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TV stars and execs trailed by tales of on-set bullying

Lea Michele (pictured with Cory Monteith in an episode of "Glee") has been accused of abusing power and threatening to have people fired on the set of "Glee" and on Broadway.Adam Rose/FOX

Social media keeps opening windows onto how power is deployed behind the scenes on TV sets, and the view is often not pretty.

One recent instance is “Boy Meets World,” a popular ABC sitcom that ran from 1993-2000). The chief protagonist was Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) whom we watch progress from early adolescence into adulthood. A key character in his life, and in the series, is Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel), Cory’s girlfriend.

Fishel recently shared her recollections of her first day on the set, and they were not happy ones.

Speaking on an episode of the “Pod Meets World” podcast, Fishel said that Michael Jacobs, creator of “Boy Meets World,” was unhappy with her performance on the first day of rehearsals and proceeded to humiliate her in front of the rest of the cast, then threatened to fire her. Fishel was all of 12 years old at the time.


According to Fishel, at a post-rehearsal notes session for the cast and writers, Jacobs told her that “if I made everyone sit here through all of the notes I had for you, we would all be here for hours and no one would ever get to go home. So you’re just going to wait for the end.”

Recalled Fishel: “From that moment on, my eyes welled up because you know, I’m now in front of everybody — all the producers, all the writers, all the cast, and all eyes are on me for a second.” Afterward, she said, Jacobs said to her that “if you don’t come back tomorrow doing this entirely differently,” she would be fired.

If the power imbalance between a TV producer and a child actor is pronounced, so is the one between a star and a supporting actor.

Consider the case of Lea Michele, whose past treatment of colleagues has been a hot topic lately on Twitter. The recent news that Michele would replace Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice in the Broadway production of “Funny Girl” revived allegations about Michele’s toxic on-set behavior when she was a star of Fox’s “Glee” (2009-15).


Two years ago, Michele tweeted about George Floyd with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, prompting a scorching tweet to her from “Glee” castmate Samantha Marie Ware, who is Black. “Remember when you made my first television gig a living hell?!?! Cause I’ll never forget. I believe you told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would ‘[expletive] in my wig!’, amongst other traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.’’

Michele apologized on Instagram, saying: “While I don’t remember ever making this specific statement and I have never judged others by their background or color of their skin, that’s not really the point. What matters is that I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.”

But the floodgates had opened. Gerard Canonico, a member of the ensemble in the 2006, Michele-starring Broadway production of the musical “Spring Awakening,” responded to her Instagram apology with: “You were nothing but a nightmare to me and fellow understudy cast members. You made us feel like we didn’t belong there. … Maybe actually apologize instead of placing the blame on how others ‘perceive’ you.”

In an interview following her tweet, Ware told Variety that one day during a taping of “Glee” Michele “publicly humiliated me in front of a crowd of extras and dancers” and threatened to “call Ryan Murphy in to come and fire me.” Another “Glee” cast member, Heather Morris, tweeted of Michele: “Was she unpleasant to work with? Very much so; for Lea to treat others with the disrespect that she did for as long as she did, I believe she should be called out.”


How long? Well, Variety reported that a “former child actress who worked with Michele on Broadway in the ‘90s” wrote on social media that “she demeaned the crew and threatened to have people fired if she was in any way displeased. … She was terrifying.”

Now Michele is headed back to Broadway, slated to begin performances in “Funny Girl” next month, and not exactly riding a wave of goodwill.

There’s an old saying: “Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll meet them on your way down.”

For TV stars and executives in the age of social media, a corollary might be: “Be nice to people when you’re on top, because if you’re not, sooner or later they’re bound to tell the whole world about it.”

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.