Career & Craft

Escaping Hollywood's Quicksand

William Lucas Walker discusses work, life, and work about his life.

In Hollywood, the floor isn’t lava, it’s quicksand. So says William Lucas Walker, and he should know; he’s traversed it for decades. At the same time, the writer and longtime Guild member insists that his life has been serendipitous. Those two opposing forces continue to buffet his career, which has come full circle with his latest project, the half-hour comedy Dads of DeWitt. The project is based on the life of Walker, his husband, Kelly Ziegler, and their children.

An early mentor, Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street), fresh off of his and Bruce Paltrow’s hit series St. Elsewhere, gave Walker a chance to learn the television game by inviting him to shadow their new show, Tattinger’s. After that show was cancelled during its first season, he offered Walker a script on the next show they sold. That was Walker’s first lesson in television: “These were the hottest guys in Hollywood, they won Emmys galore, but after Tattinger’s they couldn’t sell anything for three more years,” he recalls.

James Walker-Ziegler, Bill Walker, Kelly Ziegler and Elizabeth Walker-Ziegler.

But true to his word, Fontana gave him that script three years later. The show was cancelled, so Walker went back to his word processing day job. “Hollywood is like quicksand, and if you have a development deal, you’re hanging from a ladder on a helicopter that keeps you from sinking in the quicksand, and it just moves you through the quicksand, but you never get out of the quicksand,” Walker says with a honeyed Southern accent. “I tell everybody I mentor: Know the game you’re playing, and if you accept the fact that the odds are against you, and you really think there’s nothing else you want to do, keep pushing, but it’s a tough business, and I got very lucky.”

One of Walker’s first staffing jobs was on Roseanne, in 1993. The chaos there was the stuff of legend, “but I loved it, because it was like being on a rollercoaster. And I was too minor to fire,” Walker says. After three years there, he was able to buy the Hollywood Hills house from where he is speaking. “No starting writers can do that anymore,” he says. 
He moved on to Frasier, which ran like a Swiss watch and won him an Emmy. A stint on Cybill was followed by the first season of Will & Grace, after which he co-created The Chris Isaak Show

Then Walker stepped away to pursue a bigger dream. “I always knew from childhood that I wanted to be a father,” he says, even though he grew up at a time when that was an impossibility for a gay man. Prepared to be a single dad, he hired a surrogate. Soon after, at a church event, he met Kelly Ziegler, the man who would become his husband. 

“In 2001, our daughter was the 44th child born by surrogacy to gay men,” Walker says. “She’s very proud of that.”
He was happy to be a stay-at-home dad, keeping his hand in writing pilots, with no desire to go back to a writers’ room. “I’d reached enough peaks in my career, and I knew that for me, being a father was going to blast past all of that, and it has,” he says. Not long after their son was born in 2005, he pretty much stopped writing.

I’d reached enough peaks in my career, and I knew that for me, being a father was going to blast past all of that, and it has.

- Bill Walker

For television, that is. A founding member of a gay dads’ group, Walker started writing funny stories about his family for their newsletter. A friend saw the columns and sent them, unbidden, to Arianna Huffington. And that’s how Walker started writing the column “Spilled Milk” for The Huffington Post. “Suddenly I had a national platform. Obama was up for reelection, and they were already starting to demonize families like ours,” Walker says. “I thought if I can use humor as a way to tell the story of a family like mine, this is worth doing. That’s when I found my voice.”
He also dipped his toes back in the quicksand. In 2017, Walker landed a deal for a YA show with Amazon—until studio politics upended the project. “They canceled that entire division. They paid me off and it went away,” Walker says, but not before he got his 16th year of Guild work; one more year would qualify him for certified retiree coverage 

“Kelly said, ‘I don’t care if you do a children’s show about zebras, just get that year,’” Walker says.
Walker’s manager suggested he turn his column into a series. 

Bill Walker, his son James Walker-Ziegler and Norman Lear. Photo by Kelly Ziegler.

“I’ve rarely seen the South portrayed accurately on television,” says Walker who grew up in Clinton, South Carolina. “I thought, what if Kelly and I had to move our family back to my Republican hometown? My mother is a conservative bridge club lady who wouldn’t tell anybody that we were dads for a while, wouldn’t tell anybody I was gay, and I thought, that’s really rich territory. And it only became richer as the years went on.” 

He and his family have visited his hometown since his daughter was born, “and we’ve never had a negative experience. But if we moved there it would be different. There’s an exchange in the show where my character says, ‘Mom, we’ve been coming here for 13 years, we’ve never had a single problem,’ and she goes, ‘Everybody knows you’ll be leaving on Sunday. Anybody can hold their hate over a holiday.’”

After he pitched the show around town, COVID hit, but Walker ended up writing the pilot anyway. “I needed to birth it,” he says.
The script found a home at Norman Lear and Brent Miller’s Act III Productions. A week after the strike ended, Walker and his Dads of DeWitt closed a deal with ABC. Walker gets emotional when he relates Lear’s celebratory call. 

“I said, ‘It’s what I dreamed of,’ and Norman goes, ‘That's why you nailed it!’” Walker says. “I got to tell him what his shows meant to me, what an influence they were.” 

Lear’s death in December left him feeling bereft. “It wasn’t because of the show. It was because of the hugeness of who he was,” Walker says of Lear, “not just as a writer, but as a force of human nature, and what he brought to all of us in terms of helping us understand ourselves and the thorny problems we have, as a country and as families.” 
ABC ultimately passed on the show, so Walker, Act III, and 20th Television are now shopping Dads of DeWitt. “My gut tells me it will land somewhere,” Walker says. “As Norman always said, ‘To be continued…’” In the meantime, the project has allowed him to secure his certified retiree coverage, which he notes is critical.

“I got to have 22 years off to raise my children. My life has just been wonderful serendipity. And what is amazing is this whole thing happened because Kelly said, ‘You've got to get that 17th year!’”

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