Monday, August 01, 2011

Another one of those great Hollywood stories

In early 1975 I was writing spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs, trying desperately to break into the business. At the time we were going nowhere fast. The spec RHODA we had submitted was rejected. Then the producer left and we re-submitted it. And the new producer rejected it. (That new producer is now my next-door neighbor. I just keep re-submitting it.)

Anyway, on the way to lunch I need to stop at the bank. I probably bounced a check. I go to the back of a long line and notice that the person directly in front of me is Jessica Harper. Ms. Harper is a fine actress and at the time was very hot. She had appeared in LOVE AND DEATH for Woody Allen and had starred in the cult feature PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE among other credits.

Oh, did I mention I had a HUGE crush on her?  

So I begin talking to her. She’s very nice. I’m asking about working with Woody Allen, her career, anything to keep the conversation rolling. All the while we slowly inch forward in line. When she is finally at the front I decide to do something I never ever do. If you know me you know this is true.

I ask her out. Right there in the bank.

She very graciously declines. A teller is free, she dashes off, and that was that.

I get back in the car and relate the story to David. He of course, gives me shit for fifteen minutes. “You did WHAT?!” Finally, I say, “Someday we’re going to be big producers casting a pilot and Jessica Harper is going to walk into our office and read for us. And then she’ll be sorry.” We laugh, go back to my apartment, and continue working on a spec that will soon be rejected all over town.  Jessica goes off and stars in another Woody Allen movie and one with Steve Martin. 

Flash forward to 1993. David and I have a pilot for CBS, BIG WAVE DAVE’S and we’re casting. Who walks into our office?


Jessica has no idea why we both seem to be beaming the minute she enters the room. Her audition goes well. She’s a terrific actress. She wasn’t totally right for the part but she still gave a great reading.

I’m on the fence about telling her the story. On the one hand, she might be a great sport and find it amusing. On the other, if we don’t hire her maybe she’ll think it’s because of the bank and we’re the most unprofessional spiteful assholes in Hollywood. So we say nothing. I’m sure if Jessica reads this or someone points her to this post it will be the first she’s heard of it. And I guarantee you she has no recollection of the bank encounter. Ten minutes of her life with some schmuck in a line.

But it’s still one of those delicious career moments. And for the record, I still have a crush on Jessica Harper and would be thrilled to work with her. She’s now a blogger and an author as well as an actress and the least I can do is plug her blog, which you can read here, and her cookbook, which you can find here.


Shane said...

That is phenomenal. And you're right; it's not mean, it's just one of those awesome career moments. Can't wait to have one of my own someday.

David Schwartz said...

Back when I was in college around 30 years ago I remember flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles for a few days to search for an agent. My partner and I literally walked down Sunset Boulevard trying to meet with every agent who had an office on our route and drop off scripts. We were turned down routinely by the agents, but one was particularly nasty. He acted as if by daring to walk into his office and try to get him to read our script, we were acting hugely inappropriately. His attitude was something like, "how dare we presume he would take his ultra-valuable time to read our clearly worthless script!" Anyway, we wrote his name down and vowed that when we became hugely successful we were going to buy his agency and fire him! Unfortunately, we never became that successful nor that powerful, but it was a fine fantasy at the time!

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget her fine work in Dario Argento's Suspiria and the fact that she still gets confused for Karen Allen.

Mac said...

Cool story, and thanks for the link.
I understand the crush, Ken, but... in the bank? Queuing for a teller? You're lucky she was a classy gal who let you down gently. And you must have been braver with asking women out than I ever was.

RCP said...

Actually I admire your willingness to approach her in the bank. If you're going to get rejected, at least let it be by quality people!

Mary Stella said...

You asked her out after having a conversation. It's not like you pursued her down the street screaming, "Jessica! Jessica! I love you, Jessica." I think it's sweet and brave.

Nowadays, someone would Tweet her.

