Saturday, April 11, 2009

Steve Gordon

Every couple of years I want to introduce or re-introduce you to 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 Gordon was a genius and continues to make me a better writer today.

48 comments:

Anonymous said...

RE: the late Mr. Gordon's ARTHUR contribution...

GREAT writing! Any fan of this movie who has seen it more than once will have their favorite lines... Some of mine...

"Will the more attractive of you please step forward." "Give her a $100 for coming in second." "I'll alert the media." Princess Gloria from a place so small that "Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it." "They recently had the entire country carpeted." "You're a hooker?!! I just thought I was doing great with you."

And many more too. Nice blog reminder and tribute to a talented writer Hollywood could sorely use again.

Steve Marshall said...

I remember thinking "who is this guy and where has he been" when I first saw "Arthur." All I could think of was, "I wanna write like that." I resolved to be on alert for when he had something coming out. Sadly, we were robbed of what should have been two or three more decades of laughs. He was to of the heap.

Tom Reeder said...

Steve Gordon wrote one of the very early episodes of Barney Miller, called "Experience". It originally aired in 1975, and it's possible to view it on IMDb.

Brian Garrison said...

Arthur is comedy gold. There are so many great lines, but the one I find myself quoting regularly is:

"Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature."

I lol'ed just typing it...

sephim said...

So who was responsible for ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS?

wv: saggies - Let's leave Liza out of this, shall we?

A. Buck Short said...

As Jack McFarland might have exclaimed somewhere between the moon and NYC, “Carole-Bayer-Sager-that-was-a-picture!” Was the Univ. of Toledo tied in with some kind of Danny Thomas collection, in recognition of the native son who took “Holy Toledo!” national? For some reason the one line I always think of from Uncle Tonoose, has Hans Conried in the middle of a call on a pay phone shouting, “Hurry up, I’m-a hots ina boots!” Thanks for reminding me I want to see Arthur again.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LouOCNY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LouOCNY said...

Um.....Mr Reeder....You might have noticed that Barney Miller Seasons 1-3 are on DVD..including YOUR third season BM masterpiece, "Hash"...an episode that is so insanely funny, it is almost exhausting. For years, all my late stepbrother and myself had to do was look at each other, and go 'mushy mushy' to crack each other up! When the DVD came out, I was fearful that it would not be as funny without certain 'enhancements' - but no fear, it was just as funny now as it was before!

And yes, Arthur is a gem, and too bad he did not have a chance to do more work like it...

wv 'moutecab' - a French taxi powered by a gas engine

Mac said...

I can crack my brother up any time with, "oh, you're a hedge!"

JGCii said...

I can still make my sister crack up with the line, spoken in my best British accent, "Bitterman! I fell out of the goddamned car! Isn't that the funniest thing ever?"

or

"My husband has a gun !"

And one I still use: "Aw, you're a hedge.

WV: spirmogr -- Shrek's night job.

JGCii said...

Mac and I appear to be on a similar wavelength. (Waves to Mac.)

Max Clarke said...

"If she murdered the tie, it would be a perfect crime."

Arthur is easily one of the smartest movies ever written. After the movie hit it big, people were quoting it the way they quoted Star Wars or Caddyshack.

That first scene between Arthur and Linda was symbolic in a very practical way. What ties these two strangers together is a tie. Very smart, and easy to shoplift.

Anonymous said...

Theee words: "Steal something casual."

Graham Powell said...

My favorite line in ARTHUR is not funny: "My father died recently." A terrific movie.

Anonymous said...

"Arthur, I see no reason for prolonging this conversation - unless you plan on knocking over a fruit stand later this afternoon."

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, Ken. "Arthur" deserves to be in the top ten comedies of all time. Thanks for the wonderful tribute of a great writer... who should never be forgotten.
F.J.

Wayne said...

I like to think the American who wrote Arthur is up in the clouds sharing a cocktail with the Brit who wrote Jeeves.

J S Swanson said...

