TV's Top Gun

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JILL GREENBERG FOR TIME

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There are plenty of pictures on the way. This year Bruckheimer will release Bad Boys II (Martin Lawrence and Will Smith), Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp fulfilling somebody's really strange dream of bringing a Disney ride to the screen) and Veronica Guerin, the story of a murdered Irish journalist that's being delayed until the high-profile holiday season because the studio thinks the man who just months ago brought us Kangaroo Jack might be a candidate for his first Oscar. And Bruckheimer is making more television. The Amazing Race, the closest a reality show has ever got to being a critical darling, returns to CBS this summer despite middling ratings. And he has three other pilots that, chances are, will show up on some network's fall lineup. Cold Cases is Without a Trace with cases that are 20 years old instead of 10 days old (i.e., Martha Moxley, not Chandra Levy). Fearless is a WB drama about an FBI agent (Rachael Leigh Cook) who is missing the fear gene. And Skin (Fox) is a Romeo and Juliet tale in which Romeo's dad is a district attorney and Juliet's dad is a porn magnate. Bruckheimer takes low culture and shines it up real pretty.

And he's able to make the world's best B movies without condescending to the audience. "On CSI I told them to use the correct terminology even if the audience doesn't know it," says Bruckheimer, "because even if they don't understand it, they'll know it's real." These days, his instinct for what excites audiences is eerily perfect. People may mock Kangaroo Jack, but it opened as the No. 1 film in the U.S. "It was fascinating to watch him watch a tape and know in 15 seconds if an actor has the charisma and naturalism for a part," says Hank Steinberg, the creator of Without a Trace. "His instincts were right on the money every time."

Although he doesn't show up at writers' meetings, surprisingly Bruckheimer does get involved in the details of each show. In between meetings about marketing his movies, he reads every outline and script and watches each daily and edit. He gives his notes only by telephone or in person, never in writing, as most producers do. ("Personal contact is good. We try to boost up the people who work here.") And he doesn't yell. That's because screaming was the bailiwick of his old partner Don Simpson, who played the completely insane cop to Bruckheimer's laid-back cop until he died of a cocaine overdose in 1996. Bruckheimer has never made the Jungian leap to taking over Simpson's role, remaining oddly calm for an action-movie producer. "There are very few people in this business who are men of their word," says LaPaglia. "Most people waffle and bulls___ you. He has been nothing but straight up. He hasn't promised me anything he can't deliver, and he returns my phone calls. In this day and age, you can't ask for more."

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