Monday, February 07, 2011

Writing our first script... at Fort Ord.

It’s one thing to get a break, but it’s another to take advantage of it. If you’re lucky enough to get your first script assignment it really behooves you to hit it out of the park. A possible staff job could be yours if your script impresses the powers-that-be. And your agent will have a much easier time getting you more work with a killer script that’s been produced. All of a sudden you start building momentum.  So there is a certain amount of pressure attached. 

All of that was in the back of our minds when my partner David and I got our first assignment – an episode of THE JEFFERSONS.

We worked out the outline with the story editors, Gordon Mitchell & Lloyd Turner. It was early June. This was episode seven for that season and production wasn’t scheduled to begin for another two months. We figured we’d have plenty of time to really turn in a gem, polished to within an inch of its life.

And we were going to need that time. David and I were in the same Army Reserve Unit. In fact, that’s where we met. Part of our obligation was serving two weeks of active duty every summer. That year’s summer camp began the following Monday. So we wouldn’t be able to even begin the script for two weeks.

Gordon and Lloyd wished us luck, and as we were leaving Gordon casually said, “By the way, we need it in two weeks.”


“Yeah, “ Gordon said, “The producers like this story and we’re going to move it way up. So we need it in two weeks. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, not at all” we both said. “Piece of cake.”

With great √©lan we strolled out of their office, made it to our cars, and practically collapsed. At that point in our career we had never written a script in only two weeks. And that’s sitting in a quiet room for ten hours every day. I seriously doubted whether Fort Ord provided such amenities. And there was another problem: the way we worked back then, David took down the script in longhand and I then typed it. Where were we going to get an IBM Selectric typewriter (the script had to look professional. We couldn’t just use some beat up old army Royal typewriter from World War II)?

I made some calls to people I worked with in San Francisco when I was a disc jockey at KYA. One had a Selectric. Now all we had to do was somehow get from Fort Ord in Monterrey to San Francisco, and trickier still –  get one-day passes for a Friday. I think my conversation with our company commander went like this:

Me: We need to go up to San Francisco next Friday.
Him: Alright, well, then you’re going to have to work one of the weekend days.
Me: Oh. Well, see, we really need that time to write. We were really kind of hoping to get the whole weekend off, too.
Him: Excuse me?
Me: And maybe if we could skip a few afternoons during the week, that would be great.

In most units I would have been court martialed by then. But this was an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit and the company commander worked at NBC and understood our predicament. So he gave us as much leeway as he could, as long as we still performed whatever duties we were assigned.

Now came the matter of just where to write. The base commander was not about to let us use his office. Our entire unit was in one barrack. So imagine FULL METAL JACKET. Forty soldiers sitting around in their underwear, talking, yelling, listening to radios, playing cards, clipping their toenails, smoking, and two idiots sitting on a bunk trying to write the most important script of their lives while the guy in the top bunk drank beer and let his feet dangle in their faces. And then when everyone went to bed, they had to huddle in a corner with a flashlight and whisper because if they spoke in even a stage whisper fifteen guys would tell them to shut the fuck up.

During the day we’d sneak back to the barracks for a couple of what-we-thought were going to be quiet hours. Unfortunately, we were right next to a basic training parade ground. All day long troops would be marching and singing and Drill Sergeants would be screaming at them. Despite what the army may think, jokes don’t come any faster when someone is yelling, “Move your fucking ass, you pussy!”

Because we had to go to San Francisco, we didn’t even have two full weeks. Somehow we finished a draft. We rented a car (which cost us a fortune), raced up to San Francisco, typed all day, and raced back.

The unit bussed back Sunday afternoon, and on Monday morning we called Gordon Mitchell to proudly tell him the script was done. He was pleased.

Him: Great. When can I get it?
Me:Well, it’s 10:00 now. We have to go the Writers Guild to register it, so I guess about noon or 1:00. Him: Schmuck! You don’t have to register it. You’re protecting yourself against me. I BOUGHT the script.

