Producer Joel Gallen on the 9/11 Telethon: ‘It Was Wall-to-Wall Emotion’

The producer of the moving 9/11 telethon revisits the pressures and pleasures of putting together a worldwide special in one week (Videos)

"America: A Tribute to Heroes" was a two-hour primetime television special that aired on Sept. 21, 2001 — 10 days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and one week after the idea was first broached to producer Joel Gallen.

The special, which aired simultaneously on the four major broadcast networks and on scores of other cable and international networks, featured performances by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, U2, Paul Simon and 17 others, and short speeches by another two dozen celebrities, including Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Will Smith and Muhammad Ali. It raised an estimated $150 million in two hours for the United Way's Sept. 11 fund.

Joel Gallen

A 2002 Emmy winner for producing the show (and a DGA winner for directing part of it), Gallen spoke to TheWrap about his whirlwind experience in the 10 days after 9/11. 

See TheWrap's full coverage of 9/11

How did you first learn of the 9/11 attacks?
I think I woke up around 6:00 or 6:30 that morning. For some reason I turned on the TV, which I don’t always do, and I heard about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I was watching CNBC, and nobody was mentioning terrorism until the second building was hit, when everyone knew what was happening.

I was supposed to go in that day to work on a movie called "Not Another Teen Movie," which I had directed. And obviously I didn’t go in. Everything shut down, and we just looked at the TV that entire day, just in shock, and sad and emotional, and wanting to do something, but helpless.

Also read: TV Academy CEO Remembers 9/11 and the Emmys That Almost Weren't

How did the idea for the show come about?
For the next couple of days, everybody was still in shutdown mode. And then on Friday, which would have been September 14, I went back to editing my movie. I was in the editing room on the Sony lot in Culver City, and I got a call from Alex Wallau, who was the president of ABC at the time, and Andrea Wong, who was the vice president in charge of specials and alternative programming.

'They called me around four o'clock, and Alex told me that he'd been talking to the heads of the other networks about a program a week from that night to raise as much money as possible for the victims families.

Why so soon?
They said it had to be in one week for many reasons. I can't remember all of them, but they were going to give up two hours of prime time, and they wanted to get it in before the fall schedule started.  And they wanted to do it soon because they wanted to be as reactive as possible, and because they thought they could raise more money if they moved fast. I asked what kind of show they wanted to do, and they didn’t know. But they wanted to do something.

Did you sign on right away?
Of course was flattered that they chose me. But I said I was editing this movie and I was preparing to reshoot the ending in two weeks — and I said, "I can't do this part time. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to need to stop everything else I'm doing." So as much as I wanted to do it, we needed to get permission, because I was under contract with Sony.

America: A Tribute to HeroesAmy Pascal was the boss, so Alex said he would have Jeffrey Katzenberg call Amy and see if they should shut down the movie for a week. So Jeffrey called Amy, and Amy called me and said, "Is this something you really want to do?" I said, "Of course it is, but I don’t want to jeopardize the movie." She said, "Well, we have to let you do it. Go do it."

So I got on the phone, on that Friday night, with all the presidents of the networks — with Alex, Sandy Grushow at Fox, Les Moonves at CBS and Jeff Zucker at NBC.

Did you have specific ideas at that point?
I was still developing things in my mind, but I knew right away that we needed to do it in Los Angeles and New York, because we wanted to maximize the amount of talent. I said, "You just don’t know how many people are here and how many are there, so let's make it as easy as possible to participate."

We knew we wanted to have music, because music inspires. We wanted whoever we booked to perform songs that shared how they were feeling, either their own songs or songs they loved from other artists. And we wanted to get a lot of celebrities. The idea was to get the biggest names possible, and the more names you had the more people you'll attract and hopefully the more money you'll raise.

Also read: 9/11 Remembered: The Top in Movies, Music, Books

One key component of the show was its starkness: no audience, no applause, just a dark stage lit with candles.
I knew right away that I did not want this thing to feel celebratory. I did not want a live audience. And then it sort of hit me: we should take it even further than that and have no introductions. No applause, no fanfare, no graphics that say this is who this person. Everybody's gonna be so big that you'll know them, and if you don't know them you'll figure it out later.

I didn’t want to say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen!" "Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Hanks!" This was not about that. This was about the entertainment community coming together for a common purpose, to help the best way they can. And the best way they can is to entertain, and to speak, and to share with their fans what they're feeling.

Were the networks comfortable with that?
Everybody embraced that right away, to my pleasant surprise. I didn’t know what the networks were going to think, but they all were really great. They basically said, "Look, we'll support what you want to do." They knew there wasn’t time for the typical development slate of "Let's pitch an idea and see what's the networks think, and we'll get back to you."

Did you start booking talent immediately?
I said, "Look, it's the weekend, but let's call some people." I called some, Jeffrey Katzenberg called some, I enlisted Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records to call some. I called people that I had relationships with, like Jon Landau with Bruce Springsteen, and Simon Renshaw with the Dixie Chicks, and Jeff Kramer with Paul Simon. And Jeffrey called Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and others called other people. And the great thing was, everybody immediately said, "Whatever you need me to do, I'll do." Nobody said, "Who else is doing it?"

How much of the show was booked that weekend?
I would say by the end of that weekend the show was half full, and by the end of the day Monday it was 100 percent full. By Tuesday morning there were people asking to be on the show that we just didn’t have room for. I basically went after 20 musicians and 20 celebrities — 40 stars to pack into a two-hour show without commercial interruption.

