A Career that was Manifest
Laura Putney ’92 has all the paints and brushes.
By Will Rothschild
Even for someone who gets paid to create storylines that twist and turn, that leave people hanging in suspense or, every now and then, deliver a happy ending, Laura Putney ’92 never would have come up with a birthday present like this. A screenwriter in Los Angeles, Putney relishes a career that allows her to be endlessly creative, building characters, scenes, plots – entire worlds.
“Every day,” Putney says, “I’m improvising a scene in my head – what would this person say, what would this person do next? It’s just endlessly creative. It’s so fun. It really is the best job.”
With a number of acting and writing credits to her name, Putney is perhaps most known for her producer-writer role on “Manifest,” a series about a commercial plane that takes off, goes missing and then mysteriously lands five years later with all 191 people aboard alive, well and the same age they were when the plane took off. The series first aired on NBC for three seasons starting in 2018, was canceled, then found a second life on Netflix, where it was the streaming giant’s No. 1 show for several weeks in 2021.
At the same time, a massive, organic Twitter campaign – #SaveManifest – took off. Eventually, the popularity of the show on Netflix was too much for network executives to ignore, and the show was greenlit, this time by Netflix instead of NBC, for a fourth season. News of that decision broke on Aug. 28 – Putney’s birthday. Calling it a “Manifest miracle,” Putney celebrated by heading back into the “Manifest” writers room to collaborate with her fellow writers on the 20 episodes that will make up the show’s final season.
Head writers Putney and her writing partner Margaret Easley are responsible for crafting the storylines of every episode. Finding her way into that room was anything but a straight line for Putney. After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in history from Furman, Putney attended Harvard Law School. She completed her law degree in 1995 and went to work for a firm in Atlanta before moving to a New York City firm a year later.
Throughout three years of law school and even as she was building a successful career as an attorney, she kept nurturing a passion for acting. At Harvard, she earned roles in several law school drama society productions, including “The Crucible.” She later directed a musical there, which is how she met her husband. And she took acting classes in her spare time as an attorney in New York.
“I just kept doing things in that world,” Putney says. Though she had been active in theater throughout high school, Furman was the place where that passion really blossomed when she found a group of like-minded students. What they created together became one of the foundational pieces of Putney’s career. “The most important part of Furman for me was Idiom Savant, which was an improv-comedy troupe a few people had started,” Putney says. “Being a part of that was everything to me.”
Jerry Salley ’90, now senior writer in University Communications at Furman, was one of the founders of Idiom Savant. Mark Allen ’90 and Chris White ’92 were also in the group.
Salley remembers being struck by Putney’s acting and comedic chops.
“I had written mostly some sketch comedy stuff and was looking around for people to help me stage it,” Salley says. “Laura was in The Playhouse doing a one-act play, and I was really impressed by her talent and energy and then when I got to know her as a person, I thought that this is someone I can really work with.”
Years later, Idiom Savant remains a touchstone not only for those who were involved in the productions, but also for many of the students who were on campus during those years. A 25th anniversary show during Furman Homecoming in 2017 packed the room at The Velo Fellow in downtown Greenville.
Becoming a writer
Putney cherishes her Idiom Savant days and has a solid list of professional acting credits to her name, including on shows such as “ER” and “JAG.” And Salley describes her as a natural comic – “one of the funniest people I know” – and a gifted improv actor. She first moved with her husband, Jamie Feldman, to Los Angeles in 2001.
He wanted to pursue a career as an entertainment lawyer, while she initially took a sabbatical to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time actor. Eventually, her firm persuaded her to continue to practice law part time, which she did for nearly 15 years. She still has a love for acting, but she eventually found the writers room to be her real home.
“I found a company here that I started doing sketch comedy with again,” Putney says. “And they required you to write. This place was like, ‘If you want to be in the company, you have to write sketches.’ So I figured it out, and I started to get better at it.”
It was then that Putney met Margaret Easley, another writer and former actress. The two started writing together and eventually decided they wanted to write something longer than comedy sketches. The two got hired to write full time on the NBC show “Mysteries of Laura” and then went on to “Lethal Weapon” and “Life Sentence.”
“I discovered that writing is unbelievably creatively fulfilling, and it’s where I should have been all along, I just didn’t know it,” Putney says. “As an actor, you already know what they say and what they do, and you can only impact how they say it or how they do it. That can be a very limited palette. As writers, our palette is the blank canvas, and we have all the paints and brushes.”
In late 2021, Putney and Easley sold a pilot to ABC based on the book, “Catching Babies,” about a brother and sister who are both doctors in a maternal/fetal and family medicine ward. The writers also sold a legal dramedy pilot to Warner Bros. about a divorce lawyer who moves from New York back to her hometown in Montana. It’s based on Putney’s experience as a New York lawyer and her writing partner’s experience moving to Red Lodge, Montana, amid the pandemic.
A welcome push
While the Idiom Savant experience fueled her love for drama, Putney credits some of her Furman professors, Judith Bainbridge, Willard Pate and Marian Strobel, the William Montgomery Burnett Professor of History, for pushing her to become a better writer. Strobel and Putney remain close. When Putney turned 50 last year, Strobel attended her birthday party via Zoom.
“I remember Laura as a student being very innovative and bursting with ideas,” Strobel says. “I could see her love of theater and writing then, and I am so glad she is continuing with her passion. I think a big part of what we should try to do is to help students develop confidence. Let’s find what you’re good at. Laura has certainly done that.”