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From Ali to Xena, Part Three: Hooray for Hollywood

Posted By Alex Belth On December 28, 2011 @ 9:16 pm In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled

  [1]

Chapter 32: The Great Escape

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.

[2]

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.

[3]

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.

[4]

Steven Bochco

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

Dear John:

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.

Best regards,
Steven Bochco

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.

Chapter 33: The Deep End of the Pool

[5]

The door to Hollywood was open, courtesy of Steven Bochco, and all I had to do was step through it. As easy as that sounded, I was fully aware of how ill-equipped I was to write for the series that turned out to be “L.A. Law.” I’d never written a script and, uncharacteristically, I didn’t try to once I received Steven’s invitation. Though I’d always been a grind and a stickler for preparation, this time I backed off, as if I were afraid to risk screwing up the alignment of the stars that had shone on me thus far.

I pored over the “Hill Street Blues” scripts Steven had sent me until the print started to fade, soaking up their rhythms and quirks and humanity. When drafts of the pilot script for “L.A. Law” began arriving, I read them even more ravenously. If I’d been smart, I would have saved them. All I have, however, are my memories of how the script by Steven and the show’s co-creator, a former lawyer named Terry Louise Fisher, hit me between the eyes with its intelligence, irreverence, and heart. Though multiple storylines were being juggled, they never detracted from the luminous writing. Likewise, there would be no caving in to the mill-run blandness that makes the characters on too many TV series sound like the creation of an uninspired ventriloquist. In just a few lines of dialogue, Steven and Terry had me seeing a three-dimensional quality to the womanizing Arnie Becker, the up-from-nothing Victor Sifuentes, and the career-burdened lovers, Ann Kelsey and Michael Kuzak. That’s the way first-class writing works on the screen, big or small: a little begets a lot.

[6]

The other significant lesson I learned lay in the number of drafts the script went through. I’d never been one for rewriting – there’s rarely time for it on a newspaper – but that was all Steven and Terry seemed to be doing. And in every draft they made a stunning script better. The question for me was whether I could come anywhere near what they had achieved, anywhere near being within a million miles. Some days, when I was particularly full of myself, I didn’t see why not. Other days, when reality grabbed my lapel and gave me a good shake, I could feel my throat constricting. Either way, there was no ignoring the obvious: I was going to be in the deep end of the pool.

While I waited for Steven to tell me when to show up, I tried not to turn my Philadelphia Daily News column into a public disgrace. I’d promised the sports editor that I’d come back to the paper if I struck out in Hollywood, but no matter how I pushed myself, my heart was far from the work at hand. I felt no more connection to Philly than I had when I was a visiting writer. If there was an out-of-town assignment, I tried to grab it, the farther out of town the better. I made the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology twice while I was at the Daily News, and one piece was written in Chicago, the other in Anchorage, Alaska.

The dateline I was most interested in, of course, was Los Angeles. There are many things I haven’t been smart about in my life, but whenever I was in L.A., I was smart enough to capitalize on Steven’s invitation to call him. We chatted a time or two, and then he invited me to dinner with him and his wife at the time, Barbara Bosson, whom you may remember as the precinct captain’s increasingly unhinged ex-wife on “Hill Street.” We went to Michael’s, in Santa Monica, which was then the hottest restaurant in town. I don’t remember what I ate, other than it was probably more than Steven and his wife put away combined. But I do remember how Michael himself came out and schmoozed with the Bochcos and threw in a quick backrub for Steven. So this was how TV royalty was treated.

[7]

Later, I was in L.A. again, this time to cover the Lakers when the Houston Rockets upset them to get into the 1986 NBA finals. Steven invited me to swing by his office at Twentieth Century Fox and watch an early cut of the “L.A. Law” pilot. He wasn’t around when I showed up, but his assistant had everything ready for me. I watched it by myself, thrilled to see how the splendid cast he had assembled brought those characters to life. There was magic involved-–I wasn’t sure how it was conjured up, but more than ever, I wanted to be part of it.

In mid-June 1986, almost 11 months to the day after Steven wrote me the letter that became my life preserver, there I was. I made a silent vow to check my ego at the door, took a deep breath, and walked into the Old Writers Building on the Fox lot. “Nobody here but us old writers,” Steven said. I’d read the scripts he’d sent me, a venerable introductory text called “Screenplay,” by Syd Field, and the script for “Chinatown,” which remains the gold standard of screenwriting. And that was the sum total of my preparation for the turning point in my life.

[8]

"Chinatown" by Robert Towne

Steven introduced me to Terry Fisher, who looked at me like she still hadn’t heard an acceptable explanation for my presence. But Steven was the big dog in the room, so my place at the table was secure. After some polite chitchat, we started to work on breaking the story lines for what would become the eighth episode of “L.A. Law.” Ten minutes in, I realized just how far out of my league I was.

Here were two incredibly smart, savvy, sophisticated people-–one a reformed lawyer, the other a legendary TV writer who had steeped himself in the law and lawyers-–and they were doing something they had done hundreds of times before. They were kicking around ideas and notions and snippets of dialogue the way the Harlem Globetrotters whip a basketball around. I was a bumpkin, unschooled in law and barely conversant with screenwriting. I sat there paralyzed, unable to contribute a single coherent thought. This wasn’t what I’d expected at all. All my life I’d worked alone, and now that I’d been thrust into Hollywood’s collaborative process, I was afraid that if I tried to say anything, I would squeak like a mouse.

[Swimming Pool Photograph by David Lee Guss [9]]

Chapter 34: A Message From Mr. Bochco

[10]

In the midst of the terror that paralyzed me in my first Hollywood story meeting, I heard a voice from my newspaper days tell me to do what I’d always done when other people were talking: take notes. So I madly started scribbling down everything Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher were saying. And I kept scribbling until the day was done (thank God) and the story was broken (no thanks to me).

The story would become a script called “Gibbon Take.” It was about, among other things, a trust for the poor people of Beverly Hills. Steven sent me off to write the beat sheet for it, so we could see how the story looked on paper and where it needed shoring up. A beat sheet is a scene-by-scene outline that serves as the foundation for a script and a safeguard if a writer (me, for instance) makes a hash of said script. In the movie business, it’s known as a step outline, but movies take forever to make and writers come and go, leaving step outlines trampled and forgotten. But in TV, where the pace is furious-–a new episode is shot every seven or eight days-–a beat sheet is a rock to cling to.

On my way out the door that day, with my head still spinning, Steven’s assistant asked me the magic question: “John, where would you like us to send your check?” I hadn’t done anything to earn it yet, but I’ve never been one to turn down an offer of money, so I gave her my address in Philly and hurried off before she learned the awful truth about me.

I was staying at the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard–the fabled rock-and-roll Riot House from the 60s-–and I spent the next day or two arranging and rearranging the order of scenes, looking for coherent act breaks, and basically taking baby steps as a TV writer. I worked on the same Olivetti portable typewriter that I’d hauled around the country as a sports columnist.

[11]

Steven would make changes in what I concocted, but still what I handed him wasn’t so bad that he banished me back from the premises. Instead, he gave me a big smile, wrapped an arm around my shoulder and asked, “You all right?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you looked like a horse in a burning barn the other day.”

Then we sat down to do some more work on the story. He wanted to get me writing as soon as he could, just as he had the other two untested TV writers he was taking a flier on. One was a woman whose name I forget. The other was a young lawyer from Boston named David Kelley. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Created “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Picket Fences,” to name but a few series. Wrote almost every episode himself (to the amazement of even the most prolific and best writers in the business). Won every kind of award they hand out. Married Michelle Pfeiffer. All that and he was a good guy, a certified Boston sports nut who kept asking me what his favorite ballplayers were really like. I told him they were all princes. I was in no position to disillusion anybody.

Anyway, Steven wanted to find out about me as a writer as fast as he could. The woman he’d taken a chance on had just delivered her script, and it was a disaster. If I turned out to be just as bad, he wanted to send me packing as quickly so he and Terry Fisher could do a salvage job.

This wasn’t anything he told me, of course, but I could see it written on his face just as he had seen the fear written on mine. Inspired by our mutual discomfort, I made a proposal: what if I wrote five or six scenes from my beat sheet as a test run? If he liked them, I would finish the script. If he didn’t, I’d go back to sportswriting and we would part as friends. It didn’t take any convincing for him to say yes.

By now I was staying at Mike Downey’s apartment in Marina del Ray while he was on the road for the L.A. Times. Just me and my Olivetti as I tried to bring those great Bochco-esque characters to life. If I had any gift at all for what I was attempting, it was that I was a decent mimic. Steven’s characters spoke with such specific voices that I could imitate them without embarrassing myself. So I wrote and re-wrote each scene, polishing them until they had as much shine on them as I could muster. Then, on a Friday afternoon, I stopped by Fox and handed them to Steven. He said he’d read them and get back to me as fast as he could. Both of us were nervous, though for far different reasons.

I spent most of the next day wandering around and didn’t get back to Downey’s apartment until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The message light on the phone was blinking. It was Steven, with a verdict: “I don’t know what you’re doing hanging around with sports writers, kid. You’re in show business.”

