In light of Black History Month last month, we interviewed Fracaswell Hyman from The Famous Jett Jackson. Shortly after the interview came out, Bruce Kalish got in contact with The Daily Fandom about his hand on the show. As stated on Wiki, it solely mentions Fracaswell Hyman as the creator, which could remain misconstrued. Fortunately enough, we are here to talk to Bruce Kalish about his hand on the show, and let people who enjoyed The Famous Jett Jackson as much as we did, hear from one of the creators about the legendary series. Bruce Kalish was brought in to replace Fracaswell after 13 episodes.
Bruce wrote, story-edited, and created the next 52 episodes! The Famous Jett Jackson, to me, is a show that is unlike any other. This is a show that not only created a voice for PoC characters, actors, and in Hollywood as a whole, but it created a character that looked like me. Someone that I could relate to. In the late nineties and early 00s, it was not easy finding a character that looked like me. (@ahalls can relate to this as well.) Bruce Kalish creating a show such as this truly has shaped my childhood for the better.
I thank him, the producers, the directors, and anyone who has had a hand in this show. Without further ado, let’s talk to Kalish about The Famous Jett Jackson.
How The Famous Jett Jackson Began
The Daily Fandom: How were you brought onto the show The Famous Jett Jackson?
Kalish: I had just come off a stint as Supervising Producer on a Nickelodeon series called The Journey Of Allen Strange. The Nick executive on the show got a new job at Disney Channel and gave me a call and asked if I wanted to come over to DC and work with one of the Nick directors I knew named Shawn Levy, who was hired to Executive Produce. I watched the show and met with Shawn, whom I had worked with on Allen Strange, and after we talked about what we wanted to do to expand what they already had with Jett Jackson, I thought it would be a good match.
The Daily Fandom: Can you remember how it felt to be brought on to The Famous Jett Jackson?
Kalish: I was more excited about working with Disney Channel for the first time and reconnecting with Susie Norris.
The Daily Fandom: What were you thinking at the time?
Kalish: I was a little wary of the show as it seemed to be doing well and I wasn’t sure why Fracaswell Hyman was let go or if he left on his own. It seemed a little odd that a show creator would leave his show. I didn’t know him so I just respected his leaving. But he had a really solid foundation that I knew I could make better.
The Themes From The Famous Jett Jackson Still Stick With Us Today
The Daily Fandom:The Famous Jett Jackson tackled many, many, topics such as bulimia, the genre fantasy/paranormal, the concept of “Being Black,” and even issues with Jett Jackson being able to relate to other African-Americans since he was seemingly in a position better than most at the time (to name a few, amongst many others that were tackled as well). How did it feel to create moments like this for a character like Jett?
Kalish: There was huge freedom here to tackle any topical issue of the day. Or, generation, for that matter. Most of the topics we took on were not along racial lines. They were universal stories of human interaction. How it affected our characters became our stories. We took on censorship, divorce, bullying, eating disorders, ageism, gun control, suicide and many more. We always had to temper some of these stories to make it doable for the Disney Channel. They let us do topics but they were always cautious. We had a consultant at the network who told us how far we could go.
We could push back a little but it was the Disney Channel. A quick story is that we also had a Program Practice’s person who would look at our scripts and tell us where we had to be cautious with things like everyone always had to wear seat belts, etc. She pointed out that in an episode called “County Fair” that Jett was riding a horse and the script didn’t state that he had a “riding helmet” on and she was afraid it would slip through the cracks.
I had to field these questions, so I quickly got back to her and pointed out that Jett was riding a horse on a carousel and they could probably get away with not wearing a helmet on this one. We all had a good laugh. Because Lee Thompson Young was young African-American we could broach subjects like black history and the Negro baseball leagues… even racism.
Jett’s success and affluence, as well as his father, a sheriff, shielded him from the perspective of a young black man in America. This was an episode that Lee Thompson Young pitched to us himself and wrote himself. He had never written before, he was sixteen, but if he was willing to take it on, I was willing to help him. I treated him like any other writer, giving extensive notes on structure and story, but he nailed the dialogue. It was one of our best episodes. “A Field Of Dweebs” about Wilsted’s old negro Baseball Team, the Walleyes, was pitched to us and written by our story editor, Sib Ventress. Sib, a seasoned writer who went on to be nominated for a Gemini Award, Canada’s Emmy, for another episode of Jett, did an incredible job balancing a great topic that no other show had the ability to tackle.
Because it was such a great script we were able to land Eartha Kitt as the team owner.
The Famous Jett Jackson Was Special From The Start
The Daily Fandom: I can imagine the feeling of it, not knowing if it was going to take off or not, taking a risk by choosing to showcase these special and important topics. Did you have any doubts about the topics you were putting forth? And how did it feel then and how does it feel now, years later?
Kalish: Shawn and I knew almost immediately that we were on to something special. Mostly because Fracaswell delivered such a solid idea and Lee was a STAR. We felt like we were “a sure thing” because we had a great cast and were hitting “universally relatable topics with heart and humor” every time out. It was the surest I ever was on a project since working on Mork and Mindy. We felt like we were making mini-movies each week and looked forward to writing and filming every one of them.
