EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Martha Williamson on Returning to TV with ‘SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED’

Friday, October 11, 2013

Martha Williamson made television history when her CBS series, TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL set a new standard for an inspirational family drama when it grew to a weekly audience of over 20 million viewers and exploded into more than a billion dollar franchise during its initial 9-year run. As Executive Producer and Head Writer of the ground-breaking series, Williamson was the visionary who guided the show into previously uncharted territory with her unique brand of inspirational story telling that produced more than strong ratings; it changed lives. Correspondence from viewers reveals its continued impact as the series plays in syndication and DVD’s worldwide. Williamson then sealed her place in history when she went on to become the first woman to solely executive-produce two one-hour dramas simultaneously, after creating and executive-producing PROMISED LAND, which aired for three years on CBS.

Williamson jumps back in to the TV fray as the Creator, Writer and Executive Producer of SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED, a Hallmark Channel Original Movie World Premiere on Saturday, October 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.   SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED will serve as the introduction to this inspiring, sometimes whimsical story of a group of postal detectives whose mission is to deliver letters from the past and make sure they miraculously arrive just in the nick of time.

Eric Mabius stars as Oliver, the idiosyncratic leader of the small, but dedicated Dead Letters Office group that also includes Kristin Booth as newcomer Shane, Crystal Loweas free-spirited Rita and Geoff Gustafson as oddly-intuitive Norman. These intrepid folks are like no postal workers you’ve ever seen before in that they are duty-bound to deliver the seemingly undeliverable. Their determination leads them out of the letter-sorting backroom and out into the world, where letters and packages from the past solve crimes, reunite lost loves and alter the futures of people who have no idea their lives are about to radically change. Daphne Zuniga co-stars as postal supervisor Andrea in a tale that leads off with the story of their efforts to clear the name of a wrongfully accused man as they try to reconnect him with his true love. You’ll want to watch Williamson’s unique vision and story concept only she could bring to television.

We Love Soaps recently caught up with Williamson to discuss her career and find out more about more SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED. Read our exclusive interview below.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Before we get to SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED, I have to ask you about working on THE FACTS OF LIFE. What was that experience like?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: It was amazing coming into it, for a number of reasons. First, it was my very first job as a sitcom writer and my first experience on the staff of a television series. It the most fun I had ever had up until that point. To sit at a table with comedy writers, all I did every day was wake up and say, I get to go sit at a table and laugh all day long.

Second, I fell in love with the girls. They were really funny and interesting. It was amazing to watch them growing up and then spending those last three years with them. It was also when Charlotte Rae left and Cloris Leachman joined the show. Cloris is an Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning actress and is absolutely brilliant. I got to work with one of the best professional actors in the business and she taught all of us a great deal about commitment and detail.

Finally, I was working with these incredible people like Paul Haggis, an Academy Award-winning director, was the producer on the show when I was a young writer. He became my mentor and a great encourager. And Jane Anderson, Emmy Award-winning writer and director. Michael Poryes, who was the executive producer of HANNAH MONTANA, was on the staff with us. George Clooney was on the show too. There were some interesting people working on THE FACTS OF LIFE who all went on to have their own hits. Who would have predicted it then? I do miss those days and I learned a lot too. Sitcom writers work very hard.

WE LOVE SOAPS: You were executive producer and writer for TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, which became an international phenomenon. Did you have an inkling that might happen?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: As I was writing the first episode I knew we were breaking new ground because we were going to explore faith without cynicism with some genuine sincere inquiry. We were going to be challenging people to ask themselves whether they believed. We weren’t going to preach to people but were also going to say that God exists and loves you and wants to be part of your life which had never really be done before. There were supernatural angel-on-your shoulder shows in the past but nothing that was really tackling the issues that we were tackling with the attempt to really explore faith.

I’ve always been a writer first and I’ve always been proud of the fact I was the head writer of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL for nine years. Every script went through my computer, and I either wrote it or rewrote it because of the message. It had to be consistent and it had to be protected because it was a very sensitive subject. We had to walk a very fine line between what the network expected for entertainment and what the audience expected for messages of faith and hope. It was clearly the most rewarding experience I’ve had to date in making television.