[12]

 

Chapter 35: The Show Must Go On

[13]

With Steven Bochco’s stunning message–“You’re in show business, kid”–playing on a loop in my head, I headed back to Philadelphia to write the rest of my script. No sooner did I get there than his collaborator, Terry Fisher, called to say they needed the script sooner than planned. It was a lesson in the reality of episodic TV, and there was nothing I could do but roll with it. Just as I as picked up the pace, though, my father died.

He and my mother had lived in Marshall, Minnesota, since he retired from the hotel business. It was a farming town of about 12,000 near where my mother had grown up and far from what I think my cosmopolitan dad would have preferred. He let her have her way, though, as if he were trying to make up for all the long hours she had sat at home alone while he was working.

For him to do anything else would have been out of character. He was the only true gentleman I’ve ever met, a lovely guy with an abundance of charm and grace. I don’t recall ever hearing him swear, and I know for sure that he never lost his Danish accent. Unlike my mother, he was at peace with my decision to chase my dreams from one side of the country to the other. And yet I don’t think I realized just how proud he was of me until I was going through his things after he died. It seemed as though every time he found my syndicated sports column in the St. Paul paper, he clipped it out and saved it in a shoebox. I wish he had lived long enough to see me go to Hollywood. It would have been the perfect reward for all the Saturdays he took me to see the great old movies that captured my imagination when I was a kid.

This was the first time death had struck so close to me, and I’m still not sure I’ve ever grieved properly. There wasn’t time. After the funeral, I had to hustle back to Philly to make the new deadline for my script. If it hadn’t been the script, it would have been something else. That’s the way things work, as I’m sure we’ve all learned at some point. I’m just glad I was working for Bochco when things went sideways, because he was cool through it all. He told me to take care of what needed taking care of -– the show would still be there when I returned to Hollywood to work on a re-write. I’m sure he was feeling pressure himself – he had a lot riding on “L.A. Law” – but he never passed the pressure on to me.

I was already creating enough of it for myself. For one thing, the idea of re-writing would take some getting used to. I’d done a bit of it for magazine pieces, but in newspapers there was rarely time for it. In Hollywood everything was about re-writing. For my “L.A. Law” script, I worked with the show’s executive story editor, Jacob Epstein, the garrulous son of a New York literary family, who was a veteran of “Hill Street Blues” and happened to be 11 years younger than me. That was something else about Hollywood that took some getting used to: everybody seemed to be younger than me. Here I was, 41 years old, and the first headline I can remember reading in Daily Variety was about how writers in their 40s couldn’t get work. Sweet Jesus, I thought, I’m dead on arrival.

Maybe the talk about no work for writers of my vintage held true in comedy, where staffs skewed young, but in drama, where I was working, was filled with guys my age. Bochco, for one, was only a year or two my senior. His star writers on “Hill Street” had been around my age. Same with a lot of the writers on “Moonlighting” and “St. Elsewhere,” to name two other hot shows from that era.

So age wouldn’t do me in yet. I just had to lean into my work. Jacob and I would talk about how a scene needed to be different, and then I’d go into a room by myself, re-write it, and emerge an hour later. My newspaper training never served me better, though I’d always hated deadlines for the compromises they forced you to make. I’d been a slow newspaper writer, but by Hollywood standards, I was almost a sprinter. Or maybe I was more like Pavlov’s dog: tell me to re-write a scene, any scene, and I’d do it and come back begging for more.

Jacob turned out to be my greatest advocate at “L.A. Law,” lobbying hard to get me on the show’s writing staff. But Steven was too smart for that. He was also too gracious to be that blunt about it when I finished my re-write and started wondering what came next. I didn’t have any background in law, I was a rookie as far as TV writing went, and, quite frankly, Steven may have realized that I didn’t possess the magic he was searching for. I can tell you for certain that he re-wrote every word of my script, though the on-screen credit read “Written by John Schulian.” Jacob assured me that Steven was re-writing every script as he searched for the right staff. It would go on this way, Jacob said, until later in the season, when fatigue set in and the surviving writers had a handle on what he wanted.

Even though I wouldn’t be one of them, when I stopped by to visit the day it was announced that the premiere of “L.A. Law” was number one in the ratings, Steven gave me my first big Hollywood hug. (I’ve got to tell you this is the hugging-est damn town I ever was in.) Better yet, he arranged for me to meet with Bill Sackheim, a veteran of the Hollywood wars, who had been his mentor at Universal.

From day one, Steven had been the antithesis of what I’d heard about powerful people in show business. That was partly because he wasn’t producing a show that was on the air when my letter landed on his desk. He was contemplating what “L.A. Law” would be, and that gave him the time to give me more attention that he might have otherwise. Never was he was less than supportive, classy, and generous. He could easily have forced me to split the writing fee on my script with him, but he was too big for that. He didn’t need the money. He had already made millions, and he would make millions upon millions more.

I took him to lunch as a token of my gratitude, and since then I’ve only run into him once. It was at a prizefight in Las Vegas, in 1992, when I was working on an ill-fated script for HBO. He recognized me then. I’m not sure he would now. But that doesn’t matter. Everything I managed to accomplish in Hollywood in the next 20 years, every penny I made, can be traced back to the fact that Steven Bochco took a chance on me. I can never thank him enough.

Chapter 36: The Big Leap

[14]

The fact that I lived through my experience at “L.A. Law” and had an on-screen writing credit to show for it gave me a seal of approval: “You worked for Steven Bochco? You’re just the guy we’ve been looking for.” It didn’t seem to matter that I’d just hit town and barely knew my hip pocket from a teakettle when it came to screenwriting. That’s how much clout the man had.

Steven made the call that got me in the door with his mentor, Bill Sackheim, at Universal. Sackheim was an embraceable curmudgeon who’d been through the wars in both TV and movies, writing westerns for Audie Murphy and Joel McCrea, producing and co-writing “Rambo,” and dealing with the nightmare that was Sally Field in her “Gidget” days. It didn’t take long for me to realize that time spent with him would be an education, and believe me, I needed educating, especially in the art of constructing a story for the screen.

[15]

But while I was trying to develop an idea for a Sackheim project about newspaper reporters, I got a call from a young “Miami Vice” writer named Mike Duggan. I’d met him at Jacob Epstein’s 30th birthday part, and here he was not three weeks later, telling me his boss was looking for someone to help write a two-parter about boxing. Once again the stars were aligned.

In less than two hours, I was in “Vice’s” offices–Building 69 on the Universal lot–meeting Dick Wolf, who was running the writing staff. The very same Dick Wolf who would go on to create “Law & Order” and all its spinoffs. He’d come over from “Hill Street Blues,” where he had clashed famously with the brilliant but erratic David Milch [16]. In his spare time, he was producing two movies he’d written. I don’t know when he slept, but he always walked around grinning like the kid who got the most toys at Christmas.

I shook hands with Dick, and then he introduced me to an amiable, prematurely gray guy who was just about to leave: Kerry McCluggage. Kerry was “Vice’s” supervising producer that afternoon; two days later he was named president of Universal Television. Just like that, I was on a first-name basis with one of the most powerful people in the business. When I’d bump into him on the lot, he’d always say hello and ask about the show, as if I really knew anything about what was going on.

On that first Saturday, however, all that mattered was making a good impression and getting the assignment. I spun a couple yarns about Muhammad Ali and then a few about Don King, and I knew I had scored when Dick showed me the story for the first of the two boxing episodes and asked what I thought of it. I pointed out a few things he had wrong and he didn’t try to debate me, didn’t even flinch; he just fixed them. Then he said, “Okay, we need the script by Tuesday.”

[17]

Dick looked at me, still grinning, but there was a question in his eyes that I have to believe involved whether or not I would run out of his office screaming when I heard the deadline. He was asking me to do a rush job, but I’d spent 16 years in newspapers doing rush jobs. This would simply be one for higher stakes.

“Fine,” I said.

“Then you do acts two and three. I’ll do one and four.”

The race was on. I hustled back to Le Parc, where I was staying again, and started hammering away on my Olivetti. I didn’t stop until Tuesday morning when Dick swung by the hotel and I ran out the front door to hand him what I had written. A couple of hours later, he called to say I had passed my trial by fire.

I should point out that the script Dick and I lashed together in three days wouldn’t be the one we shot. It would simply be something the production team in Miami could work off for casting, location scouting, and that sort of thing. While all that was being taken care of, Dick and I went to work on a rewrite that was a far better piece of work.

[18]

“Miami Vice” was in its third season when I showed up, and no longer had the heat it did when its stars, Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas, made the cover of Time and established Crockett and Tubbs in the national lexicon. But I was still in tall clover. I didn’t even mind that I was working in a spare office full of the empty cardboard boxes that signified the previous occupant’s failure. Every time I finished rewriting a scene, I’d trot it down to Dick’s office. Halfway through the process, he looked at me (grinning, of course) and said, “I don’t know where you learned to do it, but you know how to get into a scene and out of a scene.” All those years of reading W.C. Heinz [19], Jimmy Breslin [20] and Gay Talese [21], the masters of the scene in journalistic form, were paying off. They had always relied on the tools of drama–character, dialogue, the kinetic energy of the moment–and just as I had followed their lead in my newspaper and magazine work, now I was doing it in a medium where the scene was everything.

