Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One of those real "Hollywood" stories


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.

16 comments:

Troy said...

Great story.

I can relate to your encyclopedic knowledge of writer credits while early in your career, because I had a similar mental Rolodex for sitcom writers of the 80's (including you and Isaacs).

I can also relate to taking any lead you could get.

For me, I used attendance at live tapings as inspriation to write on spec. And I spec-ed everything.

As an example of personal desperation, I actually had tickets in hand for "The Return of Punky Brewster" - not the orignal NBC sitcom, but the later syndicated version - when the heavens finally intervened and something better actually came along.

And you had "M*A*S*H".

Could you ever have guessed where you would be in such a short interval of time as you sat there in your Mornng Martini Meeting?

VP81955 said...

You couldn't find Blue Jay Way? Was there a fog upon LA? (Or couldn't you meet any Beatles fan who would have given you directions?)

Well, simply be thankful you didn't end up like Joe Gillis; it's difficult to blog when you're in a pool.

Hollywoodaholic said...

Eventually, all us freelancers realized the Santa Monica unemployement office was the place to be. Besides all the beautiful actresses that showed up there (Hollywood was far too scary), the beach was a couple blocks away for perfecting your tan or body surfing afterwards.

I remember going in there once and a staffer asking the congregation how many Writer's Guild, how many SAG, how many DGA. By that time, all the hands had gone up. There WERE no civilians in there.

chuckcd said...

I have something similar. I had an interview with the Producer of the TV show "Riptide". Things went well.
I was told to call his assistant the next day to fill out the hiring paperwork! Great!
So I call the assistant, but I cannot get through. I tried several days in a row. Nothing. I tried to contact the producer again. Still nothing.
Never did get that gig, or find out what happened to it.
So the job just vaporized, or someone's nephew needed a job.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Wonderful story, but check that first sentence again.

Troy said...

@chuckcd:

"RIPTIDE"?

That would have been a dream assignment!

I used to live in the South Bay. One day I went down to Redondo Beach and they were shooting an episode of "RIPTIDE". I was so jazzed I asked a guy on one of the grip trucks if he had an episode script. Incredibly, he did...

...but wouldn't show it to me.

I couldn't even get past the guy in charge of C-stands!

AGGGHHHHH!

Troy

P.S. "RIPTIDE" spec? Check.

Paul Duca said...

Coincidence that you mention and show Mr. Spock....I just happened to check out Kelsey Grammar's new gig--narrating the new season of the PBS series PIONEERS OF TELEVISION. The subject of the first show is science fiction, with profiles of Gene Roddenberry, Irwin Allen and Rod Serling.

(try this for your alternate universe...STAR TREK, starring Jack Lord as Capt. Kirk and Martin Landau as Spock--Roddenberry wanted Lord to replace Jeffrey Hunter in the second pilot, but the two couldn't agree on a contract, while Landau turned him down flat).

Max Clarke said...

Blue Jay Way? I too thought this would be a Beatles story, how did I miss the signs?

Creepy story, but at least his behavior matched the fate of the series.

For strange meetings with producers, I still like the time you and David went to the home of Alan Ladd Jr, I think it was. Face covered with a white creme, the two of you drunk because of the bottle of wine he'd left? Something about flamingos? Now THAT was a non-creepy story.

coste said...

Max, it was Allan Carr.

Hey, chuckcd, a good friend of mine was a producer on RIPTIDE, but I doubt he was the guy you met with. Really doesn't sound like something he'd do. I met most of the cast of the show at one of those Hollywood Collectors shows last year; seemed like a fun bunch.

jbryant said...

Heh -- previous post was me. "Coste" was my verification word; guess I put it in the wrong slot (that's what she said).

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

Jbryant/Coste,

Yes, it was Allen Carr, thanks.

I remembered the cold cream on his face, forgot the name under the cold cream...on his face.

LouOCNY said...

(try this for your alternate universe...STAR TREK, starring Jack Lord as Capt. Kirk and Martin Landau as Spock--Roddenberry wanted Lord to replace Jeffrey Hunter in the second pilot, but the two couldn't agree on a contract, while Landau turned him down flat).

There are many myths...half truths...and just plain rumors about the TREK casting - especially when it comes Spock for some reason.

Dorothy Fontana, who was one of Trek's great writers and was also the story editor in its greatest period of time, initially worked for Roddenberry as his secretary on THE LIEUTENANT, and when it was pretty obvious that show would not be getting picked up for a second season, she saw one of his first outlines for Trek. She really liked it, and asked him who was he thinking of for the 'Spock' character, his answer was simple: Leonard Nimoy, who had just guested on THE LIEUTENANT. Apparently when Roddenberry had seen him, he literally immediately thought of him as having a great alien look.

How Martin Landau ever entered the story is not clear. Herb Solow, the Desilu exec in charge of Trek (and MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE too, btw)never mentions the Landau in the book him and Trek producer Bob Justman wrote a few years back. This book (INSIDE STAR TREK)is THE best behind the scenes look at Trek, as it was written by people who were actually THERE when these decisions were made.

wolferiver said...

I just saw the PBS piece on early scifi shows on TV, and that Martin Landau story came directly from the mouth of Martin Landau, who was interviewed about being offered the role of Spock. (He said that he didn't see an creative possibilities with the character and turned it down.) While I can't say your version of how Spock came to be cast is incorrect, I would venture to say that it's somewhat of a stretch to think that Mr. Landau's version is a complete fabrication. I would, however, believe that Mr. Nimoy might have been Roddenberry's first choice, but perhaps the Suits wanted Mr. Landau for the role.

(Far more fascinating was Ms. Nichols story that Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged her to stay on with the cast just as she was thinking of leaving the show. Who could imagine that Martin Luther King Jr. was a trekkie?)

Maryanne said...

didn't george harrison write the song after his time spent in a home on blue jay way..

Don-O said...

I'm leaving a comment here well beyond the expiration date because I Googled 'Karen's Restaurant Review' out of boredom and this page popped up. Looks like I'm not the only one who still remembers the show and her pointless ranting (and the occasional guest, which included Moon Zappa).

...plus I had a crush on her, but them I was 16 at the time and I had this media puppy love deal with almost anything with a skirt and red hair. God pities me.

I think I have a couple of articles on her from L. A. Magazine and the L. A. Time. One of these decades, I should post them.

At the mercy of the obscure,
Don Fields