Why Tackling Important Concepts In The 90s Was Important
The Daily Fandom: How does it feel to be a part of a kids show that tackled series issues such as gun control and racism?
Kalish: Racism was no brainer for us from day one as we had the vehicle and felt it would be irresponsible not to deal with it. We were also able to tackle ageism “An Age Old Story” through Miz Coretta. It’s not a topic you would ever see on a kids show but through Jett, who loved his grandma… When she experienced it, so did Jett. I loved this episode, as I was able to have my parents write it, both legendary sitcom writers. What a thrill to give your parents notes. Gun Control was a tougher issue to deal with for the network.
Jett’s father was the town sheriff so it was a natural for me. Early on in my first year, I pitched a gun episode to Disney Channel executives and they turned it down emphatically. It wasn’t even a discussion. But I kept the idea in my head and worked on it. When they asked me back the second year, we had an understanding that I would do the gun episode and I’d be given a pilot to write and create for later on.
Decades Later, The Famous Jett Jackson Is Still Important For Modern Audiences
The Daily Fandom: Why do you think it’s important for kids to remain exposed to such issues at a young age?
Kalish: The pilot turned into “Aaron Stone” DISNEY XD’s first series. So when we came back for the third year I already had the episode written “Heroes” and we shot it early in the season. The network read the script and loved it. We were able to redirect some money, thanks to Kevin May, our line producer, who made incredible things happen for us and bought the rights to Phil Collins’ ‘Long, Long Way To Go‘ for the opening sequence. A first for a ‘tween show at the time. The episode won a lot of awards and a Gemini Award for Best Actor for Gordon Greene, who played Lee’s dad.
At the time, the internet had not exploded as it has now, where knowledge and information is a click away for everyone no matter the age. My son, Mack, was six and he had questions about the world. If Mack had those questions, so did a lot of kids. We thought we could inform the kids and make a show where parents would watch with them and a conversation would be started. A lot of our fans and fan mail came from parents who watched with their kids.
The Daily Fandom: And how does it feel to be a part of a show that still, today, is inspiring people of color and childhoods around the world? Not many shows get to have that kind of power in them, how does it feel to be a part of that?
Kalish: I am very proud of this series. Not just a few episodes, but the series as a whole. It is in my top shows I’ve ever worked on.
Kalish: Again, after the first year on the show, Shawn and I sat down with the Disney Channel and talked about the upcoming season and brought up the idea of doing a movie. Shawn and I had talked about it for most of our first year shooting in Toronto. And now we were telling the network. They liked the idea and asked who was going to write it? I was dumbfounded. Me, of course. But they resisted and said I wouldn’t have time while I produced the series. My agent got involved and convinced them to give it a try. I had no doubts, as I know how prolific I can be when challenged. I had one story editor the first year with Sib and but he left before the third year. Most series have five or six writers, story editors, producers but we had two.
Primetime ½ hour shows could have to twelve. I had another story editor for thirteen weeks in the second season, but let her go soon after and I was on my own. I did fifty-two episodes creating, developing stories, writing my own episodes and rewriting everyone else. And I am not bragging, but yes, I am bragging. It was a labor of love. Getting back to the Jett Jackson movie. The head of movies at the Disney Channel had not seen the show but knew the premise. He suggested that somehow Jett and Silverstone get their lives exchanged where Jett, the actor, lived in the imaginary Silverstone world, and Silverstone, the TV hero, lives in the real Jett world. I went with it and wrote a story in one week.
It usually takes about a month to write a feature story outline but I was inspired and had a show to produce. The DC movie executive loved what I turned and pretty much told me it was the best story delivery he had ever received. I took about two weeks to write the script, which included showing it to Shawn and getting his input as he was going to direct it. Again there were not many notes and we went on to film the series at the end of season three.
The Daily Fandom: What was the thought process as you are writing for the show? Did it come naturally to tackle the aforementioned themes or was it connected to what was happening at the time? How did you create a theme to tackle each episode or set of episodes? Was there ever a time where the studio, production, or team said, “This won’t work.”
I think I answered all these earlier.
TDF: (He did.)
The Concept Of A Show-Within-A-Show
The Daily Fandom: Was it fun to have a spy show-within-the-show format of Silverstone to play with each week? Did that make each episode and day exciting to be a part of?
Kalish: When Shawn and I came on the show, there was no show within the show. They showed a few shots of Jett filming his series, but it was a junior high school kid with some high tech gear like skates or skateboards. Shawn and I, in our early talks, knew we wanted to ramp up the series within the series. So I came up with the Silverstone world and the good guys and the bad guys. Artemis, the head of Silverstone’s organization, was an homage’ to Artemis Gordon of Wild, Wild West fame. It took a while to cast our actor Nigel Shawn Williams.