There were other links to my not-so-distant past as well. Our cast featured rowdy heavyweight Tex Cobb, [22] Olympic champion Mark Breland, and the one and only Don King. I put words I’d heard King say in his character’s mouth, and he made a hash of them. Stuff like “afoxanado” and “low and scurrilous cad.” I even had him say someone was “matriculating on the veranda.” Everything was set up to make King look great. And he whiffed, the big goof.

[23]

Cobb was an infinitely better thespian, which should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers him in the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona.” My fondest memory of him, of course, is that he was the first man I killed on TV. But far more thrilling than that was hearing Crockett and Tubbs saying my words, and seeing the stylized shot of three killers swaggering through a gymnasium door with bad intentions, lit perfectly, with clouds of man-made fog wafting in for atmosphere. It was pure “Miami Vice.”

[24]

I got all those mental keepsakes, and a full-time job, too. Dick hired me as a staff writer, and then he and I set to work on the second of the boxing episodes. Or maybe we wrote part two first. Things were moving so fast that they blur in my memory. The one thing I’m absolutely certain of is how lucky I was as I sat in my office, now clear of boxes, and banged out my half of the next script. Without realizing it, I had hopscotched past thousands of writers who would have sold body parts and family members to be where I was.

 

Chapter 37: The Money Trap

Over the years, as I told other writers how I got into the business, I would hear again and again that it just didn’t happen that way. It was beyond improbable. It was impossible. And these were writers who hadn’t just fallen off a truckload of turkeys. They were good, some were even great, which is to say they were far more accomplished than I ever was at screenwriting. But I was the one who, for reasons I will never understand, caught a break the size of a tidal wave. No, make that a succession of breaks the size of a tidal wave.

[25]

Ordinarily, Michael Mann, the executive producer of “Miami Vice,” would have grilled me and probably demanded to see a lot more than my “L.A. Law” script. But “Vice” had consumed him the two previous years, when he was wresting control of it from its creator, Tony Yerkovich, and developing the look that revolutionized TV. Now, he was busy opening the first Hannibal Lechter move, “Manhunter,” which he’d directed, and launching his second TV series, the brilliant but underappreciated “Crime Story.” Dick Wolf, a master at seizing the moment, told him I’d covered the cops in my newspaper days. It wasn’t a lie, really. Almost all the reporters on the Baltimore Evening Sun’s city desk took a turn at police headquarters or covering the districts, and I’d taken mine, too. But I was hardly the street-smart, steely-eyed character Dick described to Mann, who shrugged and said, “Okay, if he’s the guy you want.” I should have known then that Dick would go far.

It turned out that I wouldn’t meet Mann–wouldn’t even lay eyes on him, in fact–until I’d been at “Vice” for six or seven months and had written all or part of six scripts, credited and uncredited. I did, however, have the same agent as Mann and Dick, which may or may not have helped when the time came to negotiate my deal with Universal. Even though I was basically getting on-the-job training as a TV writer, I ended up making twice what I had in my best year in Chicago as one of the country’s top sports columnists.

My agent’s name was Marty. He was soft-spoken, baby-faced, barely 30, if that. Butter wouldn’t have melted in his mouth until he was negotiating. Then he turned into a werewolf, or worse. A year or two after he began representing me, he phoned one morning and said, with consummate pride. “At Columbia they’re calling me the anti-Christ.” He’s long out of the business now, and yet he still crosses my mind occasionally. And when he does, I always think of a wonderful riff in John Gregory Dunne’s novel “The Red, White and Blue” [26] about how all agents are Marty and all writers are Mel.

So I, being a perfect Mel, responded to the good news about my fat salary by telling Marty, “I love it when you talk dirty.”

“Dirty?” he said, offended. “Money’s not dirty.”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant. I’m just telling you it’s a lot of money and I appreciate it.”

“Of course it’s a lot of money. I only get to keep 10 percent of it.”

[27]

When I told my mother my salary, she said, “Oh, Johnny, why do you want to make so much money?” I wish I could tell you she was kidding. She’d grown up in humble circumstances and had a very specific and deeply held notion of what constituted an obscene amount of money. This was it. I can only imagine what she would have thought about the money I went on to make, even though it was modest compared to what TV’s biggest hitters earned. She was old-fashioned that way.

Actually, she was old-fashioned in a lot of ways. She never learned to drive, for example, just took the bus and walked, which was fine by her, though it certainly limited the size of her world. But she was indomitable. And tough. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she thought was right, and if that meant feuding with a neighbor, so be it. I suppose I get my temper from her, though she never came close to blowing up the way I have from time to time. I’ll tell you something else about my mother: she didn’t approve of a lot of what I wrote for TV in the seven years before she died. She didn’t like the violence on “Miami Vice,” or the double entendres on “L.A. Law,” or maybe even the cigar that Dabney Coleman smoked on “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story.” I always felt uncomfortable about that until I read Elmore Leonard’s confession that he took it easy with sex and profanity in his novels until his mother died. Mothers cast a long shadow over a lot of us.

Mine certainly would have been much happier if I’d come home from the Army, moved back into my old bedroom, and spent the rest of my life as a worker bee at the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve got an old friend from Salt Lake who’s the same way about his kids. Most of them have heeded their father’s wishes and stayed relatively close to home, but one is off working in New York, which is my friend’s idea of the devil’s playground. I tell him the same thing I told my mother: There’s no going back home once you’ve seen the other side of the mountain.

[28]

Chapter 38: Crockett and Tubbs (Mostly Crockett)

[29]

Even though it disappeared from prime time more than 20 years ago, “Miami Vice” still has a hold on people, whether it’s because they dressed like Crockett and Tubbs at a bar mitzvah or they’re looking for cocaine residue on those of us who helped make cultural icons of TV’s hippest cops. Myself, I’ve never looked good in white loafers without socks, and I’ve never done coke. But I didn’t realize I should have said so to Robert Wuhl before I went on his radio show last spring to promote “At the Fights,” the boxing anthology that the sainted George Kimball and I edited. I was primed to talk about everyone from Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran to Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling, but as soon as Wuhl saw “Miami Vice” on my resume, he wanted to know about all the coked-out shenanigans on South Beach. When I told him I didn’t know anything, he gave me the kind of look Hillary Clinton must have given Bill the first time she asked him about that Lewinsky woman and he lied his presidential ass off.

I was telling the truth, though. I really didn’t know anything beyond the same rumors everybody else seemed to have heard. When I was on “Vice,” the last thing on my mind was getting high. I wanted to establish myself in Hollywood, and this was my chance to do it. We wrote the scripts at Universal Studios and shot them in Miami, which gave everybody there plenty of chances to go native. The most outrageous behavior I heard of, however, was when Dick Wolf called Don Johnson only to be told that Don had gone skiing in Aspen. I suppose you could excuse him because he’d run off on a Friday when he didn’t have much work to do, just a couple of scenes in which we could shoot his double from behind. Of course his double had the world’s worst wig and looked the way Don would have on a diet of Krispy Kremes, but Don got away with it. It’s good to be the star.

[30]

If Don had been anything less, he wouldn’t have directed an episode I’d written called “By Hooker By Crook.” He lobbied for Melanie Griffith, his ex-wife, to play a socialite who moonlights as a madam, and, wonder of wonders, she got the part. In a cast that was magnificently goofy – Captain Lou Albano, the wrestler; Vanity, who had been Prince’s main squeeze; George Takei from “Star Trek” – Melanie was the main attraction. She and Don did a lot of rolling around in bed for the sake of the episode; in dailies she’d pull a sheet tight around her at the end of each take and laughingly tell the crew, “Quit looking at my tits.” Don and Melanie must have done some rolling around off-camera, too, because they wound up giving marriage a second try. That one didn’t work, either.

[31]

The fact that Don was directing didn’t mean much to me until I came home one night to my apartment in a complex crawling screenwriters, guys going through divorces (who may have been screenwriters too), stage mothers and their children, strippers, and hookers. The phone was ringing as I opened the door. It was Dick Wolf.

“Don wants you in Miami,” he said.

“I’ll catch the first thing smoking in the morning,” I said.

“No, you don’t understand. Don wants you there now.”

Apparently our star had developed a case of the yips as his first day of directing drew near. So I took the red-eye to Miami, where a driver picked me up and drove me to the art deco hotel where the company was quartered. I slept for a few hours and then went out to the set. The first person I saw coming out of Don’s trailer was Kerry McCluggage, the president of Universal TV. That’s when I knew how big a deal this was, and just how skittish Don was.

[32]

As it turned out, he asked very little of me. I expected a demand for major revisions, but all he wanted to do was look out for his character, Sonny Crokett. He combed the script looking for the few good lines I’d given Crockett’s partner, Ricardo Tubbs. Every time he found one, he’d say, “I think Crockett should say that,” and I would dutifully make the change. Poor Philip Michael Thomas. He wasn’t much of an actor, but he was a good enough Tubbs, and here was Don turning him into a nonentity in his one shot at glory. It was as if Phillip didn’t realize what was at stake. Don certainly did. He’d been the king of failed pilots until Kerry McCluggage talked him into doing what Brandon Tartikoff, the wizard who ran NBC, famously called “MTV Cops.” Now that Don had finally found success, he was biting down on it like a pit bull.

