Scott Sullivan had a knack for entertaining an audience at a young age.
He began writing and performing puppet and magic shows for his classmates in elementary school.
Sullivan credits his teachers with helping to instill a love of writing and performing at such a young age by giving him those kinds of opportunities and seeing a “spark of something” in him or, at the very least, being “nice enough to indulge my odd pastimes.”
Growing up in Russell County — his parents, Garris and June Sullivan, ran Young’s Clothing Store on Main Street in Russell Springs — never hindered Sullivan from continuing his pursuit of a career in entertainment.
In fact, he credits it with helping to shape the person he would become.
“If not for the opportunities I got growing up in Russell Springs and going to Somerset Community College, none of this would have ever worked out,” Sullivan said, reflecting on his career in entertainment. “I literally don’t know where I would be without having grown up there.”
Among those opportunities was when Sullivan wrote and performed a ventriloquist act for the 4-H talent show, which led to his first professional gig as a sixth-grader at Russell Springs Elementary as the entertainment at a county 4-H dinner.
In seventh and eighth grade, Sullivan credits Elizabeth Troutman — his English teacher who was “entertained by my writing” — with encouraging him to continue honing his craft.
After high school, he got a part-time job at WIDS in Russell Springs, which led to a career in radio, including time at WJRS and WHVE, mostly doing morning shows and news.
Sullivan attended Somerset Community College, where he said he found more encouragement from his English professor Sharon Whitehead and a mentor in theatre professor Steve Cleberg.
“I ended up acting in several plays there,” Sullivan said. “Eventually, I acted professionally in Louisville and Cincinnati and did Shakespeare in the Park in Lexington.”
After graduating from SCC with an associate of arts degree in theatre, he then attended Northern Kentucky University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s of arts in electronic media and broadcasting.
When he turned 21, Sullivan tried his hand at another staple of the entertainment industry: stand-up comedy. He started at a club in Louisville and eventually played many clubs and festivals, including the world’s largest arts festival — the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland — in 2006 and even contributed jokes for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
By that point in his career, Sullivan was the definition of a multi-hyphenate: he had done radio; acted in plays; performed stand-up; made short films; and put on comedy, magic and juggling shows professionally, working colleges, corporate after-dinner shows, Renaissance festivals and more.
But it was also at this point that he realized he was doing too many things at once.
“I actually really enjoyed doing all of those things, but it was also out of necessity, just to make a living,” Sullivan said. “[There wasn’t] enough work in Kentucky in any one of those areas to make very good money, but splitting my focus like that meant I was never going to get to the top in any of those fields. I knew I was going to have to choose one and focus on it.”
‘Really just out of spite’
Two factors in his life helped determine what his next step would be.
For one, Sullivan noticed that he “never really got nervous” when he was acting in plays. That wasn’t the case with his stand-up performances, where Sullivan was saying his own words that he had written.
“I’d always thought of myself as a performer, not as a writer, but I’d been writing for myself since I did puppet shows in the first grade,” Sullivan said. “Everything I did — except acting — involved writing. That was the common denominator.”
The other factor in his life happened at nearly the same time as that realization. A short film that Sullivan co-wrote and co-starred in was awarded at a Las Vegas film festival, and he was asked to be on the writers’ panel.
“There was a woman on that panel who had gone to the MFA program at the UCLA film school, and she was being very condescending to the rest of us, pointing out how, statistically speaking, that program is more difficult to get into than Harvard Medical,” he said. “She really annoyed me, and I thought, ‘Yeah, right. I could get in.’”
And that’s just what he did. He applied — “really just out of spite” — and he got in.
“They had a new program for people who wanted to write and run TV shows,” Sullivan said. “I loved television and knew that, in TV, the writer is in charge — as opposed to movies, where the director kind of runs things — so I thought, ‘TV is for me!’
“But my wife and I were living at the time in an old house in the Cincinnati area, barely able to afford to heat the place in the winter and cool it in the summer. We were pretty much flat broke, and I knew that trying to pay for graduate school would put us in debt for the rest of our lives if I wasn’t able to turn television writing into a career.”
Sullivan’s wife, AshleyRose — who grew up partially in Monticello and he met while doing a play at SCC — encouraged him to take the leap of faith.
“[She] said, ‘You have to go for it,’ so I did,” he said. “With some help from family, we moved out to Los Angeles into a tiny apartment we’d never even seen in person with only what we could load into the back of our car. It was terrifying, but with some hard work and some luck, it turned out OK.”
Sullivan found success early on at UCLA.
At the end of his first year there in 2011, he won a writing competition with an original, half-hour comedy pilot.