I thought you were going to say that you pitched her a script in case she'd take it to Woody Allen or another producer. This sparks a question for Friday.

Aspiring authors have done some pretty desperate things to try to get an editor or agent to read a manuscript. Someone once followed an executive editor into the restroom and slid the manuscript under the door of her stall. Another paid a room service staffmember to include her manuscript on the editor's breakfast table.

Neither gambit worked. I believe the second also caused that writer's name to reach the editor's personal "never buy a thing from them" list.

Does this kind of stuff happen in television. Has anyone ever tried a stunt to get you to read their spec?

RDaggle said...

Jessica Harper was also wonderful in the criminally neglected movie version of Pennies From Heaven. Love that movie!

Richard J. Marcej said...

Fell in love with her when she was KC in "My Favorite Year".

scottmc said...

Richard J. beat me to the punch by mentioning 'My Favorite Year'. I recently saw her name on a list of author's appearing at bookstores around the country-unfortunately she was visiting a bookstore in Minnesota.

Keith said...

I love her, too, and Phantom of the Paradise. I listen to those songs all the time.

gottacook said...

My first view of Jessica Harper - and it was a doozy - was when I saw (at age 19) her appearance in John Byrum's movie Inserts about the edges of the filmmaking world in the 1930s, also starring Richard Dreyfuss (after Jaws but before The Goodbye Girl). Yes, a very good actress. At the time, at least in Boston, "arty" X-rated movies - that is, X-rated by the standards of the time, several years after Midnight Cowboy - were sometimes shown at proper cinemas, not only Inserts but such items as La Grande Bouffe with Philippe Noiret.

SkippyMom said...

Cute crush! I can see why. :)

I hope you don't mind a submission for a Friday question from a newbie, as I am not a screenwriter [or want to be] just a curious fan.

While vacationing I read Walter Bernstein's "Inside Outside" regarding the blacklisting of writers and actors during the McCarthy years.

He wrote at length about finding "fronts" to submit his work - i.e. people whose names could be used to put on his work in order that he could continue to work since he had been blacklisted. I do know one of the weekly shows he wrote for with a front was a show called "Danger".

My question is, did the writers who had to use fronts ever truly get the credit they were due for their work [after McCarthyism was shown to be the farce it was] or do fans of a particular writer have to research to discover all they have written? I was watching "Outer Limits" the other night and began to wonder while watching the credits, since the show was from the same era, how many of the writers were real or fronting for another.

I know this is an incredibly long comment and I hope I explained myself well.

My husband and I really love your radio stories and baseball anecdotes. He used to be a DJ in the Richmond/Hopewell VA area and his stories rival yours. We are still laughing about you quitting your job via "Fiddler on the Roof". heehee

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the past. I can't tell you how many times over the years I kicked myself for turning down a date with Peter Casey because the show on which he was a story editor, that my partner and I had just pitched to, rejected our stuff. So the phone call he had to make was essentially, "They don't want you, but I do." I was so pissed I would have rejected McCartney.

Breadbaker said...

Scenes that probably never happened:

Woody: Hi, Jessica, how are you?
Jessica: Great, Woody, I hope we can work together again.
Woody: Me, too, but I'm fresh out of ideas. Got any?
Jessica: Funny you should ask. I was standing in line at the bank the other day and this impossibly tall man accosted me and asked me out. What about a film about the pains and difficulties of celebrity?
Woody: Hmmmmm...I might call it, Stardust Memories. Are you free to come to New Jersey?

D. McEwan said...

Leave us not forget that, in addition to being a swell actress, she's also a wonderful actress.

D. McEwan said...

I should not make comments before noon. I meant to type: Leave us not forget that, in addition to being a swell actress, she's also a wonderful singer.

Jason said...


Nathan said...

Your mention of Rhoda totally threw me off, so the whole time I was reading this, I was picturing Valerie Harper. I'd never let a little thing like photos distract me from vapor-locking my brain!

Anonymous said...

