Originally published on Advocate.com February 03 2004 12:00 AM ET
Real World cocreator dies
Mary-Ellis Bunim, a pioneering reality TV producer who cocreated MTV's The Real World and other influential unscripted programs, has died of breast cancer in Los Angeles. She was 57. With Jonathan Murray, her out partner in the Bunim-Murray Productions banner, Bunim produced a number of top reality series, including Fox's recent hit The Simple Life, a Green Acres-esque vehicle featuring socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and their adventures on an Arkansas farm. Bunim, who died Thursday, helped launch the current wave of reality programming with the 1992 debut of Real World, which focused cameras on a diverse group of seven young adults who agreed to live together and let producers document their daily lives. The series has become a signature franchise for MTV and is now in its 14th season.
"She had a great sense of character, and it showed in the casting on Real World," said Brian Graden, out entertainment president at MTV and VH1. "She had great insight and could forecast the stories that might play out in these people's lives. They were also absolutely pioneers of diversity and showing how people learn by interacting with one another and being with people who are different than themselves," he added, citing the cultural significance of Real World, including an HIV-positive gay man, Pedro Zamora, in its 1994 edition.
The idea for Real World grew in part out of Bunim's earlier work as an executive producer of such network soap operas as Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Santa Barbara, and Loving. In 1987, Bunim partnered with Murray at the suggestion of their mutual friend, Mark Itkin of the William Morris Agency. Murray's background in news made him interested in chronicling the coming-of-age struggles of youth, while Bunim brought a keen sense of what would make for intriguing drama gleaned from the hours and hours of footage collected. "Mary-Ellis was a one-in-a-million partner and friend, and I will always treasure our incredible years of collaboration," Murray said. "We will honor her memory by remaining committed to her ideals of creativity, adventure, and excellence, both on the screen and in our lives." Itkin called Bunim "a lovely person and a class act." Bunim was born in Northampton, Mass. After a successful run in soaps, she worked in the mid 1980s as an executive at New World Entertainment, where she developed a range of daytime, late-night, and children's programs.
In addition to Simple Life, Bunim-Murray's active production slate includes the drama Starting Over, distributed by NBC Enterprises Domestic Syndication, which follows the lives of a group of women whose lives are at a crossroads. "Mary-Ellis was a true visionary in our business," NBC Enterprises president Ed Wilson said. "She was a true professional who not only cared about the product she put up on the screen but also those she worked with." Bunim is survived by her daughter, Juliana. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Bunim's name to the Washington-based National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund.