Friday, January 13, 2023



Sheri McGrath once saved my life. Maybe more than once.

The production of the first season of any television series is chock full of chaos and exhaustion. Nobody, including networks, the creative team, as well as cast and crew has a firm grip on what they should be making or could be making given all the possible options -- let alone whether the audience will deem it entertaining. Everybody involved is pushed to the limits of their talents, ingenuity and ability to deal with sleep deprivation.

It's a wonder any of us live to see a renewal.

My first time in that world was the CBS series "Adderly", which landed in Toronto in 1986. It arrived with additional challenges in its production obstacle course. Envisioned as the 2nd entry in the network's burgeoning attempt to extend Primetime past midnight as an alternative to Johnny Carson and a slew of other cheap to produce talk shows. And it had to deliver an hour of US Primetime drama and action on a fraction of those budgets.

It also had to accomplish that in a place not known for the genre, let alone doing it 22 times in 7 months. Somehow we not only made it, but won some awards and a loyal following. But more importantly we were picked up for a second season.

David Jansen, star of the original "Fugitive" series described having your series picked up as "A Horrible Relief". And I understood exactly what he meant. I was wrung out, dead on my feet -- and now I got to do it again.

The actual good news was that the production had found the money to buy me an assistant. And a day or so later, she turned up at my office for an interview.

A biker chick named Sheri.

Among her extended family were about half of our transport department, the biker gang veterans who knew where all the skeletons in the production office were buried -- likely because they buried them. 

I needed somebody literate, who could type, understood the new fangled things called computers and maybe could make them churn out pages in script format since no such software then existed.

She tossed aside her leather jacket, giving me a smile that told me she knew she was the only candidate that would be dropping by, and asking what I needed to know.

Computers? She'd never touched one.

The next morning, I was leaving for a much needed beach to fall face down in for a week, so I decided to nip this attempt by somebody to keep some skeleton buried and handed her a half dozen Harry Potter thick books on computers, the first chapters of which I hadn't even been able to get past.

I told her to read them and when I came back we'd see if she could handle the job -- assuming by then she'd have moved on and production would find someone else.

I came back to find Sheri waiting. Yes, she'd read the books -- thought they made things seem more complicated than they actually were and "What else do you want?".

The test started and within seconds I knew she knew the new technology far better than I did as well as already having work arounds for a lot of the problems we'd had in the past.

I knew she had saved my life.

Over the next season, Sheri not only whipped the story department into shape, buying me time to deal with all the new levels of expectation from the network and improve my own writing. 

A kid who'd grown up in Toronto's working class "Junction", the Canadian equivalent of "Hell's Kitchen" in New York or Boston's "Southy", Sherry also had the street smarts to handle pretty much anything the Hollywood tough guy wannabes could throw at us. 

On top of that, she never stopped smiling and never got too busy or tired to help somebody else.

Productions become families, partly because you spend more time with them than your own kin, partly because if you don't put your own clan ahead of everything else, some other clan gets your time slot.

And by watching who Sheri stepped up to help, I quickly learned something that most creative types never do. The cast and crew, the PAs, drivers, grunts in all departments, office staff and accountants won't get rich and famous. They won't live on royalties long after a show is forgotten. They won't be wined and dined to take future opportunities, get invited to Comic Cons and Film Festival retrospectives. But their dedication to their jobs is what ultimately determines a show's success. 

When "Adderly" ended and I moved to "Friday the 13th", bringing Sheri onto the show was part of my contract. Amid studio expectations at entirely new levels of impossible on that series, she again made it possible for me to do what I did. Among the brighter moments, was me arriving one morning to find Sheri on a conference call with Paramount Executives far above both of our pay grades, telling them how to run their own computer systems.

The same thing happened again when we moved onto our next show "Top Cops" at CBS, this time with her instructing their staff on how to do email. 

"Top Cops" led to my writing pilots for all four US networks of the time, Sheri managing them all while still finding time to help anyone else on their productions who needed it. And she never stopped smiling.

Although she did give me a scare one day, coming into my office, quietly closing the door and saying "We need to talk".  What man doesn't tremble when a woman utters those words?

Turns out Sheri's boyfriend had run afoul of the local constabulary and was starting a stretch as a "Guest of the Crown", if you know what I mean. There was a visitation schedule that wouldn't be adjusted should the needs of production intervene. She also didn't want the reason for his absence to become public knowledge.

So we worked out a cover where there would be days when Sheri had to take her Mom to Bingo. Everybody knew Sheri's Mom wasn't well and didn't get out much, so nobody would begrudge her the unscheduled time off.

A year later, we ruffled some feathers when she asked if she could take a shot at writing a "Top Cops" script and I said "Yes". And she silenced the critics by turning in a great one.

A couple of weeks later she was presented with a copy of the episode with the credit "Written by Sheri McGrath", able to show it to her dad shortly before his death. He told her he'd never been more proud of her. It was the only time I ever saw her cry.

With "Top Cops" eventual cancellation, we moved on to make a bunch of MOWs. It was for a company whose ethics I couldn't stomach. I asked how she felt about my quitting and she wondered how I'd managed to stick with them as long as I had.

I knew the agita that would result from my departure might mean I couldn't get us a job for a while. She was okay with that, ready to spread her wings in other parts of the industry.

After nine years, Sheri was no longer a part of my life. 

But looking back, part of me realizes that her work with me was done. I'd learned to value everybody who works on a show, not just the ones who get to be rich or famous or both.

Years later, on a series best unnamed, one of Sheri's extended family turned up at my door one night carrying a tire iron. He'd heard I was getting a lot of hassle from another unethical producer and asked if I wanted somebody to have a talk with him. 

Much as I appreciated the gesture, I said "No". He nodded and turned leave, then said "oh, Sheri says Hi".

She was still looking out for me.

This week, Sheri's life ended, taken decades too soon. She leaves behind a production family who valued her as much as she valued them. All of us knowing we couldn't have done many of the things we did without her -- or maybe even survived the doing