by Kathy Schwiff)
Seeing his biography of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson turned into a Showtime television series was like winning the lottery, writer Thomas Maier said, though he had to be convinced that the TV offer was better than proposals to make a movie of it.
Maier, who has been a reporter at the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper Newsday for 30 years, said he had two or three serious offers to turn his 2009 book, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love,” into a film but the show’s producers persuaded him that it could be done as a high-quality TV series, such as AMC’s “Mad Men.”
The Showtime series, “Masters of Sex,” debuted last fall and has been renewed for a second season.
Maier, who has written three other books—about publisher Si Newhouse, baby expert Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Kennedy family, spoke to journalists at a workshop Friday in New York. The workshop was sponsored by the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors organization.
He is happy with his decision, noting the huge influence of a successful TV show. For example, a recent episode of the game show “Jeopardy” featured a category titled “Masters of Sax,” about jazz musicians, he pointed out.
Maier said he was prepared to be tossed “a cookie” and told to go away after he sold the book rights to the TV producers, but they gave him a producer credit and have listened to his ideas. “It’s been a terrific experience.”
He has sent the producers about 20 memos over three to four years, most dealing with the tone of the series. While it deals with a serious subject, it’s important to leaven the drama with humor, he said.
Maier said he thought about writing the biography after he interviewed Masters for a newspaper article at his retirement in 1994. He began work on the book in late 2006.
While Masters had died five years earlier, Maier said Johnson, who died last summer, cooperated with the book.
Masters, a gynecologist and faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, hired Johnson as a research assistant in 1957 to help conduct a broad study of human sexuality. He divorced his wife and married Johnson in 1971; they divorced in 1993.
Their work focused on how the human body responds during sex.
Maier said Masters realized that he needed a female partner to help conduct the study and said Johnson was instrumental in persuading both women and men to participate.
Maier said Sarah Timberman, executive producer of CBS’s “Elementary” and FX’s “Justified,” read his book and persuaded Sony Pictures to buy it. She was executive producer of the pilot, which was shot on Long Island.
The show runner and executive producer is Michelle Ashford, who wrote the 2010 miniseries “The Pacific.”
About 80 percent of the pilot came from his book, Maier said, although it started with Chapter 7, which depicted the meeting of Masters and Johnson.
Ashford has “bent over backward to be true to the book,” he said.
Maier said working in different forms of storytelling has made him a better reporter, prompting him to think “how do I tell the story in the most vivid way.”
And while his book was nonfiction, with all the facts documented, he has been thinking about fictional story lines that the TV drama might explore in its second season and has shared them with the show’s creators in a memo.