TV exec Lillah McCarthy helped shift pop culture by pushing The Closer to cast a female lead

By: Start TV Staff     Posted: April 22, 2019, 12:09PM

Lillah McCarthy was always interested in the operations of the television industry, even as a working actor. But, she would not have described herself as a "television addict." So, when she got a surprise request to interview with the President of ABC entertainment, she hit pause so she could do her homework. When the head of the network asked her for an opinion of every show on the network, she knew she’d need to spend quality time on the couch. She asked for a week to catch up on the network lineup and catch up she did. She went back, got the job, and then some. McCarthy’s served as a television executive in the industry for more than 30 years, including playing a major role launching Start TV shows like The Closer and Early Edition.

McCarthy said what she lacked in TV viewing experiencing, she made up for in acting experience, which made her program notes stand out. She said, "I realized I was one of the few executives who came into the business from being an actress and being around actors and writers, as opposed to coming in through a business side. So I began to get a little bit more comfortable in what I was doing." Watch the video below to find out more about her My Start Story:

Once she got comfortable, McCarthy got to work, and her career took her from network to network. She got more and more involved in massive hits, including the very beginning of The Simpsons on FOX. McCarthy told Start TV, "I remember being in the room when we first saw the first drawings and everything... and it was so exciting to watch [The Simpsons] take off."

After that came big news for McCarthy, as she became a producer on Early Edition, the hit drama that found a man named Gary Hobson (Kyle Chandler) mysteriously receiving the next day's news a day early and heroically doing everything in his power to prevent tragedies he read in headlines. McCarthy said she knew it was a fantastic idea when it was first pitched to her, but "they said you'll never sell it." Instead, McCarthy said, "I sold it in the room." Watch McCarthy talk about her work on Early Edition below:

After Early Edition ended, McCarthy's daughter was born, so she briefly stepped away from the small screen, but she got drawn back when she was offered a gig as a consultant at TNT, where she and her boss decided what the network really needed was a procedural that offered something different from the typical Law & Order fare. That brainstorm led to The Closer, which she said was not originally pitched with a female lead: "We thought there are a lot of male procedurals. And we thought, wouldn't it be great if we did a female procedural? There used to be female procedurals on the air, but at the time there were none."

McCarthy's work bringing female leads to the screen didn't stop with Kyra Sedgwick's hit, either. She said, "I actually then got really behind this, and I developed not only The Closer, [but] we also developed Saving Grace, which starred Holly Hunter, and then we developed Rizzoli and Isles, which was two female leads. So we were really, really proud of ourselves for being the people who got these women in lead positions... now everybody does it. But at the time, nobody was doing it."

There's no debating that The Closer made Brenda Leigh Johnson one of the most memorable TV detectives of the 2000s with its Emmy-winning star Sedgwick getting constant attention from serious critics and casual fans of her pink trenchcoat alike. McCarthy summed up what she instinctively understood about the hit drama she worked so hard to get on air: "It was really important to me that even if we were doing very commercial shows, that at the heart they were about something, and The Closer was certainly about something. You know, they were great procedurals, greats cases, but they were also great character pieces."

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