Our pal John Schulian‘s first novel, A Better Goodbye, was published late last week. Looking for something pulpy and nasty, look no further friends. This noir will keep you entertained and turning the pages. I recently chatted with John about writing his first novel. Dig:
Bronx Banter: Chico said, “Why a duck?” So I ask you: Why a novel?
John Schulian: Why not? A novel seemed like a logical progression for me. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’ve written scripts in Hollywood, I’ve taught writing, I even wrote a couple of country songs after seeing four songwriters talk about their craft at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Not surprisingly, nothing came of my songs, but I still loved the experience. It was just that a novel was much more my speed. When I had an idea for one and the time to write, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
You have to remember that I come from a generation where a novel was the Holy Grail for writers. Now, of course, non-fiction outsells fiction and screenplays have become the leading form for storytellers. But I was brought up on novels. My parents read me Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. I discovered the Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis’s baseball novels on my own when I was in junior high. I played high school football with a bunch of upperclassmen who introduced me to the idea that a jock didn’t have to be ashamed if he liked books, especially books by J.D. Salinger. I confess that I bought Updike’s Rabbit, Run because I thought it was about a basketball. Okay, so I wasn’t the most sophisticated kid in the world. It didn’t stop me from losing myself in other novels, even those my English teachers assigned, like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. The habit of a lifetime was formed in those years. I became a committed reader.
When I began writing professionally, when putting words on paper put food on my table, it was inevitable that I would think about writing a novel. I was always looking for a way to use fictional devices in my journalism. I went out to cover stories, whether they were championship prizefights or political corruption trials, in hopes of finding scenes that would capture the moment and perhaps speak to some larger truth. I wanted to hear what people were saying to each other, the dialogue that grows out of triumph or tragedy or whatever else they might be experiencing. I wanted to see how those scenes revealed the character of the people living them. I wanted the drama of real life.
It wasn’t until I was a newspaper sports columnist, primarily in Chicago, briefly in Philadelphia, that I enjoyed the freedom to take that approach as far as I could. And people noticed. Or maybe I should say other sports writers noticed. So did the good woman I was married to then. But I ignored their encouragement to write a novel. I liked being a sports columnist – the big events, the great old ballparks, the man-on-the-move datelines, the company of other writers, even the daily wrestling match with the language. The job consumed me, and on top of it, I was usually freelancing a magazine piece on the side. That didn’t leave a lot of time for tackling what I considered the greatest challenge for a writer – a novel.
Everywhere I looked in journalism back then, novelists were emerging. Dan Jenkins made the most noise with his bestselling Semi-Tough. Then someone recommended Bud Shrake, Jenkins’ running mate from Sports Illustrated, and I gobbled up two of his novels, Strange Peaces and Blessed McGill. It seemed inevitable that Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, among newspaper columnists, would make waves in fiction. But first place in that category belonged to Pete Dexter, a stable mate of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, who wrote a terrific first novel called God’s Pocket and then knocked the book world on its ass with Paris Trout. The surprise in all this was a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times – a quiet, unpretentious guy named Charles Dickinson who was writing wry, heartfelt novels about small-town America that got him compared to Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. The big names at the paper were Mike Royko and Roger Ebert, and I did all right, too, but in one very important category, Charles Dickinson was ahead of us.
I suspected that John Ed Bradley was, too, the first time I ever read a story of his in the Washington Post. He was writing about his days as a tri-captain on Louisiana State’s football team, describing a night when he and his best friend, the team’s quarterback, were drinking beer as they sat on a hill overlooking the campus, talking about their dreams and what lay ahead of them. It wasn’t sports writing John Ed put before readers that morning; it was the work of someone who had novels in him.
He has written a bunch of them by now, along with an achingly beautiful memoir called It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, and he has become a friend as well. It was in the latter capacity that he encouraged me to write a novel. That must have been thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten his encouragement, or that of others who said the same thing. I have to tell you, though, it’s one thing to get all puffed up because people think you possess that kind of talent and quite another to jump off the cliff, the way Butch and Sundance did. But on a January night more years ago than I care to remember, I finally sat down and wrote the first words of what became my novel, A Better Goodbye: “Too bad Barry wasn’t local. Suki would have told him her real name if he was.” I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. The fall would probably kill me.
BB: Okay, then. Why now?
JS: I needed something to keep me off the street. Besides, I convinced myself I was still writing well, and some ideas were taking shape in my head. I thought I better seize the moment. There didn’t seem to be anything left for me in TV. I’d done too much of it that was either bad or barely middlebrow. To make things worse, the rattlesnake who turned out to be my last Hollywood agent kept putting me up for science fiction shows I wouldn’t have watched with a gun at my head. Years later, when I saw Justified – part Western, part cop show, and an impeccable take on Elmore Leonard’s sensibility – I started drooling. But by then I was long gone from the TV wars.
I’m now 70, in case anyone is keeping score at home. It’s an age when you realize how precious time is. I may keel over dead before I finish this sentence, or I may live another thirty years. However much time I have left, I want to put it to good use and enjoy myself in the process. I loathe golf, which seems to seduce a lot of geezers. (Go ahead and kick your ball out of the rough, fellas. I’ll never tell.) The thought of traveling the world makes my blood run cold – I had my fill of airports, airplanes and hotel rooms when I was working on newspapers. I’d much rather be at my desk at home, trying to coax words out of my computer.
I have many friends who are wonderful writers yet hate the thought of writing, but I love it. I’ve been that way since I was a kid sketching out my own newspaper and movie ideas in the privacy of my bedroom. Now I suppose you can say I’ve come full circle. For the past ten or twelve years, I’ve only done things that appeal to me, writing essays and book reviews, putting together two collections of my sports writing, editing anthologies of other peoples’ work, writing and rewriting my novel and a handful of short stories, and trying like a madman to get my novel published in a world that is less kind to fiction with every passing day. Somehow I’ve succeeded in a modest way. I can call myself a novelist. And you know what? It tickles the hell out of me.
BB: Why a noir novel?
JS: Noir felt accessible, comfortable even though comfort obviously isn’t the point of it. As long as I had my hands on something by Elmore Leonard or Daniel Woodrell, to name just two of my guiding lights, I could survive any airplane flight and every hour-and-a-half wait at the doctor’s. They were masterful storytellers, but they seemed most interested in their characters, the way they thought and moved and talked. God, did they love talk, particularly Leonard, who built book after book on dialogue that carried him to the bestseller list and a place among the best crime novelists ever.
