Donald P. Bellisario, Reigning King of Television
By Jill Michaels
Strong characters. Good stories. Smart casting.
Donald P. Bellisario perfected that recipe for success early in his 30-plus-year career as a writer, producer, director, and creator of such popular television shows as Magnum, P.I., Quantum Leap, JAG, and NCIS.
Bellisario spoke with me at length in his Montecito home.
“I was raised in Europe,” he remarked in jest, detailing how his Italian father and Serbian mother reared him in Cokeburg, a small coal-mining town in western Pennsylvania.
“I was surrounded by grandparents and townspeople who spoke with broken English and accents.”
Bellisario emphasized: “They grounded me with their ethical code.”
He felt that Penn State “provided a well-rounded education and the discipline to develop one’s God-given talent, which is why I’ve endowed the College of Communications with a substantial scholarship.”
Bellisario’s body of work echoes his spiritual upbringing.
“I put strong moral codes in my shows,” he stated.
“Middle America likes it. California and New York, not so much.”
Another recurring Bellisario theme is a connection to the military, mainly because he served in it from 1955 to 1959.
“I got my stories from the Marine Corps.”
A natural storyteller, Bellisario narrated several fascinating tales during my two-hour visit.
Magnum came about when Universal wanted to replace Hawaii Five-O with a show about a private investigator in Hawaii.
“Tom Selleck, who was attached to the project, had turned down the first script and said he’d pound roofing nails before he’d shoot it.”
Selleck remembered some past Bellisario scripts and asked Universal to have Bellisario write the pilot.
At the time, Bellisario was developing a show called H.H. Flynn about three Vietnam veterans. Flynn worked in Beverly Hills as a private investigator. He lived in the guest house of a Bel Air estate owned by the “Florist to the Stars” and drove that florist’s red Ferrari.
After hours, Bellisario recounted, Flynn “would change his clothes, get into his Jeep, and drive down to San Pedro to meet his buddies, Rick and T.C. Rick owned the Café Américain, something straight out of Casablanca, and T.C. flew helicopter supplies to the offshore oil rigs near Santa Barbara.”
Bellisario continued: “As I was typing my pilot script, I was watching a black-and-white movie called Guns at Batasi, starring Richard Attenborough as a British sergeant major.
“At the end of the movie, he tucked his swagger stick under his arm and walked out of Africa and onto the estate of Robin Masters in Hawaii.”
What is Bellisario’s favorite Magnum episode? “Home from the Sea,” the story Bellisario penned in which Magnum treads water for hours until he is rescued.
The name of Bellisario’s company, Belisarius Productions, draws upon his Italian heritage. He shared the colorful account about how his father’s family originally came from Abruzzo, the home of stone masons and centurions trafficking oranges or tomatoes as brigantes.
According to Bellisario, the region’s name means “strong and gentle.” That punch line implied that the phrase just might be a fitting description of himself.
To add poignant depth to this story, I also sat down with Scott Bakula, Bellisario’s front man in Quantum Leap.
“Don is bigger than life,” explained the actor. “He is extremely passionate — about his life, about his work, and about his family.”
Bakula continued: “He is one of the last in the dynasty of the kings of television. Not just in terms of hit shows, but with huge deals. He’s one of the storied legacies of TV.
“And, he is completely self-made.”
During our half-hour conversation, Bakula put Bellisario into the same category as primetime kings Stephen J. Cannell (“the most selfless producer I’ve ever met,” as Bellisario labeled his first Hollywood boss), Steven Bochco, and Dick Wolf.
Regarding Bellisario’s five seasons of Quantum, Bakula quipped: “We were one of his shorter successes.”
Still, Bakula earned four Emmy nominations. He just received another for his supporting role in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra.
How has Bellisario repeatedly succeeded in assembling just the right cast to showcase his stories?
“Luck,” he replied simply.
“I envision these people in my head, like any writer,” he later revealed.
Nevertheless, Bellisario described Bakula as “one of the nicest people I know.”
Bakula unknowingly returned the compliment to Bellisario.
“People see his Italian bravura and machismo. That’s a big front. He’s a guy with a big heart and love for humanity.
“He took a chance on hiring me. I think the world of him.”
The real Bellisario recipe for success? In Bakula’s words: “The characters are him.”