The Actors Made The Famous Jett Jackson A Fantastic Show
We had read nearly all the age-appropriate actors in Toronto and Nigel and then Nigel came in. He read the part and was okay… But after his read, we started to talk with him and he had a naturally wonderful British accent. So we asked him to read it again with his accent. He did and nailed it. We cast him right away and had him use his accent. It made all the difference. Hawk, Lindy Booth, was going to be just a one-off episode, but Lindy and Lee had such great chemistry and we realized it was smart to have a female counterpart. So Lindy stayed on for the rest of the shoot and for the movie. But what I felt really nailed it for the show within the show was our villains. Most notably, Lawrence Bayne, Hypnotto, and Tony Munch, The Rat.
These were great actors who took on these characters with all the gusto in the world. We were lucky to inherit great actors from the early Jett Jackson, Jeff Douglas, Kerry Duff, Ryan Sommers Baum, Montrose Haggins, Andrew Tarbet, Montrose Haggins, Gordon, Melanie, Nicholls-King and Lee. We just enhanced it. To tell you how good they were. A couple of years later, I Executive Produced Strange Days at Blake Holsey High and cast Jeff Douglas, Lawrence Bayne, Valerie Boyle, and Tony Munch in lead series roles and cast Andrew Tarbet and Lindy Booth as guest stars. And then on Jett, there were our celebrity guest stars. We became the show to be on. Britney Spears, Beyoncé with Destiny’s Child, Usher, Rachel McAdams, Eartha Kitt, Shawn Ashmore, Regis Philbin, and Kathie Lee Gifford, Hayden Christianson.
The Late Lee Thompson Young (1984-2013)
The Daily Fandom: Do you remember working with the late Lee Thompson Young? How was it working with a young star at the time, fresh in the acting business, with this being one of his first roles? How was it seeing Young grow into this character and grow into Jett Jackson for more than 65 episodes and the film as well?
Kalish: Lee was an absolute natural and you knew it immediately. What a job all our kids did. Lee, Ryan, and Kerry had a full workload and went to onset school. There wasn’t much to tell Lee. If anything, you were just in a constant conversation with him and then got out of the way. He grew as our scripts grew and the scripts grew as Lee grew. I think he had done a commercial before Jett so believe me when I say he was a natural.
He also wanted to take on his own stunts as the Silverstone series within the series grew. We hired one of our stunt men to train Lee. Lee loved doing his own work and we let him unless there was a chance of him getting hurt and we doubled him. Lee had the discipline to do anything he wanted. We stayed in touch after the series or would run into each other and always catch up. His death crushed Shawn and me. His memorial was gut-wrenching and beautiful as he had touched so many lives in such a short time.
Two Decades Later — The Famous Jett Jackson Seems Like Just Yesterday
The Daily Fandom: What is one thing you remember from the show that stands out; creating it or being on set, or even a vivid memory from the show that will always have a special place in your heart? Also, did you have a favorite particular episode that you worked on? If so, why is it your favorite?
Kalish: A couple of episodes stand out to me as I think as a writer we get our own therapy by writing about what we know. The gun control episode for one. It was impactful, not against guns, but against gun violence. It’s an episode well-worth watching to this day. Also “The Game,” where Jett and his father played an annual basketball game, one-on-one… and this time Lee beat his dad. So while Lee reveled in the victory, his father felt his own mortality. My own father was getting older and it was about passing the torch.
Kalish’s Favorite Episodes From The Famous Jett Jackson
It was about something small and something big at the same time. And there was “Day Trip” where Hawk, Jett, Kayla, and J.B. spent the day in the wilderness on an ill-fated gold hunting trip. It was very simple with kids just talking about life. And I think my favorite was “Pride,” directed by Larry Mclean, one of our go-to directors… about JB being embarrassed about his father coming to an event at school because he was embarrassed that his father was just a grocery store owner and nothing exciting like a sheriff.
Miz Coretta set him straight by telling him true stories about things he never knew about his dad. JB learned about his dad’s huge heart and Ryan, playing JB gave a very emotional speech at the end of the episode where he owned up to his embarrassment in front of his class and told them who he really realized his father was. The entire cast and crew were crying on the set when he was done and we knew we had something special. We all have dads.
Two Decades Later — The Famous Jett Jackson Is Still Fresh In Our Memories
The Daily Fandom: And lastly, do you have any advice for new-aged teens experiencing the show today? What is the takeaway you want to give teens about the show that you still tell others today? Jett Jackson is a character that embodies not only the average teen but the PoC teen, the male black teen. Now in 2019, did you ever think Jett Jackson would still inspire others as they find the show and film?
Kalish: I had no idea of the shelf life of Jett. From time to time I watch old episodes and for me they still hold up. My son has a friend named Deric, a young black actor who confessed to Mack that he was thrilled to meet me as Jett Jackson was his inspiration growing up. I guess the message I’d like to leave with is what we lived and preached during the series. Do what your heart tells you to do. It knows what’s right and wrong.
We will leave you with this, however, the legendary introduction from Jett Jackson: