Although Danielle Gelber came of age in the heart of Beverly Hills, where many of the parents and relatives of her friends and neighbors were firmly established entertainment industry players, a career in television was the furthest thing from her mind. Her father was a successful, respected surgeon who made every effort to be with his wife and five children as often as possible.
Family life was geared toward the reinforcement of a strong value system—ironically, it gave her the tools she needed as an adult to be the driving force behind such acclaimed shows as Beverly Hills 90210, The X-Files, Party of Five, The L Word and Showtime's recently debuted series, Huff, starring Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt and Blythe Danner.
“My parents tried continually to instill in us the essence of what Judaism represents—caring and sensitivity toward others, and having a very strong sense of family and home,” says Gelber, who was born in Vancouver, Canada. “These are not just values that I bring to my own family life, but also to my work in many ways. “During our Shabbat dinners, we'd go around the table and each talk about what was important to us that week, and as we got older, conversations about current events and human rights issues were really encouraged.
I learned so much about the importance of standing up for what you believe in, and having the courage of your convictions, through these discussions. What I learned most was that, while things may be urgent or considered emergencies relative to our business, they're not life and death, as was so often the case with my father's work. It's helped me keep things in perspective throughout my career.”
Like her sister, noted New York–based CNBC anchor Liz Claman (of Morning Call and Market Watch fame), Gelber took an interest in television news. She went down an educational path that took her to the University of California at Santa Barbara for a B.A. in political science, and to American University in Washington, D.C., for her master's in international relations and communications. Though the idea of being a television journalist and news writer appealed to her intellect, two plumb starter jobs at a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., and at Toronto's CITY-TV's CityPulse news division, made her realize that her true calling involved something more creative, original and pop culture oriented.
“After a few seasons of work in local news, I knew it wasn't for me,” Gelber says. “I couldn't take the ‘if it bleeds, it leads' philosophy that I felt drove local news. So at 27, even though I thought I was very old, I knew I had to go back to L.A. and re-think my career. I signed up at a temp agency that specialized in entertainment companies. The guy running it loved it that someone with a whole career behind them, and a master's degree and the ability to put a sentence together, had walked in his door. He immediately sent me over to Aaron Spelling Productions to work for Aaron Spelling.”
The job this particular headhunter was looking to fill was an assistant post with Aaron Spelling himself. At the time—1983—Spelling had seven hit series airing on ABC and pretty much owned the Nielsen ratings and the hearts of television viewers around the world. Given the high demand for his shows and his time, the assistant position was probably a bit demanding for your average temp. However, for the seasoned Gelber, the job presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start a career tailor made for her strengths and personality.
“I was looking at it like it would be a good opportunity to get an inside look at the television industry without committing myself, since it was just a three-week assignment. I thought it might be a good learning experience,” she recalls. “Though I liked Aaron tremendously right from the beginning, he was so overwhelmed with production that he didn't even have a second to have eye contact with anybody. During my first week, I walked into his office and found him frantically looking on his desk for a production report for one of his shows. Though I had no idea what a production report even looked like, I picked up something that looked right. He suddenly looked up at me, right in the eye, and said, ‘Y' know, you're good!' And though it was a relatively small thing I did, that moment was the beginning of him becoming my true mentor in this business. He trusted me and gave me so many more responsibilities, successively promoting me on the development track over the six years that I ended up working for him and his company.”
Gelber took the initiative to make herself as indispensable as possible. For example, having seven shows in production often paradoxically meant that he couldn't possibly have time to read every single episode of every series. Gelber applied her experience as a researcher and began reading all the previous seasons of his many hit series, which at the time included Dynasty, Hotel, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island , to become fully aware of the story arcs for each season of each series. Then, drawing upon her writing skills from her news background, she took newer episodic scripts and wrote up short synopses for him that allowed him to quickly scan the content of an episode and be thoroughly prepared for concept and notes meetings with his production teams.
Her mix of flexibility, resourcefulness and ingenuity paid off, as Spelling took every opportunity to move her up the corporate ladder whenever possible, ultimately rising to Spelling's director of development during her tenure. Their relationship endured to the point where she was intricately involved in helping bring Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place to life, and helped make them two of the most wildly popular shows in television history. “Working for Aaron taught me to go with one of my strongest instincts and strengths: tapping into the pop culture zeitgeist through entertainment.” However, her success never went to her head, or to Spelling's for that matter.
