The man with the Midas touch

'Family Guy' creator Seth MacFarlane's first feature film about a cynical bear was a smash hit in the US. It airs here next month

He is Hollywood's latest man with a Midas touch. Already television's highest-paid writer and producer, creator of the Emmy Award-winning animated sitcom Family Guy and a Grammy-nominated musician to boot, Seth MacFarlane is now also a big screen hit-maker.

The 38-year-old's first feature film – about a foul-mouthed and cynical stuffed toy – took $54m (£35m) on its opening weekend in the US, a record for an original R-rated comedy (a film for which under-17s have to be accompanied by an adult). While it will no doubt be the antics of the weed-smoking, beer-swilling and Flash Gordon-loving bear that get audiences talking when Ted hits the screens here next month, the most astounding tale is the rise of the director (and writer, producer and voice of Ted) himself.

On the back of Ted, MacFarlane will be "able to write his own ticket" in Hollywood, according to Helen O'Hara of Empire magazine. She adds that, now he has the experience of an effects movie on his CV, "it is not outside the bounds of possibility he'd be offered a box office franchise".

For now, the American is still best known for Family Guy, which airs in the UK on BBC3. The series features the dysfunctional Griffin family and their anthropomorphic dog Brian. Fortune estimates the show has grown into a billion-dollar franchise since it launched in 1999. In return, MacFarlane is reportedly paid about $33m a year. Not bad, considering the US Fox network cancelled the show for a second time in 2002 – the only noticeable blips in MacFarlane's career – before resurrecting it in 2005.

The cash helps MacFarlane, also co-creator of the prime-time animated series American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, live a lifestyle befitting a multimillionaire: according to The New Yorker last month, he has snapped up a share in a private jet, owns an Aston Martin and a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, likes expensive clothes, works out with a personal trainer and has a grooming routine that includes spray tans. A former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star, Eliza Dushku, is among the actresses he has dated.

Then there is his passion for show tunes. His debut, Music is Better than Words, is a big-band album featuring songs from the 1940s and 1950s, and received two Grammy nominations after its US release last year. He performs at the BBC Proms for a second time in August, singing Broadway tunes at the Royal Albert Hall alongside the John Wilson Orchestra.

Despite his phenomenal success, however, MacFarlane's work is not without its critics. With its edgy, offensive humour and storylines tackling topics often seen as taboo, Family Guy can be controversial. It attracted some criticism for an episode portraying the 11 September attacks and has faced allegations of anti-Semitism.

According to the Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg, Ted is "Seth on steroids". The comedy tells the story of John Bennett (Wahlberg), whose childhood Christmas wish to bring his teddy to life came true. Nearly three decades later, the magic has worn off and John's girlfriend, Lori Collins (Mila Kunis), is increasingly fed up with Ted's presence in their relationship. "When I first saw Family Guy, I couldn't believe that he was getting away with some of that stuff in a cartoon," says Wahlberg in the film's production notes. "But now, with this R-rated feature film, he really pushes the envelope. There's nobody that he doesn't offend."

UK audiences won't be deterred, says Ms O'Hara. "It's much less offensive than some of the Sacha Baron Cohen stuff that has done very well in this country, so I don't think it will put people off," she adds. "If anything, the opposite. We seem to have a big appetite for things like The Hangover, The Dictator, and this."

Born in Kent, Connecticut, MacFarlane studied animation and design at the Rhode Island School of Design before working for Hanna-Barbera on TV series including Johnny Bravo and Cow and Chicken. He caught the eye of Fox and, in 1998, delivered a short of what became Family Guy. At 24, he was the youngest executive producer in American TV. MacFarlane, who had been recruited to revive The Flintstones although the project is now reportedly on hold, originally conceived Ted as another animated series, but decided it would work better on the big screen.

Although he told The Hollywood Reporter last year that part of him thought Family Guy "should have already ended", the 11th series is due to air later this year. Ms O'Hara says that, while the show "shows signs of running out of steam a bit recently", as long as it is bringing in money, Fox will want to keep it going.

MacFarlane's first foray into cinema has been successful, but the transition from small- to big-screen laughs is not always so smooth. Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, failed to make an impact at the box office with Idiocracy (2006) and Extract (2009). After leaving Seinfeld, Larry David's 1998 film Sour Grapes was a flop. Time will tell if MacFarlane can cement his Hollywood status with future box office hits.

'Dexter's Laboratory'

Before finding fame with Family Guy, MacFarlane wrote for this comic SF series between 1997 and 1998. It focuses on child genius Dexter, who has a secret lab in his bedroom and spends a lot of his time battling his older sister, Dee Dee, who gets past his security.

'Johnny Bravo'

A TV series starring a muscly man with big hair, an eye for the ladies and an Elvis Presley voice, which MacFarlane worked on as a writer and animator for Hanna-Barbera. He also worked on Cow and Chicken, the cartoon story of a cow, cunningly named Cow, and her chicken brother, Chicken.

'The Cleveland Show'

A spin-off from Family Guy, this series has Cleveland Brown – one of Peter Griffin's neighbours in the original show – as its main character. MacFarlane voices Tim the Bear, one of Cleveland's neighbours. A fourth series of the sitcom, which premiered in 2009, is in the pipeline.

'American Dad!'

Another successful animation series for the Fox TV network, this time featuring the dysfunctional Smiths. MacFarlane voices CIA officer Stan Smith and space alien Roger, who lives with them. Characters from Family Guy and The Cleveland Show have popped up in the show and vice versa.

'Family Guy'

MacFarlane's edgy animated sitcom – for which he voices three main characters, including an anthropomorphic pet dog – centres on the dysfunctional Griffin family and their pet, Brian. It uses cutaway gags to generate laughs. The 11th series of the Fox show, screened here on BBC3, is due to air this autumn.

'Ted'

MacFarlane's feature film debut, featuring a foul-mouthed teddy brought to life by a Christmas wish, hits UK cinemas next month. Its writer, director and producer, MacFarlane also voices the weed-smoking bear. The film features Black Swan actress Mila Kunis, who voices the character of Meg Griffin in Family Guy.

Hollywood hotlist

J J Abrams

Films from the 46-year-old co-creator of the TV juggernaut Lost include the successful reboot Star Trek and last year's Hollywood blockbuster Super 8, which he wrote, directed and produced. Star Trek actor Simon Pegg provided voices for the TV series Robot Chicken, as did Seth MacFarlane and Ted star Mila Kunis.

Joss Whedon

Now 48, Whedon is the genius behind the TV hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angels and Dollhouse. He included his muse Eliza Dushku (whom Seth MacFarlane has dated) in his best-known series. Like MacFarlane, he has enjoyed massive box-office success this year – with Avengers Assemble, which he wrote and directed.

Judd Apatow

The 44-year-old has a string of blockbuster comedies under his belt, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, which he wrote, directed and produced. As producer of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he worked with actress Mila Kunis, a friend of MacFarlane's, who stars in Ted and Family Guy.

Comments