Published Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rebecca Eaton didn’t have a specific career plan when she was growing up in California and spending summers on the coast of Maine. But she ended up with one of the more envious jobs in the entertainment business today: Executive producer of “Masterpiece” on PBS, the longest-running weekly primetime drama series in American television history and a showcase for such smash hits as “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock.” Eaton, who has a house in Kennebunkport, is modest about her position. She said that WGBH in Boston, where she works, is a minority partner in “The Masterpiece” productions. That means she’s “involved” in decisions on script and casting and… well, everything really. But she’s not necessarily the voice of final approval.

Still, being involved at a high level in something as hot and juicy as the British period drama “Downton Abbey” means that people invariably have a lot of questions for her.

She’ll be answering some of those questions on Saturday at Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport as the featured speaker at a fundraiser for River Tree Arts.

And she already knows what kind of questions to expect.

“The most frequent questions people ask, when it comes to ‘Downton Abbey,’ are, in terms of Matthew, ‘How could you do that?’,” said Eaton, 65, referring to the killing off of the dashing young Mr. Crawley at the end of season three. “It’s as if I had personally run him over.”

People also ask her things as simple as “when does the next season start?” (Jan. 5) and as complex as “What is Maggie Smith really like?”

“She is down to earth and is extremely hard-working. She almost never takes breaks between projects,” said Eaton, who has visited with actress Smith, who portrays Violet Crawley on the “Downton” estate set in England. “She’s wonderful, and the cast loves her. But it’s not like she does a lot of hanging about.”

Eaton doesn’t have a lot of time for “hanging about” either between supervising the acquisition of new “Masterpiece” series for coming years, and reviewing scripts and casts for ongoing series such as “Downton,” “Mr. Selfridge” and “Sherlock.”

She’s also writing a book, “Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS.” It’s due out in October from Viking Press.

But Eaton found time nonetheless to be the central attraction at the fundraiser for River Tree Arts, a 32-year-old non-profit arts center in Kennebunk.

Saturday’s festivities will begin at 4:30 p.m. at River Tree Arts, where Eaton will have tea with some of the group’s donors. The main fundraising event will begin at 6 p.m. at the stately Nonantum Inn, with a cocktail hour. Eaton will give her talk at 7 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer period.

Eaton has spent summers in Kennebunkport most of her adult life – after spending childhood summers on Little Cranberry Island near Acadia National Park – and owns a home in Kennebunkport as well.

The people who run River Tree Arts have known Eaton for years. When they started to think of ways to make up for the funding gaps hitting most non-profits today, somebody mentioned Eaton’s name as an area resident who would have some substantial drawing power.

“We all know she’s such a nice person and a person with a big interest in the arts, and we thought she’d be off the charts in terms of drawing people in,” said Andrea Mabee, a River Tree Arts board member. “We knew she was very busy, but we asked her, and she said she’d really love to help.”

Eaton said it was an easy decision.

“I absolutely believe in (River Tree Arts), and if I can do something that helps, I will,” she says.

In talking about “Masterpiece” and “Downton” for this story, Eaton apologized a few times for not being a little more forthcoming on details. With her book coming out in October, she said she didn’t want to spoil its impact.

For instance, she didn’t want to talk about the genesis of “Downton Abbey” too much – discussing how the project was first proposed or how it came together. But she can talk about cast members, locations and why she thinks the show has been so successful.

Eaton thinks the success of “Downton” starts with the fact that the saga springs from the imagination of one person (series creator Julian Fellowes), that the locations are beautiful, and that the cast and crew are top-notch.

The fact that each season is plotted out like one long show helps too.

“When you have something that long – 10 hours – with so many characters, it’s going to make a bigger splash. There’s more for people to care about,” Eaton said.

She can also talk about what’s real and what’s not in “Down-ton.” Some interior shots are actually inside the palatial structures you see on screen, while other interiors, such as the sitting room of Smith’s Dowager Countess, are simply constructed sets.

Eaton describes herself as a “bookworm” student, and said she went to college “just to go to college, with no sense of a career.” She graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1969 with a degree in English literature.

Within a few years, she was working at public TV station WGBH in Boston at a time when public television was still viewed as “educational” by most folks.

She produced shows such as “Zoom” and “Enterprise” before taking over “Masterpiece” and “Mystery!” in 1985. Some of her specific projects for those shows have included “Prime Suspect,” “Inspector Morse,” “Miss Marple” and “Little Dorrit.”

“Downtown Abbey” is the biggest hit of the series, and the third and latest season became the highest-rated PBS drama ever. The season finale episode was the top rated show on the Sunday night it aired, beating out all broadcast and cable competition in primetime.

Eaton said the best part of her job is reading the scripts and stories, and finding out what will happen next.

People often ask her what will happen next on their favorite show. But she knows, from years of experience and her own love of story, that they really don’t. At least, not too much. “They say they want to know what’s going to happen,” she said, “but they really don’t want spoilers.”