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From Ali to Xena: 41

Posted By Alex Belth On October 10, 2011 @ 9:20 am In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled

If the Phone Doesn’t Ring

By John Schulian

It took me a year to realize my career was in free fall, but it wasn’t because I was extraordinarily dim or yet another example of the writer being the last to know. Even with the taint of my lost season at “Reasonable Doubts” fresh upon me, I got enviable gigs. The first, an assignment to write an HBO movie about Mike Tyson, actually had me thinking it might be a springboard to bigger things than episodic TV. At the very least, I expected to learn something from the producer I was working for, a walking piece of history named Edgar Scherick. He was a screamer, old Edgar was, but when a man can say he produced movies like “Take the Money and Run” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and put “The Fugitive” and “Wide World of Sports” on TV, allowances are made.

[1]

I have this memory of him nervously chewing hard candy as we worked on the Tyson story in fits and starts. He’d stop in the middle of sentences to take a call, or yell at his assistant to call someone for him, or order one of the bright lads in his employ to fetch this, that or the other thing. And then he’d pick up our conversation exactly where he had left it. He was smart in a Hollywood way, and in a read-the-classics way, too. And if I thought he was nuts, well, sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Maybe you’ve heard how Scott Rudin, a Scherick protégé who became a hugely successful producer, forced one of the over-educated serfs in his employ to get out of their car while they were on the freeway. I’ve heard it said that Rudin learned that trick from the master.

[2]

No sooner had Edgar and I begun collaborating than two friends, Ken Solarz and Jacob Epstein, offered me a job as a consulting producer on an attempt to resurrect “The Untouchables” as a syndicated series. They hired David Israel, too, but more important, they caved in to my most hubristic act in Hollywood. I said I only wanted to come into the office on Mondays because that was the day my cleaning lady was at the house–and they let me get away with it. It was the act of a prize horse’s ass and I soon paid for it.

First, HBO put a new executive in charge of the Tyson movie. His predecessor was Eva Marie Saint’s daughter, who couldn’t get past the idea that Tyson was an icky rapist. There was no denying it, of course, but he was also a kid who was formed by the hellhole in which he had grown up, and that was something Edgar and I very much wanted to address. And then there were the deaths of Cus D’Amato and Jimmy Jacobs, who were Tyson’s guiding lights. Don King compounded the odds against Tyson when he filled the void by warping the kid’s perspective and relieving him of vast portions of his fortune. Which was all fine and dandy, but HBO’s new executive still wanted to bring in his own writer. He didn’t bother to meet me or even pick up the phone. I was gone, and I hadn’t written so much as FADE IN.

HBO ended up paying me every cent I would have received if I’d gone the distance with the script. But money was beside the point. I’d missed a chance to take a step toward writing movies.

[3]

I gave myself 15 minutes to feel bad. Then I had to get back to work on a script for “The Untouchables.” As fate would have it, it was about a boxer. The show’s executive producer said he loved it–and then he said he wanted me to change it entirely by ripping off “Detective Story,” a hit Broadway play that had become a Kirk Douglas movie in the 1950s. The friends who had hired Israel and me were long gone, leaving us in the clutches of this emaciated, overmedicated madman who, according to rumors, had made so much money that he once bought an airplane he never learned how to fly. He just wanted to say he had one. Whatever, I told him I wasn’t ripping off anything. He responded exactly as I expected him to. He fired me.

My phone didn’t ring for the next year.

While show business rolled on without me, I lived through the death of my mother and an earthquake that did major damage to my home. I wrote for Sports Illustrated, GQ, Philadelphia magazine, and the L.A. Times Book Review. I even ran into an executive I knew from Stephen Cannell’s company who said, “I was just telling someone today that we need a great writer like John Schulian.” I wasn’t cheeky enough to tell him the genuine article was his for the asking.

The agents who had been telling me what a big deal I was–young men on the make, every one of them–acted as though I no longer existed. The only agents who looked after me were female, and you can make of that what you will. Nancy Jones, Sue Naegle, and Jill Holwager took turns calling every week or two to pump up my spirits by saying they were looking for work for me. It was a kindness I’m not sure I thanked them for–until now.

The lack of a TV job, with its long hours and attendant pressures, may have been a blessing because my life was in tumult. There would be no more Sunday afternoon visits on the phone with my mother, and there wasn’t a wall in my house the quake hadn’t cracked. For the second time in my adult life, I needed to get my feet under me. The difference this time was that I had every confidence I would. I began my resurrection by adapting a short story for a hard-boiled anthology series that A&E never put on the air. Then I wrote an episode of “Lonesome Dove” for an old friend from “Midnight Caller” who was trying to turn it into a syndicated series. The “Lonesome Dove” project turned out to be a fiasco, but at least I had some money coming in and my name was back in circulation.

And then along came “Hercules.”

[4]

It was hardly the kind of show I’d dreamed of doing, but as Steven Bochco had told me, you go where the work is. Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, two friends from Detroit who had scored big with horror movies, were making “Hercules” their first venture into TV. Or rather Tapert was doing it while Raimi tried to get his directing career back on the tracks. “Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness” had made him a cult hero, but his latest effort, a Sharon Stone western called “The Quick and the Dead,” had stalled at the box office, and he was a million miles creatively from rebounding with “A Simple Plan,” a wonderful, un-Raimi-like movie, and “Spiderman.” The times I saw him, and they weren’t many, he was wandering around the Raimi-Tapert offices on the Universal lot, looking like he’d taken one too many punches. Tapert, on the other hand, was wired. He saw TV as a chance to prove that he brought as much to the party in his way as his illustrious partner did in his.

I was the guy Tapert hired to lead him and Sam into the world of episodic TV. They had already done five “Hercules” movies for TV, and they had fought every step of the way with the series’ creator, Christian Williams, who was coincidentally a former Washington Post reporter. It was hard to tell who hated whom more, but suffice it to say Chris was long gone by the time I walked through the door.

However much blood had been spilled behind the scenes, I still liked what I saw when I watched the “Hercules” movies–the big action sequences, the special effects, the stunning locations in New Zealand, and especially the star. Tapert and Raimi, to their everlasting credit, had passed on that cyborg Dolph Lundren and chosen a clean-cut unknown from Minnesota named Kevin Sorbo. Kevin was strapping without being muscle bound, and he possessed an amiable, self-deprecating screen presence, a nice way with humor, and the ability to tap into his emotions on those rare occasions when a scene called for it.

[5]

One more thing I liked about the show: it was, at its roots, a western. Hercules wanders the countryside, finds people who need his help, comes through for them in a big way, and moves on. Hell, I’d been working on plots like that since I was a kid drawing movies on strips of paper. So I went in thinking I would have fun doing “Hercules” even though it was a decided step down in class from what I’d worked on before. I’d just brainwash myself so I could pretend it was the 1950s and I was heading to Universal every day to write sword-and-sandal movies or Audie Murphy westerns. And it worked–but only for a little while.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives. [6]


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