The Great Escape
By John Schulian
Every writer in Hollywood has a dark corner in his head where he keeps the horror stories of how he was lied to, cheated, betrayed, bullied, ignored, treated like a dim child, abandoned, and left with the short end of the stick. It comes with the territory. But right now I have a different kind of story to tell. It’s so preposterously upbeat that people in this brutal business, especially writers, might insist it is a fairy tale. I promise you it’s not. And I know, because I lived it.
It’s the story of how I, a burned-out Philadelphia sports columnist, showed up in Hollywood without ever having written a script, and four months later had a produced episode of “L.A. Law” to my credit and was happily residing on the writing staff of “Miami Vice.” Even now, with 25 years of hindsight at my disposal, I don’t know what I did to deserve that kind of good fortune.
When this began, I was trying to figure out if I knew anyone in Hollywood and drawing blanks. But Phil Hersh, who had fought the newspaper wars in Chicago and Baltimore with me, had stayed in touch with a photographer named Martha Hartnett after she jumped from the Sun-Times to the L.A. Times. Martha had married a TV writer-producer named Jeff Melvoin, who Phil said was a good guy. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with Jeff finding out that he was even more than that. He didn’t know me from a sack of potatoes, but he gave me 45 minutes of his time, listening to my story, offering a quick introduction to the screenwriter’s life, and generally proving himself to be funny, big-hearted, and smart, very smart. Best of all, he wrapped up the conversation by inviting me to call him the next time I was in L.A.
I got there the day after Marvelous Marvin Hagler put away Tommy Hearns in the best fight I ever covered and maybe the most electric event I ever saw in any sport. Mike Downey, who had hit it big as a columnist in Detroit, and I drove from Las Vegas in a rented car, both of us on the verge of major career moves. Downey was about to take his wonderfully funny act to the L.A. Times, and I was looking for someone to tell me how to go about hurling myself into Hollywood’s gaping maw.
When I called Jeff, he told me we were having dinner, but first I had two meetings he had arranged for me. Meetings are the lifeblood of Hollywood, so much so that sometimes you have meetings just to schedule other meetings. Whatever, my baptism by yakking involved sitting down with the head of development at Geffen Films and a vice president at MTM, which was then the hottest production company in TV (“Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Mary Tyler Moore”). Though I didn’t know which end of the bat to hold as far as show business was concerned, I survived. The executives I met were interested in getting fresh blood in the business, people with stories to tell -– and naturally they wanted to talk about sports. They weren’t offering me any jobs, of course, but I liked them and they liked me, and that certainly beat the alternative.
Then I met Jeff for dinner and he paid, so I liked him even more than I had on the phone. Mostly we talked about how I was going to get in the business. “Everybody breaks in a different way,” he said. And I said, “What if I wrote a letter to Steven Bochco?” I’d been bowled over by Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues” from the first minutes of the first episode. I can’t tell you why I watched it – I’ve never watched much TV — but I did and a world of possibilities opened up to me. “Hill Street” was as revolutionary then as “The Wire” is now. It felt real, the characters were mesmerizing, and the stories pulsed with humanity and humor and pain and love. If I could work on a show like that, I told myself, I’d be proud to call myself a TV writer. I told Jeff the same thing. In that case, he said, I should write Steven Bochco.
So I did, and in the envelope with my letter, I enclosed a my boxing anthology, “Writers’ Fighters,” and a copy of the Mike Royko profile I’d done for GQ. It all went in the mail the day before I left to cover Wimbledon. And then I started praying to whatever god it is that looks out for writers in need of a new beginning.
When I returned two weeks later, there was a letter from Bochco telling me he’d received my package and promising to read what I’d enclosed. He also warned me that a lot of journalists had tried to make the leap I was contemplating, and failed. But if I were still interested, he’d be glad to send me some “Hill Street” scripts to study. I wrote him back in a heartbeat: please send the scripts. Then I went on vacation for two weeks. I came home to find this letter, on Twentieth Century Fox stationery:
July 17, 1985
Herewith some HILL STREET scripts. I read about half your book so far. It’s wonderful. You’re a terrific writer, and if you can’t make the transition to film writing, I’d be very surprised. Not to mention disappointed. As soon as I get my next project (a series about, God help me, lawyers) perpendicular to the ground, I will send you what we’ve written and invite you to write a script. (For money, of course.)
If you have any questions, or just want to talk, call me. My office number is XXXXXXXXXX.
P.S. You also type great. I didn’t spot a single do-over in your letter.
Today, that letter, framed, hangs in my office at home. I’m still amazed by it and still everlastingly grateful for the lifeline it represented. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t guaranteed anything except a chance. A chance was all I was looking for. I would have to write in a different form and a different medium. I would have to navigate a world I knew nothing about. But at last I had something to hope for again. And I owed it to Steven Bochco, a man I’d never met.