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From Ali to Xena: 47
Posted By Alex Belth On October 31, 2011 @ 10:12 am In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled
By John Schulian
In my show business alphabet, the scarlet letter will always be “s” for syndication. The instant I started wearing it, the network and cable people doing high-end dramas treated me like I was descended from intellectual pygmies who eat rabid bats and worship Soupy Sales. Only the young and promising receive special dispensation for working on a syndicated show to get a foot in Hollywood’s door. But I was 51 when I crawled away from “Xena” and “Hercules,” old enough to have known better. I would have had to be a miracle worker to avoid being branded as a junk peddler and cast into darkness. Alas, I was fresh out of miracles.
My new status hit me like a pie in the face on my next gig, an appallingly uninspired private eye show called “Lawless.” The title had absolutely nothing to do with Lucy, though I couldn’t help wishing she were around to give our leading man lessons in how to roll with the flow instead of turning to stone whenever the camera was on him. Brian Bosworth was a washed-up football star who realized how badly he wanted to act when Bo Jackson trampled him on national TV. The Boz got his chance in a series of cheap action movies that proved he wasn’t any better at it than he was at tackling. But that didn’t stop the brain trust at Fox TV from handing him “Lawless.” The thinking seemed to be that if enough helicopters landed in Lawlesss’s mother’s backyard simultaneously, we’d have a hit.
I found myself in the trenches with Frank Lupo, who had created or co-created something like 16 series, and Richard Christian Matheson, who had scored big in TV and was now devoting most of his time to writing novels and screenplays. While the network dithered about choppers and the proper sidekick for Bosworth, our biggest decision every day was where to eat lunch. The rest of the time, we cashed fat paychecks, complained about our offices in a converted Culver City warehouse, and listened to Lupo tell stories. My favorite was about Robert Blake, in his “Baretta” days, introducing himself to this son of a Brooklyn pizza maker by saying, “I’m crazy, you know.”
On Friday nights, gang kids would gather in the shadows of our dead-end street to drink and howl at the moon while we scampered for our respective Mercedes. That was as close to the real world as we came, unless you want to consider the fate of “Lawless” itself. Fox didn’t get its desired number of helicopters and we were left to bang out scripts in a white heat. Predictably, the show was cancelled after one episode. The only reason “Lawless” lasted that long was because the network didn’t have anything to replace it at the half-hour.
From that point forward, I could see the last of the sand running through my hourglass. I tried to buy myself more time by writing screenplays, one of them based on W.C. Heinz’s unforgettable magazine story about Lew Jenkins, a go-to-hell prizefighter from Texas who became a war hero in Korea. The Jenkins script got me a flurry of meetings and, for a minute or two, made me the poster boy for the Creative Artists Agency’s in-house campaign to have its TV writers cross over to movies. Unfortunately my timing was dreadful. “Cinderella Man” was already in the works, and so was a Meg Ryan movie about a real-life female fight manager. I wanted to tell the people who were using those projects as a reason to say no to me that Jenkins’ story was better than either of them. But I kept my mouth shut, and when movie people asked if I had any other ideas, I always mentioned Gram Parsons, who married classic country music to a rock-and-roll sensibility and died of hard living way too young. I didn’t get anywhere with that one, either. Johnny Knoxville did. Need I say more?
Eventually I did what most every frustrated screenwriter does. I changed agents. Why not? I’d changed agents, and agencies, even when I wasn’t frustrated. I’d changed them because one agent was a creep who sexually harassed his female assistants. And because my instincts told me another was a bad fit for me. And because a woman who represented me left United Talent for CAA after she became a target for an abrasive, emotionally damaged colleague she had made the mistake of dating.
When I talked myself into believing she had lost sight of whatever it was I did best, I jumped again, to Paul Haas, at ICM. It was the worst move I ever made professionally. When I think of him now, I’m reminded of Murray Kempton’s analysis of Bill Clinton: “too smart by half.” Haas wasn’t book smart, though; he was Hollywood smart, slick and self-absorbed, almost feral in his quest to get to the top of the meat pile. Not unusual qualities in an agent, but I failed to see the warning sign that said “by half” until he told me to meet with the producers of a show about a fat cop who was a martial arts wizard. It was exactly the kind of claptrap I wanted to get away from, so I refused. Then the producers of another show about a fat cop said they didn’t want to meet with me because I’d done “Xena” and “Hercules.” They robbed me of the chance to say no to them first, the bastards.
Far worse, however, was that Haas soon lost interest in me. He had bigger fish to fry, more important clients who could make him more money, and a more prestigious place at the table to claim for his own. The only attention I got from him bordered on condescension. When I wrote pieces for GQ and Sports Illustrated to maintain my sanity, he congratulated me on “reinventing” myself, as if I’d never told him that I was a newspaper and magazine guy at heart. That wasn’t the only thing he didn’t pay attention to. There was also my Lew Jenkins screenplay, which he handed off to two of ICM’s young sharks. Their names were Todd and Danny, and on those rare occasions when I look at the trade papers now, I see they’ve prospered. But when they were supposed to be championing my cause, I never heard from them. After a year of being ignored, I complained to Haas and quickly got a call from Todd. Or Danny.
“That was a great script,” whichever one I was talking to said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Remind me what it was about, would you?”
I hung up. If it hadn’t, I would have told Todd – or Danny – I had a new screenplay that I had written specifically for the purpose of sticking up his ass. Even now I have moments when I fantasize about seeing one of them in some fancy-schmancy restaurant and decking him. Not so much as a “Remember me?” Just lights out. But I’m too old for such nonsense and too weary to get exercised over the everyday cruelties that pass for standard business practices in Hollywood. Maybe I was gassed back then too and just wouldn’t admit it. How else to explain the fact that I never fired Haas no matter how useless he was?
It took an old friend from “Midnight Caller,” Stephen Zito, to open the door for me at “JAG.” The show was more fun than I expected it to be with one exception: its creator and executive producer, Don Bellisario. With a foul-smelling cigar smoldering in his mouth, a disdain for any idea that wasn’t his, and a tin ear for dialogue, Bellisario leeched all the joy out of writing. He was a bully and a lout and a war lover who’d never been to war. You’d have to go a long way to find anyone in TV more despised. I’m surprised I lasted 25 episodes. Not that things improved when Haas steered me to “Outer Limits” and I promptly shot myself in the foot by telling an executive producer with a lube-job haircut that a story he embraced was no story at all. That would have been my last stand if David Israel hadn’t brought me aboard as his right-hand man on “Tremors.” It had monsters, oddball humor, and weird characters in a forgotten desert town. Hits have been made of less. But we were saddled with the two amiably passive-aggressive guys who wrote the movies on which “Tremors” was based, and they refused to adapt to the realities of TV. They just made the same mistakes over and over until they looked up one day and the show was off the air.
I was as far as I could be from those heady times when Steven Bochco invited me to come out and try my hand at writing scripts. Where once the TV business had given me with hope, I now felt diminished. I found myself remembering the long-in-tooth writers who had come in to pitch their tired episode ideas on “Miami Vice” and “Midnight Caller,” and how I had promised myself I wouldn’t end up the way they had. If I insisted on squeezing the last drop of juice from the orange, that was exactly who I’d be – short on pride and dignity, just a beggar with a nice car. It felt as though there were less of me every time I turned around. I was in a bad sci-fi movie and I was slowly vanishing.
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