Did I know from the very beginning? I absolutely knew that there were people out there who were waiting to see that you could be depicted on television as a person of faith without being made fun of, without being diminished, without being characterized as a freak or mass murderer or unbending intractable, judgmental parent. Up until then whenever you saw someone of faith depicted in television and film, they were always the fringe person who was responsible for the murder or for twisting the mind of the ax murderer or serial killer. People of faith were always being made fun of. I think the fact that we had 24 million people on Sunday nights and talking about it the next morning around the water cooler proved that people were finally happy to see themselves represented as well-rounded people for the most part.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Thinking about TV in general, there isn’t a lot of positive programming out there. What seems to sell is dark characters or people being snarky and putting each other down.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: Television has changed a great deal. First of all, we don’t even know how to define television anymore. Is it a box in the living room? No, not anymore. Is it that cool fire where everybody gathers around together to tell stories? No. It seems to be, now, anything with a screen. We are in the process of redefining what television is. As a result, people are looking for the smaller audience groups they can advertise to. You’re going to find a lot of network television to push the envelope as much as cable has been able to. The biggest concern that I have is that there’s a whole generation of young people and children growing up who may see television as angry and snarky, dark and violent. It has only increased in the ten years since TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL was on the air. To be honest, one of the reasons I decided to go back into show business was because so many people said to me, “When are you going to write another TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL? We don’t have anything we want to watch anymore.”

WE LOVE SOAPS: One of the exceptions that comes to mind is a show called SWITCHED AT BIRTH about two sixteen year old girls that find out they were switched as babies. It covers a lot of different issues but at the end of the day it all comes back to the family and it leaves you with a positive feeling.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: I remember reading that pilot and thinking, “Oh, there’s hope.”

WE LOVE SOAPS: There are a number of scenes where entire conversations happen using American Sign Language.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: Whether you’re a person of faith, or have challenges, or are out of a job, people want to see themselves depicted accurately. That doesn’t mean you can’t be entertaining at the same time.

We find a lot of television, and entertainment in general, that may be fascinating and interesting and involving, which is great, but I don’t know what’s hopeful and encouraging. And there is a place for it. I’m not even saying it should all go away. I’m just saying that there is a place for it. 24 million people had appointment viewing with TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, and nobody gets 24 million anymore. And those people haven’t gone anywhere. They are just waiting for something that touches them again.

Eric Mabius plays Oliver in SIGNED, SEALED,
DELIVERED premiering Oct. 12 on Hallmark Channel.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Which brings us to SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED. Where did this idea come from?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: I worked very hard for nine years on TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, and when we finally wrapped it up, I had time to really sit down and really read the letters that had been sent to me, thousands and thousands of fan letters. The show itself got more mail than the actors did. It was the message of the show that people loved. I started reading the letters people were writing and they were sharing their own heartbreaking or inspiring stories that they had stopped to write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, put it in an envelope, stamp it and mail it. They didn’t just dash off an email that said, “Loved your show. Do more.”

WE LOVE SOAPS: Now it would be a tweet.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: Exactly! There was no tweeting. People really had to stop and think about what they wanted to say and, as a result, they wrote beautiful things, and it was also very cathartic for them. I started thinking about the power of those letters because some of them had been sitting there a while waiting for me to read them. The power of reading them after the show was over was so encouraging to me and made me think, “Wow, we did something truly good and no one can ever take that away from us.” I will always be the executive producer of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, and I am so proud of that. I have these letters in my hand to remind me if I ever question it. That’s when I started realizing that there are letters that arrive late, but they still get there right on time.

I began doing some research into the Dead Letter Office, and they really do have postal detectives. Of course, this is a fictional story and is certainly more fun and charming and quirky, but I was encouraged to see the post office makes every effort to deliver these letters that seem undeliverable. They might get scrunched or eaten by a dog or dropped in the mud but they’ll do everything they can to deliver them. You’ll see a headline every once in a while that says, “Missing Letter Reunites Couple” or “Lost Letter Unravels World War II Mystery” and things like that. There was mystery, heart, drama and the romance of the letter itself and the opportunity to remind people of the power of the written word that we’re losing.

Editors of movies see everything. I remember asking an editor of a slasher movie, where you have to keep looking at the screen for hours and hours deciding where the knife is going to go or the blood is going to fall, what does that do to your spirit. She said it is very, very hard but I love working on this show. It reminds me of what we’re losing. It’s about the class we don’t have anymore, and that blew me away. I choked up and said, “Thank you.”

