“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”—William Shakespeare, “King Lear”
Loosely inspired by “King Lear,” one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies, and “The Lion in Winter,” award-winning filmmaker Lee Daniels and Danny Strong—who last collaborated on the beloved historical drama “Lee Daniels’ the Butler,” have stepped into the television world with their explosive new drama, “Empire.”
“Empire” tells the story of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a legendary hip-hop artist and the CEO of Empire Records. After he learns he has a terminal illness, he decides to pass his company on to one of his sons: Andre, Jamal or Hakeem, played, respectively, by Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray (aka Yazz the Greatest).
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”—William Shakespeare, “King Lear”
This transition of power and wealth isn’t going to be easy. To complicate matters, Lyon’s ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), has just been released from prison, and after 17 years, she demands to be compensated for her hefty role in Empire’s staggering success.
On behalf of the AmNews, I was invited to the Crosby Hotel for a cocktail party and screening with other “taste makers,” which included the cast, creative team, enigmatic artist Julian Schnabel, Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, Jeremy Piven, Grace Hightower, Robert De Niro, executive producers Francie Calfo (president of Imagine TV) and Ilene Chaiken (“The L Word”). “Empire” is also executive produced by Brian Grazer.
Addressing the audience while sitting casually on the edge of the stage, Daniels set a relaxed tone for the evening. He began with a joke: “Terrence, can you believe we’re doing television?,” he asked Howard. “It’s for the money.”
“That’s right,” replied Howard with a laugh.
Daniels continued with Strong, “I said, ‘Danny, do you want to make money?’ And you said?”
“I said yes to money,” answered a smiling Strong. “And Imagine TV and Fox said yes to us.”
So the growth of this empire begins, and it’s paved with style and a sense of adventure. All markers point to a success, and the full order of 13 episodes from the network sends a signal of support.
You can almost hear a covetous sigh from showrunners vying for such a nod of approval.
It makes sense. Daniels is undeniably stylish, with an incredible sense of self. His talent has given rise to eclat, but he’s kept wonderfully grounded.
But to distill Daniels’ essence down to artistic, soulful, humorous and driven is to sell his impact short. He’s warm and personable. He knows the “cool kids,” calling Mariah Carey and Oprah Winfrey genuine friends.
Daniels held my hand that night. You know how it is. The party is buzzing with conversation and you are waiting, patiently, for a minute with the host. That’s the picture. Then Daniels turns, smiles and takes my hand, squeezing firmly as he continues chatting with admiring guests.
Someone asked why he enlisted the help of one of the most legendary producers in the game—Timbaland—for the show. “I wanted to do a musical and Danny knew it,” Daniels answered. “God, genius, everything, partnership” is how he described working with Timbaland.
He didn’t let go of my hand as he continued inching through the crowd.
On working with Henson and Howard, I heard Daniels say, “They are just so magical. You can’t get this stuff out of people that you’re not friends with. You’ve got to be friends with them. They’ve got to be down for you, ride or die, and they are.”
As he wrapped up a conversation, he finally turned back to me, still smiling. I wondered if, by some magical alchemy, he knew that I was from Philly?
“Do you think people will really like this show?” he earnestly asked.
“Lee, your showrunner [Ilene Chaiken] asked me the same thing,” I volunteered. “I reminded her of the impact of her groundbreaking series, ‘The L Word,’ and the strong storylines, excellent casting and innovative directors that shaped that success.”
“So, ‘yes’ you think people will like ‘Empire’?” Daniels said.
“Yes,” I replied. “Your empire has begun.”
For more information, visit www.fox.com/empire.