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TV icon discusses screenwriting

Meaghan Daly | Friday, April 13, 2012

Five-time Emmy Award winner Bill Persky will discuss the craft of screenwriting in the “Golden Age of Television,” the first annual installment in the Spring Writers Series at Saint Mary’s. Persky will be joined by Adriana Trigiana, a New York Times-bestselling author and Saint Mary’s alumna, who will host the event on April 27 in Carroll Auditorium.

Persky said he began his television career in 1960. He said he created over 22 television pilots from 1975 to 1982 and became an icon during the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” Since then, he has been recognized for his work on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Kate and Allie,” “That Girl” and several others.

“I am constantly aware of what I’m doing in life and what other people are doing. I don’t write jokes … I just write life,” Persky said. “In fact, in all the shows that I’ve done there was a semblance to something that happened to one of the people working on the show … they were relatable.”

Persky said two main factors defined his success in the early years of television. The first was the originality of the writing. Writers were pure and uninfluenced by previous series as they are today, he said. Secondly, episodes challenged society and culture in ways they never had before, he said.

“We hadn’t watched [television,] we hadn’t grown up with it,” he said. “So everything from the 60s was pretty much without the influence of television. It was more about the influence of the life you were living.”

Persky said he loved each of the shows he worked on for a different reason.

“‘The Van Dyke Show’ was such an honor to be associated with because it was such a classic,” he said. “I love ‘That Girl’ in terms of what it did for young women at that time. Kate and Allie is very dear to me because … characters in situation comedies sometimes never change, but Kate and Allie grew and changed and became stronger, more complete people.”

Several aspects of society changed as the “Golden Age of Television” drew to a close, he said.

Most notably, the role of women was elevated in life and on television, Persky said.

Though he witnessed the rise of this trend, Persky said he has also witnessed its fall.

“Reality television has lowered the intelligence level and the expectations of how people should behave,” he said. “It’s embarrassing, but it’s a statement of our whole society at this point.”

Some television shows do incorporate elements from the “Golden Age of Television,” he said. “Modern Family” is one of those throwbacks.

“The subject matter [they’re] allowed to talk about would not have been available back then,” he said. “[But] actors from this sitcom are treated with the dignity and respect similar to the way [actors] were treated back in the ‘Golden Age.”

Persky said he and Trigiana will offer two master classes for Saint Mary’s students to attend as well. The first will be held on Thursday and is open to all majors. The second workshop on Friday is only open to English writing majors. Students are instructed to bring an idea for a sitcom for Persky and Trigiani to evaluate.