Because I was in Miami to aid and abet him, he invited me to dinner at his home on Star Island. It was just Don, his son, and me (and the hired help, of course). He kept calling the boy “son,” as if he couldn’t remember his name. It was all perfectly pleasant, though: a nice meal, a little light conversation. And then Don looked at me very seriously and said, “They tell me you used to be a sportswriter. That’s a strange way to make a living, isn’t it?”

[33]

This from a guy who played an undercover cop who wore pastel clothes and sockless white loafers, drove a Ferrari Testarossa, had a pet alligator named Elvis, ran around glorious mansions shooting bad guys, and spent more than a little time staring moodily into the distance while Phil Collins or Simply Red or some other hot music act played in the background.

And he wanted to know if writing sports is a strange way to make a living.

“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose it is.”

Chapter 39: War Stories

[34]

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.

[35]

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.

[36]

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.

[37]

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.

Chapter 40: Brass Cannolis

[38]

Every time I landed on a new show, my reputation preceded me. I was the ex-sports writer who had covered so much boxing that people must have thought I typed wearing eight-ounce gloves. Who better to write an episode about the fight racket? It happened that way on “Miami Vice” and when I freelanced an episode of Steven Bochco’s dramedy “Hooperman,” and I suppose I only called more attention to my past by setting a pilot and two screenplays in the world of boxing. The pilot was never shot and the screenplays never sold, but that was beside the point. I was still the guy to whom Muhammad Ali once said, “Pay attention, white boy.”

[39]

There was no escaping even at “Midnight Caller,” where I was reunited with my old amigo David Israel, who had covered more than enough fights to qualify for a boxing script. But I got the call. I dreamed up a Mexican boxer who had entered the country illegally and wound up in the clutches of a crooked boxing promoter. As soon as I concocted the promoter’s name – Ralston J. Cashdollar – I started hearing his voice in every line of dialogue I wrote for him. The voice belonged to Hoyt Axton, a rowdy, good-natured country singer who defined the expression barrel-chested. Whether he was doing a duet with Linda Ronstadt or breaking hearts solo with “Evangelina” or just getting silly with “Boney Fingers,” his music made me want to shake his hand. He’d done some acting, too, on TV in “WKRP in Cincinnati” and in movies like “Gremlins” and “The Black Stallion.” I pointed this out to anybody who would listen, and the next thing I knew, Hoyt was playing the promoter. It turned out to be a mixed blessing.

He was nothing if not great fun when he was offering people caramel-covered cashews he’d gotten from a woman in Ardmore, Oklahoma, or dipping into the leaf bag full of pot that he apparently never left home without. But when the time came for him to emote, it was a different story. He couldn’t remember his lines, couldn’t even come close. And every day the episode’s director, Jim Quinn, would call me from San Francisco, where we shot the show, and say, “Guess what the Hoytster did today.” It was funny if you were sitting in “Midnight Caller’s” offices in L.A., as I was. It was life shortening if you a director trying to get a serviceable performance out of Hoyt while the clock ate up the budget.

[40]

And yet his mangled dialogue contributed a grace note to his mind-bending time with us. He was supposed to tell our hero he had “some brass cojones.” Not the greatest line in the world, admittedly, but the scene called for it. And then Hoyt unconsciously improved on it – was he ever truly conscious? – by saying our hero had “some brass cannolis.” It stayed in the show, of course. I wish I could claim it as my own.

[41]

All in all, there was nothing I didn’t like about “Midnight Caller” except a balky, antiquated computer that I put out of its misery with a baseball bat. (True story. I wrote it for GQ and got fan mail from fellow Luddites everywhere.) After competing as sports columnists, Israel and I meshed perfectly, much to the surprise of Reggie Theus, the ex-Chicago Bulls star, who did a double-take when he saw us hanging out instead of bickering or posturing or whatever it was we’d done in the day. We knew we had a good thing going, and a major reason for that was “Midnight Caller’s” thoroughly professional star, Gary Cole, who has gone on to play, among other roles, Mr. Brady in the Brady Bunch movies and a whacked-out agent on “Entourage.” For us, Gary played an ex-San Francisco cop who had accidentally killed his partner and got a second chance by doing talk radio from midnight to 3 a.m. The kinds of stories we did were as varied as the people who called him, and the characters we came up with enticed a parade of wonderful guest stars to step off our wish list. In episodes that I wrote, the comedian Robert Klein played a burned-out 1960s disc jockey and Levon Helm, the drummer in the Band, played an ex-convict who wanted to go back to prison because it was the only place he knew how to exist.

No TV series is a love fest – too many egos and agendas for that – but “Midnight Caller” came as close to being one as anything I experienced. The writing staff was composed primarily of red-meat eaters, and the crew in San Francisco put together a hard rockin’ band, and our executive producer, Bob Singer, took undisguised pleasure in being in the middle of it all. He was a man of consummate good taste in hiring people whether they were actors, writers, gaffers, or go-fers. And when a certain writer turned in a script that showed he had no feel for the show, Bob zapped him with a line for the ages.

The writer provided the straight line when, in a last-gasp defense, he told Bob, “You know in your heart this is a great script.”

And Bob said, “Carlton, I don’t have a heart.”

It hurts when I mention “Midnight Caller” today and get a blank look in return. It was on NBC for three seasons and I wrote for it for the last two, but the people I find myself surrounded with apparently never noticed because they were watching the mewling yuppies on “thirtyomething.” The yuppies were our competition on Tuesday nights when I got to “Midnight Caller,” and we beat them in the ratings more times than you might think. But their demographics beat our demographics, so the network moved us to Friday nights, when our audience was out cashing paychecks, drinking in neighborhood saloons, or watching high school football. Our audience never came back, and ultimately neither did the show.

It was a dark day when “Midnight Caller” wasn’t picked up for a fourth season, but I had no idea just how dark until I went to work on the show that replaced it on NBC’s schedule, “Reasonable Doubts.” Going in, it looked like a potential hit, with Mark Harmon, a genuine TV star and a first-class guy, as a cop and Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who won an Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God,” as a prosecutor. On top of that, Bob Singer, who created the show, was running things, surrounded by lots of familiar faces from “Midnight Caller.” Israel had moved on and I had signed on as co-executive producer after Bob told me he wanted “Reasonable Doubts” to be “dark and sexy.” I could do that, I thought, and I hired two terrific writers, Steven Phillip Smith and Kathy McCormick, who thought they could, too. They were perfect for the show. I couldn’t have been more wrong for it.

[42] [43]

The worm turned when I handed in my first script. I assume it was dark and sexy, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was about. It has been banished to the depths of my subconscious, along with the pain I felt when Bob and I met with NBC and an executive with a reptilian smile ordered my script thrown out and the show reconfigured. The best I could understand, it was now supposed to be a weekly love letter to Marlee’s character. I didn’t do love letters. The only good memory I have from rest of that season is a two-parter about a rape that Bob and I co-wrote, a serious and honest piece of work by anyone’s standards. Other than that, I sat in my office with the door closed, unable to wrap my head around what the show had become, hating the fact that I was letting Bob down, and, most of all, counting the days until the season ended. The great run I’d had in my first six years in Hollywood was deader than the flowers on Marilyn Monroe’s grave.

Chapter 41: If the Phone Doesn’t Ring

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.

[44]

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.

[45]

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.

[46]

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.”

[47]

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.

[48]

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.

Chapter 42: Hard Labor, Hollywood Style

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?

[49]

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.

[50]

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.

[51]

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.

[52]

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.

[53]

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.

Chapter 43: Wish for a Boxer, Get a Warrior Princess

[54]

By the time I got to “Hercules,” I’d all but given up on the best idea I ever had for a TV series. There was a boxer at the heart of it, naturally, but there was more to his life than left hooks and roadwork. He was part of a family that embodied the yearnings and diminished dreams of blue-collar America. His old man worked in a tannery in Chicago and had a gambling problem. His mother was ready to walk out after holding things together for as long as she could. His sister was trying to distance herself from the quagmire at home after becoming the only member of the family to graduate from college. His kid brother was in and out of trouble with the law. And the fighter would come to know every up and down in the brutal sport that might or might not be his salvation. His name was Nick Pafko and I called his story “The Ring.” If there was anything I did in Hollywood that touched my soul, that made me feel the way I did when I wrote about Muhammad Ali or Josh Gibson or Pete Maravich, this was it.

I can even tell you where I was when inspiration struck in 1989: on Mulholland Drive, heading toward another day at “Wiseguy.” I called my agent of the moment, Elliot Webb, as soon as I got to my office in that pre-cellphone era. “This is your million-dollar idea,” he said. Unfortunately, nobody I tried to sell it to for the next five years agreed with him. The networks, infatuated by glitz and glamour, wanted no part of a drama about people with broken noses and callused hands. So I put it in a drawer and concentrated on a world as unreal as “The Ring” was real.

