This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Sean Hayes was playing flamboyant sidekick Jack McFarland on NBC's iconic sitcom Will & Grace when he got a call from his college pal Todd Milliner. Could Hayes help him get an audition to fill the host slot left vacant when Hal Sparks departed Talk Soup?
Milliner, a teacher with Chicago sketch comedy theater Second City at the time, had made a tape in which he stood naked on the street with a sign that read, "Will Talk for Soup." But the gig ultimately went to Aisha Tyler (and later to Joel McHale), and Milliner never became a household name. He jokes, "When an African-American woman takes your spot and you're a white guy, it's time to hang it up."
Fortunately for Milliner, he and Hayes have been able to build a significant business behind the camera in the decade or so since. At NBC alone, their Hazy Mills production company has a reality show (Hollywood Game Night), a drama (Grimm) and, beginning Oct. 3, a comedy (Sean Saves the World, starring Hayes) on the schedule. Add to that TV Land's Betty White starrer Hot in Cleveland and its Cedric the Entertainer spinoff The Soul Man, as well as a growing suite of development projects for TV and digital. "This isn't a vanity play at all," says TV Land president Larry W. Jones, in reference to actors who launch production companies that never produce anything, simply attaching their names and collecting a check. He adds, "It was very clear since the moment I met Sean and Todd that they wanted to make this a business."
Seated in their shared office on the CBS Radford lot (near the Cleveland stage) on a late-August afternoon, Hayes, 43, and Milliner, 44, try to explain their recent success, which they attribute to passion and persistence. Among their philosophies: Don't take no for an answer.
Take Grimm, which is heading into its third season and is one of studio Universal TV's top-performing series (and a steady performer for NBC). The supernatural cop drama, which is set in a world where characters inspired by Grimms' fairy tales exist, was an idea Milliner hatched in 2002. It sold to CBS -- then as Brothers Grimm -- in 2007 but was dropped during the writers strike. Unwilling to let it die, Hayes and Milliner kept peddling it until it found a home on NBC.
"Sometimes with them, I have to go, 'OK, that's the 50th time you've pitched me that show,' " says Bela Bajaria, executive vp at Universal Television, where Hazy Mills has an overall deal. "But I love that about them. They get locked into an idea or a character, and they won't let it go. And that has paid off for them."
The pair, both Chicago-area natives who met as students at Illinois State University, launched the company in 2003, when Will & Grace still was on the air. (It now employs five staffers, including Hayes and Milliner.) "I knew the fate of hit sitcoms and that the future for their stars very often isn't as smooth as it was for Robin Williams or Tom Hanks," says Hayes of his midseries revelation.
Filling out his résumé with producing credits not only was a way to stay active but also to stay relevant. He and Milliner quickly sold two pilots (the reality contest underExposed in 2003 and the docuseries Situation: Comedy in 2004, both to Bravo) before hitting a lengthy dry spell, with pitches ranging from a whodunit-style reality show to a scripted comedy set at a suicide hotline going unsold.
"For a long time, we had trouble because people didn't really take us seriously. It's this joke from Chicago," quips Milliner, motioning to himself, with Hayes adding, "And this joke from TV." But they've proved their ability to do far more than attach their names, as many in Hayes' position tend to do.
To the contrary, Hazy Mills series often are their own ideas (Hollywood Game Night began as a game they played at Hayes' house), they appear on notes calls and at table reads, and they're hands-on in all parts of production, including booking celebrities to appear on Game Night. "God bless them, I get comments on promos and promo schedules, 'Why did you put that clip in there?' " says TV Land's Jones, who insists he appreciates the dedication.
Hayes will need to scale back on some of those day-to-day producer duties now that he's back onscreen in his first regular series role since his Emmy-winning turn on Will & Grace. The decision to return has been something he and Milliner have been mulling for a while but hadn't made a priority until last year. "We kept waiting for material to come to us, and then the phone would ring [with other business]," says Hayes, who admits he initially was hesitant to do another sitcom.
"The first couple years after Will & Grace, we were like: 'Let's do your Dexter. You need to kill people,' " says Milliner, with Hayes echoing that thought: "I needed time to grow as a person and get away from [sitcoms] after Will & Grace. But I think a mistake some actors make is shying too far away from the thing that made them famous."
The duo, along with writer-producer Victor Fresco, believes the premise of Sean Saves the World -- a divorced, gay father (Hayes) balances the demands of his job and raising a teenage daughter on his own -- is strong enough to tackle as straight comedy without needing it to be political. When the trio pitched the concept, Ryan Murphy's The New Normal, a series about a gay couple having a child through a surrogate, already was on the air at NBC, and thus precedent had been set.
"The lead being gay isn't that interesting anymore," says Milliner of a landscape he believes has evolved considerably since Will & Grace, which Vice President Joe Biden recently credited with doing more to educate the public about same-sex couples than almost anything else. (Hayes didn't come out until the show was off the air. He's in a committed, seven-year relationship, while Milliner is married to his partner.) Adds Milliner, "We think this character who's balancing a whole bunch of shit is more interesting than the fact that he's into wieners."
With desks that face each other and a familiarity that has the two men finishing each other's sentences, Hayes and Milliner reel off projects they'd like to tackle next with childlike excitement. There's the premium cable show (they're big fans of HBO's Game of Thrones and Showtime's Homeland), a high-profile digital series and, if Milliner has his way, a big, fat Broadway show.
The common thread, they say, will remain programming they'd want to watch. Fortunately, they have similar tastes. Their styles differ, though, with Milliner more methodical and Hayes fairly impulsive. "Sean will put the fire under me a lot of times, and I'll have to make sure that I'm at the right distance from it," he says, before cracking a smile: "I'm certainly the husband." Hayes feigns shock, then deadpans: "That's hilarious. And wrong."
A LOOK AT THE HAZY MILLS TV FACTORY
The fairy-tale drama, in its third season, was the top-rated Friday show of the 2012-13 season among the 18-to-49 demo and grew 14 percent year-over-year.
HOLLYWOOD GAME NIGHT (NBC)
Hosted by Jane Lynch, the celeb-packed game show ranked among the summer's top new reality series and was renewed.
HOT IN CLEVELAND (TV Land)
The ensemble, upped for a fifth season, has averaged 2.7 million weekly viewers, and sold well globally and in syndication.
SEAN SAVES THE WORLD (NBC)
The sitcom starring Hayes as a single dad has been granted the Thursday 9 p.m. slot, a lead-in for The Michael J. Fox Show.
THE SOUL MAN (TV Land)
Cedric the Entertainer's Hot in Cleveland spinoff wrapped its second season earlier this summer. No decision has been made on a third.