He did not, however, invent noir dialogue. That had been done decades before by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and a host of writers now on the verge of being forgotten, people like Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes. Then film noir put that brand of smart talk in the mouths of actors who became synonymous with it, from Bogart to Mitchum to Ida Lupino. I’ve always been a sucker for those noir movies out of the late 40s and early 50s where gunmen lurk in the shadows and danger floats in on clouds of cigarette smoke. But what really got me was a moment like the one in Larceny when Shelley Winters, as a con man’s tootsie, tells a potential boy toy, “You kiss like you’re paying off an election bet.” Just as memorable was Yvonne De Carlo playing Burt Lancaster for a sap in Criss Cross. Even when the armored car heist she’s lured him into goes sideways and they know they’re going to die, he’s making cow eyes at her. “I never wanted the money,” he says. “I just wanted you.”
L.A. has always been ripe with stories like those, so perhaps it’s only natural that this native son feels a sense of pride in local sex, treachery, desperation and murder. Film noir may once have fed on such indelicacies, but more and more it belongs to the past no matter how great Chinatown and L.A. Confidential were. It is left to the city’s great contemporary noir writers – Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Richard Lange and all the rest – to make the most of its image as a luscious piece of fruit that has fallen from the tree and lies rotting in the relentless sunshine.
I’m under some of the same influences they are, but I made little use of the city’s underbelly until I started thinking about writing a novel. Now, no matter where I am in L.A., I don’t have to drive far to show you what I’m talking about. I weave along city streets so pocked and neglected they wouldn’t be out of place in the most shell-shocked regions of Syria and Afghanistan. I pass handsome apartment complexes and think of the tricks that got turned in them and the building managers who may have played blind in exchange for sex. I follow reports of the violence that’s always waiting to happen in every corner of the city, secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t O.J. Simpson who proved the famous and near famous can be as bloody as the poor and gang-ridden.
There was once an actor named Tom Neal – the star of the classic cheapo noir Detour – who went into eclipse and ended up working as a landscaper until he put a bullet from a .45 in his estranged wife’s head.
When I hear a story like that, it’s hard to imagine writing anything but noir.
BB: Did you outline the story before you started writing or make it up as you went along?
JS: Before I started writing my novel, I would have told you I needed an outline. How could I possibly work without a net on something so big, right? Outlines were always part of my process in journalism, whether I was on a newspaper deadline and roughed one out in three or four minutes or had a day or two to figure out how to structure a magazine piece. In Hollywood, an outline is practically mandatory in both TV and movie writing because nobody wants to leave anything to chance. There are still storytelling disasters, obviously – I’ve been guilty of more than a few myself – but the people in charge like the idea of having an outline so they can hand it to the next writer if the first one bites the dust.
So did I outline A Better Goodbye?
I thought of it, of course. But then I started writing, and soon enough I had a plan of attack in my head: I wouldn’t stop until I knew where I was going to pick up the next day. The first thing I’d do when I sat down every morning was to read what I’d written the day before. I’d make changes, sometimes lots of them, but sooner or later I’d move into the new day’s work with a full head of steam.
I had a notion of where I was going all along, but I wanted to keep things flexible so I could change direction or take side trips, like one where Onus DuPree Jr., my prize sociopath, goes pet shopping at a pit bull fight. Likewise, with an outline, I might not have been as willing to introduce a character I hadn’t thought of before. I wanted the book to be picaresque; I wanted readers to meet characters they weren’t expecting when they least expected them. Admittedly, these characters didn’t always advance the story, but they helped draw a picture of the world where A Better Goodbye takes place. Other times, they complicated things. I’m thinking in particular of a highly pissed-off neighbor lady who pops up in the middle of a scene where DuPree and his partner in crime, Scott Crandall, are hunting for Nick Pafko and Jenny Yee, two lost souls who are trying to save themselves. Maybe everything should have been streamlined at this point of the book, but that’s not the way life works, and I didn’t think my story should work that way, either.
BB: Who was the first character you dreamed up?
JS: The fighter, naturally. With me, it’s always the fighter. I guess it’s because I wrote so much boxing when I worked in newspapers. As soon as I came to Hollywood and people learned about my background, they wanted me to write about fighters. I did it for Miami Vice and Midnight Caller, a dramedy called Hooperman, and an aborted attempt to bring back The Untouchables. And I had my own ideas, too. My two best scripts focused on fighters, a TV pilot called The Ring and a screenplay called American Original, which was based on a W.C. Heinz magazine piece about a hard-punching, hard-living little Texan named Lew Jenkins. Neither went anywhere, but that didn’t change my mind about fighters as characters.
The fighter in The Ring was Nick Pafko, a young middleweight out of a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, with a father who has a major gambling problem, a stand-up mother who’s ready to leave the old man, a kid brother in and out of trouble with the law, and a big sister who graduated college and yearns to leave the old ’hood behind. It’s not a coincidence that the fighter in A Better Goodbye is also named Nick Pafko. Of course I’ve given him a life far different than the one he would have had if The Ring had made it onto the air and run for five seasons.
That Nick would have become a world champion, married a good woman, fathered a couple of kids, succumbed to temptations that cost him his title, and somehow pieced his life back together as he regained the championship. The Nick in the novel didn’t come close to any of that. He was on his way to realizing his dream when he mortally injured the man he was fighting in what should have been nothing more than a steppingstone bout. You fight an old warhorse, you learn some lessons, and you get out of there with a win. Simple, right? Not when Nick blows up at his opponent’s dirty tricks and the referee freezes. What happens then is tragedy all the way around. No winners, only losers.
Nick tried to fight again after that, but he couldn’t do it. In that regard, he was like a fine young fighter from L.A. named Gabriel Ruelas, who never fought again after killing a man in the ring. I wanted Nick to carry a burden so heavy it made it hard for him to take one step after another. He couldn’t be like Sugar Ray Robinson or Emile Griffith, both of whom fought their way past such impossibly dark moments. Nick is a tough guy and, way down deep, a decent one. He can still make you laugh with a smart-assed remark, and something in him makes it impossible to back down to anyone even when they’re holding a gun. But beneath the emotional camouflage, there is a beaten man. What I tried to do was to tell the story of how he finds his way past that.
BB: Let’s talk about your female protagonist and how you learned about the massage industry. Did this entail you doing the full Gay Talese? Did ya manage a massage parlor?
JS: Fortunately, I never got that desperate when I was doing my research. Of course, when I cold-called some masseuses and said I was a writer who wanted to talk to them about their work, they instantly accused me of trying to get a freebie. Anyone who reads the book will soon realize that these girls get lots of strange requests – maybe exotic is a better word – so their reaction was understandable. But I really did need to talk to them because the massage business was as foreign to me as boxing was familiar.
