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GENESIS: A Conversation With the Creator of Quantum Leap

(From The Complete Quantum Leap: The Official Publication of the Show, copyright 1993 & 1995 by MCA Publishing Rights; reprinted with permission)

What Norman Lear was to All in the Family and Gene Roddenberry to Star Trek, Donald R. Bellisario is to Quantum Leap. He is, quite simply, the presiding genius behind the series. Without him, there would be no Quantum Leap. He's also a blunt-spoken man who's been at the center of many show-business controversies. Above all, he's a writer, one of the most successful in television history.



Tell me about the genesis of Quantum Leap.

I have no idea about how you think of anything, I mean when you're creating a show. You sit around and thoughts come into your head. At the time, I wanted to do a show that was different, and I wanted to do an anthological show. But that's a very dirty word to networks and studios — "anthology."

Why?

Well, because they've never really been successful, with the exception of something like, maybe, Police Story.

Anthological shows where you don't have a lead, every week you have a different play that you put on, just don't get an audience to tune in week after week. Everything is dependent on whatever your story is that week. So they don't do well in syndication, and they've never been very successful. The exception to that would be Alfred Hitchcock — right? — or The Twilight Zone, but they were both half-hour shows and they had very strong moderators — Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling. So they were successful based on that.

But I wanted to do an anthology. I'd worked on a time show years ago, the concept of one. And I thought, if I do a time-travel show with a lead or a pair of leads, the audience will really like them and their relationship; and every week, as I do a different story, the audience will really be tuning in for them.

Tell me about the earlier show that you worked on.

The idea I had originally was about a guy who was living in Santa Barbara. He was a medical researcher and he found that he had a congenital disease that skipped a generation. He knew that he would pass it on. But he knew how to stop it; they now had the drugs or the technology to know how to stop the disease from being passed on. But that didn't do him any good; he was a doomed man, unless he could go back and, in effect, inoculate his own grandfather.

Then I had him experimenting with time travel, reading everything he could and coming upon some books. That set up the travel in time. It was done by immersing yourself; you find a location that existed in the time you want to go to and you immerse yourself in the time period. And if you have enough concentration, you get there eventually. That was the rough [idea] of it.

Anyway, I was playing around with that idea the year that I created Magnum, P.I. so that goes back to 1979.

Did that show have a name?

I think I had a name for it, but I don't remember it. But that was back in 1979. Then I created Magnum and just forgot about it, and I went on from there and did a lot of other shows.

The other thing that was happening then, I was reading a book, which was nonfiction, and it discussed man's dealing with the cosmos from the beginning of time-his perception of the world, the environment, the whole universe. So I was reading that and Einstein's theory of relativity — time and space, the fourth dimension. I was just reading that, trying to understand it. So running around in my mind there was a soup of that book and wanting to do an anthology and the time-travel thing from 1979, and out pops Quantum Leap.

Did it pop into your head whole?

Yeah, it just popped into my head absolutely whole. It popped into my head one morning. I was asleep and I woke up about three in the morning, four in the morning, and it all jelled in my head.

What did you do then?

The way I normally work is I sit down and I write. I don't work it all out [first], I just sit down and write.

The first thing I wrote was an opening scene, where it was the middle of Monument Valley — this is a scene, by the way, that I've never used. It was the middle of Monument Valley and you didn't know if it was primordial times or today, because Monument Valley, if you're in the middle of it and you're all alone, believe me, it could be a hundred-thousand years ago.

There was a cry of a bird circling high in the sky, and we came down and there was a man, and the man rolled over and he was practically naked. He was lying there, and the man's voice started in voiceover. What you learned was that he had absolutely no idea of where he was, who he was, how he got there, couldn't remember anything of his past. It was as if he was just dropped, just born, a blank tape, into the middle of the desert. That was the start of it. Then a sheriff stopped, picked him up, said, "Get in, Chief."

Before he got in, he needed water, he was desperately parched. He went to get the water that was hanging in an old water bag over the radiator, and he [noticed] that the license plate was 1955 or something. He just thought, "Whoa, really out there!" He got into the jeep and found there was a body in the back, and he was the one accused of committing the murder. Then he looked into the mirror and he was an Indian.

That's what I wrote. I wrote about a five-page scene. That got it started. That was Sam right there being born. That was Sam.

Tell me some of the other people that were up for the two roles.

Oh, God, I don't want it to get into that.