Experience is also available on Hulu. I'm going to watch it now. Thanks everyone for reminding us all of this man's wonderful contributions

michael said...

I was a TV critic during the Steve Gordon era. I still consider "Good Time Harry" one of the best TV comedies ever made. BTW, wasn't it on NBC not ABC? If I remember right, the show got buried because the star Ted Bissel("That Girl") and NBC hated each other.

I have always wondered if a story I had read about Steve Gordon's death was true. Every writer has a dream project. A story we want to write. After the success of "Arthur" a studio approved Gordon's dream project. Just before filming was to begin Steve Gordon died. If true, that is a script I want to find

J S Swanson said...

As it turns out Amazon has a VOD component - who knew? - and you can watch Arthur there for $2.99

Joe said...

I actually saw The One and Only in the theatres. Mostly because "Fonzie was in it" and I was a big fan of that, but still.

Hilarious.

Brian Doan said...

Arthur is extremely funny, but what I always remember is how sweet it is-- how its ribald jokes mix with brilliant, good-natured observations about its very human characters-- a mixture as kicky as one of Arthur's cocktails.

And while i don't know a lot about its production, it just fits that cast so well-- I don't know if Gordon wrote it for Moore or not, but the dialogue just falls so naturally from his mouth, and Gielgud's, and Minnelli's. So, so well-written.

wv: "guncar"-- what Dick Cheney drives on vacations.

VP81955 said...

I was a sportswriter when "Good Time Harry" in August 1980, and recall writing a column praising the show as a relatively accurate (and funny) description of the sportswriting life. I wasn't aware Steve Gordon had anything to do with the series.

The paper I worked for, the Paterson News, outlived Steve by less than four years; I had left in 1981, and was frankly surprised to learn it had lasted that long.

wv: "catou" -- a libertarian institute with pretensions.

Sean Dulaney said...

As a young wrestling fan, The One and Only was a favorite when I discovered it on ABC's ________ Night At The Movies. Then in grade school band, the theme was one of those songs we always brought out for concerts and competition. Would love to see it come out on DVD.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

"This is a robe. Please put it on."

I guess I was always destined to love "Arthur." When I was little, I liked the Christopher Cross song, but never knew who sang it, until I got older and unsettlingly obsessed with movies, watching everything in sight.

Then came the endless love for the script, buying the movie on DVD, and finally, years ago, before Gulstream Park in Hallandale, Florida was completely revamped, seeing Christopher Cross in concert and having him autograph my DVD case. Even though I'm a stickler for widescreen, I don't mind "Arthur" being in fullscreen that way because the script and the performances have always been infinitely more important than any technical nitpicking.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Arthur is extremely funny, but what I always remember is how sweet it is-- how its ribald jokes mix with brilliant, good-natured observations about its very human characters-- a mixture as kicky as one of Arthur's cocktails.

This brings to mind the moments when Arthur is irredeemably drunk, and then comes the scene in the flower shop with Lou Jacobi. Steve Gordon made it work so well.

smallville91505 said...

I remember Practice and Good Time Harry! Didn't know they were "related" to Arthur!

Little, little known fact: for a short time, Seinfeld's first four episodes were going to be scheduled for Saturday, 10:30pm in June 1990. Fortunately, they flipped the show with Robert Hays' sitcom, FM and Seinfeld got to follow Cheers for four weeks on Thursdays at 9:30. Whew, that was a close one!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you all realize this, but none of the quotes I found here were funny. I undestand it's a context problem, but every single one of them? really?

I'm curious tho.

Tom K. Mason said...

Arthur is a movie that's so well-written even Liza can't ruin it - though she tries.

I watch it every chance I get - great roles for Dudley Moore and John Gielgud. But I can't stand the Christopher Cross theme song - it screams "Lifetime movie" to me.

wv: kingly - it's too easy.

Lee Ann said...

I love 'Arthur'. The line 'Don't you hate Perry's wife?!' always makes me laugh---it's the type of film that would never get produced today. I don't think the sequel will even come close.

