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.
Monday, March 05, 2007
By Ken Levine at 10:57 PM