From 'Knocked Up' to Nyquil Ads, Can TV Save Katherine Heigl's Career?

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From 'Knocked Up' to Nyquil Ads, Can TV Save Katherine Heigl's Career?
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  • Katherine Heigl
    Katherine Heigl
    American actress and film producer

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Is there television life after box-office death for Katherine Heigl?

NBC announced Sept. 9 that it will develop a television project written by Alexi Hawley, co-executive producer of Fox's The Following, in which the 34-year-old Heigl would play the CIA's chief liaison to the president.

It's hardly unusual for a film star to turn to the small screen at this stage in the industry's evolution, but most of those who have done so (Kevin Bacon, Dennis Quaid, Glenn Close) will never see 50 again. Heigl could still have enjoyed years of film success, says one executive who made a movie with her. "She was poised," says this person. "I still see her sometimes when I flip around the channels, and she has it. She's got real big movie-star charisma."

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What's soured many in the industry, according to several executives and producers who have worked with Heigl, is more than just the exceptionally difficult behavior and demands of Heigl and her manager mother, Nancy. There also is Heigl's habit of airing her grievances in public, including her 2008 denunciation of her first hit film, Knocked Up, as "sexist," as well as her announcement later that year that she would not seek an Emmy for her performance in ABC's Grey's Anatomy because the writing wasn't good enough.

Not even five short years ago, Heigl commanded $12 million for a movie. Her 2009 romantic comedy The Ugly Truth pulled in more than $200 million worldwide. But her most recent effort, The Big Wedding, topped out at $21.8 million domestic with a paltry 7 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. To be fair, that was something of an ensemble effort with a cast that included Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. Her most recent film before that, One for the Money, managed only $37 million worldwide with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2 percent.

Hollywood has infinite patience with difficult talents -- until the box office stops booming. Asked about the state of Heigl's career, a top executive at a studio that made one of her movies says tartly, "I think she's doing the perfect thing -- going back to television."

Heigl and her mother declined comment, but a source close to the star says Heigl knows she needs to rebuild. "She's really determined to put everything behind her," says this insider. "The only way to do that is to go to work in film or television with good people and for those people to have good things to report back. And it's not an overnight thing." But this source adds that Heigl's problem primarily is with the industry. "There's a really loyal, huge fan base that's waiting to see her," he says.

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Heigl still has some supporters in the industry, including Greg Berlanti, whose TV credits include The CW's Arrow and ABC's Brothers & Sisters. He directed Heigl's 2010 film, Life as We Know It, and says: "I would work with her again in a heartbeat. She's an amazing actress, and her in a TV show that's a great idea and well executed would be something I would watch and would feel lucky to work on myself." Denise Di Novi, an executive producer on the same film, also says her experience on the film was "really good," adding that Heigl was "hardworking and dedicated."

But another insider on the project recalls "desperately difficult situations" with Heigl, from casting to wardrobe and beyond. (Heigl, who was paid $12 million, didn't have casting approval but insisted on exercising it, says this source.) "She can cost you time every single day of shooting," says this person. "Wardrobe issues, not getting out of the trailer, questioning the script every single day. Even getting her deal closed at Warners was hard. She hit that point of 'no.' "


As has been the case since the days when Heigl was a child model, her mother was fiercely protective. "I have never experienced anything like Nancy Heigl," says this source. "It's about the mouth. 'F--- you. You are a f---ing liar.' … Whatever you'd say, you were an idiot. The call would be, 'This is the worst craft service we've ever had! There's nothing to eat! This is the worst wardrobe!' You knew that every day, you were going to get slammed. The frustrating part is [Heigl] is incredibly talented and smart."

Executive producer Di Novi calls these comments "way exaggerated," adding that Heigl and her mother "are not shrinking violets. They're very straightforward and tell you what they think. That doesn't bother me."

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Whatever new leaf Heigl now proposes to turn over, it doesn't appear to involve a diminished role for Nancy, who will be an executive producer on the NBC project (as will Heigl). Heigl has said that her mother handles every aspect of her career and learned the ropes fast. "She didn't care if she made any friends in this town," Heigl told Vanity Fair in a January 2008 cover story. "This is a fear-dominated industry … and my mother refuses to be intimidated by that. This is all a game of chicken, and my mother is really good at chicken."

Heigl spent most of her childhood in Connecticut and was brought up in the Mormon faith, though now she smokes and drinks. A child model and actress, she broke through in 2005 playing Dr. Izzie Stevens on Grey's Anatomy. She won an Emmy for her performance in 2007 and that year became a budding film star in Knocked Up, which grossed $219 million worldwide.

Things began to go awry the following year. Heigl had her first full-on starring role in the romantic comedy 27 Dresses, but in the Vanity Fair cover story to promote that film, she vented about the negative turn that her Grey's character had taken. Izzie's arc was "a ratings ploy," she said, because the show was in its fourth season and "there's not a lot of spontaneity left." (The show is about to begin its 10th season). Heigl also disparaged Knocked Up, and the notion that she was not only ungrateful but disloyal began to take hold.

Production had gone smoothly on 27 Dresses, says a high-level source involved in the film, until it was time to promote the picture overseas. "There were movie-star demands -- big rooms, the mother there, all the stuff," says this person. " 'We need the presidential suite at The Bristol!' It was just a sense of entitlement. The biggest stars don't do that kind of thing." The prospect of working again with Heigl lost its allure.

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In June 2008, Heigl announced that she would not seek another Emmy for Grey's, citing a desire "to maintain the integrity of the academy organization." The show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, deflected questions about Heigl's behavior at the time but told Oprah Winfrey in December 2012: "On some level, I was not surprised. When people show you who they are, believe them." Heigl's last appearance on the show was in January 2010, in the midst of season six.

In April 2010, Heigl's publicist, Melissa Kates, took the unusual step of severing their relationship. Heigl then hired veteran Kelly Bush but dismissed her after only five weeks. She since has returned to her rep from earlier in her career, Jill Fritzo at PMK/BNC.

As Heigl's films faltered at the box office, she proclaimed in January 2012 that she wanted to return to Grey's. That plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Now Heigl's trying to return through her CIA project, and sources familiar with the pitch say her agents have promised that she's changed. One Heigl veteran says she heard the same promise three years ago.

There seems to be little doubt about Heigl's talent, but still, not everyone is convinced that her television comeback will be successful. "If you make your picks based on stable actors, it'd be a small list," acknowledges a top television executive. But given Heigl's reputation, he says a project would have to be blazing hot for a network to consider getting involved. A top producer at another network says there were reservations when Heigl's name came up a few months ago for a project that had been greenlighted to pilot: "On many levels, she would have been perfect for the role, but all of us said, 'She's not worth it.' " But sources say NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt personally pushed for the deal. He declined comment.

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Meanwhile, Heigl has finished filming North of Hell, a low-budget dark comedy from Darko Entertainment. (The movie does not yet have a release date.) Director Anthony Burns says the picture is in the vein of Fargo and that his only concern is that Heigl's fan base might be offended.

Burns says he'd heard the negative reports about Heigl and her mother but says he was "confused" by them. "I'm from Texas. I like honesty and to be cool and have a beer and laugh, and they are most definitely like that," he says. "Hopefully the next people [Heigl] works with will get to know her like I did. … She's just a good old girl who likes to speak her mind."

As for the problems of the past, Burns speculates that those might have arisen because Heigl got bored doing one romantic comedy after another. So it might be a good thing, he says, that her past few movies fell short. "She can take a step back and do a movie like mine," he says. "And it's not a lot of pressure on you because they're not paying you millions and millions of dollars."