Warren Littlefield

Warren Littlefield ’74

executive producer of The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, former president of NBC

With more than 168 Emmys won under his NBC stewardship, producer Warren Littlefield ’74 is doing it again with his hit drama The Handmaid’s Tale and took time to chat with students in “Reading Feminisms,” a course taught by Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer. In the spirit of curiosity, we share HWS students' top three questions here.

Q: While at NBC, you developed beloved programs like Seinfeld, Will & Grace and Friends – How did you go from creating sitcoms to producing the dystopian series The Handmaid’s Tale?

A: It was my idea six years ago to develop Fargo; to take a feature film and develop it for television. Almost everyone I talked to thought that was a really bad idea, but I thought that executive producer and showrunner Noah Hawley would know what to do with that property. And it turns out we were right. And so we won a lot of awards, and we’ve made three seasons of Fargo, and that all helped when I got a call from my agent at WME – who said, do you know that your friends at MGM Studios are doing Handmaid’s Tale? So I sat down and almost in one sitting read Margaret Atwood’s book. And of course I was completely captivated with her vision. While it was fiction, the entire world that she had created was based on historical fact. I called my agent and said I’d be very very interested in this. It’s exceptional and I have my own development. It just feels particularly powerful and the time is right.”

Q: How do you create something that resonates with people and keeps them watching?

A: “Well I guess that’s our job right? We have to really really focus on the details of this world in order to make it feel real. The world of Gilead, where The Handmaid’s Tale takes place, is an alternative reality. It takes place in the same time as we are, but they don’t use cellphones and only commanders have computers. We created an entire rule book on how to consistently present the world to our audience so that it feels as real as possible. And for me, the challenges of doing something like this is what excites me. I’m not interested in doing straight ahead procedural drama, there’s plenty of people in the world that can do that stuff and they do it really well. I’d rather find my way into things that have a higher degree of difficulty, and therefore, for me personally, are more satisfying. So the experience of doing a Fargo, and the experience of doing Handmaid’s Tale, for me, it’s living with the details and walking on the high wire to bring stories to life, that’s kind of what I live for.”

Q: In one of your interviews you said that you like to work on things that “stick” in some way; do you have good instincts for that?

A: “When I’m evaluating material, I use a process that I also used during my NBC days, where I imagine a scalpel cutting right down through my mid-section and opening me up. I want to feel as exposed as I possibly can. I’ll ask, ‘What am I feeling? What do I feel about this content? Am I pulled closer to it or am I pushed away from it? Am I bored, am I compelled?’ And that visceral response to content has worked for me and I continue to use that tool. I’m at a point where lots of people want me to do lots of different things, and I’m trying to find projects that, for me, don’t exist in the television landscape. We’re in an age where there’s never been more high quality content than there is now; there’s over 60 platforms offering original scripted content. It’s incredible! There are 500 new series a year, so I just keep searching for things that separate themselves from what’s already out there. Then you have a chance at doing something that’s original. And if you do it right then maybe it will resonate with your audience.”

The Hit-Maker

Just weeks before the highly-anticipated second season of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu, students in Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer “Reading Feminisms” course sat down to watch the trailer in the Rosensweig Learning Commons of the Warren Hunting Smith Library. Through screen share, and from the Toronto set where the series is filmed, the class was joined by executive producer Warren Littlefield ’74. “I’ve probably seen this a dozen times,” Littlefield said to the room before pressing play, “And it still gives me the chills.” Six minutes later and the entire class was in agreement and on the edge of their seats. Having spent an entire semester studying why The Handmaid’s Tale, originally published in 1985, still matters today, Bayer “Skyped” the alumnus in to learn more about his role bringing the dystopian fiction to life.

Littlefield won eight Emmys for the series last year, marking the first time that a series broadcast on a streaming platform won an Emmy for “Outstanding Series.” But that was just the latest in a career of breakout hits for Littlefield, who as president of NBC from 1991 to 1998 was responsible for developing “Must See TV” shows that defined a decade, including Will & Grace, Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers and ER.

His tenure garnered 168 Emmy awards and numerous other industry honors for NBC while he oversaw the development and production of NBC’s prime time, late night and Saturdaymorning entertainment programming. During his last three seasons with the network, NBC sold an industry record $6.5 billion in prime-time advertising — $2 billion more than its closest competitor.

A native of Montclair, N.J., Littlefield began his career in 1979 at Westfall Productions in New York City, where he developed and produced prime-time specials and movies. He attended the School of Government and Public Administration at American University in Washington, D.C., before earning a degree in psychology at Hobart. –Natalia St. Lawrence ’16


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.