Director J.J. Abrams, Running With the Shows

"Everyone who's known Tom for years will tell you that he's always been unbelievably passionate about whatever he's doing," says "Mission: Impossible III" director J.J. Abrams, left. "He's got enough energy for an army." (By Stephen Vaughan)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

NEW YORK -- Given his intensity, his love of gadgets and his talent for cunning, keep-'em-guessing plot twists, it's a good thing that J.J. Abrams merely wants to pin viewers to their seats. Because if the man were evil, there would be no stopping him. He would make a diabolical killer.

It's not that Abrams looks remotely like the murdering type. Minus the tortoiseshell glasses, which lend him film-school gravitas and which he dons whenever he'd like to appear smarter and older, Abrams could pass for a boyish midlevel executive on casual Friday. He's a father of three. He has good manners.

"Please, some fruit," he says, pushing a plate across the table at the Mercer Kitchen, a restaurant in SoHo, where he could be found Tuesday morning doing the required rounds of publicity for the latest "Mission: Impossible."

Do not be fooled. Disregard the trappings and focus instead on Abrams's output and work habits, which strongly suggest that he is hooked up funny. At 39, he's already created three TV series, starting in 1998 with "Felicity," an earnest, teen-targeted drama that reportedly caused a spike in college applications to New York University, the closest thing to the "University of New York," where the show was set. Then came "Alias," which made a star of Jennifer Garner, attracted a devoted fan base and ran for four years. And most recently, Abrams helped create "Lost," one of network television's certified phenomenons. About 15 million viewers tune in each week.

"A lot of people in Hollywood have one great idea, one great movie in them," says Steven McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, the money behind "Lost." "J.J. gives you four great ideas over lunch. Plus, he's talking about the soundtrack, the amusement park ride, the video game. He thinks about the whole world of entertainment."

The whole world of entertainment, it seems, has taken note. After years of Abrams chasing deals, the deals are now chasing him. Which brings us to the story of how a guy who never directed a full-length feature film wound up with the keys to the shiny star vehicle that is the "Mission: Impossible" series. It's January of '04. Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg have dropped by Abrams's office on the Disney lot in Burbank for a how-do-you-do, and after small talk and beverage service the pair try to recruit Abrams as screenwriter for a little project called "War of the Worlds." Abrams was flabbergasted -- not just by the offer, but by the howling weirdness of hosting Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, who were just sitting there in his office.

"It was freaking me out," says Abrams. "I'd look at Spielberg, who is my idol, and think, 'I can't look at him anymore.' Then I'd look at Tom Cruise and think, 'I can't look at him at all.' It was a disaster."

The worst part was that Abrams, to his chagrin, had to pass, because he was in the middle of the first season of "Lost."

"I thought, I'm dead," he recalls. "They might actually have me killed."

When the meeting ended, Abrams's assistant handed Cruise the DVDs of the first two seasons of "Alias." Cruise later called to rave about the show and to ask if he could come by and just hang out. Like a play date or something. A few weeks later came the offer not just to direct "Mission: Impossible III," but to cast it, co-write it and edit it -- pretty much hand it over, something Cruise, as a producer of the film and its star, could do.

So while the rest of the world watched Cruise go berserk during sofa-pouncing, shrink-bashing tirades on "Oprah" and "Today" last year, Abrams had his own reasons to doubt the sanity of the box office prince.

"If he's crazy because he hired me," says Abrams, "well, I'm beholden."

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