Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The great thing about Hollywood is that everybody has these them. If you’ve been in the business eleven minutes you have a story. Here’s one of my early ones.
My writing partner, David and I had just completed our first sold script – THE JEFFERSONS. We had new agents who were trying to get us meetings on other shows. In those days you were a freelance writer until, with luck, you graduated to a staff position. But you could make a living being a staff writer. Okay, well… not a great one. Assignments were combined with drawing unemployment. Our agents wisely recommended we register at the Hollywood branch because they were used to entertainment people. They understood the business. They weren’t going to say to someone, “Well, did you TRY to get a parade hosting job this week?” The cool thing about the Hollywood unemployment office was that every two weeks when you went in for your check, you stood in line with some of Hollywood’s great character actors and comics. It was like a second banana convention.
But all the while our agents were submitting our material and hoping producers would invite us in to pitch story ideas for their series. We were sort of fortunate. Fortunate in the sense that we got a bunch of meetings and pitched a lot of shows; not fortunate in that we didn’t get a lot of these assignments.
These meetings were usually the same. We’d go to the studio, meet the producer or story editor in his office, and if it was a show already on the air, we’d have six or eight story ideas ready to pitch. If it was a new show that hadn’t yet debuted, they’d tell us about it and usually park us in a room to watch the pilot and one or two episodes. We’d then come back with story ideas.
So we get a call one morning in August from our agents that there’s this new show set to premiere in the fall and they want to meet with us. We were thrilled. At that point in our career we were thrilled with anything – even a show we had never heard of. The producer wants to meet with us. Right away that’s a good sign. Usually, lower level staff members like story editors handled the grunt work of listening to freelance pitches. Rarely did the producer himself want to meet with us.
We did not know this producer but recognized the name. In those days we studied every show and could tell you the writing staff of every series. We knew which freelancers got what assignments. We were the Bill James of sitcoms.
Our agents said he wants us to meet him at 8:30 AM. Okay. A little weird but probably that means a breakfast meeting. So where do we meet him? The studio? A restaurant? No. His house. Ohhh-kay.
He lived up in Bel Air on Blue Jay Way. Finding it was a bitch. There were no GPS systems then and we were fumbling around with the Thomas Guide. Finally, we found it, way up in the hills.
We ring the bell and a butler answers. He’s in a white dinner jacket, wearing gloves. What the fuck? He escorts us into the living room. Do we want a drink? At 8:30 in the morning? No. He gives us that “suit yourself” nod and moves on.
We sit for ten uncomfortable minutes wondering “now what?”, and the doorbell rings again. The butler ushers in another writer. This guy is probably 70. We had never heard of him, and again, we knew who wrote the fifth episode of MR. PEEPERS. He too was offered a drink. He requested a scotch.
Five more uncomfortable minutes chatting with this old guy, and then the doorbell rings again. This time it was a writer, who again to my knowledge had no credits, but him we recognized. He hosted a humiliating show on the public access channel. We would watch this idiot and just howl. I don’t even remember what his topic was but among the colorful public access crazies he ranked right up there with “Karen’s Restaurant Review”. He ordered a martini.
Eventually the producer made his grand entrance. Mid-50s, trim, wearing a blue velor shirt and black dicky. Imagine a cross between Steven Bocho and Mr. Spock. He shared a few introductory words. He had read and considered many writers but we were the three that really impressed him. Great. Us, a guy who’s a hundred, and a clown.
He invited us to watch the pilot and come back with story ideas. He said nothing else about the series. Nothing about what they were looking for, what their timetable was, nothing. Then he turned on the TV, hit play, left the room, and was never seen again.
The pilot was awful. Truly terrible. Public access guy is spilling the martini on himself he’s laughing so hard. I so regretted not ordering a drink.
The pilot ends. And now… nothing? No producer, no butler. So we just found our way to the front door and left.
Our agent called later in the day and said the producer really liked us. Based on what? We never spoke to him.
Anyway, we came up with a bunch of ideas (which was like pulling teeth) and before we could go in to pitch them, the network canceled the show. Even before a single episode aired. Now that they had seen episode two and three they realized, “We can’t air this. EVER.”
We never heard from that producer or any of those other writers again. The butler probably went on to have a robust career.
By Ken Levine at 6:55 AM