“Veronica Mars.” “The Simpsons.” “Ally McBeal.” “Malcolm in the Middle.” “The X-Files.”
Do you see the connection between these TV shows? Probably not, but Maggie Murphy certainly does—she developed and produced them. With a career in production and television development that spans more than 25 years, she has had a hand in developing and shepherding dozens of titles onto major television networks. Murphy began the Shaftesbury US offices seven years ago and is currently an executive producer there. She also serves as a consultant at Universal TV for Vin Diesel’s company, One Race, where they are currently shooting “Get Christie Love” for ABC.
“Producing has been a second love for me, and it makes me so happy creating shows from a germ of an idea to a TV series,” Murphy says. “There is such a challenge to build a show from nothing—from the selling of the idea, to the script, to shooting and ultimately, hopefully getting it on the air. I want the shows to inspire and take people away–either to a scary place or an emotional place following a character’s triumphant journey or just a very funny warm place. I love transporting the audience to a new world where hopefully they glean some insight, emotional cathartics, big laughs or luscious scares. I love going on that ride as well.”
Murphy, a Covington, Kentucky, native and 1980 graduate of Northern Kentucky University, remembers the first play she ever wrote—that was in second grade. She had a natural passion for visual storytelling, but the daughter of a milkman and the little sister of accountants and CPAs, they didn’t think it was possible to make a living as an actress. So, when the time came to choose a major, she signed up for NKU’s computer science program. But Murphy had been an avid performer in high school, and she continued performing on the side in college.
Though she enjoyed computer science, her life in IT wasn’t meant to be, and Murphy remembers the moment that forever changed her trajectory. It was 1978, and she was standing in the The Box, Donald’s Judd’s minimalist structure on campus, rehearsing Lanford Wilson’s, “The Rimers of Eldritch.” Michael Hankins, the director of the touring Actors Theatre of Louisville show, “A Lion in Winter,”—a show that would be presented the following evening—approached to listen.
“After the rehearsal, he asked if I had an audition piece or monologue,” she says. “I honestly didn’t even know what I was doing. I was only 20 and majoring in computer science. All I remember is that I had a toothache.”
Murphy searched her memory for something to recite and delivered an impromptu audition with a monologue from a high school play. And it paid off—the director was impressed, and Murphy was chosen for an apprenticeship at the Actors Theatre and appeared in the American Premiere of “Whose Life Is It Anyway.” Following the stint, she promptly switched her major, graduating with a theater B.A. in 1980. She landed a job as resident actress at Memphis’ Playhouse on the Square and traveled to regional theaters to perform and direct shows. After touring for six years, Murphy decided she wanted to stay in one place, and she knew what she wanted that place to be. She packed up her entire life and headed to Los Angeles.
And she’s lived there ever since.
For the next 25 years, Murphy worked her way up the entertainment ladder—from 20th Century Fox, to David E. Kelly Productions, to Regency TV, to UPN/CW, to Kiefer Sutherland Productions, to Cookie Jar (a Canada-based production company) and now Shaftesbury and Universal.
Her career has found Murphy hunkered down with various A-list celebrities—it’s all in a day’s work—but one actor, a no-name at the time, makes her smile nostalgically. During her time at 20th Century Fox, Murphy recalls spending time with George Clooney (this was before his big break as Doug Ross on “ER,” a few years after he left town and NKU for Hollywood), who was always happy to help out with read-throughs as she evaluated scripts. Back home, Murphy and Clooney had actually studied on campus at the same time, but they didn’t cross paths until both lived thousands of miles from northern Kentucky.
Murphy has had a hand in creation and development for many TV shows during the past two decades, but when asked if she has a favorite, she’s stumped for an answer. They are all her babies, she says, but the producer does admit to particular fondness for one project.
“‘Veronica Mars’ holds a special place in my heart,” she says. “I love all of them … but [Veronica] was my first year at a network. My fight was to get shows on the air, and Veronica was your underdog.”
Though she loves the entertainment industry, Murphy’s career hasn’t been an easy road. She remembers early days on the other side of the camera when she was trying to make her name as an actress. For three years, she held a day job in a chiropractor’s office and worked as an actress occasionally on “Days of Our Lives” and “Designing Women” before landing her first development job.
But Murphy learned resilience early, and her myriad experiences on the stage and behind the curtain at NKU carried her through the difficult times. In fact, she still draws on those lessons today, in her role at Shaftesbury and Universal.
“The foundation NKU provided me with is immeasurable,” she says. “It’s a real skill to learn to see scripts play out when you’re reading them. When you’re choosing a play, the words have to be good. NKU really helped me in my critical studies about learning good writing and acting.”
And now she’s also teaching those skills to others. While the industry has changed drastically since 1980, the need for quality television has only grown. More than 450 shows are currently in production and broadcast in a wide array of formats in the United States.
She says she’s always trying to “hatch a couple babies” herself, but Murphy also wants to train the next generation to tell and recognize good stories and writers. When she isn’t getting scripts for pilot greenlighted, she’s an associate professor in UCLA’s graduate TV film and digital department, and she teaches abroad in the Czech Republic, England, Germany, France, Prague and Bosnia.
For Murphy, teaching is a way to invest her years of experience.
“When I was first in charge of sets, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “I had a crew of 150 with an $80,000-a-day-budget to keep the trains on schedule. But because I had directed plays, it helped. I love what I do and teaching how to do it.”