Toward the end of our initial 13-episode order for “Hercules,” just as I prepared to introduce a warrior princess named Xena to the show, I got a call from the latest in my procession of agents, Nancy Jones. She said the Fox Network was curious. I told her curious wasn’t enough, not when I spent every waking moment writing scripts with one hand and fending off Rob Tapert’s serial treachery with the other. Nancy turned on her best stern-mommy voice and said, “John, go pitch it.” So I did, and when Fox said no, I thought “The Ring” was done for good. But the network had a new president, a bookish gent named John Matoian, and something about it caught his attention when he sifted through the discard pile. The next thing I knew, I had a deal to write a pilot script for “The Ring.”

Ah, but I still had “Hercules” and the warrior princess to deal with, didn’t I? I told Tapert and my would-be staff that I was all theirs from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. After that, my door would be closed and I would be working on a long-shot script that might save me from cleaning out the Augean Stables they created daily. High-handed? You bet. But I knew “The Ring” might be my last best chance to do a serious drama, and I’d be damned if I would waste it for the sake a show I’d never imagined doing when I came to Hollywood. Besides, I had already worked out the story that would introduce Xena, and I had promised to write it as soon as I finished my pilot. Tapert, in a rare moment of grace, acquiesced.

[55]

I’m not sure I ever had a better time writing anything than I did “The Ring.” I was dealing with characters I could practically hear breathing, in a sport that clamped its gnarled hands around my heart the first time I walked into a gym full of broken dreams. And the amazing thing – the truly once-in-my-lifetime thing – was that Fox loved the script. I’m not talking about a version of it that had been tinkered with by well-meaning young know-nothings from the studio and network. I’m talking about the script as I delivered it on the Monday after Thanksgiving 1994. Somehow it had bypassed the usual gauntlet of prying eyes and half-baked ideas and landed on the desk of the head of the network himself. And John Matoian called it “impeccable” with me sitting there in his office. He said it was one of his two favorite scripts in that development season. He embraced it as much as someone in his position could, but not so much that he didn’t have two problems with it. He thought it was too bleak and – you guessed it – too blue collar.

So much for my euphoria. I didn’t know how to address either of his concerns. “The Ring” by its very nature had to be blue-collar–rich kids don’t take up prizefighting. As for being bleak, I didn’t understand that at all. “The Ring” was about a working-class kid chasing his dream, which seemed to me the polar opposite of bleak. I was optimistic enough to think the show might even send a message to kids like my fighter that it was all right to seek a better tomorrow.

But there was too much at stake for me not to try to bend the script to Matoian’s liking. I’d given the fighter a rich girlfriend in my original script, so I added a party scene where he met her mother, who disapproved of him instantly. I moved the location of a fight from the dowdy old Aragon Ballroom to the sparkling new United Center, too. I must have made other changes, too, but they are lost to time, just like “The Ring.”

It died before it could ever go in front of a camera, at the same time I was part of the team bringing Xena into the world and unknowingly establishing the only cash cow I’ve ever had. Some might call that a better than fair trade. If “The Ring” had been like most TV series, it might not have lasted six episodes. “Xena: Warrior Princess” ran for six seasons and spawned a cultural icon. But when I tote up my own scorecard, I find myself thinking I would rather have seen “The Ring” die of bad ratings than have had a moment’s success with Xena. No, I’m not giving back the money the old girl made me. I’m just saying it would have been nice to see if I really could have spent my last years in Hollywood doing work I was proud of instead of work that usually made me want to change the subject.

[56]

But I still have my memories of “The Ring” to console me, and sometimes someone else tells me they remember it, too. When I was making my last stand in TV on a show called “Tremors,” I ran into a guy who’d been a young executive at 20th Century Fox TV when “The Ring” had its moment in the sun. He pulled me aside after a meeting and said he’d been talking with the man who’d been his boss then, and that “The Ring” had come up. “We agreed it was the best pilot we never did,” he said. I suppose I could have gotten angry. Instead, I damn near wept.

Chapter 44: Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Lucy Lawless

[57]

Xena was TV’s foremost riot grrrl, an ass-kicker in a leather bustier who stirred up the Sisters of Sappho as easily as she did fraternity boys and long haul truckers. She possessed an outlaw quality that spoke to the origins of the series that bore her name. There would be no network development fandango for this bad girl. She stepped out of the ether of syndication and into the world’s consciousness, untouched by a process that is arbitrary, capricious, and skewed to reward writers and producers who have already had shows on the air. Not that I can argue with the major networks’ reliance on known quantities. Better a big hitter–Steven Bochco in my day, John Wells today – than a guy who got thrown off the hay truck about noon, the way I did.

If my math is correct, I wrote nine pilot scripts, and all I got for my trouble was a paycheck, never a pilot order, never a series commitment. “The Ring” was the only one that shook the peaches out of anybody’s tree. But it still didn’t get made, which put its up-from-nothing boxer protagonist right alongside the rest of my fevered creations. There was a gladiator and a high school basketball coach and an ex-L.A. newspaper columnist turned hard-boiled problem solver. I pitted a rehabilitated Long John Silver against modern-day pirates in the South China Sea and put a version of World War II in outer space because the young executives to whom I pitched the war itself appeared not to be aware of it. When I swung for the fences with an idea about America in 2024 after a revolt of the underclass, I was foiled when one of the executives figured out whom the bad guys were. “You’re talking about us,” she said.

It was the kind of response you can laugh about, but only after the pain subsides. I didn’t need TV’s development season to know about pain. I was working on “Hercules,” which I like to think as the predecessor to Abu Ghraib. And yet Xena sprang from it with a succession of miracles that amounted to one giant Percocet. The miracles started when Rob Tapert, the executive producer who doubled as my nemesis, and I came to a meeting of the minds on something. I wanted to write an episode about a woman who comes between Hercules and his sidekick, and Tapert, who loved “The Bride with White Hair” and all the other great Chinese action movies, wanted an episode about a ferocious (but comely) female warrior. Just like that, Hercules had a girl friend who wanted his head on a pike.

[58]

There was no second-guessing when we came up with such a character because “Hercules” wasn’t a network show. It was syndicated, which meant that if Universal was happy with what we did, we were good to go. No problem there. The studio executive overseeing the show was a puppy dog who was just happy to tag along after Tapert and Sam Raimi, and not bold enough to bark back when I barked at him.

So it was with an untroubled mind that I went to my office one Sunday afternoon, with nobody else around, certainly not Tapert, and noodled with names until I settled on Xena. I haven’t the slightest idea where it came from. I just knew the warrior princess’s name had to start with an X because X, as Tapert and I and every sentient fan of the genre will tell you, X is cool. Xena, meanwhile, remained a mystery until I walked into my dry cleaner’s when the show was a hit and the man behind the counter enlightened me. “Is Russian name,” he said.

What I eventually wrote wasn’t a pilot script in the traditional sense. It was a script for “Hercules,” and if the Xena character worked out, she would be spun off into her own series. She appeared in three episodes and was transformed from a bloodthirsty, Hercules-hating harridan to a good woman intent on making amends for all the harm she had done. It all seems so simple now – I wrote it, we shot it, the syndication salesman went out and sold “Xena: Warrior Princess” as a series – but we one more miracle to get past the biggest hurdle of all, finding an actress to play Xena. Our first choice couldn’t have been more wrong. Vanessa Angel was a delicate beauty you could have bruised with a hard look. Tapert sent her to take lessons in horseback riding, martial arts, and everything else he could think of to butch her up. But she was still cotton candy when she went off to spend the holidays in London. The plan was for her to fly back through L.A. on her way to New Zealand to shoot the first three “Hercules” episodes in 1995, the Xena trilogy. She never made it. The flu, she said when she called a day or two after Christmas, coughing and wheezing. Others attributed her backing out to what I’ll call the lovesick blues. Either way, we caught a break.

[59]

Of course we didn’t think so when we found ourselves without an actress to play Xena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, annually the deadest week in Hollywood. Tapert and Raimi worked the phones relentlessly, calling every amply endowed actress who had ever paraded in front of them, and, brother, they knew hundreds, maybe thousands. They talked to redheads, blondes and brunettes, country girls and city hoochies, Asians, Latinas, and African-Americans, and they struck out every time. And then a young assistant producer named David Eick said the magic words: “What about Lucy Lawless?”

There was much hemming and hawing at first, even by Tapert, which must have inspired some interesting conversations when he was convincing Lucy to marry him. But everybody had definitely noticed her when she had acted in the Hercules movies and a series episode. Better yet, she was massively available when Tapert tracked her down. My memory tells me she was panning for gold in Australia with her first husband, and if that’s not the truth, I don’t want to know what is. I like the idea of Lucy being an earthy babe.

[60]

If she hadn’t been one on screen, too, our gooses would have been cooked. There was nothing to do but offer up prayers to the fickle gods of show business, the ones who rarely give with both hands, and wait for the first day’s dailies to arrive. I watched them in my office, alone. There was Lucy looking great on a horse and even better when she jumped off it to swing a sword the size of Vanessa Angel and kick the stuffing out of a gang of marauding thugs. I called David Eick instantly.

