LOS ANGELES – Fans of 1980s TV may vividly remember Pierce Brosnan’s Remington Steele, the last hope for desperate clients. But you probably never heard of the real-life case in which the suave detective rescued a Minnesotan.
John Wirth has enjoyed a fruitful career as a TV producer and writer, including “Picket Fences,” “The Ghost Whisperer,” “Nash Bridges,” “Hell on Wheels” and “Hap and Leonard: Mucho Mojo,” which returns Wednesday for a second season on Sundance Channel. But before that, he was teaching junior high in Wayzata. His heart wasn’t in it. Since age 7, he had dreamed of being a writer, but his father, who worked as a heavy-equipment salesman, was less than supportive.
“He just didn’t understand the arts,” said Wirth. “Even after I was making a wonderful living, he said to me, ‘There must be something illegal about what you do, because no one would pay anybody that much money to type.’ ”
But before making it big, Wirth had to take the leap. So in 1979, he left his teaching job, as well as the friends he had made while attending Gustavus Adolphus and the University of St. Thomas, and headed west.
“A buddy of mine had a cabin on a lake north of Minneapolis and we worked on a script there that we were going to bring to Hollywood,” he said, describing it as a frat-house comedy that no longer seemed original after “Animal House” was released. “Then he got married. Very close to the departure date, he came to me and said, ‘My wife won’t let me go.’ So I went, and he stayed.”
He was far from an overnight success. While his wife, an actress, covered most of the bills, Wirth took odd jobs. At one point, he was a personal assistant to a quadriplegic who liked to lunch at the Playboy Club. Over five years, Wirth wrote more than two dozen scripts without a bite.
“If I had known it was going to be so hard, I never would have done it,” he said.
Wirth decided to give it one more shot. Suddenly producers at both “Family Ties” and “Remington Steele” expressed interest in his submissions. And the “Steele” team not only wanted to buy his script — they hired him.
He’s worked every day since. “Hap and Leonard,” which stars James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams as buddies who find themselves in one scrape after another, is the highest-rated series in Sundance Channel history.
Wirth hasn’t completely abandoned teaching. He’s well known in the business for mentoring new talent and he co-edited the manual “Writing for Episodic Television: From Freelance to Showrunner.”
“Have I brought any of the experience I had in the Twin Cities with me? I think it’s more of the attitude I bring,” he said. “I love working with young people. When I walked into a room, it used to be, ‘Here comes Daddy.’ Now it’s Grandpa.”
Wirth readily admits that he came very close to giving up on Hollywood and returning home. And that wouldn’t necessarily have been terrible. He even encouraged his children to seriously consider going to college in the area.
“The great thing about Minneapolis is that you can go away and if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back and no one will judge you,” he said. “There are aren’t a lot of towns in which you can do that.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin
Hap and Leonard
When: 9 p.m. Wednesdays.