Many of the acolytes around Donald Trump these days seem to be running for cover, except for the man who essentially created him. Mark Burnett, the maven of reality TV, remains a Trump protector and is getting heat for it, but he himself dwells behind a veil of contradiction and mystery, as a lengthy piece in the New Yorker reminds us this week.
The man behind The Apprentice, Survivor, The Voice and Shark Tank, who now also serves as chairman of MGM Television, continues to churn out TV shows and movies, some of them embracing a clear ideological message. But who is he? I pondered this question given that that Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, smiling and genial as ever, were dinner guests at my home not long ago – and left me more clueless than ever about the answer.
This much is known: Burnett anointed a financially foundering, B-list self-promoter named Donald Trump to star in Apprentice, stuck with him through 14 seasons, defined his imperious style, edited away his disastrous miscues and tirelessly promoted his dubious brand. Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal, insists, “Mark Burnett’s show was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.”
While Schwartz now condemns Trump (“a monster”), Burnett, though officially nonpartisan, diligently worked on Trump’s inauguration and described Trump as his “soul mate.” Jonathon Braun, supervising editor of Apprentice, told the New Yorker that “we knew Trump was a fake,” but under Burnett’s instructions, “we made him out to be the most important person in the world, making the court jester the king.”
If Trump’s background was re-invented, so, intriguingly was Burnett’s. Growing up in a working-class family in a grimy section of London, he served for five years in the British Army, assigned to the dubious invasion of the Falkland Islands. He departed finally for a career as a “weapons and tactics adviser” in Central America.
Moving to California, Burnett worked first as a nanny in Beverly Hills, met and married a wealthy woman named Kym Gold, dutifully studied Judaism, but then divorced her a year later. Having obtained his green card, Burnett became involved in marketing and was inspired by Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker. He next married an aspiring actress, Diane Minerva, who wrote in her memoir that she first learned of Burnett’s intention to divorce her by listening to Burnett being interviewed on Howard Stern’s show.
Focusing now on television with great success, Burnett met another actress, Downey, star of Touched by an Angel. They married in 2007 and together launched a faith-based production company that fostered a series of Christian-themed shows. Their biggest feature, a remake of Ben-Hur, flopped. Still Burnett and Downey, according to the New Yorker, now describe themselves as “the noisiest Christians in Hollywood.” Gold, Burnett’s first wife, nonetheless declares that she’s convinced Burnett is not religious. “He follows the wind,” she asserts.
Politically, the wind has now blown Burnett into problematic waters. On the one hand he does not want to become enmeshed in anything that could cost him a sector of his audience. Yet introducing Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, Burnett described their 14-year friendship as
“one of the greatest relationships of my life.” Tom Barrack, a Hollywood investor and occasional producer who became chairman of the inauguration committee, insists “Mark is a genius and the President loves him.”
If Burnett likes Trump, is he also protecting him? Specifically, is he concealing long-rumored outtakes of Apprentice that might reveal racist remarks or other sexist slurs. Officially, Trump’s attorneys at MGM take him off the hook, arguing that standard industry contracts forbid release of the tapes. Still, associates insist that, over the course of 14 seasons and 300 hours of footage per episode, a treasure trove of Trumpian mistakes must exist. Editors of shows usually compile “gag reels” containing off-color or embarrassing moments, so why hasn’t one shown up? One obvious explanation: Trump has protectors. And Trump’s producer is one of them.
Will he pay a price? As anti-Trump sentiment grows ever more strident, those who champion the President could struggle to line up major talent and may also face issues with buyers. Mark Burnett is a very wealthy man, and doesn’t have to fret about financial setbacks. But his ambitions for success are limitless. And as the maven of reality TV, having succeeded in creating his own reality, he has no intention of surrendering that role.