[61]

“She’s Xena,” I said.

Miracles do happen.

Chapter 45: The Original Creator

No matter how well Kevin Sorbo played Hercules, rarely giving off sparks but always earnestly Midwestern, he could only gape along with the rest of us as Lucy Lawless’ Xena rocketed past him in the pop culture sweepstakes. Once the warrior princess was spun off into a series of her own, we found ourselves with a star who had something for everybody. She gave little girls an assertive role model, guys a finer appreciation of leather bustiers, and lesbians someone to drool over. On the New York Post’s Page Six, if there was a story about lesbian doings, the headline was likely to refer to “The Xena Crowd.” How was a big galoot from Minnesota supposed to compete with that?

[62]

Sorbo sulked, no doubt remembering the days when “Hercules’s” ratings in New York were so good that streetwalkers must have been watching between assignations. Lucy, to whom the Xena experience must have felt like a dream, never stopped laughing about her good fortune. She showed up expecting nothing more than a paycheck for the 13 episodes she was guaranteed on “Xena,” and she got six seasons of stardom and increasingly fat paychecks that, when you got right down to it, were completely attributable to her.

Much as I hate to say it, forget the scripts I wrote to launch Xena as a character. Forget the hole in the ozone layer that gave our New Zealand locations the golden glow that was so perfect for “Xena” as well as “Hercules.” Forget the other actors, writers, producers, and directors. Forget the kind hearts and gentle people who took care of the special effects and costumes and music and everything else that went into making the series. They were all wonderful, but they never – no, never – would have had a chance to be if it weren’t for Lucy.

She inhabited Xena. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, strapping, and athletic. It was that there was always something going on in her startling blue eyes. They suggested wit and intelligence that went far beyond her station as the world’s reigning female TV action star. This entire exercise was more than a testament to outrageous good fortune. It was a colossal cosmic joke, and Lucy got it, as only the truly smart ones do. She embraced the experience without letting it change her into a monster. She took the work seriously, only rarely herself. She could be counted on to apologize to the stuntmen she regularly clocked by accident. (Oh, the stitches.) She read books that had nothing to do with show business and relished good conversation. Best of all, she maintained her sense of perspective. True, she ended up marrying my sparring partner, Rob Tapert, but who am I to question what the heart dictates? All I know is that the lady was a champ.

[63]

For a while, Tapert talked about having me run the writing staffs of both “Xena” and “Hercules,” which probably would have put us both in an early grave. If I’d been better at reading tealeaves, I would have volunteered to go with the warrior princess. But “Xena” had yet to prove itself while “Hercules” had a solid track record, so I stuck with what I thought was a sure thing. Big mistake for me, but a good break for “Xena.” To serve as the show’s head writer, Tapert hired R.J. Stewart, who had been around the block in movies and TV and possessed a more flexible imagination and a less combustible personality than yours truly. R.J. and Tapert combined to give the show a darker sensibility than “Hercules” without robbing it of its in inherent fun. All I did for the rest of its run was cash residual checks.

If there was anything I didn’t like about “Xena,” it was sharing the Created By credit with Tapert. He hadn’t been with me in the room when I came up with Xena’s name or wrote the first script or laid the foundation for the kickass babe who would become one of TV Guide’s 50 most memorable characters. But he thought that since he had suggested a female warrior, he was entitled to share the credit. As things stood, he was going to make a pile of money for executive producing the show if it succeeded, but he was greedy enough to want to snatch some of my money, too. It’s a Hollywood tradition.

I could feel a shudder run through the Tapert-Sam Raimi camp when I decided to stick up for myself instead of rolling over and playing dead. By now I didn’t give a damn for either of them or for my job security, so what did I have to lose? We went to arbitration with the Writers Guild of America and I received sole credit as “Xena’s” creator. But wait – there was a glitch in the voting process, something the Guild thought swayed the panelists’ opinion in my favor. So we had to go through the arbitration process again. When I walked into the lobby after telling my side of the story to the second panel, there was Tapert with a stack of papers under his arm and a lawyer at his side. I’ve often wondered what those papers contained and if he told the panel they contained my marching orders for the first Xena script. I received no such orders, of course, and if Tapert said I did, the panel never called me to ask about them. All I heard was that it had decreed that Tapert and I would share the Created By credit, 60 percent for me, 40 for him. There would be no third arbitration. I know. I asked.

[64]

When the final episode of “Xena” aired, Tapert and Lucy threw a party at their San Fernando Valley home and I got a last-minute invitation. It was the first time I’d been invited to anything involving the show. I think I made Tapert nervous, if you can imagine that. Anyway, I went and the evening was lovely and the people were, too. I hadn’t met a great many of them, and at least once, when Lucy was introducing me to someone, she said, “This is John Schulian -– he’s the original creator of the show.” I wish I’d brought her in to tell it to the Writers Guild.

Chapter 46: Hercules Unchained

[65]

While “Xena” began to kick out residual checks, I plunged back into the hellhole that was “Hercules.” My foremost problem was finding road-tested veterans and bright young writers to take a shot at a freelance script. They wrinkled their noses at the thought. A syndicated show? A cartoon with human beings? Better they should starve and wait for “NYPD Blue” to call.

The glossiest freelancer we got in my tenure was Melissa Rosenberg, who now writes the “Twilight” movies and delivered a splendid script. Most of the time, however, I was dealing with freelancers who couldn’t write or were connected to someone whose ass Rob Tapert was kissing. I remember telling the worst of them that there were only two words in his script I ever wanted to see again, and then taking a call from his network executive wife, who told me she thought he’d really knocked the assignment out of the park.

Things started to turn when I brought in Bob Bielak, whose credits included “Tour of Duty” and “In the Heat of the Night,” to freelance three scripts at the end of the first season. He came through in a big way, which convinced Tapert to give the gate to our season one writing staff, the useless Brit and the petulant kids. So it was that Bielak and I marched into the second season as the smallest staff in television. Reinforcements never showed up.

I wish I’d had the brains and courage to give assignments to the lean and hungry newcomers Tapert and Sam Raimi had lured into non-writing jobs with their horror-movie cred. God knows the kids have gone on to do great things. David Eick was one of the masterminds on “Battlestar Galactica.” Liz Friedman, who worked herself into an ulcer on “Hercules” and “Xena,” survived to become a highly regarded writer-producer on “House.” And then there was Alex Kurtzman, who was a go-fer the last season I worked on “Hercules,” a great kid who, like Eick, was always asking questions about writing. He and his partner, Roberto Orci, now write zillion-dollar action movies like “Transformers” and they’ve got a hit TV series too, “Fringes.” Liz wound up writing for “Xena” and Alex and Bob were the last to run the “Hercules” writing staff, but I was gone by then, done in by the ceaseless in-house battles that left me increasingly surly.

The lone moment of grace I can recall from that period occurred as I was driving to work on Ventura Boulevard. I pulled up next to a city bus that was stopped for a light, and there on its side was a large print ad for “Hercules” and another for “Xena.” They were my babies, just like they were Rob Tapert’s and Lucy Lawless’s and Kevin Sorbo’s. I’m not sure I ever felt prouder of those shows than I did then.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in the soup, dealing with directors who promised to do one thing when I met them at Universal and went native once they got to New Zealand. Tapert was no use whatsoever in reining them in. The actors were running amok, too, especially Hercules himself. Sorbo was jealous of Lucy’s instant success as Xena, and he wanted us to change the tone of “Hercules,” make it darker, quirkier, more violent, the way “Xena” was. Apparently wiping out a horde of mercenaries in loincloths wasn’t enough for him.

[66]

Sorbo thought he was going to be the next Harrison Ford, when it was a far safer bet that in 10 years he’d be the answer to a trivia question. But that is not to say that I didn’t appreciate what he did for the show. He was the perfect Hercules, as far as I was concerned, and I told anyone who would listen that very thing. But insecurity runs through actors like a fever, and Sorbo had it bad. I left cooling him out to Tapert, who never seemed to want me to have any kind of relationship with our star. That was fine with me. I had words to put on paper. But then Sorbo tried to make more of himself by running down the quality of the scripts in an interview with Newsday. Believe me, I knew they weren’t going to make anyone forget Shakespeare or Sam Peckinpah, but they were as good as you were going to find on a syndicated action show. When I wrote a letter to tell Sorbo as much, I challenged him to be a pro and do his job. If he didn’t want to do that, he could go to Tapert and Raimi and get me fired. And if that still wasn’t good enough for him, we could go out in the parking lot the next time he was in the States and he could try to kick my ass.

Sorbo was on the phone minutes after my assistant faxed him the letter. He said he’d been misquoted. Bullshit. You don’t give an excuse like that to someone who was in newspapers for 16 years. Then he said he didn’t want to fight. And he certainly wasn’t going to get me fired. Oh, no, Kevin Sorbo swore, he wasn’t that kind of a guy. Of course, all I heard after that was how Sorbo’s agent was saying he wouldn’t sign a new contact unless I was gone.