We have a crush in common, Ken.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

I did my part to arrange a shidekh. I left a comment on Jessica's blog, urging her to stop by here. I may have even exaggerated a little about what you'd be willing to do to show your appreciation. (Hint: Her post today was about cannibalism.)

Don't say I never did anything for you.

Hillerich Bradsby said...

AT the very least, you could offer her a joint - - checking account w/yourself.

Sorry, I never did see Big Wave Dave's, but maybe she was a little more right than you originally thought?

Ng, Ng, Ng...that's gonna bother me for quite a while!

Paul Duca said...

SkippyMom...I remember reading a story in VAR%TY years ago about either the Writers' Guild or the Motion Picture Academy re-crediting a number of films done by blacklisted writers under the real names.

And try to check out the film THE FRONT, with Woody Allen playing the title role (in a rear acting only situation).

Tommy Harper said...

Since you are a professional broadcaster and a Mariners story-teller to boot, I don't suppose you can weigh in on the names of the players involved in a recent trade, such as Uncle Fister for a guy named Furbush? Perhaps when Oakland goes up by 5 or 6 dozen runs tonight, you can sneak address the oddities of some players' names?

Max Clarke said...

"Sanctuary!" If you ever saw My Favorite Year,, it has to do with Jessica Harper. She was very good in the movie. The scene when she and Benji Stone had their first date and ate Chinese was sweet.

She didn't have a big role in Love And Death, but it's funny. "The firm of Mishkin and Misckin is sleeping with the firm of Toskoff and Toskoff." Good stuff.

It's always the right thing to do, asking the star out for a date. They're so good at saying no, the rejection will feel like a mink glove on the cheek, and you will always have a good story to tell.

David said...

One more JH-crush here. I got to meet her when she made an author appearance at a bookstore at which I was working, and despite my going on at length about my love for "My Favorite Year," she couldn't have been kinder or more gracious. A class act.

Somersby said...

Add me to the list of those who had a huge crush on her after seeing (multiple times) My Favorite Year.

For years I've wondered why this woman didn't work more.

Glad to be able to connect to her blog.

Larry said...

It's freaky how much Frances O'Connor looks like Jessica Harper.

l.a.guy said...

"It's freaky how much Frances O'Connor looks like Jessica Harper."

Funny, I thought Karen Allen looks a lot like her too.

Kris Mandt said...

Jessica Harper is still a hot lady today (heck she's only a few years older than me), those eyes are what grabbed me a long time ago.

I just finished your "Where The Hell Am I?" book. It was a wonderful read!

Mr. Kris Mandt
Des Moines IA

Naz said...

I don't recall who she is.

Jessica Harper said...

That is one fabulous story!
I would be lying if I said I remember the bank part (I DO remember the script) but I'm sure you were a perfect gentleman or I would have cut that conversation short!...and you were very gracious about the audition...these qualities make you a rare and compelling person in Hollywood!
Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing my link with the world. Hmmmm....wonder where we'd be today if I HAD gone out with you...? Food for thought...!
All the best Ken!

Tim Dunleavy said...

A great Hollywood story - and now, thanks to Jessica, it has a happy ending!

HogsAteMySister,com said...

About 30 years ago, I was a reporter on a crummy newspaper in the Dallas area and dreaming of being a screenwriter. I heard Alan Alda was going to be at some event in downtown Dallas, so I staked out his limo. (It had to be his limo... not that many in Big D at the time). At midnight I gave up the ghost, but not before handing his chauffeur my resume along with a note asking if he needed another writer on his "staff." I heard nothing, but I knew that his Dad died soon after the evening, so I did not hold it against him. Wasn't that big of me? Then about a year later, I got a kind postcard saying good idea but I don't need any writers. But I did get a hand-written postcard from my hero, Alan Alda, woo-hoo. And I went on to a 30-year career in newspapers and PR. All things considered, I'd rather have written alongside Alan, or possibly chauffeured him around town.