Monday, March 05, 2007

Steve Gordon

From time to time I like to introduce you to comedy writers you may not know but whose work you probably admire. One such writer is Steve Gordon. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in November of 1982 at age 44. He is still one of my inspirations, and whenever I begin writing a screenplay I always reread one of his. It’s called ARTHUR.

For my money, nobody wrote sharper or funnier comic dialogue than Steve. His only other produced screenplay was THE ONE AND ONLY, which airs from time to time on HBO. It stars Henry Winkler as an narcissistic actor who becomes a TV wrestler in the early days of television. Like ARTHUR it’s brimming with wonderful lines.

And if you haven't seen ARTHUR starring Dudley Moore, I have just one made-up word for you: Netflix.

Steve started in advertising in the early 70’s. Feeling he could write a better play than the ones he saw, he banged out TOUGH TO GET HELP. In true storybook fashion it went straight to Broadway with Carl Reiner directing and John Amos starring. Okay, it closed in one night but still!

Through Reiner’s introductions, Gordon moved on to television, doing freelance episodes for shows you’ll never see again and within a couple of years created his own series, THE PRACTICE for NBC starring Danny Thomas (shown on the left). Picture Becker meets Uncle Tanoose. That’s where I first discovered Steve. The dialogue just crackled. My partner and I had just finished our first MASH and suddenly we were hot for five minutes. We pretty much had our pick of freelance assignments. And we chose THE PRACTICE.

Working with Steve we found him to be charming, incredibly funny, and maybe the most nervous intense human being I had ever met. Ohmygod! Two hours with him and I wanted to take up smoking. But it began a relationship that lasted until his death.

THE PRACTICE was cancelled in its second season. Next he created a series called GOODTIME HARRY about a womanizing sportswriter, starring Ted Bessell. It had Steve’s trademark brilliant dialogue but little network support. ABC scheduled it Saturday nights at 10:30. (If there’s a worse time slot for a comedy in the sixty year history of television I don’t know what it is. THE COSBY SHOW would have gotten a 2 share Saturday night at 10:30.)

You’re probably sensing a pattern. Terrific work. Fairy tale-like big breaks. Failure. Is it any wonder he made Richard Lewis seem mellow?

Steve turned to screenplays. The pattern continued. His very first script got produced (THE ONE AND ONLY) and did little at the boxoffice.

And then came ARTHUR. Breakthrough! It was the number four boxoffice hit of 1981. It earned Gordon an Academy Award nomination for screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for John Gielgud.

Steve was finally on his way. The hottest comedy writer and director in Hollywood. And then he died.

Some patterns are just hard to break.

I wish more of his scripts were available. If you have one, let me know. There is a special collection of his work at the University of Toledo but rarely will you see his name on TVLand. (I’m hoping that someday THE PRACTICE with Danny Thomas will resurface on DVD or at least on the Lebanese channel.) Steve gave me his original draft of ARTHUR, which I cherish to this day. Tomorrow, for the first time, I’ll share a scene that never made the movie. And hopefully you’ll miss Steve Gordon as much as I do.


VP19 said...

I had no idea Steve Gordon was behind "Good Time Harry," as I was one of the few people who actually watched the series -- and liked it a lot, perhaps because I was a sportswriter at the time, and thought it had a good feel for the atmosphere. (Bessell was pretty solid in the lead role, too.) In fact, I liked the show so much I wrote a column about it in the summer of '80 at the now-defunct Paterson News. I don't have a copy of the column, alas, but I do know the paper is on microfilm at the Rutgers University library and probably the Paterson library as well, if anyone's sufficiently interested.

Based upon that show, "Arthur," and "The Practice" (which seemed okay the few times I saw it), it's evident that Gordon had a real talent for writing, and it's a tragedy we lost him far too soon.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Ken, SG's work for "Lotsa Luck" and "Barney Miller" should be available now on DVD. (Unfortunately, though, cannot say the same for his own series.)

Rashad Khan said...

Sorry, the above comment was from yours truly.

Anonymous said...

This post is brilliant and I would appreciate more insights and background on other comedy writers you know and admire in the future, Ken. Thank you.

Willy B. Good said...

Great stuff Ken as I loved 'Arthur' a lot but until I read your blog had no idea about the writer so thanks for the info as he sounded a great guy as like the above anonymous comment said insights and background on other comedy writers (except Aaron Sorkin hehe )interest me too.