Oops. Our naiveté was showing. He had the draft in a half hour.

So how was the script? We were heavily rewritten by THE JEFFERSONS although in fairness, we were told they did that routinely.

However, it was our draft, that we wrote in Fort Ord that got us our first MASH assignment. So how bad could it have been?

And yes, I see the irony.

And no, we didn’t go back to Fort Ord to write our next assignment even though the first one worked out so well.


Tom Berg said...

I was stationed at Fort Ord from 83 to 86. I was a military broadcaster (MOS 71-R).

Of course being stateside, we couldn't have a broadcast radio station on post, so we cable cast our station through the dining facilities on post, and our audio was cable cast thorough a channel on the posts cable TV operation.

The only time we were on Broadcast radio is when we produced our public affairs show that ran at 5am Sunday mornings.

Our office was in one of those old yellow buildings on what we called CDEC hill, near Stillwell hall.

One of our other duties was to do the announcing at the monthly retirement ceremonies. Fun stuff!

So where was I?? Oh yeah..Fort Ord. Nice assignment!

John said...

Sounds like it would have made a great story for one of those "Rob Petrie in the army" episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, if only you had been around 10-12 years earlier (or the show had lasted 10-12 years longer).

I've read some stories of how Lloyd Turner and his writing partner, Bill Scott, were screwed around with while working for Warner Bros. cartoons in the 1940s (to the point that they eventually had to write separate scripts and the one with the weakest script would get fired), so I guess that's part of the battle to break into the business.

Hollywoodaholic said...

I went to Ford Ord on assignment with a co-screenwriter for a feature for National Lampoon (the Army thought we were working for ABC Circle Films) back in 1979.

We interviewed generals by day, and got drunk with the non-coms at night ("Did you know the infantry are fondly referred to as 'target developers' by the brass?")

We got to fire M-16s, run the obstacle course at our own leisure, and were delivered to our return plane at the Carmel airport tarmac by Huey helicopter. Paul Anka and Doug McClure were in the first class cabin watching this spectacle and looked at us arrive in our Hawaiian shirts like, "Who ARE these guys?"

We were playing out our war fantasies in an atmosphere free of the draft (though I had a number the last year).

But we were also trying to live up to characters we saw on "M*A*S*H."

Cap'n Bob said...

Boy, you reserve guys had it rough. I was lucky enough to go to Nam and avoid those problems. Add a smile here, Ken.

joe said...

"It’s one thing to get a break, but it’s another to take advantage of it."

This may be the most profound single sentence you have ever written.

As you were.

Max Clarke said...

Ken, don't you have a book coming out? Maybe it's an ebook. Any chance you can turn that into an audiobook? Your stories are great, and would be made greater by your telling them for something at Audible.

Aaliyah said...


This was a great entry. I really enjoyed learning about how you got your start.

I'm guessing a lot has changed:)

Paul Duca said...

And it's still Turner 85, Mitchell 23....

Old Army guy said...

I was lucky enough to be the Commanding Officer of the 222nd Public Information Detachment, and they were collectively the most creative bunch of guys that could be assembled in one place. Among the group were Jack Popejoy (radio news) Bow Rawitch (LA Times) Pat Kelly (KHJ Radio) as well as Ken Levine, aka radio DJ Beaver Cleaver, and David Issacs (background unknown but a very funny guy) Jack Popejoy was the bright one who had an opinion about everything, from why he didn't spitshine his shoes to why inhaling Brasso was bad for your health. Bob was the squeeky voiced newspaper journalist, and Pat, Ken & David were the funny, off the wall guys. As a collaboration they all helped write and perform live a stage show as to why Army Reserve members should re-enlist. Most of the members in the performed in the production.....standing ovations. Ken, I see you have not lost your talent for putting real life emotions on paper. Wonderful piece on Popejoy. He would be proud.

Anonymous said...

I'd really like to know where the Carmel Airport that Hollywoodaholic refers to is.
I don't think there is a Carmel Airport.