Showtime Brothers: A Tale of Two Hollanders
In the 13 years since CBS’ ‘The Guardian’ went off the air, the Mt. Lebanon-raised siblings who inspired and wrote the series, Scott and David Hollander, have continued to export Pittsburgh nationally.
David Hollander photos courtesy CBS
For Scott and David Hollander, “The Guardian” served as an unexpected launch pad — in very different ways.
David, who now works in premium cable as showrunner of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” was inspired by the work of his brother Scott — executive director of Pittsburgh children’s-advocacy organization KidsVoice — to create “The Guardian,” which was set at a Pittsburgh children’s legal-aid organization. And as that show led David to “Ray Donovan,” “The Guardian” also helped spread the word about KidsVoice — whose model of helping children has been adopted elsewhere around the nation.
Although “Ray Donovan,” which returns Aug. 6 for its fifth season, is set in Los Angeles and focuses on a family with Boston roots, Hollander says he still incorporates elements of his Pittsburgh background while crafting characters and their conflicts.
“It was the idea of a Boston family set in L.A. and the idea that you can bring in an old style of thinking from a much different culture that’s closed and family-based and has its own rules and identity and bring it into a place like Los Angeles that in many ways is identity-free,” says David, 49.
Scott Hollander photos by Tom M Johnson
“Ray Donovan,” created by Ann Biderman, stars actor Liev Schreiber as the title character, a fixer for L.A.’s rich and famous. Ray has family troubles of his own, including a troublemaking father (Jon Voight). David has been with the show as a writer since its first season; he was promoted to showrunner in season three.
“When I read the script for the pilot, I connected to the idea of a transplanted city person because I spent so much time in Pittsburgh [before moving to Los Angeles], and I have a strong connection to that kind of world,” he says. “And I’m writing about Irish-Catholic people. I was not surrounded by a lot of Jewish kids like myself where I grew up. Most of my friends were Irish-Catholic or Italian-Catholic. There’s also that local pride, and it’s a father-son-family story — and that’s where I live.”
Rewinding to the Hollander siblings’ formative years offers a glimpse of what was to come. David and Scott’s 81-year-old dad, retired attorney Tom Hollander of Thornburg, says the boys and their sister, Leslie, showed early hints of the career paths they would follow.
“When he played [team] games with the kids on the street, Scott would always pick the kid first who would usually get picked last [by others],” Tom recalls. “I was struck by that because he did it routinely. He loved children. Anytime a baby was around, Scott was taking care of the baby. He showed an interest in children early on.”
Before he entered kindergarten, David’s imagination was at work dreaming up a make-believe family.
“He’d tell us about this family at dinner,” Tom says. “We’d go through episodes with this family, and hearing about them was the centerpiece of many of our meals.”
Growing up on Vee Lyn Drive, the siblings walked to school and played at nearby Wildcat Field with neighborhood children.
“Every day after school, all day all summer, you would just roam around with your friends and at night play kick-the-can [or] capture the flag — play on the street and [in] ballfields,” Scott, 53, says. “We went to Mt. Lebanon Park without crossing a street, and we’d have a pool pass and walk to the pool at age 8, which was a pretty neat thing to be able to do growing up. [But] … there was not a lot of diversity — in all ways, economic and other things.”
Scott, the eldest sibling, says he learned about social-justice issues from his parents, including his father’s work integrating Mt. Lebanon and suing the school district over the separation of church and state at high school commencement ceremonies. But he says his upbringing led him to think all families were like his.
“Once I got to college a lot of my friends were from single-parent homes, and they had really strained relationships with their parents that I’d watch play out with some of my roommates and the way they treated their family members and that would carry over into their dating relationships,” Scott says. “It just opened my eyes, and I became interested in child development and started taking classes.”
Scott performed in theater but only through high school, while middle child Leslie, 51, studied acting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to study and perform at Circle in the Square in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
As a child, David, the youngest sibling, appeared in plays at Little Lake Theater and other venues around town. He also acted in a few locally shot commercials and industrial films. He started college at Northwestern University in the acting program, but he realized his true love was writing and directing. Tom Hollander credits his late wife, Barbara, with stoking the family interest in theatre and performance.
“We all started when we were little in theater camp,” says Leslie, now a pastry chef in northern Virginia. “Scott didn’t do it as a career, but he was really good. David was really musical and had a band in high school. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t acting as the goal as much as you were culturally inclined, socially responsible and wanting to have a voice and make an influence.”
Ironically, given the medium David now works in, television was not ever-present in the Hollander home. The family gathered for Steelers games and “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights, but the TV set wasn’t on a lot.
“We had very strict television rules,” David recalls. “We were allowed to watch an hour a day at most, and we had to sit down with the Sunday [newspaper] supplement to tell [our parents] what it was going to be and get approval. We cheated a lot and snuck television, but it was not a really big part of our growing up.”
Theater was. Tom and Barbara had season tickets to Pittsburgh Public Theater and City Theatre, and they took their children to many shows.
Scott attended Tufts and later the University of Michigan law school, where he volunteered in a law-clinic class and participated in a fellowship to aid abused and neglected children; that advocacy later would inspire his work at KidsVoice.
After college, David started a short-lived theater company with college friends in Seattle in 1990. A year of backpacking and travel — sometimes independently and sometimes with Scott, with David’s wife Courtney also appearing for stretches — included visits with Hollander ancestors in Hungary who survived the Holocaust. Following those journeys, the brothers learned that their mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in Pittsburgh.
“We came home from that trip facing her death, and that’s where Scott and my journeys went in different directions,” David says. “She was very sick … each one of us wasn’t quite sure how to manage it. I was the first person to go home and stay, and then my sister came back. We all took our turns with her in a situation where we all knew what the outcome was going to be.”
During his time at home, David worked at several jobs — at City Theatre, on industrial films and as a “glorified typist” at his father’s law firm, among others.
“I was doing a lot of drinking on the South Side and hanging out with the theater crowd, but my mother didn’t want me to stay,” David says. “So on a whim, one Sunday morning I was still at some party on the Mexican War Streets and I picked up and drove to Los Angeles.”
Scott, in turn, joined a Seattle law firm, where he worked on land-use and real estate cases but also volunteered, both as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate and at a program focusing on the safety and needs of children involved in custody cases. When he took a leave of absence from his Seattle firm to be with his mom in Pittsburgh, he realized how he wanted to spend his workaday life.
“Going back and forth to Pittsburgh and Mom and family made me realize life can be short, and it was important to spend time with people you love and do things that really matter to you,” Scott says. “While I was proud of the work I did at the law firm, I felt like I was fungible. My firm was fungible. Our clients could have found other lawyers. Where I didn’t feel fungible was in my volunteer work representing kids, so I decided to pursue that full time.”
Barbara died in 1993, two years after her diagnosis, when David was 24. Scott landed a job at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, took the Colorado bar exam (and a 50-percent pay cut) and moved from Seattle to Denver.
Now in L.A., David expected to continue his journey as a playwright. He got hired as a script reader at Castle Rock, the company behind “When Harry Met Sally,” while writing plays on the side that were getting produced at major theaters across the country. Producer Scott Rudin saw one of David’s plays, which in 1994 led to a movie deal at Paramount.
For several years, he wrote unproduced scripts and worked as an uncredited script doctor on other films, including the Jim Sheridan movie “In America,” about Irish immigrants. The seeds for “The Guardian” were planted when he visited Scott in Denver around Thanksgiving 1995.
Every Wednesday, Scott went to a shelter for runaway and homeless teens to hang out, cook lunch and meet with anyone who needed to discuss legal or housing issues. David sat in on a session and came away fascinated by these teens who evoked sympathy but were also scary at times — victims on their way to becoming victimizers.
“It was in that moment, looking at these kids and hearing their stories … Something struck a chord, and that show was fully formed by the time I got back to L.A.,” David says.
It would take another five years to gestate, in part because David never intended to get into TV. He gave it a shot, though, because he felt that with movies he’d “never have a sense of authorship” doing screenplay rewrites.
In 1996, Scott returned to Pittsburgh and began working alongside his father. In 1999, Scott was tapped to become executive director of KidsVoice, which now assists about 3,000 children in the Allegheny County child-welfare system annually. At the time, KidsVoice represented children from birth through age 18 in Juvenile Court child-welfare cases and in educational, medical, mental-health and Social Security matters.
KidsVoice stands out due to its multidisciplinary approach, with each child represented by a case team of an attorney and a social-services professional; the organization’s staff works with people in the know in a variety of fields. Scott says the approach enables his teams to tailor recommendations to each child’s specific needs.
“We, as lawyers, aren’t trained to know necessarily everything that’s in a child’s best interest when our cases may involve physical-health, mental-health and intellectual-disability issues for a child anywhere from birth to age 21,” Scott notes. “To think a lawyer would be able to make decisions about services and placement that’s appropriate in any particular case without additional help doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
It’s that multi-pronged approach that inspired prime-time television on CBS’s “The Guardian.” David mulled the idea for several years before asking Scott to be a technical consultant on the series. The pilot story was based on a case in which Scott had been involved (but with enough changes to avoid breaking confidentiality).
Scott traveled to Toronto where the pilot was filmed to help the cast understand their roles. David wanted the offices to resemble those of KidsVoice. He even had the legal-aid agency’s director, played by actor Alan Rosenberg, drive a 1986 Peugeot, as Scott did at the time. (“Alan’s was green, and I think mine was red,” Scott recalls.)
Only one aspect of “The Guardian” made Scott uncomfortable: The lead character, Nick Fallin (Simon Baker), was a lawyer with a drug habit who worked in children’s legal aid not by choice but as a community-service assignment related to a drug violation. Nick also worked for his father (Dabney Coleman) in the Frick Building, the same building where Scott once worked in Tom’s law office.
“Whoa, wait a minute, I thought this was going to be more about a legal services attorney doing great work,” Scott said upon reading the script. “I worried people would think I didn’t do this work by choice but because I had a drug habit.”
His brother’s blunt response: No one would watch a TV show about a squeaky-clean, good-guy lawyer representing kids. Scott got on board, and “The Guardian,” a staunchly serialized and character-driven forerunner to “The Good Wife,” ran for three seasons beginning in 2001, during which time KidsVoice found its profile on the rise locally and nationally in ways that helped with fundraising and recruiting staff.
KidsVoice’s annual budget expanded from $1.6 million before “The Guardian” to $5 million today. Initiatives since the TV show ended in 2004 include helping youth transition out of care, representing clients until they turn 25, developing and licensing case management software and taking on educational advocacy.
Unlike “The Guardian,” which came to Pittsburgh a couple of times each season to shoot exterior scenes that would be edited into the bulk of the series that was filmed in Los Angeles, David’s second Pittsburgh-set series, TNT’s short-lived 2007 medical drama “Heartland,” never filmed locally other than using stock footage establishing shots. David also developed another Pittsburgh-set series, a cop show for ABC in 2005 called “Three Rivers” (prior to a short-lived, Pittsburgh-set CBS medical drama of the same name with which he had no involvement). Hollander’s “Three Rivers” followed a homicide detective, her local media-magnate father and her prosecutor brother.
David came to Pittsburgh in August 2004 to do research for the project, shadowing two Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters during the week of a highly publicized murder in Squirrel Hill. ABC didn’t move forward with “Three Rivers” — this was about the time “Desperate Housewives” became a hit, and Hollander’s series was darker than the network’s general tone. What made the research trip hit home for Hollander, however, was the identity of the killer: He was the son of the oncologist who had treated his mother.
“I remember getting on the plane [back to L.A.] and just weeping, crying the whole way home,” he says. “I still have all my research, and I have a strong attachment to telling that story in a novel that not only reflects my youth but also my mother’s intense relationship with a wonderful doctor, who did everything he could to save her while he was struggling with his own son who was clearly going off the rails.”
David says he wants his next TV series to be set in Pittsburgh — an idea has been gestating for eight years for a show that would be a “grand Pittsburgh story” covering 100 years — but that will wait until his time at “Ray Donovan” is done.
As she watches “Ray Donovan,” Leslie Hollander says she sees glimpses of Pittsburgh despite the show’s southern California setting.
“The rawness of David’s characters, the grit of David’s characters comes from what’s so honest about Pittsburgh people,” she says. “There’s a Pittsburgh je ne sais quoi in the Donovans with this familial, gritty Boston stuff. There’s something very close to Pittsburgh in all of that.”