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One of the most interesting creators of contemporary TV genre shows, this producer-writer-director is best known for the immensely successful "Magnum, P.I." which propelled Tom Selleck to international stardom. Bellisario started his TV career after working 14 years as the creative director of an advertising agency. Breaking in as a director of TV commercials, he soon parlayed his extensive business background into an executive post at Universal TV. However more creative opportunities beckoned. By the mid-1970s, Bellisario was writing for crime dramas such as the acclaimed "Kojak," the short-lived "Delvecchio" starring Judd Hirsch, and beginning his fruitful association with the prolific writer-producer-director Glen A. Larson.
Bellisario served as a staff writer on Larson's "Switch," a fast-moving show starring Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner as an ex-cop and a con man who form a detective agency. He went on to collaborate with Larson on "Battlestar Galactica," an amiable "Star Wars" knock-off, and on the creation of "Magnum, P.I." Another major force in Bellisario's career was producer-writer Stephen J. Cannell, with whom he collaborated on "The Rockford Files," "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (later known as "The Black Sheep Squadron"), a WWII aviation adventure starring Robert Conrad, and the short-lived but highly acclaimed "Stone" which starred Dennis Weaver as a cop-cum-mystery writer.
"Magnum, P.I." was Bellisario's magnum opus, a smart, reflexive detective series set in beautiful Hawaiian locales that delighted both low and high brows while those in the middle simply failed to perceive the rules of the game. Though co-created with Glen Larson, the show reflected Bellisario's sensibilities and obsessions. "Magnum, P.I." was a meta-genre show that featured intense dramas of male bonding and macho deeds in the tradition of the films of Howard Hawks, lots of friendly horseplay and hanging out worthy of John Ford, many quirky whodunnits, goofy movie spoofs, war dramas and an almost obsessive concern with issues of honor and masculinity. Most of the principal characters were veterans of various wars and armies. These old warriors, although pleasantly becalmed in paradise, were haunted by past traumas they had endured and sins they had committed. Magnum's frequent Vietnam flashbacks were particularly interesting and sometimes formed the basis of entire episodes. Higgins (John Hillerman), the major-domo of the estate where Magnum works as head of security, continuously recalls his adventures as a soldier during the declining days of the British Empire. "The Deer Hunter," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," and "Stalag 17" were major influences on the show.
Bellisario generally wrote the season premiere, the first several episodes, and key shows throughout each season. Among their manifold pleasures, these scripts reveal a canny knowlege of American film and TV history and an intriguingly ambivalent attitude towards the place of the US in the world. Similar qualities can be found in Bellisario's scripts for "Quantum Leap" (NBC, 1989-1993), his cult hit time travel series that featured the time-lost scientist Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) hopping into the bodies of various strangers in eras during his life time, charged to put things right before he can "leap" away to the next era, able to communicate only with the holographic image of his best friend Al (Dean Stockwell). The clever series tackled dozens of social issues and amusingly nostalgic plotlines and drew a devoted core audience. Sadly the quality of "Magnum, P.I." diminished precipitously during the last few seasons during which the creator was devoting his attentions to new projects. Other Bellisario series include "Tales of the Gold Monkey" (ABC, 1982-1983), a good natured ripoff of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" starring Stephen Collins, the hyper-macho movie spin-off "Airwolf" (CBS, 1984-1986) featuring Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine, and "Tequila and Bonetti" (2000), a fish-out-of-water show about a NYC cop and his dog on loan to a California beach community. (The dog provides "voice-over" commentary in good detective fashion.)
In 1995, the former military man fashioned "JAG," an NBC series centering on a military lawyer perhaps best described as "Law & Order" meets "Top Gun." While the show got off to a good start in the ratings, it stumbled somewhat and the network canceled it after one season. Rival network CBS announced it would add the show to its line up as a 1996-97 midseason replacement, and it proved to be a deft fit for the Eye network's demographic, quickly become one of its most reliable ratings-getters. With the canny addition of regular Catherine Bell as Sarah 'Mac' Mackenzie, a constant source of sexual tension ("I have been telling the fans that I will not resolve their relationship until the series ends, and the fans never believe me," Bellisario once said "They've been swearing since year two that they would never watch another season if I didn't put Mac and Harm together"), and the gradual development of an increasingly compelling in-show mythology, "JAG" became a staple of primetime television and drew and increasingly loyal fan base, particularly in the post-9/11 era in which viewers took an increasing interest in the U.S. military and the show adroitly wroked in storylines based on the U.S. war on terrorism. When Elliott announced his intention to depart the series at the end of the 2004-2005 season, Bellisario initially planned to inject new life into the series with an increased focus on Bell's character and the addition of actor Chris Beetem as rebel-rousing Lt. Gregory Vukovic, but the network ultimately chose to pull the plug on the series after ten seasons and over 200 episodes.
Meanwhile, though his Supreme Court drama "First Monday" (CBS, 2002) with James Garner and Joe Mantegna was adjourned after only a few episodes, the producer also scored another sleeper hit with his next military-culled creation ""Navy NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service" (CBS, 2003 - ), which starred Mark Harmon as the head of the Navy's forensic division. Initially dismissed as cynical attempt to fuse the sensibilities of ratings champs "JAG" and "CSI," the series emerged as something decidedly different: a genuinely amusing crime drama in which viewers are lured more by character interactions than the mysteries' plot twists.
Since "Magnum P.I." went off the air, speculation has abounded that Selleck and Bellisario would take the character to the big screen but inexplicably, no feature film has to date reached fruition (Selleck even announced that he had recruited fan and bestselling author Tom Clancy into the mix, to no avail). Bellisario did, however, plan to revive the "Quantum Leap" franchise for television, this time with Stockwell's Al teaming with Sam Beckett's daughter in search of the missing time traveler.
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Began entertainment career as a TV commercial director
Worked as a staff writer for "Switch" (CBS) starring Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner; first collaboration with producer/writer Glen Larson
Worked as producer on Cannell's "Baa Baa Black Sheep/The Black Sheep Squadron" (NBC), also wrote and directed some episodes
Worked as a writer on "Kojak" (CBS)
Feature debut as production supervisor on "Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack"
Produced Glen Larson's cult TV series, "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC), also wrote and directed some episodes
First credit as executive producer on "Quincy, M.E." (NBC) starring Jack Klugman
Created (with Glen Larson), executive produced "Magnum, P.I." (CBS), also wrote and directed some episodes
Feature directorial and screenwriting debut on "Last Rites," starring Tom Berenger and Daphne Zuniga
Created and executive produced the adventure series, "Quantum Leap" (NBC), also wrote and directed
Created and executive produced, "JAG" (NBC), first aired on NBC from 1995-1996 and later picked up by CBS for the 1996-97 season
Created (with Don McGill) the procedural drama, "NCIS"; also wrote and directed some episodes