Mr. Berlanti hired then 15-year-old Emily VanCamp to be Ephram’s girl-next-door love interest on Everwood. “I remember at our first dinner all together, he said he had an eight-year plan for us,” Ms. VanCamp chuckled. “He knew exactly what was going to happen. He’s constantly breeding these ideas in his head. But when you meet him, you’d never realize what a genius he is, because he’s so young and energetic but down to earth. He understands life and human nature and people and their nature, and that comes through in his writing.” Ms. VanCamp now works on Brothers & Sisters with Mr. Berlanti.
“When you work with her, you feel like she’s someone whose career can span decades,” Mr. Berlanti added about Ms. VanCamp. “As a writer, you look for people who you can write for for multiple generations, for someone who makes you write and, when they act, it’s straight out of your veins and into their mouths.”
On Everwood, one of Mr. Berlanti’s risks came when he wrote in a character named Magilla, Delia’s male bully turned playm
ate, who played with dolls and makeup before it was revealed that he was born a hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts. Doctors encouraged his parents to raise him as a male, but Magilla was starting to take on female traits and had to grapple with his sexual identity as an elementary-school student. “We were ahead of our time even then,” Mr. Berlanti explained.
Another character was a married man who left his wife and child after his affair with a man was discovered.
“People don’t always necessarily put making socially challenging television at the top of their priority list,” Mr. Berlanti said. “But any time that you have a show that feels really true and real and contemporary and deals with real issues, the audience really connects to it. They’re just so hard to get made.”
He worked on another WB series, the short-lived Jack & Bobby, before leaving Warner Bros. last year. He formed his own company, Berlanti Television, and moved on to Touchstone, when WB and UPN merged into the CW.
Since then, Mr. Berlanti said he has little time for anything besides yoga and running, to calm his nerves, since he doesn’t take any “mood prescriptives,” he said.
“This moment here, it could all be gone in a few months. Some shows just don’t work. I worked all of last year, and I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want to think I could’ve worked harder.”
Mr. Berlanti credits much of his inspiration to his Irish-Italian family. “I personally write about that deep bond between people that drive you crazy but you couldn’t live without,” Mr. Berlanti said. “The values I was raised with as a person came from—and this is such a New York family—an Irish mom and an Italian dad. We were encouraged to speak our mind, have our own opinions. It was a really combative family at times—but a deeply, deeply loving family.
“I’d go over to friends’ houses who were WASP’s and I was like, ‘People don’t have fights?’ I used to watch TV shows and be like, ‘Whose house is that?’
He keeps a faded ticket stub from Frank Galati’s 1990 Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath in his pocket. When he was 17 years old, he skipped school, commuted into the city from his home in Rye, and snuck into a matinee show.
“I remember thinking at the end, after seeing the play, that I wanted to make people feel the way I felt at the end of that production,” he told The Observer.
“What you’ve accomplished in life is not half as important as who you’ve touched,” he continued. “That’s the feeling you get when you see one of the episodes I’ve worked on—just the human condition, how difficult it is sometimes to be alive and how wonderful, and how we’re all alone but we’re all in it together.”