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From Ali to Xena: 39

War Stories

By John Schulian

In the space of two and a half years, I got fired from the Chicago Sun-Times and divorced, moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, changed careers, lived through the death of my father, moved from Philadelphia to L.A., tried to get my feet under me in show business, and wound up spending two weeks in the hospital with the back problems that afflict me to this day. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but my diagnosis is that my cumulative stress had to go somewhere, so it went to my back. Of course the problem is more complicated than that, but I truly was wrung out from the roller coaster ride I’d been on. The ride wasn’t over, though. I was simply changing roller coasters.

When I got out of the hospital, I turned down a chance to return to “Miami Vice” because there was a new dramedy on ABC called “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” that sounded like it wound be fun to write. Slap was a sports columnist, which made me right for the show, and he was played by Dabney Coleman, who specialized in self-centered misanthropes who made audiences laugh. ABC had to beg Dabney to do the show, though, and he didn’t say yes until a prickly comedy genius named Jay Tarses agreed to write the pilot and produce the series. Conveniently overlooked was the fact that they hated each other.

They had worked together several years earlier on “Buffalo Bill,” a wonderfully twisted comedy that went off the tracks when it addressed a subject that remains tetchy to this day. Dabney’s character, an oblivious Buffalo, New York talk show host, got his girl friend pregnant – “So, who’s the lucky father?” he asked – and she had an abortion. Ratings went in the toilet, Dabney went through the roof, and that was it for the Tarses-Coleman connection, or so everyone thought.

“Slap” was supposed to be the corrective for all that, but the era of good feeling lasted until the second or third day of shooting, when Dabney announced for one and all to hear that he wouldn’t say a line because it was “sitcom bullshit.” Jay, who had written the line and everything else in the marvelously quirky script, got up from his director’s chair – he was the director, after all – and stomped off the set. The battle lines were drawn.

Nobody bothered to mention that to me when I showed up for my interview with Jay. He was an easy guy to get along with unless you were a troublesome thespian or a network or studio executive. No artifice, no overweening ego. He even liked sports, which wasn’t always the case with the people I met in Hollywood. The business may amount to nothing so much as a boys’ club, but the boys don’t always care about who won last night. Jay cared. But even so, I was caught off guard when he asked me, “Why do you want to do this? You had the best job in the world.”

The way he emphasized “this,” leaning on it almost contemptuously, should have been a warning. But I was still in my fantasyland stage and wouldn’t come out of it until my first official day on the job as one of the show’s story editors. (Story editor is a synonym for writer, just as executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer can be.) Jay invited me to sit down with him and one of the show’s writer-producers as they punched up a script that was about to shoot. Encouraged to sound off with any lines I thought might work, I spoke up and Jay put both of my suggestions in the script. Just like that, I felt like I was part of the team. Then Dabney walked into the outer office, talking in a voice that would have cut through granite. Jay scarcely looked up from the changes he was making before he uttered the words that snapped everything into focus for me: “Oh, the asshole is here.”

“The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” was cancelled after one season.

When I moved on to my next TV job, as executive story editor on “Wiseguy,” our star, Ken Wahl presented a different problem: self-destructiveness. He had risen beyond his talent and developed all the bad habits typical of too many half-bright actors. What’s more, his tendency to put on weight had the writing staff joking that the name of the show should be changed to “Wideguy.” But blubber and bad behavior, and so-so ratings aside – can’t forget the ratings – “Wiseguy” was much loved by critics and viewers in search of a crime drama that welcomed their intelligence instead of insulting it.

Because “Wiseguy” was a Stephen Cannell production, Cannell is hailed as the mastermind behind it. Not so. He created a classic in “The Rockford Files,” a monstrous hit in “The A-Team,” and such exceedingly cool failures as “City of Angels” and “Tenspeed and Brownshoe,” but “Wiseguy” was his and co-creator Frank Lupo’s in name only. The brains of the operation was David Burke, who came out of TV news, was the son of a New York radio talk show host, and possessed an ego that was even bigger than his talent. Burke put his stamp on “Wiseguy” with a writerly verve inspired by his hero, Paddy Chayefsky, and stories that ran in arcs of four or five episodes, sometimes even more. He created beguiling, multidimensional villains like Sonny Steelgrave and Mel Profit and made them part of the pop culture dialogue in the early 90s. To watch him in action was to see a man possessed by both his work and the fame and wealth he was getting closer to by the day.

