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From Ali to Xena: 42

Posted By Alex Belth On October 12, 2011 @ 11:03 am In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled

Hard Labor, Hollywood Style

By John Schulian

Where to start with the wonders of “Hercules”? With the writers who couldn’t or wouldn’t write? With the terrified, unqualified directors who spent more time tossing their cookies than they did directing? With the executive producer who would have stabbed me in the back even if I had gone deep-sea fishing with him? With the star who thought he was the next Harrison Ford when he should have been thanking Jah or Allah or whatever deity it is that looks out for big lugs who show up at the right place at the right time?

[1]

Or should I just tell you about the treachery I could have set my watch by? And the endless rewrites of scripts so bad my eyes crossed when I read them? And the office at the bottom of a parking garage at Universal, with cars coming and going overhead with such a rumble and clatter that skittish visitors thought it was another earthquake?

But you know something? I loved that office. First and foremost, it was a half-mile from the offices where Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi ran their three-ring circus on the lot. But it had other virtues as well. Outside my window was the Los Angeles River, its bed of cement unsightly most of the year, but in heavy rains, it threatened to overflow and its current was so fierce I expected to see refrigerators and abandoned cars being swept toward the ocean. The Lakeside Country Club sat on the other side of the river, lush and green and rich in the legends of the big names who had played there–Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields and Oliver Hardy, when he wasn’t the fat man next to Stan Laurel’s skinny one. I saw the course every time I looked up from my computer, and for a few minutes I could cease thinking that I was stranded in a job that would allow me only one week off in two years. By comparison, blacktopping roads in a Utah summer was a breeze.

Tapert foisted a young writing team on me and they refused to get with the program. They were bright and occasionally likable, and I’ve been told that they’ve grown up since I had to deal with their petulance and bad attitudes. But when our paths crossed, they were reeling from having been told their first serious show business lie. Tapert had promised them they’d be the head writers when “Hercules” went to series. Then, of course, he hired me. The boys were too new to TV to realize they lacked the experience for the job, along with a lot of other things. I was their enemy before we said hello.

[2]

I wish I could blame Tapert for hiring the other writer on my misbegotten staff, but he was my mistake entirely. He lived on a houseboat and had a ponytail, a British accent, and some miles on his odometer, which made me think he’d be a counterweight to the petulant kids. Best of all, his writing sample was a script for an unproduced movie that was so good I wondered why I wasn’t working for him. But he turned out to be an unmitigated fraud. I could barely coax a coherent sentence out of him. All he did was smile and wink and hit on my assistant. I never did learn who wrote the script that got him the job.

So these guys, the Brit and the boys, were my burden for our first 13 episodes. It seemed as though I spent every waking moment either giving them notes on their stories or rewriting their scripts. But I couldn’t have spent every waking moment dealing with them because I had Tapert to deal with. He certainly understood the genre, but he couldn’t write, and I came away from more than one meeting convinced he hated me because I could. Worse, he wanted to let all his buddies direct episodes, just send them to New Zealand, where we filmed the series, and let them run amok. None of them had ever directed a minute of TV, and those are not the kind of people you let determine the destiny of a new series. But Tapert was oblivious to all that.

I didn’t realize just oblivious until I heard a rumor that he was planning to go deep-sea fishing off the coast of Mexico just as we were getting the show off the ground. After a story meeting, I pulled him aside and said that none of the great executive producers I’d worked for–not Steven Bochco, not Dick Wolf, not Stephen Cannell–ever went on vacation at a time like this. Tapert’s eyes filled with tears. He looked like a kid who’d been told the chocolate chip cookies were off-limits. He didn’t say anything to me, though. But I heard a few days later that he’d cancelled his vacation and was making life miserable for everyone in the office.

[3]

Rob Tapert and Sam Rami

He steered clear of me for reasons that were never made clear, but it may have been because of good old-fashioned fear. God knows I regularly thought of ways I might end his life with my bare hands, or at least break his nose. Every time I spoke of my dark fantasies in front of the petulant kids, I’m sure they ran off and told him. No doubt word reached Universal’s executive suites, too, which is no way to succeed in show business. But it was the only way I could get Tapert to back off and let me tend to the job of churning out scripts.

I was all too aware of my limitations as a TV writer, and I wanted to do everything I could to make up for make up for them. But once you get a reputation for something, especially in Hollywood, there’s no shaking it. Years after “Hercules,” when I was working on “JAG” and getting notes on my first script from the head writer, the exceedingly smart Ed Zuckerman, I could see him getting fidgety as the session ran long. Finally, he looked at me over the top of his glasses and said, “Is this when you punch me?” The thought never entered my mind.

[4]

With Rob Tapert, however, it was a different story, because he was always saying something behind my back, something willful and foolish and insulting. It made no sense because we had a hit show by the standards of syndicated television, the netherworld that exists apart from the four major networks. Tapert and Sam Raimi had certainly proven there was an audience for something besides shows about pretty people in designer clothes screaming at each other. We even got high marks from reviewers–Daily Variety called me a “TV veteran,” which gave me pause, but I guess that’s what I was after nine years in the game. And still Tapert couldn’t help himself.

He hit bottom in the second season when he hired a husband-and-wife writing team to freelance a script for an episode he would direct. The problem was, I was writing a script for the same episode. This kind of thing happens a lot in the movie business, which is not to excuse it. But for Tapert to do this to his head writer, the guy who was killing himself to make sure there was a new script every eight days, established him in my mind as lower than whale shit. If he’d wanted the husband-and-wife team to write the script, he should have had the decency to tell me to save my energy. But decency wasn’t part of his game, and no matter how fervently I pleaded my case or how loudly I shouted, he wouldn’t give in. After all, he was in New Zealand when I found out, too far away for me to strangle.

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So we went with the shadow script, wretched though it was, and Tapert ordered me to rewrite it. What I should have done was quit on the spot. Instead, I took a deep breath and went to work. By the time I finished, almost every word in the script was mine. I made sure I sent a copy of my rewrite–all that cramped scribbling in the margins–to the writers who had been party to Tapert’s treachery. But they weren’t the villains. The villain was Tapert.

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


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