[67]

It took him six months, maybe more, but he got me. After 48 episodes of “Hercules,” 15 of which I wrote and another 25 or so that I re-wrote, I packed my bags and headed for the door. Tapert, after all the betrayals and backstabbing, told me it was the worst day in the life of the series. But had he stood up to Sorbo and his agent? No. Had he gone to the Universal brass and said I deserved a deal that would give me an office and a steady paycheck while I spent a year or two writing pilots? No. Had my agent advanced that argument, when such a deal was standard for someone who had delivered the goods the way I had? No. I’d helped put Universal in a position to make millions upon millions of dollars, but there were none of the traditional parting gifts for me.

Years later, David Eick told me how he and Liz Friedman had looked at each other after I’d been gone long enough for them to get a handle on what had happened. “We said, ‘John really got screwed.’”

Amen.

Chapter 47: Vanishing Act

[68]

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.

[69]

Lew Jenkins

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.

[70]

Chapter 48: The Circle Home

[71]

I went from vanishing to vanished in the speed it took me to drive away from Universal for the last time. There was no talk of an opening on another writing staff, no phone call from my worthless agent to buck up my spirits. The truth was, my spirits didn’t need bucking up. I’d done what I’d set out to do. I’d worked in Hollywood and lived to tell the tale. I’d been part of the game, and now I wasn’t. That was fine with me. Hollywood never defined my life. Maybe that’s why there are days now when it feels like it never happened.

And yet it was a thrill each time I drove onto a studio lot. It didn’t matter which one – 20th, Warners, Paramount, Universal, old MGM – because miracles were the coin of the realm in them all. The real world was something that wasn’t supposed to get past the guards at the gate. They stood between the public and the buildings named for Jerry Lewis, Clara Bow, and Abbott and Costello where I tried to navigate a business that can make you Malibu royalty or leave you like driftwood on the beach.

At lunch one day in the Universal commissary, I saw Paul Newman get a big hug from Lew Wasserman, who was then the most powerful man in show business. I scribbled dialogue on a legal pad or typed it on a computer screen and watched actors use it to give life to characters who sprang from my imagination. I embraced the silliness when an assistant producer on “Hercules” told me why she couldn’t get an actress’s breasts to stay submerged in a milk bath and keep the censors off our back: too much silicone. Most of all, I’ll never forget the kindness of two actors on “L.A. Law,” Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, who sought me out to say thanks for the script I’d written. I blush at the fact that I didn’t tell them it was Steven Bochco they should be thanking, but maybe they already knew that. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even with the rough patches I hit, I wouldn’t give back a minute I spent in Hollywood.

I loved the work when it was just me and a piece of paper. As for the rest of it, I wavered between ambivalence and outright hatred. But I could never hate it for long because I didn’t know when luck might start breaking good for me again. Even now, eight years after from my last TV job, I’ve got an idea for a screenplay rattling around inside my head. A friend with big screen credits planted it there after he read a short story of mine and saw the makings of a movie. I’ve made notes on it, toyed with how to structure it for the screen, come up with dialogue while I’ve been out on my daily walk. I’ve also put it away, but always with the caveat that I can take it out again. That’s how the business works for most of us: once seduced, always seduced.

But let me not get carried away by dreams and nostalgia. I’m no longer part of the show-biz whirl with its non-stop talk about movies and TV pilots I’ve got to see, actors and writers and directors I’ve got to be aware of, and salaries that will make my head explode. When I’m around friends who are still in the game, it takes me half the night to get up to speed and the other half to forget what I’ve heard. There are too many names I don’t recognize or need to remember. And if there are any executives who remember me, they would probably just say, “Oh, yeah, the sports writer,” and move on to the next subject.

[72]

By the time I arrived in Hollywood, I had downgraded sports writer to the pejorative. It was a label that stuck to me like gum to the sole of my shoe and I resented it. I was sick to death of games and athletes and the words I lavished on them. But no sooner did I leave the Philadelphia Daily News than Sport magazine asked me to assay Sugar Ray Robinson for its 40th anniversary issue. Never mind that I’d not been closer to him than a TV screen. I wrote the piece. When I went to buy the magazine, convinced that it contained my unofficial farewell to sportswriting, I could hear practically hear a booming old-fashioned score in the background, something by Dimitri Tiomkin or Max Steiner or one of those Newmans who are related to Randy. Show business had such a hold on my brain that it wasn’t until years later I understood that the true significance of my ode to Sugar Ray. It stood as proof that part of me would always belong to sportswriting.

[73]

In 1988, when a screenwriters’ strike lasted five months, I wrote a spec screenplay that eventually ended up at the right studio at the wrong time, but I also wrote an essay for GQ about how the American male gets his first lessons in personal style from athletes. In 1992, when I came off my first unhappy year in TV, I regained my balance by doing a bonus piece for Sports Illustrated about L.A. when it was a minor league baseball town and an essay for the L.A. Times Book Review about my two favorite boxing novels, “Fat City” and “The Professional.”

Strange how I was taking refuge in something that just a few years before felt like a noose around my neck. And it felt as if I were writing better than I ever had. I don’t know how much, if any, of that I can attribute to my work for the screen, but I certainly felt more confident and more comfortable with the language. Maybe screenwriting–and the myriad smart people who did it for a living–opened my mind to ideas that enriched my prose. Just as important, I was no longer too good to rewrite something, and not just once either. What I once would have turned in as a finished product was now being constantly rewritten, tinkered with, and buffed to a shine until I had to turn it in or miss my deadline. That would have been unthinkable with a four-times-a-week sports column. In any case, it was a joy to be writing for magazines and the occasional newspaper again. Even when I was up to my ears in alligators on “Hercules,” I would write 1,000-word GQ essays not just on sports but on my favorite guitar shop, the joy of greasy-spoon dining, and why white-collar criminals deserve the death penalty. Never once did those pieces feel like work. They were a tonic. You might even call them a salvation, just as TV was a salvation when I bogged down as a sports columnist.

In the lulls that grew longer and longer as I neared the end in Hollywood, I wrote for old friends at SI, GQ, and msnbc.com and new ones at the Oxford American magazine and the New York York Times. Yes, finally the Times – but I arrived in its pages not as Red Smith’s successor but as the author of a piece about a reclusive country singer named Willis Alan Ramsey. Vic Ziegel, whose death last year left a hole in a lot of lives, thought that was hilarious. “A shitkicker?” he scribbled on a postcard.

[74]

It was guys like Vic, Bill Nack, Tom Boswell, and Dave Kindred who over the years made certain I didn’t forget the ballparks and boxing halls where I’d battled deadlines, the all-night diners where I’d eaten too much too late, and the friendships without expiration dates. I heard from John Ed Bradley once in a while via a predictably courtly hand-written note, and talked on the phone with Peter Richmond, and had dinner with Leigh Montville when he was in L.A. I wondered if Charlie Pierce was ever going to come this way again and provided lodging for Mark Kram Jr., Phil Hersh, and my favorite editors at SI, Rob Fleder and Chris Hunt. And always there were the old sportswriting friends who had become L.A. guys, too – Mike Downey, Randy Harvey, Ron Rapoport. They were conduits to my past, the lot of them, and to my future, too.

[75]

Oscar Charleston painting by Michael Hogue

In Hollywood I rarely thought beyond my next job. But when there were no more jobs for me, it seemed only natural to write a piece for SI about Oscar Charleston, the black Ty Cobb, and to begin putting together a collection of my baseball writing called “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” [76] No trumpets blared, no one hailed my return, and that was as it should have been. The days of need I’d experienced as a columnist – the need for acclaim, money, and a chunk of space in the paper to call my own – were gone. I was seeking something different now, a chance to recapture the joy I’d felt when I was a kid alone in my room, listening to Little Richard on the radio as I wrote for an imaginary newspaper or sketched scenes for a movie that would never move beyond a wish. I couldn’t recapture such innocence, of course, but that kid still lived inside me just the same. I counted down from three and stepped into the wind.

Postscript

[77]

I look in the mirror and see the faces I have worn. I see the kid with a baseball cap snugged on his head, and the newspaper reporter who grew a beard to look older, and the TV writer who shaved his beard to look younger. The only face I don’t see – the only face I refuse to see – is the one on my driver’s license. I look like someone Winslow Homer might have painted. Though I insist it is nothing more than the product of a bad day at the DMV, I know I will see that face in the mirror, too. But not just yet. Not as long as writing can arm me with a crucifix to ward off the vampire that is old age.

I won’t be so bold as to say writing keeps me young. If it did, I wouldn’t curse technology or struggle to remember the names of new bands or look away in embarrassment when I’m caught staring at women one-third my age. But writing gives me purpose and fills my head with the notion that there are still things to be accomplished: essays and short stories, one novel completed, another taking shape in my imagination alongside a screenplay. Somewhere around here I’ve even got a verse and a chorus written for a country song. Maybe I’ll take my guitar down from the wall and finish it someday. It will be just three chords, but what was good enough for Hank Williams is good enough for me.

This is how I always imagined life on the other side of the rainbow. Writers don’t throw retirement parties. They write, and hope their words find their way before the public. Some will, some won’t. I understand the vagaries of the process. I just need to score often enough to let whoever is out there counting know that I’m still kicking. Otherwise, I might have to answer in the affirmative the next time someone asks if I’m retired. For the moment, however, I’m proud to say hell no.

