Astute television viewers have seen Neal Baer’s name in the opening credits of powerful dramas including “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU,” and “Under the Dome.” While he’s shepherded hundreds of hours of those shows through production and onto the air, Baer’s greatest triumph lies not solely in generating compelling content, but in how he’s used his storytelling skills to explore the human condition, uncovering difficult truths, including his own, along the way.
While for years he’s created multi-layered characters who are purposefully thrust into complicated situations, it wasn’t until recently that Baer confronted some complex matters within in his own personal life.
“It’s been a big exploration for me, a big journey,” explains Baer, as he discusses his decision to come out last year. “There are a lot of tough things about it, but this is what I’ve really wanted to do and I’m very happy to be living the life I want to live.”
Baer believes that his struggles with his identity as a youth, while confusing and painful at times, put him directly on the path that he were destined to travel, with some unexpected results.
“While it’s been difficult at times, I’m certainly happy with my experience,” reveals Baer.”It hasn’t been all negative because I really think that being able to process my own issues forced me to compensate in ways that were very positive. It’s very complex because I don’t know that I’d be the writer I am and accomplished what I have had I not gone through this journey.”
That evolution has also led Baer, who it must be noted is not only a prolific television writer but also a Harvard educated pediatrician, to have an empathy for young people that seems to have been heightened given his own experiences.
“There are a lot of people now who seem to have nothing but negative things to say about young people and I think it’s really wrong to generalize about the younger generation’s motivations and intentions,” says Baer emphatically. “What I see is a lot of ambitious young people who just don’t have that many opportunities to excel. When you’re young, you just don’t know how to curate your life in ways that you do when you’re older and so lots of things can happen that can lead someone astray.”
Baer’s work to help keep young people on the right track, particularly those in the LGBTQ community, has certainly not gone unnoticed.
Recently, Baer was honored by the Point Foundation, a leading organization focused on empowering promising LGBTQ students to achieve their full academic and leadership potential – despite the obstacles often put before them – to make a significant impact on society. Point Foundation promotes change through scholarship funding, mentorship, leadership development, and community service training.
Baer was given the Point Leadership Award, which is given to an individual who has achieved prominence in their professional career and unequivocally supported the LGBTQ community.
“I’m a pediatrician so my medical career has always been about taking care of youth, but on a deeper level I think that because of my own issues growing up, not being able to talk about or deal with it what I was going through, has really led me to want to dramatize this issues in a way that reaches out to people and lets them know that they’re not alone,” explains Baer.
Using television as a platform to reach the masses, Baer recalls many of the storylines that he’s created to educate and inspire. “I think that the outlet for me was my shows,” says Baer. “Starting with ‘ER,’ I told a lot of stories about gay youths who were homeless and on the street and things like that. I wanted to call attention to things that I thought were not being talked about. Also on ‘ER’ I introduced the character of Jeanie Boulet who was really the first HIV positive character on television. She became a role model for a lot of people by showing how to live life with the disease. We also had a very progressive storyline that involved a doctor who came out as a lesbian and that was something that just wasn’t done at that time.”
Even after leaving the medical drama and moving to work on the legal procedural drama, ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ Baer still found ways to explore the issues that matter most to him. “We did shows about transgender teens, closeted athletes, and African-American men who were hiding their sexuality by being ‘on the down low.’
Many of the storylines are youth oriented, says Baer, because, “issues with young people exploring their sexuality were just coming in the public consciousness at that time and I really felt that these were things that needed to be looked at from all angles. Fortunately, that’s kind of changed now and there’s more openness about these topics. I like to think that that’s because we were able to help start the conversations and make people feel more comfortable discussing these things.”
Baer’s commitment to youth comes from a genuine place of concern, evident when he explains, “I think I’m drawn toward wanting to help young people in their struggles because there wasn’t really anyone to help me. It was such a painful period of my life that I’m drawn to helping others through it.
In addition to the Point Foundation, Baer is active in several other entities that are structured to help shape the lives of young people.
Supporting an organization called College Track , which is a nonprofit Baer, explains that the group “is for kids who are economically disadvantaged. It’s a support and mentoring group to help them get into college and succeed.”
His work with the organization City Year Denver , an organization that recruits young adults to serve as full time tutors, mentors and role models in high-need Denver Schools, where Baer taught elementary school for time, garnered him another award recently for his contributions to the organization.
As the producer of the documentary “If You Build It ,” Baer has recently been traveling the country in support of the film , which highlights using design centered education to motivate and inspire high school students to not only stay in school but to use leaned building techniques to enhance their lives as well as their communities.
Also on Baer’s plate is working with The Global Media Center for Social Impact at UCLA to study determinates that can contribute to significant health issues. “We’re looking at immigration, economic factors, environmental exposure, climate change and things like that see how we can change treatment methodology to be more preventative and less reactive. For example, rather than looking at someone who comes in and they’re overweight with Type 2 Diabetes and it’s kind of too late, we want to be able to do something that puts a stop to it getting to that stage.”
All of this, and more, is in addition to Baer’s current on-air work which is overseeing the CBS drama “Under the Dome.”
As if Baer’s to-do list wasn’t already long enough, his second novel, “Kill Again,” a sequel to the successful “Kill Switch,” which is being turned into a feature film, will be out in the fall as will a non-fiction publication entitled simply “Soda,” a subject matter that given Baer’s commitment to health issues clearly needs no further explanation.
Asked how he stays active in all of these arenas, Bear responds, “For ‘Under the Dome’ we do 13 episodes instead of the traditional network model of 22 to 25, which I think allows us amp up the storytelling for our viewers, and personally it gives me a bit more time to do other things, and I can do a lot in those four months that I’m not working on the show.”
Aside from the time element, after what seems like an exhaustive career – medical school, residency, a cumulative nearly twenty years in television, as well as being an author and activist — how does Baer stay motivated to keep so many balls in the air? “I love to learn things. I love to share. That’s the teaching part of me,” responds Baer quickly in a very matter-of-fact way. But, digging a little deeper, he explains that the motivation to keep at all of it comes from a personal devotion that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even remotely aware of the themes contained within Baer’s work. “When I was young, it was such a painful period of my life that I’m drawn to helping others through it because there wasn’t really anyone there for me. I don’t want it to be like that for anyone else. That’s what keeps me going now and what will keep me doing all of this for as long as I can.”