All I knew about it in the beginning was that it had exploded. From the late 80s up past the millennium, the back pages of L.A. Weekly, the city’s smart and lively alternative newspaper, were jammed with page after page of massage ads. Some took up chunks of a page, with stock photos of pretty girls who had probably never been near a jack shack; others ran just two or three lines. But they all paid to advertise. Even if you’re like me and say jack, queen, king after you get to ten, you knew the Weekly and all the other publications where the sex trade did its advertising were making a pile of money.
Being an old newspaper guy, I thought there was a fascinating story waiting to be written about the massage industry, or maybe a TV station would put on its big boy pants and do a feature that went beyond ratings-week sleaze. It never happened. The only time massage operations got any ink or airtime was when the cops raided them during a local election campaign. There’s nothing safer for a politician to ad his name to than a crusade against sin. Naturally, as soon as the election was over, the pols and cops forgot those obliging ladies existed, and it was back to business as usual.
The growth of the Internet made business even better because now there were photos accompanying a lot of the ads on the rub-and-tug websites. Sometimes the photos were actually of the girls who had taken out the ads – well, either the girls or a prominent part of their anatomy.
And where did they ply their trade? They worked out of apartments that ranged from rancid to really nice as well as guesthouses and sometimes even single-family homes. Some were in neighborhoods that scared off clients who drove Porsches, and others had addresses that automatically made guys who needed their itch scratched think of money and class.
And who did these girls work for? They worked for people who knew their way around the business, veteran pimps and masseuses or straight-up hookers who had set up their own operations. But there were always newcomers like Scott Crandall, the pimp in my novel, who has figured out that his shot at Hollywood stardom is over and he needs to new source of income. It’s bosses like Scott – greedy, venal, always complaining, and way too eager to sample the merchandise – who unwittingly convince girls to go out on their own. Sometimes a girl will have the charisma to take a jack shack’s biggest earners with her when she sets up shop. More likely, she will fly solo so she can set her own schedule and make her own rules and regulations.
That’s what my female protagonist, Jenny Yee, tried to do until she realized that self-discipline wasn’t her strong suit. When we meet her, she’s calling herself Suki – stage names are as important as lingerie in the massage business – and working for a successful realtor with a couple other girls in a well maintained, otherwise tame high-rise in Sherman Oaks. Life is good there until it isn’t, and when it goes bad, it does so in a horrific way. You’d think the trauma would be enough to scare Jenny out of the business for keeps, but when she gets in a jam financially months later, she knows only one way to make money fast – massage. Her primary requirement is that her next stop has security. That’s why she goes to work for Scott, whose hired muscle is Nick Pafko. Now we have our two lost souls together. After that, it’s up to them to connect.
Okay, I hear you. That still doesn’t explain how I could write intimately about Jenny’s life in and out of the sex trade. I needed a masseuse who would tell me her story – the glamorous stuff, the unglamorous stuff, the weird stuff, the funny stuff, the sexy stuff. I mean, I could imagine my share of scenarios, but I really needed verisimilitude. I got it in the most roundabout way.
I knew a young woman who was going to UCLA, very smart, very straight, would sooner run with the bulls at Pamplona than do massage. But when I told her about my idea for a novel and how I was running out of patience in my masseuse who would sit down and talk about her secret life. Right away my friend said, “Oh, I know someone like that.” Did she ever.
My friend’s friend was Asian, bright, and cuter than the law allows. It didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why guys with disposable income were beating down her door. She was using the money she made to pay her way to UCLA, and one of the great factoids about her was that she got her first job as a masseuse through an ad in the campus newspaper. Best of all, though, she was a non-stop talker with a gift for anecdote. She spoke in whole paragraphs, not just in sentences. And she was funny, insightful and fully capable of, say, weaving her analysis of Catcher In the Rye in with her take on her clients. Not that she hated her clients – she genuinely liked many of them – but they were giving her an education beyond the one she was getting at UCLA. And she was making the most of it.
I met one other masseuse through my guide to the sex trade, a sweet, quiet Caucasian who blushingly provided me with telling details about things like pigsty bathrooms, over-amorous clients, and creepy security guards. But the second masseuse couldn’t have been more different from the Asian girl; she was shy, relatively inexperienced sexually and, I think, pretty much uncomfortable about touching naked strangers.
The Asian girl, on the other hand, looked at this strange life as a lark that not only paid for her education but bought her drugs and financed trips to Las Vegas and let her carry on at every rave she could get to. While it was all her friend could do to provide a happy ending to a massage, the Asian girl operated by a different set of rules entirely. She wouldn’t have sex with just any guy who walked through the door, the way some girls would. But if she liked someone the way she might if they’d met in a class or at a club, then she was perfectly comfortable getting intimate. A guy like that might come along once or twice a year – all right, maybe three times – but she wouldn’t keep two guys on the string at the same time because she wasn’t a ho. She was simply someone who enjoyed sex when the right guy came along. When you think about it, that didn’t make her much different than women who wouldn’t dream of doing massage. It was just that guys had to pay two hundred dollars to see her the first time, and probably many times after that, before their relationship ceased to be a business transaction.
If I had a daughter who followed the Asian girl’s lead, I’d be mortified, disappointed, crushed. I’d wonder where I went wrong as a parent and how I could convince her to consider a more traditional part-time job. But it wasn’t like she was being exploited by anyone. She had made a choice, and she never encountered anything nearly as horrific as does the character she inspired in my novel. She survived the useless boyfriends and angry husbands that are among the hazards of the trade, and she got her education. Then she walked away from the massage business. I still hear from her once in a while. She says she’s doing well in the real world. I’m not surprised. To tell the truth, I’m proud of her.
BB: Man, it seems as if your bad guy was a ton of fun to write.
JS: Some characters call for your heart and soul. Onus DuPree Jr., on the other hand, was undiluted id, a receptacle for every terrible thought I could conjure up, a tool for every act of violence I could imagine him contemplating. I loved all of my characters – well, maybe not Scott Crandall, who’s a shit weasel – but DuPree filled me with perverse joy.
He seized control of my imagination as soon as I came up with his name: Onus DuPree Jr. Names count for a lot in noir fiction, whether you’re talking about Dashiell Hamett’s Sam Spade or Elmore Leonard’s cold-blooded Bobby Shy. In DuPree’s case, I like to think it was the “junior” at the end of his name that sent him over the edge. He was trouble from the day he was born – his own mother said so – but he didn’t want to wear his old man’s name even if it once counted for something in L.A. He was dead set on making his own reputation. It just turned out that his reputation was as a full-blown sociopath who would settle for scaring the prunes out of someone’s grandma if he couldn’t rob someone or spill their blood.