“That got me managers and agents and launched my career,” he said. “I went on some meetings for jobs but found that I really wasn’t jibing with the showrunners in the half-hour comedy world.
“Out of what was pretty much desperation, I wrote an hour-long pilot over two weeks and my agent sold it to CBS and Shane Brennan, who was running NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles at the time. The show almost got made, but even though it didn’t, it still launched my career because Shane hired me to write an episode of NCIS: LA and then hired me on staff of his 2013 TNT show, King & Maxwell.”
In what would become a trend for Sullivan — who graduated in 2013 from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television with a Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting — one opportunity led to another.
While King & Maxwell, which was Sullivan’s first staff writing job, was canceled after one season, he and Brennan sold a pilot together to the CW network that summer. It ultimately wasn’t made, but the next year, he sold a pilot on his own to the CW.
After that, he was hired on the CBS show Scorpion, where he worked for three years.
“I loved Scorpion,” Sullivan said. “It was right up my alley, a mix of comedy and action and science. I’ve always been a huge fan of science, reading popular science books and watching the Discovery and Science and National Geographic channels, so it was great to be able to apply that knowledge to my work.”
Maybe more importantly, though, Sullivan said Scorpion was where he learned the ins and outs of producing a television show.
“We did a sand storm and two episodes set in the Arctic, all on sound stages in Los Angeles,” he said. “We did big stunts every week — I had a helicopter crash into a building in one of my episodes … Our characters broke into Fort Knox. We accidentally launched a character into space. I had Robert Patrick riding a horse, jousting a guy off a motorcycle.
“It was something crazy every week. And we did 22-26 episodes a year so the pressure and pace were insane, but it was an invaluable learning opportunity and a massive amount of fun.”
It was also where he met Nick Santora, creator of Scorpion and now one of his best friends.
‘Crazy and a lot of fun’
In 2019, Santora, with Skydance TV, sold a new show to Amazon Prime, which would eventually be named Reacher.
The show was based on author Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher. Child has written 26 — and counting — novels and several more short stories about the fictional character, and two movies starring Tom Cruise have been made about him.
The novels have a notoriously loyal fan base, and Santora’s first move was to hire Sullivan on to write and executive produce the show with him.
“Nick and I have the same ’80s movie action/buddy comedy influences that were the right tone for Reacher,” said Sullivan, who also pointed to his martial arts background that started in Russell Springs under Brian Hachey. “He knew I could write both jokes and gritty action since I had that background, too.”
Sullivan said the writing staff felt a “great obligation” to Child and the Jack Reacher fan base to make sure they were able to capture the tone and traits of the character.
The eight-episode first season was released earlier this month to critical acclaim and received an “overwhelmingly positive” response from the fan base as well.
“I’d read some of the Jack Reacher books and had seen the two movies and absolutely loved the character,” Sullivan said. “Turning a beloved novel into an eight-episode series isn’t exactly easy. First of all, there isn’t enough material for that many episodes, so we fleshed out some things and brought in another fan favorite character who isn’t in that particular novel but appears in others.
“It’s also difficult because we wanted to stay true to the book but also give the fans who know it well a few surprises, so we switched a few things up and came at things a little differently to make sure they couldn’t anticipate every twist and turn because we want to give them a few surprises.”
The response to the first season was so positive that the series has already been renewed for a second season.
“We’re already hard at work on it,” Sullivan said. “I can’t really say any more about it, but it’s going to be crazy and a lot of fun — and pure Reacher. [I’m] really looking forward to shooting this one!”
In addition to Reacher’s second season, Sullivan is a writer and executive producer on a new — and currently untitled — Arnold Schwarzenegger show for Netflix.
“I can’t say any more, but it’s also crazy and a lot of fun,” Sullivan said. “I grew up loving Arnold’s movies, and this is exactly the show I would have wanted to see him in. It’s already written. Shooting starts soon. No idea yet when it’ll be out.”
Looking back on his career to this point — from humble beginnings doing puppet shows to executive producing a hit Amazon show — Sullivan said there was one piece of advice he would give to aspiring screenwriters above all else: get your stories in front of people.
“You can only really learn what you need to know when you see an audience react to your work,” he said. “Everything I ever did — puppet shows, magic shows, radio, stand-up, acting, short films — put my words in front of people. I learned from their feedback. I think that’s why, when I finally focused on writing and made the move to Los Angeles, I was almost immediately successful.
“I was very lucky to have had people along the way give me the opportunity to try things and learn from both my successes and my mistakes. I wouldn’t trade my childhood in south-central Kentucky for anything in the world.”