Lisa said...

Thanks for remembering Steve Gordon. You don't even need to see Arthur to crack up at the dialogue; just reading the screenplay would do it. Others here have quoted some of my favorite lines, but I also love the moment when Arthur and Susan are at the restaurant, and he says "Susan?" And she answers: "Yes, Arthur?" And you think he's going to say something tender, but he just barks, "You're such an asshole!" Her reaction is even better. She just smiles and swallows her wine. Like so much of the dialogue, it catches you completely off guard. That's what makes Arthur so great!

Lisa said...

Thanks for remembering Steve Gordon. You don't even need to see Arthur to crack up at the dialogue; just reading the screenplay would do it. Others here have quoted some of my favorite lines, but I also love the moment when Arthur and Susan are at the restaurant, and he says "Susan?" And she answers: "Yes, Arthur?" And you think he's going to say something tender, but he just barks, "You're such an asshole!" Her reaction is even better. She just smiles and swallows her wine. Like so much of the dialogue, it catches you completely off guard. That's what makes Arthur so great!

Greenwald said...

I just came from the remake of Arthur with Russell Brand. Not a horrible film, but clearly inferior to the original. I googled Steve Gordon's name while sitting in the theatre, (no worries about disturbing the only other two sleeing people) and I found this site. Thank you Mr. Levine for remembering Steve Gordon. He was a great talent as are you. I look forward to your next project.

Anonymous said...

niece of Steve Gordon
Trying to get copies of Good Time Harry. Now that the Arthur remake came out my kids want copies of all his work.

Anonymous said...

I am the niece of Steve Gordon and prefer to remain anonymous. I am trying to get a collection of all his work both advertising and T.V./screen writing. I had lunch with him in NYC with his girlfriend Julia one hour before he died. After the funeral in Toledo, they had some kind of service in NYC to honor him at the museum of broadcasting(?),they showed all his advertising work at that time.
Is there anyway to get this done.

FF said...

Ken~

What a great tribute to Steve Gordon. Arthur is a classic. I am embarrassed to admit this, really I am, but here it goes: a few months ago I caught up with one of my childhood memories, one of my first movies I got to see with friends was "The One and Only".
It was only at the end of the film did I see it was written by Steve Gordon and my mouth just dropped. Fave line there "boy you sure can take the shape outta that towel" (quoting from memory). Anyway, thank you for making me smile with this article.

Joe Clark

Pearl said...

Thanks so much for remembering my Uncle Steve. I was having lunch with him and his girlfriend Julia an hour before he died.
In response to his final script, we do not have it. Upon his death my father got all his material and that was not there. Everything we got was donated to the University of Toledo.
I am trying to find his television shows and many of them cannot be found. Does anyone have a copy of Good Time Harry

Patrick Stibbs said...

Pearl-

I am with the American Advertising Federation Omaha and we are hosting a 30th Anniversary screening of "Arthur" in July and we are dedicating the night to Steve.

Will you please contact me? I would love to speak with you about your uncle.

Thank you!

Patrick Stibbs
On the Spot Productions
402.213.3132
patrick@onthespotradio.com
www.onthespotradio.com

Batman said...

My favorite line out of many...Is this a joke? Are these girls polish?

Si Leung said...

I've always wanted to know more about the 'Arthur author' so thank you Mr Levine for making the effort in doing this.

Arthur has always been one of my favourite films! I've probably watched it more than any other film - and believe me, I've watched a lot of films! Why do I enjoy it so much? Not only is it very funny (very!) and brilliantly acted by the great late Dudley Moore but it also contains its fair share of love and sadness - like life.

"Sometimes I just think funny things" - bless both Dudley Moore and Steve Gordon for giving us such a delight to enjoy in so many ways.

Simon Leung, Cheltenham, UK.

Stevesmid said...

"Arthur, a real woman could stop you from drinking."

"It would have to be a real big woman."