I’d been carrying a character like DuPree around in my head for, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty years, ever since I read in the about a big-time athlete’s son who got in trouble with the law. He went to prison, and that was the last I heard of him until my agent’s assistant told me he’d played high school basketball with the kid. The kid was more than a superb athlete who excelled at every sport; he was a killing machine in street fights who took delight in really hurting anyone crazy enough to tangle with him.
I thought I’d done all I could with the DuPree character when I sold my novel, but one of my editors at Tyrus Books challenged me to come up with a new scene to introduce him. Originally, he’d been parked on the street behind Chuck Berry’s former home, waiting to rob a drug dealer who made house calls. The new intro is better because it shows DuPree on the move, strolling into a Sunset Strip club, calling someone who approaches him “a faggot,” hitting on another man’s woman, and leaving her boyfriend screaming in pain. That’s DuPree in a nutshell right there: fun, fun, fun.
BB: Well, yes, that brings us back to Scott. Seems to me he’s the one character you didn’t love. Or, let me re-phrase that: He was the one character you seemed to enjoy making an asshole.
JS: It’s not just that Scott is an asshole – it’s how big an asshole he is. He’s Mount Everest. He’s vain, needy, self-deluded, hypocritical, gluttonous, a liar, a sexual predator, and a wannabe bad guy, which may make him more dangerous than a legitimate bad guy like DuPree. And in case you forgot, he’s a pimp. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except himself. It’s not an uncommon trait among actors, good and bad, but Scott wallows in it even though his career as a B-list TV star is in tatters. He’s ten years past the last decent role he’ll ever get and he’s too lazy to try to reinvent himself. It’s easier just to keep thinking he’s the second coming of Steve McQueen. But the truth is, he’s lucky to be the answer to a trivia question.
Some astute readers may think of Scott as my revenge on a certain backstabbing actor I once worked with. I can’t deny that Scott has a lot in common with that treacherous lug, but he was also inspired by an actor I’ve never met, a guy with a big, uncontrollable mouth and an insatiable appetite for pleasures of the flesh. This Rabelaisian thespian flamed out quickly and disappeared from sight, but wherever he is, I hope he knows that aging TV writers still talk about his exploits when they’re gathered around the campfire at night.
After seeing the way I abuse Scott in the name of art, the natural reaction may be to think I hate actors. Actually, I only hate certain actors. There are others I think the world of and consider myself lucky to have had them bring the words I wrote to life. Gary Cole was the North Star of my favorite TV gig, Midnight Caller, on and off camera, a wonderful actor who set the tone for the entire production with his unfailing professionalism. I didn’t have a happy experience on Reasonable Doubts, but I’d gladly go to war alongside Mark Harmon any time. (But not his co-star, Marlee Matlin, no, not ever.) Jonathan Banks, on Wiseguy, was the first actor I felt I was in tune with; my only regret is that I couldn’t repay him by getting a series we discussed – about a sports writer, no less – on the air so he could star in it. Jim Beaver was just beginning to realize what a fine character actor he could be when we crossed paths on Reasonable Doubts; it’s a thrill to see the great work he’s doing now and a pleasure to still call him a friend. Lest you think I lump all actresses with the aforementioned Ms. Matlin, allow me to pay tribute to the incredible Lucy Lawless, without whom Xena would never – I mean never – have entered the zeitgeist and I would still be out knocking on doors, begging for hack work.
Acting may seem glamorous when people are giving great performances or picking up awards or posing for the cover of Vanity Fair, but the reality is something else entirely. It hit me the first time I saw a casting session, with actors lining the hallway, some sitting, some standing or pacing, waiting for their three minutes in front of the producers, going over their lines and, for all I knew, praying they got the part they were up for because they might not work again all year. The anxiety was palpable, even painful. And I say that knowing they accept it as part of the career they’ve chosen – but, Jesus, seeing people who run the risk of rejection day in, day out really does something to you.
So I confess that even though Scott is a walking, talking sphincter, I couldn’t help feeling sorry when I sent him to a disastrous casting session. He encounters a bigger egomaniac than he is, realizes he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the part, and faces a battery of producers so busy eating lunch they probably wouldn’t bother to call 911 if he set himself on fire. Poor son of a bitch, right? For ten seconds, maybe. Then I went back to hating him. That’s how big an asshole he is.
BB: I think the book has sly humor throughout. The one recurring bit – and I don’t know if this was intentional or not – was that all the major characters seem to get stuck in L.A. traffic at one point or another. I thought that was a very good touch and very Angeleno.
JS: You just won yourself all the In-N-Out burgers you can eat. You found some humor in the book. I knew I put it there somewhere. At least I thought I did until I read my first reviews (one pro, one con) and saw that they both regarded the book as humorless. How, I wondered, could they say something like that if they paid any attention at all to the goofy thoughts that run through Scott’s head? Or to some of the tales the girls tell about their clients’ predilections? (The one involving chocolate cream pies still cracks me up every time I think about it.) Most of all, how could they miss the jokes about traffic? Traffic is the funniest thing in L.A. unless you’re stuck in it, and then the joke is on you, sucker.
The only time DuPree seems truly powerless is when he’s on his way to the showdown and he gets stuck on Olympic Boulevard at rush hour. And what does he do then? He starts thinking about what a great cross street Olympic was before all these cars started clogging it up. When he was a kid, you could take it to Westwood from downtown in something like twenty minutes. It’s the kind of thing you expect a stockbroker or a UPS driver to be thinking about. You don’t expect it from a prison-certified prince of darkness. But that’s life in L.A. Even sociopaths have to make concessions when they get behind the wheel.
BB: There are a lot of details – restaurants, bars, stores – that are specific to L.A. Did you consciously try to root your story in time and place?
JS: Your question takes me back to all the Southern writers I’ve read and admired – not just Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but the wonderful artists they passed the torch to, like Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Clyde Edgerton, and those departed giants Larry Brown and Harry Crews. They wrote with a sense of place that made you see the kudzu enveloping whole houses, and smell the moonshine cooking, and hear Hank Williams and Bill Monroe on the Opry as you bounced down a rutted road in your daddy’s pick-up truck.
My life never generated anything quite like that, even when I was chasing down stories about cops and politicians and local characters as a general assignment reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. But Baltimore was as close as I came to understanding a city because I was out in one neighborhood or another almost every day, seeing how people lived and listening to how they talked and trying to get their stories down right. When I wrote about sports in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia, I never had a chance to know them as well. I went to the ballparks, stadiums, arenas and gyms, and I went to the airports, and that was about it. I had a much higher profile than I’d had in Baltimore, but my experiences were limited to a finite number of venues.
By the time I returned to Los Angeles in 1986 – I was born here and left when I was thirteen – I was too busy trying to make the transition to screenwriting to worry about a sense of place. But I was still writing short essays for GQ about anything that came to mind, and my subjects tended to be local, like the city’s greasy spoons, the kind of shoes male Angelenos do and don’t wear, and McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where I both took lessons and saw everyone from Doc Watson to the young Lucinda Williams perform. So one day someone told me he liked the way I write about L.A. and it brought me up short. Do I write about L.A.? Well, yes, I guess I do.
I may have found my own sense of place unwittingly, and it may not be as vivid or deeply felt as that which Southerners possess, but at least it exists. In writing A Better Goodbye, I wanted to paint as vivid a picture as possible of the neighborhoods where the story took us even though I occasionally took liberties with place names. There is, for instance, no Paisano Groceries, where Nick gets held up in the parking lot, nor is every Latino name on Highland Park’s main drag accurate. But when the story shifted to downtown, I didn’t tinker with the name of the Pantry, L.A.’s legendary twenty-four-hour-a-day steak house. Why jump between the real and the imagined? Let’s call it poetic license. It sounds so much nicer than creative indecision.
The year I chose was 2003 because we were still feeling the reverberations of 9/11. It’s one of the reasons Nick gets laid off as a baggage handler at LAX, and he’s soon behind on his rent and desperate to keep a roof over his head. He lives on Beloit Avenue, which was then on the other side of a tumbledown wire fence from the 405 Freeway and was then a stretch of modest apartment buildings. Perhaps the most modest of all was the oleander-shrouded hovel where I lodged Nick in a shoebox one-bedroom apartment. Today, if you drive on Beloit, you’ll see handsome new apartment buildings on one side of the street and a tall brick wall to muffle the freeway noise on the other.
A different version of gentrification has come to Highland Park. In the days I’m writing about, there were still warring street gangs there and the neighborhood was considered, rightly, a blue-collar Latino stronghold. Back then, only young couples long on pioneer spirit rolled the dice and bought old homes in need of renovation. Now it’s L.A.’s new hot neighborhood and every day is a symphony featuring hammers and power saws. Everyone calls it progress except the residents who were displaced.
BB: You can see Elmore Leonard’s influence in this book. Was that something you were aware of when you were writing it?
JS: Every writer is a product of his influences. You take your life experiences and all the novels, short stories and, in my case, great journalism you have read and admired, and you throw everything in a blender and see what kind of a mess you have. Then you start weeding out the things that don’t work for you, and you begin saying things your way. Sooner or later your voice emerges. In Leonard’s case, I’m sure he read Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour and Max Short before he started writing Western novels in his own particular way. When he turned to crime fiction, his influences were as varied as George V. Higgins, whose novels were borne by pitch-perfect hard-guy dialogue, and the legendary sports writer W.C. Heinz and the otherwise forgotten Richard Bissell.
What I tried to guard against in A Better Goodbye was mimicking Leonard’s writing style. He can be very seductive that way. If you read his books closely, you’ll see that he constructed his sentences so distinctively that only a fool would try to imitate him. Diagram one sometime – you’ll see what I mean. Where Leonard’s influence does show the most, I think, is in the way I set up the story, with Nick and Jenny trying to outwit DuPree and Scott and none of them being what I’d call brilliant, even Jenny, whose smarts come from books, not the streets or the thug life. And, of course, Onus DuPree Jr.’s name is most definitely an homage to Leonard, whose cool bad guys always had a cool monicker.
But the story I told is much darker than what Leonard made his specialty. There was usually an almost genial quality to a lot of his crime novels; if his characters weren’t in on the joke, then the joke was on them. Scott, the actor turned pimp, is the only character in my novel who gets that kind of treatment. Leonard, on the other hand, could fill a book with characters like him. It’s one of about a million reasons why Leonard’s crime novels went down so smoothly. There is, for example, a moment in Unknown Man #89, which is one of my favorites, when the chief villain tells his henchman to throw some poor sap out a hotel-room window. The henchman says something like, “How far down you want him to go?” And the villain says, “Oh, all the way. Might as well.” That’s quintessential Leonard – I laugh every time I think of it.
A Better Goodbye became truly my own when I diverged from his influence by making Nick more haunted and complicated that any Leonard hero I can recall. I wasn’t writing a mystery; I was doing a character piece that hewed as close to literary fiction as it did to noir. To light my path, I turned to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss and any number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. But most of all, there was Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic boxing novel Fat City. Gardner’s characters existed in a bleak, unforgiving world, and that was the kind of world I wanted to inflict on Nick and Jenny. They were lost souls just trying to live another day in a city that chews up people like them.
Life is rarely that flinty and elemental for Elmore Leonard’s characters; they’re too busy trying to scam each other. My characters don’t know the meaning of scam; they’re forced to confront whatever life throws at them no matter how grave a danger they face. Like Nick says when someone threatens to kill him: “What if I told you don’t care?”
BB: You once told me that when you’re writing for the screen, you want to get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible, to get right to the heart of the action. Did you use the same approach with your novel?
JS: I think novels call for a different approach, at least some of the time. On the screen, whether you’re writing a one-hour episode of TV or a two-and-a-half hour movie, time is of the essence. As audiences have become increasingly sophisticated, writers don’t need to fool around with, say, an airplane landing in New York to show that the hero is there now. More important, screenwriting has become increasingly elliptical. Just think of all the scenes in The Wire that were probably only a half-page long, with maybe a line or two of dialogue, and yet they were as beautifully written as they were economical.
Novels are a different proposition, or so it seems to me as both a first-time novelist and an unschooled one. All I really know about novels is that I wrote one and was fortunate enough to get it published. Having had that experience, I reveled in the luxury of time that novels provide. Or maybe it’s the illusion of time. Whatever, you’re not writing in the middle of the page the way you are with a screenplay. You’re writing margin to margin, which gives you room to explore the inner life of characters. You can have a character driving to a conference on gun control while he’s thinking about an incident with a gun he was involved in twenty years earlier. You don’t have the same ability to jump around in time that way in screenwriting unless you do a flashback, and flashbacks weren’t considered cool when I worked in Hollywood. Neither, in a lot of cases, was backstory. People were always lavishing praise on movies where the characters had no backstory to speak of. It was an approach that could work brilliantly on the screen (Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns), and sometimes on the page, too (the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark). But I still prefer the idea of finding out something about the characters I’m being asked to invest in emotionally.
In A Better Goodbye, Nick, Jenny, Scott and DuPree all come at the reader in roundabout fashion. Each of them has an introductory chapter that lets us know who they are and what they’re about. I hope I didn’t abuse the privilege, but I wanted them to have room to breathe. It was an approach I went back to again and again over the course of the book. But I changed pace in other scenes, making them short and punchy because that added to their impact and kept the story moving. That’s where the point of entry in a scene comes into play. You start at the top and start whittling away what Elmore Leonard called the things nobody reads. Once they’re out of the way, you can get down to what the scene is about.
BB: So, a noir for your first novel begs the natural follow-up question: What’s next?
JS: Another novel. I want to see if lightning can strike the same writer twice. But my next one won’t be noir or anything close to it. The setting is Los Angeles once again, but this time it will be the L.A. where I spent my childhood in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story is about someone who lived a fascinating life without realizing it until it was behind him. I’ve been thinking about this one for the past few years, trying to figure out a structure to hang things on, and I think I’ve finally come up with something that works. Lately I’ve started hearing my characters talk, and I’d like to know them better. The only way to do that is to write. So, if you’ll excuse me…
There were some hard miles on that bus, and harder ones on the man behind the wheel. His name was Oscar Charleston, which probably means nothing to you, as wrong as that is. He was managing the Philadelphia Stars then, trying to sustain the dignity of the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s as black ballplayers left daily for the moneyed embrace of the white teams that had disdained them for so long. Part of his job was hard-nosing the kids who remained into playing the game right, and part of it was passing down the lore of the line drives he’d bashed, the catches he’d made, and the night he’d spent rattling the cell door in a Cuban jail. His players called him Charlie, and when it was his turn to drive the team’s red, white, and blue bus, it was like having Ty Cobb at the wheel. Of course the players never said so, because sportswriters and white folks were always calling him the black Ty Cobb and Charlie hated it.
While Cobb counted the millions he’d made on Coca-Cola stock, Charlie bounced around on cramped, stinking buses until he, like their engines, burned out. The Stars would play in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, then hightail it back to Philly so they could use Shibe Park on Monday, when the big leaguers were off. So they drove through the long night, with Charlie peering at the rain and lightning, wondering which was louder, the thunder or the racket his players were making.
When he could take no more, he glanced back at Wilmer Harris and Stanley Glenn, a pitcher and a catcher, earnest young men who always stayed close to him, eager to absorb whatever lessons he dispensed. “Watch this,” he said, yanking the lever that opened the bus door. Then he leaned as far as he could toward the cacophonous darkness, one hand barely on the wheel, and glowered the way only he could glower.
“Hey, you up there!” he shouted. “Quit making so damn much noise!”
The bus turned as quiet as a tomb. “I bet there wasn’t one player hardly breathing,” Glenn says. The Stars were a strait-laced bunch—“the Saints,” some called them with a sneer—and they weren’t inclined to test whatever higher power might be in charge. But Charlie was different from them, and everybody else for that matter. And when the thunder boomed louder still in response to his demand, he proclaimed his defiance with a laugh. If it didn’t kill him, it couldn’t stop him.
I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I’d known about them or hadn’t been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn’t, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—”Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit”—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping “into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man.”
Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought “Death of a Racehorse” was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I’m glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there’s a newspaper sports columnist in America today who’d be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren’t written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let’s be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.
It’s surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn’t a magazine that wasn’t happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo and Heinz wasn’t writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer’s wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.
“Down in Los Angeles,” says Garry Schumacher, who was a New York baseball writer for 30 years and is now assistant to Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, “they think Duke Snider is the best center fielder the Dodgers ever had. They forget Pete Reiser. The Yankees think Mickey Mantle is something new. They forget Reiser, too.”
Maybe Pete Reiser was the purest ballplayer of all time. I don’t know. There is no exact way of measuring such a thing, but when a man of incomparable skills, with full knowledge of what he is doing, destroys those skills and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his endeavor as no other man in his game ever has, perhaps he is the truest of them all.
“Is Pete Reiser there?” I said on the phone.
This was last season, in Kokomo. Kokomo has a population of about 50,000 and a ball club, now affiliated with Los Angeles and called the Dodgers, in the Class D Midwest League. Class D is the bottom of the barrel of organized baseball, and this was the second season that Pete Reiser had managed Kokomo.
“He’s not here right now,” the woman’s voice on the phone said. “The team played a double-header yesterday in Dubuque, and they didn’t get in on the bus until 4:30 this morning. Pete just got up a few minutes ago and he had to go to the doctor’s.”
The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.
Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?
John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.
Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.
Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.
Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.
AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.
JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.
Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.
AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?
JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.
If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.
AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?
JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.
I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.
Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.
Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.
At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.
What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.
AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?
JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.
The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.
It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.
So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.
AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?
JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.
Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer. Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.
After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”
Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”
Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.
Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.
AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?
JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.
The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.
It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.
AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?
JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.
The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.
AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?
JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.
I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?
Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.
JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.
Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.
My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.
The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.
Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?
AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?
JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.
My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.
I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.
“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.
From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.
It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.
That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.
AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?
JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.
NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”
Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.
Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.
AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?
JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?
The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.
There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.
The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.
AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?
JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.
What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.
When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.
On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.
Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?
[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]
They were drinking their dinner in a joint outside Chicago. It was just Mike Royko and his pal, Big Shack, and whatever their bleary musings happened to be that night three years ago. They probably never even gave a thought to the fact that they were in Niles, Illinois, which qualifies as a suburb and therefore should have been treated by Royko as if it were jock itch. But Niles is where a lot of the Milwaukee Avenue Poles he grew up with fled when they started finding themselves living next door to neighbors named Willie and Jose. So this was shot-and-a-beer territory after all. The only thing it lacked was a DO NOT DISTURB sign.
“Hey, you’re Mike Royko!”
It happens to him all the time even though newspaper guys are supposed to be bylines, not recognizable faces with bald heads, crooked smiles and ski-jump noses. How Royko, who is a baggy-pants character no matter what he wears, cracked the celebrity lineup is no mystery, though. Nor is it a tribute to the tiny picture of him that has decorated his column in each of the three Chicago papers he has worked for. The secret is words. The words that in 1971 paid off with a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper commentary and a best-selling book called Boss, in which he dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley. The words that now appear, via syndication, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and 223 other papers. The words that always have originated in his hometown, Chicago, five times a week, year after year after year.
“I’ve read you all my life.”
Royko’s admirer was male, white, crowding 40, with a pretty wife who quickly made it known that she was a more voracious reader than her husband. Soon the three of them were so wrapped up in one another that they failed to notice Big Shack, all 220 pounds of him, lumber off to the can. But Big Shack is important to this story, first, because he is the source of it, and second, because he returned just in time to save Royko.
“The guy was choking Mike,” Big Shack says. “I guess his wife had gotten a little too friendly, and Mike, well, you know Mike. So there I was, peeling the guy’s fingers off Mike’s throat one at a time.”
Big Shack can laugh about it now.
“What can I tell you? In ten minutes Mike went from hero to bad guy.”
Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.
“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”
By John Schulian
Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.
Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.
Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.
All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.
Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.
No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.
Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”
Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”
What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?
The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.
Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.
“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.
It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.
But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.
Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”
By John Schulian
Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.
Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.
You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?
Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.
Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.
Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.
In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”
Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”
Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.
If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”
She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.
As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.
Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.
John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami Vice, L.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball GodsandSometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.
Here’s another gem from our man John Schulian. This column on Earl Weaver first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, August 16, 1981 (It can also be found in Schulian’s collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand). It is featured here with the author’s permission.
“The Earl of Baltimore”
By John Schulian
BALTIMORE—Based on the available evidence, it is easy to assume that Earl Weaver perfected managerial sin. After all, the profane potentate of the Orioles has spent the past thirteen seasons kicking dirt on home plate, tearing up rule books under umpires’ noses, and generally behaving as if he were renting his soul to the devil with an option to buy. Yet here it is the middle of August and he has only been kicked out of one game. Reputations have been ruined for less.
Understandably, Weaver is not pleased to hear that his dark star appears to be fading. In his corner of Memorial Stadium’s third base dugout, he looks up from a pregame meal of a sandwich and a cigarette and searches the horizon for an explanation. “Musta been the foggin’ strike,” he says at last. “Guys like me, I coulda got tossed five foggin’ times in the time we were off. I’m streaky that way.”
Satisfied, he resumes dining only to be interrupted moments later by Jim Palmer, the noted pitcher and underwear model. With a mischievous smile, Palmer raises his voice in a song that suggests one more reason why his fearless leader has been wont to raise hell with umpires: “Happy Birthday.”
“Oh,” Weaver says, “you remembered.”
“Of course,” Palmer says.
“I know why you remembered, too,” Weaver tells his favorite rascal. “You know that at my age, it’s gotta hurt.”
He has turned fifty-one on this gray Friday, but there will be no party for him. The Orioles will play the White Sox, and then Earl Weaver, the owner of a full head of hair and none of his own teeth, will go home to be with his wife and his prized tomato plants. He will go home to rest, to savor his stature as the winningest manager in the big leagues, and to get away from all the insufferable questions about how the White Sox are pretending to be a new and improved version of the Black Sox.
They have been quoted anonymously in the press as saying they would throw games at the end of this split season if it would help them get into the playoffs. The mere suggestion of such chicanery has horrified the lords of baseball and forced the team’s management to talk faster than a married politician photographed in the arms of a Las Vegas strumpet. To Weaver, who once marched his team off the field in Toronto to save his bone-weary pitching staff, the Sox’s scheme sounds like the work of dummies.
“What the fog,” he says. “The White Sox better not lose too many foggin’ games deliberately or they’re not gonna be in it. The simplest thing for them to do is win as many games as they can and root like hell for foggin’ Oakland. Look at us, we’re in the same boat. We gotta hope New York beats every-foggin’-body except us. Ain’t that something? I gotta root for them damn pinstripes.”
Nobody said the split season would honor tradition. Indeed, there are those who believe that cutting the season in half smacks more of the old Georgia-Florida League than it does of the American or the National. “Oh, no you don’t,” says Weaver, who spent his playing career in towns where two cars on Main Street constituted a traffic jam. “I don’t want no foggin’ headline sayin’ WEAVER CALLS SPLIT SEASON BUSH.” As a matter of fact, if he had his way, every season would have two chapters, strike or no. “If you start bad,” he says, “it’s nice to be reborn again.” When was the last time Bowie Kuhn addressed any issue so eloquently?
The next thing you know, Weaver will find himself running for commissioner when all he really wants to do is figure out a better way to handicap horse races. That’s the way baseball works: What’s dumb gets done. So lest the game’s kingmakers get the wrong impression from his bleats about old age and his apparent flirtation with respectability, Weaver tries to erase some of the points he has scored with the establishment. The best way to do that is to discuss the fine art of making umpires look like donkeys.
He remembers hearing how a minor league manager named Grover Resinger responded to being given five minutes to get off the field and out of the ballpark. “He asked if he could see the umpire’s watch,” Weaver says, “and when the dumb fogger handed it to him, Resinger threw it over the top of the foggin’ grandstand.”
Then there is Frank Lucchesi, an old sparring partner from the Eastern League. Once, Lucchesi sat on home plate until the police came and carried him into the dugout. Another time, after being ordered off the premises, he climbed the flagpole behind the outfield fence and flashed signals to his team from there. But what Lucchesi did best was drive Weaver to heights of creative genius.
“I forget what the foggin’ call was,” Weaver says, “but the umpire blew it, so I went out and talked like a Dutch uncle and they changed it back. Then Lucchesi comes out and he talks like a Dutch uncle and they change it back. I’m standing there on the mound talking to my pitcher, and when I see them do this, I grab my foggin’ heart and fall on my face. Right there on the mound.
“One of my players comes runnin’ out and rolls me over and starts fannin’ me with his cap. The umpire is right there with him. He says, ‘Weaver, if you even open one eye, you’re out of this game.’ Well, hell, by then, I couldn’t resist, and you know what I saw? There was Lucchesi with one of them old Brownie box cameras. He told me later it was the greatest foggin’ thing he’d ever seen.”
A mischievous smile creases Weaver’s face. “Hey,” he says, “maybe I oughta do that again.”
Of all the heroes I encountered, though, the one who best fit the description was Stan Musial, who managed to be a regular guy even with a statue of him standing outside old Busch Stadium, just as it does now in front of new Busch. In 1982, with the Cardinals on their way to the World Series, it seemed fitting that I should write about him. We met at the restaurant that bore his name, and as soon as I mentioned an obscure teammate of his—Eddie Kazak, a third baseman in the forties—it was like we were old friends.
When I finally ran out of questions, Musial offered to drive me back to my hotel. We made our way through the restaurant’s kitchen, pausing every few steps so he could say hello to a cook or slap a dishwasher on the shoulder. At last we reached the small parking lot in back. The only other people in sight were two teenaged boys with long faces. Musial was unlocking his Cadillac when one of them said, “Hey, mister, you got any jumper cables? Our car won’t start.”
