When Stephanie Sills left the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington and traveled to the land of Lear, there were those who saw her move as "an authentic breach of good taste," she says. Before leaving town, she had lunch with Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, who said he seldom watched television. Upon hearing that Sills was going to work for Norman Lear, Arts Endowment boss Nancy Hanks is alleged to have said, "Norman Lear . . he works in television, doesn't he?"
He certainly does Commercial television, no less. Sills was hired to develop public television projects for Lear, but after three weeks on that job, she was asked to be the executive producer of "All That Glitters." She had joined Lear, she says, because she wanted to "play with the big boys in the big pool at the deep end." Her television experience was limited, and "I would be a fool not to have been somewhat cautious," she says. She hopes she's not in over her head.
Sills was born in Washington, graduated from Wilson High School and George Washington University and worked as a secretary and production assistant at ABC and at Metromedia stations in Washington and New York. A job in the film unit of the Department of Agriculture enabled her to work on such hits as "Help Stamp Out Hog Cholera," "Watch Out for Wtichweed and " [WORD ILLEGIBLE] - The Story a Secret Shedder, "which sounds like a plot out of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." But after a year she left the glamor and glory of USDA and entered the theatrical world.
Her first job was with an associate of Roger Stevens. Then she ran the Theater Company of Boston for a year, meeting playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie there. She produced his "America Hurrah" off-Broadway, and it became a major hit and the vehicle through which Sills met Lear. On Broadway, she produced the Renee Taylor/Joseph Bologna "Lovers and Other Strangers"; on television, she produced the special, "Red, White and Maddox."
While watching the 1968 Republican National Convention on TV, she says, she decided to change course. She went to work with the New York State Council of the Arts and Mayors Lindsay and Beame on such good deeds as the Fifth Avenue closings for pedestrian traffic. Then she returned to Washington for 20 months as director of special projects for the National Endowment for the Arts.
"When they didn't know what to do with an idea, they gave it to me," says Sills of her Endowment work. Her budget there was much larger than her current "Glitters" budget, but her staff was much smaller. She was relatively anonymous - Washington is "the only place I ever worked where my job never came up in conversation at parties," she says. The city is obsessed with larger government domains, and she had the feeling "that the Endowment was a mistress, brought out once a year and given a bauble."
She called Lear a year ago, and when Los Angeles beckoned, she was ready to go. "I loathed L.A. once," she confesses. "Little by little, I began to crave it. If you accept the country, L.A. makes complete sense." She arrived on Thanksgiving Day - "the ultimate pilgrimage," she says - and "a 42-second limousine ride" took her to a party in the Hollywood hills where "everybody bitched about the cartered turkey. I thought The Eagle has landed."