“Along the way, there were various opportunities for me to go for seemingly bigger and better jobs, but I knew I've always subscribed to a ‘slow and steady wins the race' philosophy,” she explains. “Also, when offers came my way, Aaron wouldn't let me go, and I believe it was because he sensed what was best for me. However, through Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, I got to know [then-network president, News Corp Chairman] Peter Chernin at FOX, and when he offered me a job as the network's Director of Dramatic Series Development, Aaron said, ‘Now that's a job you must take,' and was completely supportive about my leaving his company after so long. Our association, however, has never really stopped, and one of the key lessons I learned from Aaron is about how important it is to invest your personalized attention into shows. He always told me that his ‘success in television (was) attention to detail.' Aaron was among the first in the industry to name his production company after himself, because, as he always told me, ‘It's an Aaron Spelling production.'”
Although Gelber recognizes that many shows she's developed for FOX and now Showtime are, on the surface, escapist entertainment for viewers, she takes pride in the fact that many of the shows have had subtle but important lessons or messages that harken back to what she learned from her parents. “TV programmers' first intent isn't, by mandate, to educate or enlighten, nearly as much as it is to entertain, but when a high-quality show hits its stride, it has that ability to reach people in droves,” she notes. For example, The X-Files was meant to be pure sci-fi, but she and the network, along with the show's creator, quickly realized people were fascinated and compelled by issues of government paranoia that were simmering in the American psyche. Additionally, “with Party of Five, we were initially interested in reinventing the family drama with a radical element—in this case, a family without parents. However, audiences really responded to the premise and the embedded message that families should stick together at all costs, and that their traditions needed to be passed on. The kids on that show did everything they could to maintain a sense of family unity.
“Similarly, though The L Word is a sexually provocative show, it isn't only meant to appeal on a prurient level. It's also about relationships and friendships beyond the gay themes, and it raises awareness issues about the importance of tolerance that are especially pertinent in an era where same-sex marriage is a huge hot-button issue of dissent in this country.”
Although Gelber continues to develop new shows, including Spike Lee's first foray into television and Showtime's new series, Weeds, starring Mary Louise Parker and premiering in June, she must still keep the existing ones fresh. (“The whole process is much like the cycle of the school year, and when shows launch their new season each year, you've got to keep audiences constantly surprised by taking shows in unexpected directions,” she notes.) It is also important to her to take on the role of mentor with her assistants and other young people with recognizable talent who get the opportunity to work with her. She's helped many young assistants, interns and junior executives move up in her industry to coveted entertainment industry jobs, or gain insight that led to an important job offer. She also serves on the board of the advisory committee for her graduate alma mater, American University's School of Communications, mentoring and lecturing on behalf of the school's many students who envision launching their own careers in the television industry. Although she acknowledges that the entertainment industry has more than its fair share of cronyism, nepotism and favoritism, as well as people “failing upward,” she remains optimistic about real talent rising to the top with lots of hard work and a positive attitude. She, herself, believes that this personal work ethic is partly what led her to being awarded Multichannel News' Woman of the Year in 2003.
“The entertainment business isn't always that entertaining in and of itself,” she cautions. Hopefuls should know “there's lots of work involved and you have to be dedicated. Although some people might fasten on all the perks or vicarious limelight in this business, there's no ‘easy A' in this career. I advise students to be prepared when they finally move out of the ivory tower to realize that the hardest job to get is not your first, but your second—your promotion off of a desk to a junior executive position. And once you've gotten to that next level and many beyond that, always reach back. Always remember how that was once you and be willing to spot singular people in those lower positions who deserve the chance you got, and help them if you can.”
Even with the hard work involved, Gelber enjoys a rich, full life outside of work with husband Stephen Gelber (an independent producer with credits as the former senior vice president of 20th Television, head of PolyGram Productions and Propaganda Television), daughter Alexandra (6) and stepson Joshua (15). Gelber attributes her knowledge of the theater to her mother, June Claman (educated at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, with the likes of Alan Bates and Peter O'Toole), who returned to acting after taking 20 years off to raise her family, and can rightfully affirm she is a successful working actress (with credits like guest spots on Seinfeld, Fraiser, Beverly Hills 90210 and Huff).
Gelber also enjoys contributing time and resources to various charities, including the Mattel/UCLA Children's Hospital Ward, the HollyRodforKids Foundation, L.A. Goal and the annual Night of 1000 Desserts at Paramount Studios benefiting the homeless. And naturally, she couldn't be more proud of her journalist sister Liz, or her other four siblings, who have forged their own creative paths independently.
Sources: Lifestyles Magazine