Twenty years later, however, you never hear Burke mentioned in the same sentence with David Kelley or Dick Wolfe or the cable grit-masters who work the territory he might have, David Simon and David Chase. I’d feel bad for him if I hadn’t walked into his office at “Wiseguy” office one morning just in time to hear him tell a producer, “I’m a genius and I’ve got the clippings to prove it.” That would be press clippings, of course, and I’m surprised that Burke, as smart as he was, never learned that they weren’t to be believed.

But let me not leave “Wiseguy” on a sour note. Better I should tell you about the show’s garment district arc, which, to my mind, was the crowning achievement for Burke and his mordant, ferociously hard-working right-hand man, Steve Kronish. They found something special inside themselves as they conjured up a tale about fathers and sons and risks that come with rewards that have a trap door beneath them. They didn’t do it alone, though. In fact, they were off trying to launch a Cannell series about serial killers – think body parts in a refrigerator every Thursday night — when Ken Wahl was injured during filming of the first garment district episode. It was Al Ruggiero, our square-shouldered, motorcycle-riding co-producer, and I who had to create an undercover agent to replace the one Wahl played and re-write the script in a weekend. Anthony Dennison got the part when he was still hot after doing “Crime Story,” and the first thing he said to us was, “This is better than any of the feature scripts I’ve read lately.” Burke and Kronish never bothered to thank us.

We were left to find our satisfaction in the performances of the movie-quality cast that brought our script to life. From the get-go, “Wiseguy” had been a magnet for emerging stars like Kevin Spacey and reclamation projects like the doomed Ray Sharkey. I still remember how impressed I was when Paul Winfield showed up at our office in a sport coat and tie and told us he’d just flown in from New York after reading Langston Hughes at the 92nd Street Y the night before. And it got even better when we shined our light on the garment district. Consider this cast: Stanley Tucci, Ron Silver, Joan Chen, and – I mention him last only for effect – Jerry Lewis. We wanted Lewis because we’d seen his bravura performance as the talk shot host in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” What we failed to consider was that movie making is done at a glacial pace and while TV shows are made at warp speed. The mercurial Mr. Lewis had trouble adapting to the lavish speeches we’d written for him. He could probably remember every joke he’d ever told, but dialogue was something that brought him to his knees until we promised to trim the excess from all of his speeches.

For Christmas he gave everybody connected with the show Jerry Lewis watches with his likeness on them. On the last day he worked, he told everybody that doing the show had been the greatest experience of his career. All right, so maybe he was exaggerating. That morning, in fact, when a producer had gone to him with dialogue changes, he had not been the ray of sunshine he was when he exited stage left. “You heard of Jerry Lewis’ reputation, pal?” he said. “I’ll show you Jerry Lewis’ reputation.” Better the dialogue changes should wind up in a wastebasket. And they did.

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1 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 3, 2011 9:56 am

I have only a vague memory of Slap Maxwell. I actually remember Buffalo Bill better. But Wiseguy, man, that was one of the first dramas I really remember watching. My friend Don Chartock was the one who got me hooked. Yeah, talk about actors! Man, that show had some great story lines.

2 T. Hawk   ~  Oct 3, 2011 10:20 am

"half-bright actors." hahaha ... hit the head of the nail

3 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 3, 2011 10:35 am

I always mistake Ken Wahl for Vincent Spano, who was excellent in the John Sayles movie, "Baby, It's You."

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 3, 2011 11:56 am

[1] My favorite was still William Russ as Roger Lococo. Jonathan Banks is doing great work currently on Breaking Bad.

[3] Spano was also in the great "Over the Edge," among others.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 3, 2011 12:01 pm

Man, Jonathan Banks was always good. What a mug.

6 Mike Fox   ~  Oct 5, 2011 12:19 pm

Buffalo Bill? Slap Maxwell? I personally discovered these shows in the slow marches of the night when they were put out, unadvertised or even trailered, on UK television. I could barely believe how brilliant these two series were - and felt the same way until Larry Sanders came along. Coleman's and writers' unique characterisation of a one-hundred percent, copper-botttomed, industrial-strength arsehole was just superb. And I loved him. What a pity that BB was dumped for such a trivial reason. Still, network chiefs get the television they deserve. Thank God for HBO!

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver