October 17, 2018

The Jewish writer and actor who’s ‘the voice of black America’

Danny Strong is probably most recognizable as being “that Jewish guy” on TV — he played eager adman wannabe Danny Siegel on “Mad Men” and the nerdy, perennial victim Jonathan Levinson on “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.”

But, among those in the know, Strong may be best known as the “voice of black America,” as one showrunner sarcastically quipped. He’s the co-creator of the hip-hop-themed TV hit “Empire” and he also wrote the screenplay for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.”

“Empire” is centered on the struggle for the control of Empire Entertainment, a family-owned record label and mini conglomerate — a company started with drug money. It features bravura performances from major stars, including Terrence Howard (“Crash,” “The Butler”) as Lucious, the family patriarch, and the Emmy-nominated Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”) as his wife, Cookie, who was mysteriously released early from prison.

When it debuted last January, “Empire” was almost an immediate hit, first among young African-American viewers and then with white audiences. It ended the season as the highest-rated drama on broadcast TV with an especially high rating among in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic favored by advertisers.

Who wouldn’t be attracted to a program whose elevator pitch is basically “Dynasty” meets “Glee” meets “The Godfather”? Yet even Strong was surprised at how well it did. “I had no idea it would become this successful,” he says in a telephone interview with JTA.

Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, he adds: “I thought we would do pretty well because of the success of ‘The Butler’ and the crossover appeal of hip-hop. But I underestimated how well it would do.”

“I think at the end of the day, it’s a good show, and people like the characters,” he says. “The equation of what makes the show work is that it’s a soap opera with really fun and juicy plotting balanced with an examination of social issues. It’s a gritty family drama and, on top of that, there’s the musical element.”

The show’s soundtrack is provided by mega-hit producer Timbaland and tackles social issues such as homophobia, interracial marriage and a host of societal ills like drugs and murder.

Yet another factor in the success of “Empire” has been the far-reaching media coverage about the show’s diversity. Until its premiere, most primarily African-American shows on television had been comedies. Plus, “Empire,” in addition to  having a mostly black cast, has a rainbow behind the scenes, both racially and in terms of sexual orientation. In fact, Strong was the only straight white man to direct an episode.

The series — which doesn’t gloss over the thuggish elements of some parts of the African-American experience — hasn’t been without controversy. “I’ve heard there’s been some blowback about Lucious and the criminal element of the show, his drug dealing past,” Strong says. “We’re not trying to fight civil rights battles with this show or suggest that this story represents the African-American community.”

He argues it is probably similar to the complaints producers of “The Sopranos” likely received from Italian-American groups. “White, African-American, Jewish or Irish, there’s always been crime,” he says.

But blowback or not, the show has “exploded diversity among the networks,” Strong continues. “Everyone is trying to find more diverse programs, featuring Latino, Asian families. At the end of the day, Hollywood is going to create programs that are financially successful, and shows like ‘Blackish’ and ‘Empire’ have been financially successful.”

The idea for “Empire” came to him “while I was driving in my car in L.A. There was a news radio piece about Puffy and some new business enterprise, and I thought to myself, ‘hip-hop is so cool, so much fun.’ I had the idea of a music movie; the idea of doing something along the lines of ‘King Lear’ or ‘The Lion in Winter.'”

Excited, he pitched the idea to Daniels, who “called me back the next day and told me, ‘I can’t stop thinking about it. But I think it’s a TV show and not a movie’.”

The pair fleshed out a multi-episode story line for a TV show and presented it to the networks. “We made our pitch the week after ‘The Butler’ opened at number one in the box office and all four networks wanted it. A bidding war broke out.”

All this makes it so odd that Daniels last May veered so sharply off the road of political correctness in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, saying: “I hate white people writing for black people. It’s so offensive.”

“I was surprised he said it publicly,” Strong says. “I work very closely with Lee, and I’m a white writer. So is [Executive Producer] Ilene Chaiken [who is also Jewish]. So he works with white writers and to take a public stance like that, I don’t understand.”

But Strong says he wasn’t offended. “He says whatever he feels. He’s very unfiltered and quite refreshing. I didn’t take that personally.”

And if Daniels was uncomfortable, the reverse wasn’t true. “I would say that there have been countless events and parties and business situations where I am the only white person in the room, and I have never felt uncomfortable,” Strong maintains. “I have been completely embraced and felt nothing but love.”

Strong feels a special kinship with the “Empire” material in part because of his culturally Jewish upbringing. “I think Jews feel very empathetic to any culture or race that faces discrimination,” he says.

“Ever since I was young I was very passionate about people being discriminated against in terms of civil rights or gay rights,” he adds. “There was something innate in me. That’s part of why I like to tell these kinds of stories, even now.”

Writing, though, is a kind of obscure existence. Despite numerous successes and awards for screenplays such as “Recount” (about the 2000 presidential race) and “Game Change” (about Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential candidacy), “I’m not through acting,” says Strong, who played Elijah’s boyfriend on “Girls.” “I take a few gigs a year for fun.”

Strong laughs at the obvious next question: Does he plan to write himself into “Empire”?

“Vanilla Jew? I never say never,” he says.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox starting Sept. 23.