- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2007


Maybe it’s this former steel town’s blue-collar traditions. Or its down-to-earth reputation. Or its many connections to the entertainment industry.

Whatever the reason, Pittsburgh has become a popular setting for TV shows.

Spike TV’s bank-heist miniseries, “The Kill Point,” is set here, and it was shot here, too. The TNT medical drama “Heartland” and Fox’s planned fall TV news sitcom “Back to You,” starring Kelsey Grammar and Patricia Heaton, also take place in Pittsburgh (though filmed elsewhere).

The Pittsburgh Film Office, which tries to lure movie productions to the region, would prefer that all movies and TV shows with Pittsburgh as their backdrop be filmed in the city. However, film office Director Dawn Keezer says anything that showcases the city helps it shed an outdated gritty, smoke-filled steel-town image many still have of it.

“We still get people wanting to go to the steel mills, asking where they can get the best view of the smokestacks,” Miss Keezer says.

Pittsburgh is accustomed to being slighted in movies and real life — from the memorable line, “If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh” in the 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels” to actress Sienna Miller last year using an expletive to refer to the city.

“The name of the city often brings up connotations of a downtrodden place that is kind of sad,” says Steven Levitan, one of the creators of “Back to You,” which is shot on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. “But when you talk to people who live there, they will defend it. Those who have chosen to live there have done so for the right reason — because it’s a really nice place to live.”

Mr. Levitan has never visited Pittsburgh, but he learned a lot about the city from a friend who is a Pittsburgh TV news anchor.

“We needed a [TV news] market that was not one of the very top but one that wasn’t too far down that the audience wouldn’t believe Kelsey and Patty anchoring there,” Mr. Levitan says. “It’s a very beautiful city.”

Another reason he felt Pittsburgh was the ideal backdrop: A Pittsburgher is “somebody who is more down to earth, somebody who is a little more tougher.”

Carl Kurlander, a writer and TV producer who penned the 1985 film “St. Elmo’s Fire,” has a similar perspective of the city, where he grew up. There is, he says, “an Everyman philosophy,” an attractive character attribute, that many Pittsburgh-born actors, including Gene Kelly, Michael Keaton and Jeff Goldblum, have possessed.

Having several Pittsburgh-area expatriates in show business doesn’t hurt, either, Mr. Kurlander says.

“Heartland” creator David Hollander, who grew up in nearby Mount Lebanon, also set his CBS legal drama “The Guardian” in Pittsburgh. Rob Marshall, who directed the Oscar-winning “Chicago,” grew up here and is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, as are producers John Wells (“The West Wing,” “ER” and “China Beach”) and Steven Bochco (“Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue”). Producer Mindy Kanaskie (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) graduated from suburban Montour High School.

Mr. Kurlander returned home in 2001 to teach at the University of Pittsburgh. That prompted his friend Jenji Kohan, creator of the Showtime series “Weeds,” to title the second-season finale “Pittsburgh” as a tribute to him, Mr. Kohan says on the DVD commentary track.

In 2003, Mr. Kurlander helped create Steeltown Entertainment Project to take advantage of the showbiz connections, nurture local talent and incubate commercial entertainment projects in the region.

Steeltown’s accomplishments include a 2003 entertainment summit that brought back Pittsburgh expatriates to discuss how the region could compete for film and TV productions. Those included the made-for-DVD children’s film “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: Don’t Think About It,” made in collaboration with Steeltown Entertainment Project, which will be released in September. Another new initiative, the Steeltown Film Factory, plans to help emerging local filmmakers.

The attention the Pittsburgh area is getting from all these TV shows provides a unique opportunity to help create a thriving industry here, Mr. Kurlander says.

“But it won’t happen because of one show,” he cautions. “What really has to happen is that Pittsburgh’s 15 minutes [of fame] has to turn into something serious. … It always feels like it’s on the brink of happening.”

Mr. Kurlander also is working on “A Tale of Two Cities,” a documentary about Pittsburgh’s history and its attempt to reinvent itself. The film includes several current and former Pittsburghers gathering to sing the theme song from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Of all the TV shows and movies shot in and around Pittsburgh, Mr. Kurlander says he believes that show best captured the essence of the city because, he says, “those neighbors really are around Pittsburgh.”

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