Ryan Murphy was the man of the hour Wednesday night as the Paley Center for Media presented the Glee, New Normal and American Horror Story showrunner with its inaugural PaleyFest Icon Award.
In presenting the award, which is designed to honor the career efforts of a visionary, Paley Center CEO Pat Mitchell called the prolific television and film writer a "ground-breaker" and "change-maker" for his career achievements -- which have brought him to the stage at the Beverly Hills museum no less than eight times, with two more events to come this month.
Murphy requested that Norman Lear, whom the writer-producer called his personal idol, introduce the evening's Q&A, with the TV icon receiving a standing ovation before calling Murphy's sacrificing of his journalism career to write for the medium a mitzvah. "Ryan is living proof that in the most difficult of times, he's doing the best of everything," Lear, 90, said.
During the panel -- moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's senior television reporter Lacey Rose -- Murphy was candid in discussing his life, from his early aspirations in life to his current obsessions, which include female Oscar winners.
As a child, Murphy said his boyhood dream wasn't television but to work as a pediatrician. "I love babies and children and would fake ailments so my mother would take me to the doctor," he said to laughter, later revealing that his woes in math and science led him to rethink his early game plan. That later evolved to a love of musicals in high school, where he had roles in multiple productions -- prompting him to explore attending film school. When that didn't work out -- he said he was accepted but that his parents' income was more than would have allowed him to secure a scholarship and yet not enough to afford the tuition -- he turned to journalism.
With that came a love of celebrity and entertainment -- and as he put it, a "mentor" in Bob Woodward. "When I was younger, I was obsessed with celebrities," he said, recalling multiple interviews with Cher. "By the sixth time, she said, 'F---, you again?!" Murphy quipped.
Eventually it was an interview he did with Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri (Nashville) that led to a career change. "I confided in her that I wanted to write a script and that started my journey," he said.
That script eventually became Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn, a romantic comedy that sold to Steven Spielberg and led to a hot streak resulting in three sales -- all based on pitches. "I never did not work after that," he said.
Looking back, Murphy noted his approach to journalism and writing for television is one in the same. "It's the same energy; I ask questions -- not just of myself but in the writers' room and from that comes a discussion about how we're living today," he said.
With multiple features in the works -- including an adaptation of the Tony-winning play The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer add a horror film with Jason Blum -- Murphy sees film as his hobby and television his career. He noted how far society has come since he first set out with Popular -- which he initially envisioned as a film.
"It was a different world when I did Popular," he said of the network notes process and the idea that depicting two boys holding hands was likely to mean a fight with the network and studio. "It's wonderful how the world has changed; the things that I used to get notes on … I don't get those anymore," he added of the ability to depict same-sex couples and their sex lives on shows like Glee and The New Normal.
Murphy noted he no longer feels the need to shock audiences with racy material. "I think I'm afraid of my child one day seeing that stuff," he said. "I've become a Brentwood mom!"
As for the upcoming third season of FX anthology American Horror Story, Murphy noted that the recent addition of Oscar winner Kathy Bates speaks to one of his passions. "It's no secret I love female Oscar winners," he said to laughter from the packed house, which included AHS' Frances Conroy, Glee's Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Naya Rivera, The New Normal's Andrew Rannells, Justin Bartha and stars from Nip/Tuck and Popular.
While he declined to provide specifics, Murphy reiterated that the third season would be historic in nature. "They did some real screwed up stuff in the 1800s," he teased.
The new father also said that he and fellow co-creator Ali Adler are working on the season finale of NBC's The New Normal and drawing on both their experiences with childbirth as they prepare to write Goldie's (Georgia King) delivery.
"I want that to reflect the birth of our child and Ali's two kids," he said, noting that the series initially started off autobiographical in nature but has evolved from there. "I'm really excited about writing about my fears as a parent. I'm just starting work on a new TV show." (The typically tight-lipped showrunner declined to provide additional details on his newest project.)
The evening, which started with a cocktail reception with guests including NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, FX president and GM John Landgraf, 20th Television chairman Dana Walden and Gary Newman, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke and Fox Networks Group president Peter Rice ended with Glee's Michele asking Murphy what song he's the most connected to and is the most personally therapeutic.
The answer: Petula Clark's "Downtown."
"My mother has a home movie of me with a spoon -- very Rachel Berry -- singing that song," he said. "It's about going out and not being afraid and embracing joy and what's around the corner."
The event, which kicked off PaleyFest 2013 -- where both AHS and New Normal will have panels -- ended with a "class photo" featuring more than 20 actors from Murphy's past and present.