I recently got a copy of Arthur for a friend who had only seen the Indian remake. Afterwards, we quoted lines and laughed for an hour.

The mention of a lost script, and a dream project no less, is very intriging.

Someone find it and make the movie!

Raphael Adams said...

I've worked in advertising in Toronto for over 30 years. Whenever we would talk about our favorite spots, I would always mention the Barney's ad from the 70's. It was a great concept with five young boys hanging around an apartment stoop talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. There was Casey Stengal, Humphrey Bogart, Fiorello Laguardia and Louis Armstrong. Then they say to a nattily dressed boy "Barney, what are you gonna be?" And Barney says "Well you're gonna need clothes." A nice idea, but then came the tag line which to this day makes me shake with its sheer brilliance. "Barney's. Even then he knew."
Those 4 electrifying words are, in my mind, the best tag line ever created.
I ran across the credits for the ad on a website tonight and then Googled "Steve Gordon" to see who this person was who could create this line.

It was a bittersweet discovery. I'm glad he wasn't a hack junior copywriter who lucked into his 15 minutes and then disappeared. It's clear from his subsequent work that he was very talented and 'even then he knew' wasn't a lucky shot.

But of course it's sad to hear that he died so young. It's amazing and gratifying that there are people who still remember him. He must have been special.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts.

Todd DeMartinis said...

Mr. Levine! Thank you for your tribute to Mr. Gordon. Coming from a writer who himself was once called a "genius" if only he would "leave the bottle behind him," I have a special love for this almost tragically forgotten man. I've since forgiven my mother's note to my industrial arts teacher, but I can't shake this man. I want to know more, but your essay is the only solace on the Web. So many discount "Arthur." I think of it as a perfect film. Sublime cast aside, it's all about this man - here as writer and director. To the chagrin of my one close friend, I pause the film after every other line, and say, " How Buddhist is that one?" "Look at how he sums up the human dilemma here with economy of words." "My God, how funny and sad in the same breath." This reminds me it's time to feed Bullseye. ... I would argue "Arthur" is only a comedy because Mr. Gordon was effortlessly funny. Many are jealous of that kind of talent. It is, to me, a master stroke of story telling. In this case, one about life, loss, and the fear of engaging in life at all. ... I want to know everything about this explosion of life matter that happened to embody this guy named Steve Gordon. Please write more about him? Tell us more about you, too. Thank you. Very sincerely. Todd DeMartinis ... "What's so funny?" ... "I sometimes just *think* funny things!" ... Thankfully, he sure as hell shared so much of it. Much love and thanks for remembering and treasuring this special soul.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jesus, you're the Ken Levine of Cheers. Please forgive my writing before reading the bio. I have all 11 seasons in front of me. Eight wonderfully packaged. The last three in cheaply produced cases as if to say they're out of that biz and we're lucky to get the finished set. I'm a huge fan. Your name against the Pru in the opening establishing shots. Means all the more this tribute came from a guy with the true goods.

Bernard P said...

I've recently introduced my daughter, 15, to this movie and I have to say I'm strangely moved to tears each time I watch it (which I have to hide).

She loves it and it is so touchingly made and written.

I too am honouring Steve Gordon. Rest in peace you precious man and may your work inspire others to reclaim the screen from crass and shallow work.

Thank you.

Greg Mangus said...

I, until recently, thought Blake Edwards wrote and directed my favorite movie, "Arthur." Shame on me. I then found the story of S.Gordon. Thank you Ken for writing about him. "Arthur" has touched my life the way a great novel does and reminds me of my Father(God Bless'Em)a lot, it's even the reason I moved to New York City in the 80s! So much heart and class, Anyone know where I can find a copy of his play? Cheers

Pauly said...

Well, I don't want to turn this into a one-liner re-hash of this killer movie, (maybe Steve actually laughed himself to death, anybody think of that??) but when Susan says: "Arthur, take my hand" and he says: "But that would leave you with one!" I about pee my pants! ~ The best!!
Paul