Oprah Winfrey may be the only celebrity to have a cable channel named after her, but HBO has unofficially become the Mark Wahlberg channel. Everybody knows that the movie star’s posse was the inspiration for “Entourage,” which is getting ready to launch its eighth and final season. What is less known is that he also produces HBO’s other young adult male buddy comedy “How To Make It In America,” as well as its prestige dramas “In Treatment” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
Wahlberg’s unlikely career path from one hit wonder rapper and underwear model to movie star and mogul has been charted by the real life version of “Entourage’s” E, Steve Levinson. The two met when Levinson was Wahlberg’s agent’s assistant — AKA the real life Lloyd. Eventually, Levinson became Wahlberg’s manager. An article in this month’s Vanity Fair details how they became the kings of HBO.
According to the story HBO president of programming Mark Lombardo did not immediately see the duo’s potential. “If you had asked us eight years ago, when we decided to green-light ‘Entourage,’ whether we thought Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson would evolve to be probably the most important producers dealing with us today, we would probably have said no.”
Wahlberg became convinced that his interaction with the group of childhood friends who accompanied him everywhere would make a great television series. “‘It was Lev and Mark’s idea… and maybe about nine other people’,” “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin told VF. Though Ellin wrote the scripts, Wahlberg and Levinson were hands-on producers. According to VF, “Wahlberg and Levinson became its shepherds, with Levinson digging into every script, every casting decision, every cut, and Wahlberg serving as the show’s godfather.”
The show evolved into a hit, giving viewers a taste of the inner workers of the film industry and inspired numerous other premium cable shows about Hollywood, including “The Comeback” and “Episodes.” Wahlberg and Levinson did not want to be pigeonholed. After one of Levinson’s actor clients showed them several episodes of the Israeli show “In Treatment,” they decided an American remake would be perfect for HBO.
The series about a psychiatrist and his patients, taking place almost exclusively during therapy sessions, has a small but passionate following. “It was something of a gamble for the network.” says VF. “HBO had just tried out a therapy program with ‘Tell Me You Love Me‘ but it failed, in part because it was too morose, too arch, and tried a little too hard. ‘In Treatment’ was therapy done the Wahlberg-Levinson way: at once more real, more accessible, and more human.”
If “Entourage” was Wahlberg’s television show a clef, “How to Make It In America” is Levinson’s. Like that show’s protagonists, he spent his early twenties in New York attempting to launch a clothing company. VF explains, “[He] joined forces with a friend to start a sportswear line called Local Athletic, which sold baseball hats and sweatshirts. Not enough of them, alas. After the business folded, in the early 1990s, he went to Los Angeles, where he was determined to make it as a producer…” The show is still finding it’s footing, but HBO picked it up for a second season.
“Boardwalk Empire” is Wahlberg and Levinson’s most ambitious project. They were the ones who brought the source material — a book by the same name who was sent to them by Ari Emmanuel, the inspiration for “Entouage’s” Ari– to director Martin Scorcese. Wahlberg pitched him the idea on the set of “Shutter Island.” Scorcese told VF how Wahlberg persuaded him to venture into television. “He knew exactly how long to stay … only a few minutes, and he said what he had to say and made me feel confident. And he reiterated to me that if I were to at least stay involved but also direct some of them I’d be given a warm welcome there at HBO. He clinched it for me.”
Wahlberg has managed to balance his burgeoning television empire with his movie career. His latest film “The Fighter,” a boxing saga he spent years developing as a producer, is nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Wahlberg was the only major cast member not nominated for an Oscar for his acting, which could be taken as a snub. But Wahlberg seems to view producing as his calling, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I am an actor first, but I was a producer more than anything on this movie.” It’s a good summation of the movie star turned mogul’s career. He may not have the Best Actor nomination, but he has something even rarer: four series on television’s most prestigious channel.