November 02, 2017
Hall of Fame

John Wells: Hall of Fame Tribute

An Appreciation by Peter Roth (as told to Paula Chin)

I first met John around 1993, when I was at 20th Century Fox TV and desperately trying to get him to leave Warner Bros. and join us, to no avail. It seemed unfortunate at the time, but of course that changed once I arrived at Warner Bros. in 1999, and I got to work with him on China Beach, The West Wing and Third Watch. He is probably the longest-tenured producer on the Warner Bros. lot, and his talent is as impressive as his loyalty.

To call him a multitasker would be an understatement. John has great creative skills as a writer and director, and he’s one of those producers who’s always organized and prepared, and calm and level-headed as well. I’ve described him as the Eisenhower of producers — he’s always able to look holistically at problems, prioritize and come up with a strategy to solve them.

John is the kind of person who takes charge from the very start. At table reads, he makes a clear statement to the assembled cast and crew on what he expects from them, and sets a tone that is strict and professional, but also respectful. He’s very serious about the work and challenges ahead, and expects nothing less from everyone else. John has so much gravitas that he instantly commands respect. But he’s also a fabulous role model who walks the talk. Working with him is inspiring — he makes you want to be great for him.

Everyone benefits from his steady leadership, myself included. Early on, when I first started working with him, we had some interesting challenges with some actors and creative personnel. I could always count on John for a clear, empathetic, reasonable point of view. There were many situations where people were flying off the handle, but John would always keep a cool head, keep the peace, and quietly calm the situation.

As a writer and producer, John has a seriousness of intention that sets a very high standard. In all of his projects, he tries to elevate the best of the human condition for his audiences. He has a rare depth of consciousness and understanding that allows him to create and shepherd rich, three-dimensional characters who are authentic, credible, and deliciously flawed. Even when they’re as crazy as the Gallaghers on Shameless, or as screwed up as the Cody family in Animal Kingdom, he can find their humanity. To borrow a famous quote, there is nothing human that is alien to him. I think that’s the reason he’s had such a major impact in the industry and on viewers with some of the most seminal series of all time.

Isn’t it true that the most successful bosses are those who not only understand how to make products that are the best they can be, but are also smart enough to know what they don’t know? That’s John. He’s a master delegator who surrounds himself with talented people who have more experience or insight in certain areas than he has. He’s a true team leader and builder, and the proof of that is the loyalty of the people around him. When you work with John, you’re a lifer.

When I met John, his reputation as a consummate professional — not to mention a kind, wonderful human being — preceded him. In the 19 years we’ve been together, he has never let me down. I can’t praise him enough, and I can’t think of a more worthy honoree.

John Wells is a theater, film and television producer, writer and director, best known for his role as executive producer and showrunner of the NBC series ER, which garnered an impressive 23 Emmys during its 15-season run, and NBC’s The West Wing, which garnered 26 Emmys. He was also a writer and producer on China Beach, the co-creator and showrunner of Third Watch, and executive producer for Southland. He is currently executive producer of Showtime’s Shameless as well as the TNT series Animal Kingdom. Wells is also a labor leader, and served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West from 2009 to 2011, after a previous term in office from 1999 to 2001. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.

Peter Roth has worked with Wells for nearly 20 years at Warner Bros., where he is now president and chief content officer of the Warner Bros. Television Group.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating John Wells's induction in 2017.

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