The character Eric Mabius plays, Oliver, is so much informed and inspired by my own dad, who really was a gentleman and had a lot of class. We never use that word in the show but she saw that in there, and I’m so gratified by that.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Before I screened it I had just seen photos and there was something about the suit Eric Mabius’ Oliver was wearing that made me smile every time I saw them.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: He’s adorable, and smart. There is a lot of good clean wholesome Hallmark in this show. But I’d like to think we’ve gone a step farther too. There’s a bit of a challenge there, a savvy smart discussion of things where people say, “You know, I need to write a letter again. I want to stand up when somebody walks into a room. I want to think about being kinder and more civil.” What are we losing in this world by being able to do things faster all the time. We are downloading and uploading and faxing and FedExing and tweeting and everything in our life can happen so fast yet some things never change. It still takes nine months to have a baby. It still takes the same amount of time to grieve the loss of someone you love. It still takes the same amount of time for a kid to grow. We get lost in that. There’s a huge gap in our psyche because we expecting to do everything so much faster but some things you just can’t. To get people to sit down for ninety minutes and to think about it. I’m on my soap box, aren’t I? [Laughs]

I feel very passionate about this. Just to put good kind people out there again that don’t swear at each other, and may disagree but respectfully, and see that people love that. I had a whole group of people come and watch the show and just give me their thoughts from 11-year-olds to 80-year-olds and everybody loved it. I was so encouraged that they said it made them feel good. They said if there can be a show like this there’s hope for positive messages on television.

WE LOVE SOAPS: We cover everything scripted and serialized, and we love stories to continue. I understand this is a backdoor pilot for a potential series?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: It’s a backdoor pilot; a movie they hope to turn into a series. They have ordered three more scripts. We have been talking about making this into a series very seriously; there’s a story behind every letter, and how many millions of letters are there? Hallmark is not like CBS, who might make 14 pilots and only pick 2 to go to series. Hallmark is a smaller channel so they choose very carefully their backdoor pilots.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since we spoke, Hallmark Channel announced the series pickup of SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED. The series debuts in Q2, 2014 with 10 one-hour episodes.

WE LOVE SOAPS: I love Oliver as a good-guy lead. At some point the anti-heroes became the stars of TV on both Daytime and Primetime shows from Tony Soprano to Walter White to Dexter. There are no John-Boy Waltons anymore.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: People laugh about John-Boy Walton but that’s the kind of guy who won the War. My nephew is a paramedic and an extreme, edgy, experienced guy and is all man, and he saw the show. When he finished watching he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Oliver is the kind of man I want to be.” That just blew me away. When you think about Hallmark, you think women a lot but that told me there’s a chance for a much larger audience for this show.

WE LOVE SOAPS: As the executive producer are you involved in all the casting? How far is your reach on the show?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: I’m the reacher. [Laughs] I was absolutely involved in the casting. My company MoonWater Productions is in association with Muse Entertainment, and I work closely with Joel S. Rice from that company. We put together one of the greatest ensemble casts you have seen in a long time. They are amazing together and it was a long, hard road to mix and match to find the right chemistry.

WE LOVE SOAPS: In your bio I see you do a musical one-woman show so I have to ask if you’ll be bringing it here to New York City.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: I just got to see if I’d be interested in going to New York and doing that. It was one of those things I did in the interim and raising my kids. I was cleaning out my closet and found a cocktail napkin I had written “10 Things To Do Before I Die” on when I was in my 20s. It was the basics like go to Paris, lose weight, and marry a wonderful man. All those things I did, but the thing I hadn’t done was “one-woman show”. I thought to myself I’m too old for this, forget that one. But what would that tell my kids. I decided to do it because I’m terrified to do it. I sat down with my friends from when I first got started, all the people who had worked for Carol Burnett, and they helped me put together a one-woman show, and I started working with a singing coach. I am not Barbra Streisand, or even Barbara anybody. I can carry a tune and phrase it nicely and put some emotion behind it, and the show did very well. It’s kind of like getting your town TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL revelation scene set to music. [Laughs]

WE LOVE SOAPS: If you could go back to the beginning of your professional career and give yourself a piece of advice, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: That’s a great question! Nobody has every asked me that question in 30 years. I think I would say to stop and enjoy it more. Don’t work so hard that you forget to have fun. There were times I received honors for TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL and I was so tired and so busy that I couldn’t just sit and relax and enjoy the evening, and allow myself to take it in. Instead I was worried about next week’s script. You have to find some balance. Sometimes you want to change things but if I had changed one thing I wouldn’t have met my husband or my had my wonderful children.

Read more:  http://welovesoaps.net/2013/10/martha-williamson-signed-sealed.html