Wally said...

What a wonderful--and poignant--post. Thank you.

Herb Popsfarter said...

Wow - a heart attack at 44... that scares me because I'm 44.

(And clearly a hypochondriac)

My fave line from "Arthur" was
the, "...I'm going to to take a bath"

"I'll alert the media" line

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this blog. I get a chance to read remarkable writing, and the opportunity to learn much about an industry that has meant so much to me.

I am very grateful for your spirit of generosity and fun.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I sure miss Harry Chapin. Another great writer and soul lost too young.

Anonymous said...

Favorite Arthur lines:

"Steal something casual."

"I don't drink. It affects the ability to make decisons." "You might be right -- I can't decide."

Mr. Peel said...

A scene from Arthur that's not in the movie? Amazing!

My parents took me to see Arthur when I was ten. I always like to say that they only took me to see movies where the lead picks up a hooker in the first scene.

"Are you sure you want to be a nightclub comic?"

Hazel said...

The film is full of classics, but here's a cople of my favourites;

Susan: A real woman could stop you from drinking.
Arthur: It'd have to be a real BIG woman.

Arthur: Oh, please don't die anymore, it's getting very boring.

tb said...

The line that jumps into my head first from Arthur is Gielgud, in bed: "If I begin to die would you please take this silly hat off my head?"

addy said...

Best memories of Arthur is the scene on the street between Liza Minelli Gielgud and Dudley Moore. Her looks and the dialog are some of my favorite moments in a movie period. Wonderful stuff.
"Good Luck in prison"

ratskiwatski said...

"A hooker! I thought I was just doing great with you!"

cage free brown said...

I loved "the Practice"
I thought that was the role Danny Thomas was put on the earth to play and I guess I stand by that.

Poonster said...

A great understated line comes when Arthur breaks off the wedding and Susan screams "Daddy!" Her father stomps in. Earlier, he had told Arthur that when he was 12 and his family was desperately poor, a man had broken into their house to steal their food. Way back then, he'd picked up a knife and killed the man. Later, he told Arthur "I protect what's mine and I do it in an ugly way." Now - after beating the crap out of Arthur - he chased off his daughter and the bridesmaids, then lifted a knife out of the brick of cheese on a nearby table. Arthur turned to Liza-with-a-Z, who'd shown up to help him, "Do you think he wants some cheese?" L-W-A-Z "No, I don't think so!" Arthur "Me, either!"

Pure genius.

Barn.Door said...

I happen to live near Toledo. How would one find the collection at the university?

ET said...

Great review. Knew cousin Steve in high school and spent a lot of time with him at Ohio State. He kept us in stitches all the time. A true genius. What a tragedy to lose him so early in life.


Anonymous said...

Do you know where I can find a copy of the screenplay for Arthur? I'm a screenwriter myself, and I agree that Arthur truly is masterpiece of comedic writing. I actually found your blog whilst googling to find a copy of the script. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Is any of Steve Gordon's writing available anywhere in print or online? I laugh out loud every time I watch "Arthur." Truly a great talent who died too young.

I really would like to read as much of his work as possible. Any chance you could make available that first draft of Arthur?

Jack Byrne said...

I was Steve's "boss" for a short period at Jack Byrne Advertising. We hired Steve to help create a new image for Barney's which was going through a metamorphic endeavor. One commercial hit New Yorklike Arthur hit Hollywood, Steve called it Men of Destiny and it was the first retail and first non-national spot to be voted into the CLIO TV Hall of Fame. I am in process of my own True Confessions on a blog site soon to be indentified. It's exciting to write about Steve but not a tenth as exciting as when he wrote for me. He also worked with Steve Frankfurt on film promotionS like that for Rosemary's Baby. Best writer in Town. Jack Byrne

Sandy said...

Is it true that Steve Gordon was responsible for the classic Barney's television commercial showing young Fiorello LaGuardia, Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong and a young Barney? He was a wonderful writer.

greg6363 said...

I watched "Good Time Harry" as well. Actually, it was on NBC and was a rare (at the time) sitcom produced by Universal TV.

jim kosmicki said...

idjust watched "The One and Only" again from a pay-cable movie channel. I actually paid to see it in the theater when it came out (I would have been 14 or 15 at the time) and remembered it fondly. The balance is off a bit (the ending is rushed), but it held up well. I had never made the connection between this movie and "Arthur" before reading your post, but it does make sense.