Melvoin’s Reminiscing Reveals Mysterious Beginnings
by Theophilus Donoghue | February 22, 2021
Emmy award-winning writer Jeff Melvoin looks back on his two successful careers in journalism and television writing
Writer Jeff Melvoin started both his journalistic and creative writing careers thanks to an unexpected helper: the American detective novel. Melvoin, who was born in Boston and raised in Highland Park, Ill., attended Harvard where he majored in American history and literature. He wrote his thesis on American detective fiction and, soon thereafter, used this thesis as a writing sample when applying to work at Fairchild Publications (now Fairchild Media), publisher of many business periodicals. “It turns out that the head of the news division there was a mystery fan,” Melvoin says with an appreciation of his good fortune, “and he enjoyed the thesis and hired me.”
Little did he know about the further fortune to follow: an Emmy, two Golden Globe awards, and numerous other accolades for his gift of writing. A couple years after working for Fairchild, Melvoin accepted an offer to work for Time magazine, becoming their youngest correspondent then at 25. “There was an element of routine to it,” Melvoin says while reflecting upon his days at Time, “but it was often punctuated every week by something unusual. And that’s one of the things that was great about being a journalist is that you never knew when something exciting or different was going to happen or where you were going to be sent.”
Melvoin’s assignments indeed brought him to many unexpected places. He was sent onto the campaign trail with Ted Kennedy and over to Hawaii to cover both the Ironman Triathlon as well as the history of paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys.
Melvoin also assisted in writing articles about the harmful properties of cocaine: “I think it was the first time that a major news organization had said that cocaine was actually addictive.”
However, Melvoin’s most memorable and meaningful story is a piece he co-wrote as part of Time’s pioneering group journalism method about America’s distorted view on Vietnam vets, many of whom were being reviled by compatriots. “It was a time for a reexamination of who deserved what blame for the war,” says Melvoin.
Despite appreciating his job at Time, Melvoin left at the age of 30 to pursue television writing. A friend of his, who worked at MTM studios, told him that the way to get started is to write a script for a show he enjoyed. “‘Remington Steele’ had just come out which was a fun mystery show that was witty and made use of a pretty thorough knowledge of the genre,” Melvoin recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, I do know something about that.’” Melvoin submitted a script and landed the job. “So, once again, in a substantive way, my thesis became important,” Melvoin says jokingly.
One of the most joyous time periods of Melvoin’s career was when he worked on “Remington,” a show which launched the career of Pierce Brosnan and achieved immense popularity during the 1980s. “I never had more fun in my life,” he states with an air of enthusiasm. Melvoin also married during this time period and had his first child of two, which greatly contributed to the overall euphoria.
Melvoin sees his two writing careers as inextricably linked, apart from their connection with his door-prying detective thesis. Melvoin feels that his work as a journalist provided needed experience and abundant inspiration for his television career.
“Journalism provided that kind of bridge for seven years between being a suburban kid who went to an Ivy League school and somebody who felt he was more steeped in the world and ready to venture out as a more creative writer,” Melvoin says in retrospect. “Even without remembering sometimes specific details of the stories, the exposure to a wide range of different people in different situations was terrific.”
After “Remington,” Melvoin went on to write for the 1990s television show “Northern Exposure” for which he received his Emmy and two Golden Globe awards. Melvoin views “Northern Exposure” as the most “groundbreaking” project of which he ever was a part, a show which allowed him to put his years of dedicated reading to work. “By the time I got to ‘Northern Exposure,’” he reminisces, “that was the one place where I could really use all of that education in the text because those scripts were so wide-ranging, and we had a DJ character who could just riff on anything, and so it became quite an exciting place to be.”
Since “Northern Exposure,” Melvoin has moved onto the roles of Executive Producer and Showrunner on numerous television series, such as “Early Edition,” “Army Wives,” “Designated Survivor” and “Killing Eve.” In February 2015, Melvoin received the Morgan Cox Award from the Writers Guild of America West, an award granted “to that member whose vital ideas, continuing efforts and personal sacrifice best exemplify the ideal service to the Guild.” Melvoin is currently writing a guidebook to being a Showrunner with the working title “Running the Show: A Writer’s Guide to Episodic Television.”
When asked to give advice to aspiring writers, Melvoin emphasizes the importance of gaining life experiences from which to draw and also underlines the significance of discipline and dedication. “Genuine possession of a subject takes time and commitment.”
Furthermore, Melvoin encourages young writers to simply read. “I don’t think any reading you do is ever wasted. I think that most writers of any worth will tell you to read,” Melvoin says with a lighthearted chuckle, “and to read as much as possible and read as widely as interests you.” Based on Melvoin’s career, one may surmise: at least include a few detective novels.
Some of Melvoin’s writing can be read here:
“Northern Exposure” fans’ favorite Jeff Melvoin quotes from the show
Melvoin’s entertaining Time magazine article about the Harvard Business School’s attempt to understand the inner workings of the Waffle House chain