For producer Josh Berman, the creative roots for his upcoming Lifetime dramedy ‘Drop Dead Diva’ extend into childhood, growing up son to a plastic surgeon.
“Eating and food issues were front and center at the Berman house,” he quips. “As a family, we were obsessed with weight, and as children, we grew up on fad diets. That’s an area I really wanted to explore.”
This led Berman, a producer on forensics-themed network procedural dramas including ‘CSI’ and ‘Bones,’ to come up with Deb, a vapid model who reclaims her humanity when she’s killed, then re-incarnated “Heaven Can Wait”-style into the body of a plus-sized attorney.
“She realizes entitlement has its cost, and the world isn’t as pretty as she though it was,” Berman explains.
Fox liked the idea too, and was all set to move forward with developing it, but then the writers’ strike occurred, and that derailed things… for a while.
Eventually, Lifetime found the project and loved it, too. Through his talent agency, meanwhile, Berman got hooked up with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the gurus behind such stage-to-film-and-TV adaptations as “Hairspray” and “Raisin in the Sun.”
Working on a cable budget, ‘Diva’ didn’t have the coin to cast a big-name talent in the role of Jane, the ample attorney who rises from her own accidental death to be suddenly embodied by shallow model Deb. No problem. Berman, Zadan and Meron set about creating their own star, conducting a wide, from-scratch casting search before coming up with “Hairspray” company player Brooke Elliott, a film and TV newcomer.
“Her audition blew us away,” Berman notes. “This show is going to make her a star.”
Berman’s next big break came when he was attending Jay Brannan concert. Actress-comedian Margaret Cho, who he’d been chasing for the role of the lead’s assistant for months, was there. He approached her. Turns out she wasn’t ditching Berman’s meeting requests after all.
“She had never been told about the part,” Berman states, slightly incredulously. “But when she heard the logline, she was immediately engaged.”
Also co-starring Jackson Hurst, Kate Levering, April Bowlby and journeywoman blond Brooke D’Orsay, who plays Deb the model, primarily in flashback sequences, “Diva” will benefit from copious stunt casting.
Rosie O’Donnell is on board for at least two appearances in this first 13-episode season, as is ‘Project Runway’s’ Tim Gunn, who will be appearing in a flashback sequence as a scornful mentor to the callow Deb.
“I was the one actually who called Lifetime about this,” Berman said of the stunt appearance, which will take place amid ‘Runway’s’ Lifetime premiere in August. “Tim ended up having a great time on the set. He even emailed me and said he wanted to do more episodes.”
Other guest stars booked for this season include Elliott Gould and Chuck Woolery.
‘Drop Dead Diva’ will premiere Sunday, July 12 at 9 p.m., where it will precede ‘Army Wives.’
“We’re in the ‘Desperate Housewives’ slot while they’re off the air,” Berman adds excitedly, noting that there won’t be competition from his favorite show.