I may have lost a step or two, but that’s far different than being ready for a sedate game of shuffleboard before I sit down to the early bird special. It’s those codgers I see at the doctor’s office who are retired. I’m just a lad of 66. When Red Smith was this age, he was reviving his career at the New York Times and five years away from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Red wanted to die at his typewriter, the way his hero Grantland Rice did, and damned if he didn’t come within three days of doing it.

I wouldn’t consider changing my position on retirement unless I knew I could go out with the high style that Sheik Caputo did at the railroad. The Sheik has been part of my life since I was 13, as a neighbor, a baseball coach, a proponent of pepperoni and cold beer, and, most of all, a cherished friend. He worked as a Union Pacific machinist for 30 years, crawling inside filthy steam engines and never making as much as two bucks an hour. The day he turned 60, he showed up at the Salt Lake City yards at 7 a.m., just like always, and the foreman said, “Hey, Caputo, you’re eligible to retire.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, if you want to.”

“Goodbye,” Sheik Caputo said, and headed for the golf course.

But there is only one Sheik, and he is 96 and still getting mileage out of that story. I’m happy just to pass it along, which probably underscores the difference between the way he and I look at retirement. He was ready for it, maybe beyond ready, because he had a job he hated. I, on the other hand, am one of the lucky ones. I love my life as a writer, so why would I want to put it behind me? Writing is the one thing I could do with any success. I couldn’t pound a nail straight or sell you a pair of shoes, and I never wanted to revisit a job I had sweeping out a ballpark after the crowd was gone, wading through peanut shells and hotdog wrappers and breathing the smell of spilled beer. I was spared the heartbreak of trying to teach kids who didn’t love reading as much as I do for the deceptively simple reason that I could write a story, be it fact or fiction. Because people would pay me for those stories, I never was a high school coach beset by parents who make more of their kids than they are. I knew the life I wanted, and I got to live it.

Now I am in the process of seeing out what else is out there. I began my search in earnest when I wrote the first two sentences of a hard-boiled novel that had been in my mind for years: “Too bad Barry was from Santa Barbara. Suki would have told him her real name if he’d been local.” Barry is a wandering husband who’s too slick for his own good and Suki is working her way through college in L.A.’s sex trade. In time they will cross paths with a boxer whose career went sideways when he killed a man in the ring. He cares about nothing, least of all his life, until he meets the girl, and then he cares too much, in the way only a noir hero can. Someone out there might be aware of all that if my novel, “A Better Goodbye,” had been published. But the manuscript languishes beside a tall stack of rejection letters.

Still, I reveled in everything about the process from the three-page-a-day discipline to the constant rewriting, and I cling to the hope that my novel will yet be published. A small press has made noises about it, but whether that happens or not, I have another novel in mind and I don’t think I can stop myself from writing it. It’s as if I’m trying to live the life of a starving writer without the risk of going hungry.

I write my fiction in bursts in a time when most literary agents will tell you fiction isn’t selling. But I am fueled by blind faith and the confidence I’ve gained from having two short stories published, one in the Prague Revue (yes, that Prague), the other on a now-defunct website called Thuglit.com. Neither paid anything, but I did receive a Thuglit T-shirt that I treasure too highly to wear. More important I gained just enough swagger to wonder why the hell my best short story has yet to be published. Nothing to do but keep sending it out, I guess.

I beat my head against a different kind of wall when I taught for a semester at my alma mater, the University of Utah, in fall 2004 [78]. The wall was constructed in part of the innocence and naivete that reminded me of myself at that age, but there was something more than that at work. There was an unsettling preoccupation with getting a degree instead of an education and, even worse, a lack of basic writing skill. One class in particular – Literary Journalism, of all things – was a wasteland that symbolized for me the parlous state of the language in this age of email happy faces and LOLs. If it weren’t for the hungry minds who made my Art of Storytelling class a joy, I might have staggered off the academic battlefield jabbering like a chimp. Of course my young scholars might tell you I was too demanding. They thought my “Always honest, seldom kind” policy was hilarious only when it didn’t apply to them. Since then, I’ve apologized to the Humanities Department’s guiding lights for being too tough only to be told I should have been tougher. I assume they would have established a bail fund for me.

If I have done anything right as I adapt to geezerhood, it is put books together. Two are collections of my sportswriting, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” [79] and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and I will leave it to someone else to speak good or ill of them. But you will find pieces of my heart in the other three books that bear my name. When I edited “The John Lardner Reader,” I was doing more than reviving the work of a brilliant and acerbically funny sportswriter out of print for half a century. I was thanking him and all the other press box legends whose work I’d studied – Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, and Jimmy Cannon in particular – for lighting the way for me.

Editing “At the Fights,” a collection of classic boxing writing, proved even more personal because I was working with George Kimball, who stared death in the eye every step of the way. He was as heroic as any prizefighter memorialized in either that book or “The Fighter Still Remains,” the slender volume of boxing poetry and song lyrics that we spun out of it. There were many things that helped keep George alive so he could feel the love and admiration wash over him at the publication party in New York, but I’ll never stop believing it was “At the Fights” itself that gave him the will to battle cancer for the full 12 rounds. Not once did I hear him complain or wallow in self-pity. The book was always foremost in his mind, just the way George is now in mine, four months after his death at 67.

[80]

I wish he’d been here the other day when the cable guy walked into my office and saw a blow-up of the cover for “At the Fights.” “I read that book,” he said, and proceeded to tell me what is in it. It was one of those moments that prove both the breadth of the book’s appeal and the populist nature of sportswriting in general. It was, in other words, what George and I hoped for all along. I even know the song that should have been playing in the background. It’s “Too Many Memories,” by the late Stephen Bruton, and there’s a line in it that says: “What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.” I think about those lyrics a lot, their wisdom and humanity and how right they are for me at this time of life. I think about them especially now, as I tell you this: Goodbye but don’t call me gone.

Click here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives [81].


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[9] David Lee Guss: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidleeguss/4121118336/

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[16] the brilliant but erratic David Milch: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/14/050214fa_fact_singer

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[19] W.C. Heinz: http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=sr_tc_2_0?rh=i%3Astripbooks%2Ck%3AW.+C.+Heinz&keywords=W.+C.+Heinz&ie=UTF8&qid=1316610757&sr=1-2-ent&field-contributor_id=B001J3MU96

[20] Jimmy Breslin: http://www.amazon.com/World-Jimmy-Breslin/dp/B000JWOJHO

[21] Gay Talese: http://www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/talese/essays.html

[22] rowdy heavyweight Tex Cobb,: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/08/22/the-apprenticeship-of-randall-cobb/

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[26] John Gregory Dunne’s novel “The Red, White and Blue”: http://www.amazon.com/White-Blue-John-Gregory-Dunne/dp/0671463802

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[41] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wendy-kilbourne_and-gary-cole-midnight-caller-pic.jpg

[42] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/ReasonableDoubts_1x01_002.jpg

[43] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/ReasonableDoubts_1x01_007.jpg

[44] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/taking-of-pelham-poster1.jpg

[45] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/article-1220014-00EF2BDF00000191-921_468x361.jpg

[46] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/16202.jpg

[47] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/IncredibleHerculesPromoImage.jpg

[48] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/ONSDM-Sorbo.jpg

[49] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/kevin_sorbo_02.jpg

[50] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/vivi1ab.jpg

[51] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/sam-raimi-and-robert-tapert.jpg

[52] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/hercules-vs-hulk.jpg

[53] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/1881151-hercules_super.jpg

[54] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/3666552217_d767739d55.jpg

[55] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/main_street_gym_1976_0210_marilynky1.jpg

[56] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Lucy-Lawless-as-Xena.jpg

[57] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/xena110708.jpg

[58] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/xena_138a1.jpg

[59] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/csi_0.jpg

[60] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Lucy_Lawless_by_MidNiteSuicide.jpg

[61] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/lucy-lawless.jpg

[62] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/luxena2.jpg

[63] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Lucy-Lawless-5.jpg

[64] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/lucylawless1.jpg

[65] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/hecules-unchained-04.jpg

[66] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/lucyi.jpg

[67] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/r44JYxZkHb3q4vprChG2hJa3_500.jpg

[68] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/pdvd_003.jpg

[69] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/jenkins-lew-111.jpg

[70] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/3112514_gal.jpg

[71] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/cowboy-sunset1.jpg

[72] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/hollywood_sign-close-up1.jpg

[73] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Sugar-Ray-Robinson-Jake-Lamotta1.jpg

[74] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/never-rains-tiger-0907-lg11.jpg

[75] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/oscar-charleston21.jpg

[76] “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.”: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Twilight-of-the-Long-ball-Gods,672931.aspx

[77] Image: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Typewriter-007.jpg

[78] the University of Utah, in fall 2004: http://www.continuum.utah.edu/winter04/schulian.htm

[79] “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand”: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/10/11/bronx-banter-interview-john-schulian/

[80] Image: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/tumblr_lu1biknV771qbfyz9o1_500.jpg

[81] here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/category/from-ali-to-xena/

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