They were all basically unknowns for Sam; there were a lot of known actors for the role that Dean got, a couple of English actors. But I don't want to say it was this guy and I rejected him.

So how did you sell this to the network?

They wanted me to do a series over at NBC, so I got into a meeting with Brandon Tartikoff, Warren Littlefield, and Perry Simon [the then three senior NBC programming executives]. We sat down and they pitched me a couple of series concepts that they were interested in pursuing.

Remember what they were?

One of them was called The Silver Surfer. It was about an aging surfer — "aging" being someone who was in his early thirties, heh-heh — who still hit the boards. He was the chauffeur/bodyguard/confidant of an attractive mid-forties woman, who was mayor of this small town. Everyone thought they had something going between them, but what he was, in effect, was her investigator into crimes and into problems.

The other one was about this team of misfits — kind of The A-Team meets The Untouchables — a group of misfit law enforcement officers with various talents, who get together in Chicago or someplace to clean up the town. They all drive really fast automobiles, have helicopters, jets, dress in Armani suits — why not?

So they pitched me these arenas, and said, "How about that?" And I said, "Let me pitch you an arena."

So I pitched them the story. The only thing I didn't have at that time, and I think I got it at the meeting, was, I said, "I don't want to travel back too far in time, because I want to have some sense of reality to the show." I meant that. If you don't travel back too far, you get into the stories and you understand them, you totally go with them. If you go back too far, there's an unreal element to it. If Sam suddenly leaps in with the Roman legions, or he's on an old ship sailing around the Horn, it just becomes very unrealistic. You leap him back to 1965 and put him in a '57 Chevy with a bunch of other guys and drive him up to a drive-in burger place and throw on some rock and roll, you'd go, "Yeah, that could be."

I had all that at the meeting, and they said, "Whoa! What controls all that?"

And then it just hit me: He can't leap beyond his own lifetime. That just came out: He can't leap beyond his own lifetime. Sometimes you get things you want to do creatively and you don't have a reason for them. It's what I call PCR.

Meaning?

Post-Creative Rationalization. Heh-heh. It really is. "Why does it happen? Why?" Uhhhhhhhh, because, because — he can only leap within his own lifetime! And then, out of that came my string theory about how it all works.

So it was all stuff I knew I wanted to do. When you create something, and people ask you how it works, to justify it, you go back and figure it all out. And you PCR.

So naturally Brandon and Warren, being the programming geniuses they are, saw the potential in this?

They looked at me a little askance for a while. They really went with me because they knew me and they knew my work. Both Brandon and Warren have said to me at different times, "You know, anybody else would have come in with this, we'd have probably just said, 'Bye.' But we decided to roll with you on it." They gave me an order for thirteen [episodes], then I went away to cast it.

When Scott came in, I knew he was Sam. Same with Dean.

What's the toughest show you've done?

Quantum Leap.

They've all been difficult for different reasons. Airwolf had aircraft and acrobatics. Magnum was in Hawaii. This show's a pleasure to produce, but because of the economics ... it's been very, very difficult.

By the way, my original thought on the show was that maybe I would do two, three leaps in an hour. Then they could be segmented off later [in syndication] and mixed and matched.

What are the stories you've wanted to do that you haven't done so far?

There's nothing really important we haven't done. We've talked about doing a fireman show .... I've wanted to leap him into Magnum. We haven't done that yet.

I think I've caught you in one error.

What's that?

Ziggy. Ziggy was referred to as a male, until "The Leap Back" when Ziggy has a female voice.

Yeah, Ziggy was referred to as a male through every show. Heh, heh, heh. Yeah. But Ziggy turns out to be a she. It's not an error. We just decided to make Ziggy a female.

I mean, it wasn't like, "Oh God, we didn't think of that!" We thought of that first thing, right off the bat, and said, "Oh, who cares?"

If you want me to PCR that one, I'll tell you that Sam didn't remember that Ziggy was a female until he came back, and Al, not wanting to spoil anything for him or throw more of a load onto him than he already had, just rode along with it. How's that?

I know an exit line when I hear one.

I just wanted to say that the show was originally put on Friday and we didn't want it there, so we got it moved to Wednesdays. The fans found it. They tried to move it back to Fridays. We got lost there again. We came back [to Wednesdays]. That first year, the second year, what kept us on — and it was critical — was the fans. They kept us on the air, and now we're going for year five.

BIOGRAPHY