Brian Sher's determined journey from the William Morris mailroom to 'Boss'

Gilman grad now moves in world of 'Entourage,' Michael Vick, Kelsey Grammer and T.I.

  • Executive producer Brian Sher on the Chicago set of the Starz drama 'Boss' with star Kelsey Grammer.
Executive producer Brian Sher on the Chicago set of the Starz…
August 10, 2012|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

A decade after graduating from Baltimore’s Gilman School, some alumni might be vaulting up the ladder in careers as executives or politicians. But Brian Sher, Class of ‘86, was looking at the lowest rung — starting out as a trainee in the mailroom of a Hollywood talent agency.

After attending Tulane and the University of Southern California, Sher had tried doing most of the things young people do to break into show business: working as production assistant on a movie, playing a walk-on character and writing a screenplay.

Then one night, a friend who was an agent took him to dinner, looked him in the eye and asked him what the expletive deleted he was doing with his life. He suggested Sher go back and learn some real show business skills the old-fashioned way: by starting in the mailroom of the famed William Morris Agency.

“It worked for Michael Ovitz, David Geffen, Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Why not me?” he thought.

Since then, Sher has climbed through every level of the agency business from finding and selling feature film scripts like “Serendipity” and “Hitch,” to packaging such productions as “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington.

Today, he has his own Hollywood management-production company, Category 5 Entertainment, which includes working relationships — and friendships — with such lightning-rod figures as the rapper-actor T.I.and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.

He is also partners with Kelsey Grammer in the actor’s production company, Grammnet NH, and one of the executive producers of the Starz drama, “Boss,” which begins its second season Friday night. Grammer won a Golden Globe last year for his portrayal of Tom Kane, the terminally ill mayor of Chicago raging against the dying of the light and fighting to hold onto power. The series was nominated as best drama.The one-time “Frasier” star calls his partner “extraordinary.”

“Brian has the vitality and the kind of energy I needed to remake my company,” Grammer said last week about his partnership with Sher. “The other thing he has is an eye for great material, and that is the most important piece of the puzzle in the end. All of that puts him a category that I find extraordinary. And so, I made a big pitch to get him to join me in the company and put some shows together.”

At 44, the still boyishly handsome Sher — the son of Baltimore TV personality Richard Sher — has incredible energy. A sitdown interview quickly becomes a stand-up, walk-around, leave-the-room-and-return experience in which Sher not only answers questions with a burning intensity, but suggests further ones, along with photo possibilities. He’s accommodating yet relentless — a hallmark of his business style.

“Boss” is the first show that Sher helped Grammer put together. After meeting Grammer through producing partner Stella Bulochnikov, Sher put the Emmy-Award-winning actor together with one of his writer clients, Farhad Safinia, who had written and produced “Apocalypto” with Mel Gibson.

“We all met for lunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and Farhad and Kelsey hit it off,” Sher says. “They started waxing poetic about ‘King Lear,’ which is what ‘Boss’ is, and Cordelia, and all those characters. And by the end of our Bloody Mary lunch, they had come up with the idea of the modern-day ‘King Lear’ set in the world of politics.”

Once Safinia wrote the script, Sher took it to the uber-agent he shares with Grammer, Ari Emanuel, who said, “We have to find a great director.”

“We needed that last piece,” Sher says. “We had the script and we had the star.”

Emanuel represented Gus Van Sant, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for the feature film, “Milk.” But Van Sant said that while he was flattered, he didn’t do television.

Sher recalls, “And Ari said — as only Ari can do it — ‘I hear you. I don’t care what you say. Read the script and call me tomorrow and tell me you’re in.’”

Van Sant liked the script so much that he agreed to direct the pilot and stay on as executive producer.

This is what’s known as “packaging” in Hollywood — and this is the skill that Sher came to believe he might have while working his way up from the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. He’s been honing that ability the last 15 years at places like ICM (International Creative Management) and now his own Category 5.

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