa USA’s Paul Presburger and Michael Garcia.) She was heavily involved in casting, weighs in on storylines and marketing decisions and is considering a guest shot.

“We’ve discussed Gabby Solis” — Longoria’s Desperate Housewives character — “making an appearance on the show,” she spills, before adding with a laugh, “I think she’d be a great Devious employer.”

First, though, Longoria will make her television-directing debut with the season premiere, which kicks off with a home invasion.

But perhaps the more intriguing twist involves the character of Marisol, played by Ortiz. In season 1, she was a college professor who went undercover as a housekeeper to clear her son of murder. This time around, she’s living with a wealthy man and employing a devious maid of her own — one who’s not Latina, but Caucasian.

Played by New York theater actress Joanna Adler, the character will be integral to the season’s overarching mystery.

“I’m stealing a page from Alfred Hitchcock and redoing Rebecca,” says Cherry, referring to the 1940 Oscar-winning gothic film.

“Something mysterious happened to the man’s first wife, and he’s got this very creepy housekeeper that Marisol has to deal with. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Cherry can’t remember a time when he wasn’t enamored of Hollywood classics. Growing up in Orange County, California — the son of Truman Cherry, an accountant, and his wife Martha, a stay-at-home mom — he studied Academy Awards trivia so intently that, even today, he’s a walking Oscar-pedia. (Name a year and category, and he’ll tell you who won.)

He would often stay up past his bedtime to catch those award-winning films, and that knowledge has kept him in good stead professionally.

“I have so many movies stuck in my head, and nothing is wasted,” he says, laughing. “My attitude about writing is, if you steal from enough different sources, it comes out original!”

Cherry majored in theater at California State University, Fullerton, but his mother had a hunch that her son, a born storyteller, would wind up as a writer.

By the time Cherry agreed and made the move to L.A., he was just in time for the 1988 writers’ strike. To pay the bills, he took a job as a personal assistant to Designing Women star Dixie Carter.

“Dixie was very kind to me,” Cherry says of the late actress, whom he later cast as Kyle MacLachlan’s mom on Desperate Housewives, a role that earned Carter what Cherry calls “the Emmy nomination that maybe meant more to me than any other.”

It was the perspective gained from being “the help” in Beverly Hills that provided Cherry with the necessary insight into his Devious Maids characters.

“I don’t think there’s anything undignified about good, honest work,” he says. “That was the interesting nexus of the [Maids] controversy.

Some people thought it was the most horrible thing to portray people working on this level, and I said, ‘It’s not, as long as they have dreams of their own.’ That’s why it was very important those maids had goals far bigger than their employment status.”

As a young assistant, Cherry certainly did. He dreamed of landing a staff-writing gig on a sitcom.

He got his 1st shot with the 1989 ABC comedy Homeroom, which was quickly canceled, but had better luck with the NBC classic The Golden Girls, which he joined in its 6th season. He still has great admiration for the comedy’s leading ladies — Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty — who each won an Emmy during the show’s run.

“I think the writing was pretty good on the show, but the women were spectacular,” Cherry says. “They made smart choices and approached the material with such respect. Those women taught me that if you’ve got great actors, they can save your ass every single day.”

Throughout his career, Cherry has proved to have a knack for writing women, which once prompted Desperate star Felicity Huffman to quip, “Marc Cherry has a vagina in his brain.”

Cherry says that, for him, the appeal of exploring the female psyche in a darkly humorous way is simple: “I’m fascinated by women and how they communicate. They can be as emotional or covered up emotionally as you want them to be. Sometimes I think I understand the woman’s point of view more than I understand guys’ and, at the end of the day, you write what you feel passionate about.”

Creating the women of Wisteria Lane saved Cherry’s career. By now, his pre-Desperate Housewives plight is the stuff of Hollywood legend: 40 years old and out of work — and smarting from his agent’s embezzlement of $79,000 — he was borrowing from his mother to stay afloat.

When, in 2004, Desperate became an immediate smash hit and critical darling, Cherry admits he was thrilled, relieved and totally unprepared.

Desperate was like getting onto a roller coaster, and I was hanging on for dear life,” he says.

“The thing was so much bigger than anything I’d been connected to before. And, as you know,” he adds with a wry laugh, “we had our ups and downs. It was all very exciting and sometimes a little too dramatic.”

The most dramatic off-screen development, of course, was the Nicollette Sheridan lawsuit. In 2010 the actress, who had played Edie Britt for 5 seasons, filed suit for $20 million from ABC, Touchstone Television and Cherry, claiming she’d been fired from the series after complaining about being struck in the head by the writer-producer during an on-set argument. (Cherry was later dropped as a defendant.)

The headline-grabbing 2012 trial ended with a deadlocked jury, but the case continues to wind its way through the legal system; in January a judge granted Sheridan a new trial on the retaliation claim.

It’s not a chapter of the show’s history that Cherry is keen to revisit. He does, however, consider the whole Desperate Housewives experience to be invaluable to his growth as a showrunner.

“That was my master’s degree training program,” he says. “Devious has been on much more of an even keel. I know who I am as a producer now, so I’m a little bit more sanguine about stuff. Even when the drama happens, I’m like, ‘That’s okay.’ I kind of get it now.”

A notorious perfectionist, Cherry admits it helps that he now has only thirteen episodes a season to obsess over.

“Not that we still don’t get behind — and you’re suddenly working really late hours to keep it going — but my plotting on this show is much stronger because I just have more time to do it,” he says. “I was very proud of the 1st season. Still exhausted by the end of it, but exhausted in a more satisfying way.”

Adds Longoria, who has witnessed Cherry’s evolution: “I’ll never forget how he almost killed himself season 2 of Desperate Housewives. To let go of control to other writers in the writing room was not an option for Marc. He wanted to make sure his tone was on every page. Now he’s learned to trust his delegation and learned to let go a little bit. He still comes back and does his polish, but he’s evolved into a much more calm person.”

And one who takes better care of himself — or at least tries to. “I gained so much weight that first season of Desperate,” Cherry says. “I got up to 300 pounds and then I spent the next 5, 6, 7 years slowly losing weight. Then last year, I put a bunch back on because carbs equal writing to me. If I’m stressed, bread acts as my Xanax.”

At least he’s managed to give up 1 vice. “I stopped drinking Diet Coke on August 22, 2013,” he says of his former 10-a-day habit.

“I’m like some alcoholic where every time I’m around a Diet Coke, my fingers start twitching a little bit. But I feel much healthier.”

Another positive: Cherry has let go of the pressure to compete with his biggest success to date.

“Anyone who’s created a show as big as Desperate Housewives knows instinctively, ‘I’m never going to create something that big again,’” he says. “I won the lottery with that one. So I tell myself, ‘Just do work you’re proud of. That’s the only thing you have control over.’

“I look at people like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller,” he continues. “Not every play they created was A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman. Some plays were better than others. That’s just what it means to be a creative person.”

For the record, this creative person has no interest in revisiting Wisteria Lane, either on the big screen — à la Sex and the City — or small.

“We have such limited time on this planet that I really want to be writing other things,” Cherry says. “I’ve got other characters and stories in me. My goal, before I become too addled to think clearly, is to create as much as I can.”

Maybe one day — after Devious Maids wraps and he’s moved out of the office that Walt built — Cherry will finally get around to drafting that play or musical he’s always dreamed of.

“The idea of doing anything where — once I’m done with it — I don’t have to do 179 more episodes, is very attractive to me,” he says with a smile.

“How great would it be to say, ‘I’m done, and now I can go to Hawaii!’”

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