But you fit a lot more stars than that into the show by having a phone bank manned by celebrities.
Interestingly enough, that's where George Clooney came in. On Tuesday I had set up office at CBS, where we shot the L.A. portion. And I had never met George before, but he literally just walked into my office. He had just met with Les Moonves in the building, and he walked in and said, "There's so many other celebrities who want to do something on the show, what if we have them answer the phones?" I said, "That's a great idea." It meant more people might call, because they'd have the chance to talk to Brad Pitt or Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson or whoever answered the phone. And he said he would talk to people and get them to do it.

Did you have any telethon experience?
It was the first telethon I'd ever done in my life, so I had no idea how to do it. We'd already hired a company that had experience doing telethons and fundraisers, and all their operators were set up somewhere in the middle of the country. So we had to scramble to figure out how to get 30 or 40 out of the hundreds or thousands of lines we had set up randomly forwarded to our studio, so there would be a slight chance people could talk to a celebrity.

We set it up so the operators would still stay on the line to take the credit card information, but at the same time the callers got to have a quick chat with one of these very famous people.

The line at the time was that virtually everybody worked for free.
When they called me up, they said, "What do you think the budget of the show should be?" I said the budget of this show should be as little as possible. It really should cost nothing, because everybody who works on the show should do it because they want to do it.

Did that happen?
For the most part. There might have been some union issues, or whatever. But I really believe that between New York, L.A. and London, the studio, production and talent costs were minimal. It was like pennies, it was so little. I think the biggest cost was installing the phone system and forwarding the lines, and we ended up getting a sponsor to pay for it all. So I really don't think a lot of checks were written to pay for this thing.

How did the addition of London as a third location come about?
What happened was, we were trying to get U2 to New York. And it just logistically couldn't happen. Air travel was limited at the time, and they had obligations they couldn't move, and so they basically said, "We'd love to do it, we have to do it, but can you do it from London?" And we said, "Of course."

Again, it was one of those things — how much money was spent in London? I don’t think any. I called a friend who was a producer who had worked with U2, and I said, "Can you find me a studio?" He found it, he found a crew and sound. And then the next thing you know, since we had London, we said, "Sting's over there too, let's see if we can get him." So that's how we got Sting and U2 on the show.

In addition to adding London to the mix, the show that was planned as a four-network simulcast ended up being broadcast by dozens of other networks and channels as well.
Even thought the four networks deserve full credit for being the ones that initiated it and oversaw it and donated studios and other resources, as the show unfolded on that Monday we realized that there's a bigger plan here — which is to raise as much money as possible. So we thought, why not just put it up on the satellite and say, "Anybody who wants it can have it?" So you start by calling your MTVs and your HBOs and your cable networks, and then through other means you start taking to the BBC and global networks all over the world. I don’t remember the exact count, but I think it was about 65 to 70 networks around the world who were involved.

Did you ever think, How do we pull this off in a week?
Oh yeah. There was stress and anxiety, absolutely. They wanted a two-hour prime-time show in a week, so of course there was a lot of worry and concern. But I also saw it as a real opportunity to rise to the challenge. As a producer I'd done a lot of specials and a lot of live events, and this was a moment when I could take my work that I do mostly for entertainment purposes, and do some good with it.

Did you consult with the artists on the song choices?
It was a collaboration, although in many cases it was the artist saying, "This is the song I’d like to do," and it was perfect. You can't argue with Bruce Springsteen when he said, "I want to do 'My City of Ruin.'" I was a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and I wasn't that familiar with that song, which was new. I think it was originally written for Atlantic City, but it was so perfect for what just happened, and a great way to open the show and set the tone.

Neil Young said he wanted to do "Imagine." You can't get more perfect than that. Paul Simon wanted to do "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Billy Joel wanted to do "New York State of Mind." These are smart people. There might have been a few discussions where the artist wasn’t sure and we would suggest a song, but most of the artists came knowing what they wanted to do. And to me, there was not an inappropriate song in the bunch.

How did you decide how to utilize the stars who'd be making speeches in between the songs?
At first I knew we wanted a lot of celebrities, but we didn’t know exactly what they were going to do. That sort of unfolded over the days. We found all these great stories for them to talk about – sometimes related to 9/11, and other times related to previous great speakers like John Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

We tried to find different angles for different people to bring out their personalities, and those celebrities who spoke were just as important as the singers. It was just wall-to-wall emotion, and incredibly talented people all coming together.

When it came down to that night, were you able to sit back and be moved by the performances, or were you still consumed with the logistics of pulling it off?
The emotion was running through my veins, without a doubt. I was not only the executive producer in charge of the whole show, I was directing the Los Angeles portion of it. So I was right there calling the cameras, and responding to the performances and the speeches as they unfolded. And certainly, throughout the show there were tears coming down my face.

When Neil Young sat at that piano and sang "Imagine," I was a mess. I don't remember how I continued to call the cameras. And Stevie Wonder's performance, and even watching the feeds from New York, as we were cutting back and forth. Bruce Springsteen's opening, and Alicia Keys, and when Paul Simon sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

I remember going through a full gamut of emotions for two hours. It was pretty overwhelming, and I was moved by every moment of it.

Since then, you've also produced shows to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti …
Of course, I also thought 9/11 was the only time I would ever have to do a show like that. And the next thing you know, we end up getting calls for Katrina, for Haiti … I didn’t set out on this journey to be the go-to disaster guy, but I think that 9/11 show moved people and worked so well that the networks think of me when there's reason to go and do a show like this again.

Gallen photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

See TheWrap's full coverage of 9/11