“Lemme see, lemme see,” Musial said. He repeated himself a lot that way. It only added to his charm.
He opened his trunk and started rooting around, pulling out golf clubs, moving aside bags and boxes until, at last, he found his cables. By then, however, I was more interested in watching the boys. One of them was whispering something to his buddy and I could read his lips: “Do you know who that is? That’s Stan Musial.”
The statue in front of the ballpark had come to life.
Jim Murray made the sports page seem as if it should have a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum. In the last four decades of the 20th century, he wrote four, five, even six columns a week, delivering one-liners faster than a stand-up comic with his pants on fire. Casey Stengel’s rambling oratory reminded him of “the sound a porpoise makes underwater and an Abyssinian rug merchant.” Louisville, he wrote, smelled like “a wet bar rag.” One look at boxing’s baleful Sonny Liston and Murray told readers, “you only hope it doesn’t bite.” Even when he railed against the carnage at the Indianapolis 500, there was a laugh, however dark, in his outrage: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”
He’d throw a change-up once in a while, something serious about racism or violence, and it was when deep pain entered his personal life that he wrote perhaps his best columns. Still, the Jim Murray I most loved to read was the one who wisecracked his way onto a stage made of newsprint. Sportswriters before him had dealt in humor—Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Ring Lardner and Ring’s boy John—but Murray played a different game entirely: Even when a joke tanked, you had to stick around because his next one would slay you.
As soon as they heard Levon Helm was coming, the guys in the band began to imagine him sitting in with them, playing the drums, maybe even singing “The Weight.” It was one of the songs they did when they got together on Friday nights, finished with another week’s filming of a TV drama called “Midnight Caller,” just letting the music ease them out of the harness. There was music everywhere on that show, from the old MGM Studios in L.A., where we wrote it, to San Francisco, where we filmed it. You couldn’t go a day without someone turning you on to an album or talking up a concert. Or you’d walk into the executive producer’s office and find him practicing a new lick on his guitar, a pleasure that almost always seemed to come before business. But the executive producer knew he was a better singer than a guitarist — fitting, I suppose, since his name was Bob Singer. He sang lead for the band that came into being when four kindred spirits found each other on the soundstage, and the band bore his name, Bobby and the Bonemasters. All of which meant it was Singer who would have to ask Levon Helm if he was interested in hanging out with a bunch of rock-and-roll dreamers.
Of course Levon’s primary purpose on “Midnight Caller” had nothing to do with music or his history as the soul of the band known as the Band. He was guest starring as an ex-convict who wanted to go back to prison because it was the only place he knew how to exist. The script was my contribution to the proceedings. I had pictured Levon in the role from the day in 1990 that the idea hit me, not because he was a trained actor but because he was one of those naturals who seemed as real as calloused hands when he was on camera. He had been pluperfect as Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and it was hard to forget his easy grace as he lit Robbie Robertson’s cigarette in “The Last Waltz.” What I didn’t find out until later was how much acting he’d had to do in that documentary about the Band’s final concert at full strength. He was brimming with anger because he thought Robertson was sacrificing everything they had accomplished for his own selfish purposes.
But acting ability ceased to matter as Singer tried to work up his courage to approach Levon on the Bonemasters’ behalf. It was Levon’s earthy, soulful voice that haunted Singer now — the juke-joint joy of “Rag Mama Rag,” the grief and defiance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon had plunged into the musical fires of the Sixties with Dylan and emerged playing the most quintessentially American rock ever with the Band. But he was its only American, a cotton farmer’s son from Marvell, Arkansas, surrounded by four Canadians. He drummed, took an occasional turn on the mandolin, and like the Band’s other two singers–Rick Danko and Richard Manuel–made memories with his voice. He had been on stage at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight and on the cover of Time magazine, and now Singer was going to invite him to the Bonemasters’ lair in the lunchroom of the converted San Francisco printing plant where “Midnight Caller” had its soundstages. Somehow that didn’t compute.
To calm himself, Singer concentrated on remembering how gracious Levon had been when they’d met in L.A., a true Southern gentleman with a bushy beard that made him look older than the 50 years he was then approaching. Singer figured that if he got shot down, it would at least be painless. So he took a deep breath, explained about the Bonemasters and offered his invitation.
“Y’all gonna have any beer?” Levon asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Singer said. “We’re gonna have beer.”
“I’ll be there.”
That was, in its way, a historic moment. Other musicians had guest starred on the show, but only Levon said yes to the Bonemasters. When Billy Vera, a rhythm-and-blues stalwart from L.A., turned them down, it was with a contempt that suggested he would rather eat road kill. Hoyt Axton, the country singer whose mother wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” never got invited because he was too busy living the life that enabled him to open concerts by saying, “Hi, I’m what’s left of Hoyt Axton.” But Roger Daltrey would have been welcomed if the part he played hadn’t cranked up his anxiety level by requiring him to sing a non-Who song. Still, he gave the cast and crew something to remember by loosening his vocal chords with a kick-ass version of “Hey Joe.”
Some of the Bonemasters started thinking their night with Levon Helm would be solid gold when filming wrapped at 8 that Friday, a good three hours earlier than usual. Singer, however, wasn’t one of them. He was worried that Levon would get a load of the lunchroom, with its linoleum floor and pea-green walls, and decide it was too small-time for him. Or maybe he’d get chased off if Jim Behnke, “Midnight Caller’s” unit production manager, went on one of his guitar solos that got lost in space. Or maybe Singer himself would do the chasing if nerves cracked his tobacco-cured baritone.
Levon walked into the room as if he understood that a heavy step might destroy the equilibrium. The Bonemasters were already playing, so he grabbed a beer and one of Singer’s harps, then plugged into an amplifier and settled in a corner. Everything was fine until he started to play along with the band. “I’m not getting any sound,” he said. “The amp’s not working.”
Great, Singer thought. He’s been here 10 minutes and we’ve already proven what rank amateurs we are. He’s going to take off.
But Levon didn’t so much as blink even when he discovered there wasn’t another amp. He just played the guitar Singer wasn’t using, and when it came time to blow harp, he did it into the microphone. It didn’t sound as good as it would have through an amp, but the important thing, the absolutely crucial thing, was that he stayed.
At first the Bonemasters looked to Levon for requests–they were up for anything–but he told them, “You go on and play what you want to play.” So they dove into a repertoire that included songs by the Beatles, the Stones, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. As usual they were at their tightest when they did “Honky-Tonk Woman.” “Boys,” Levon said, “I’d keep that one in the set.”
The next thing the Bonemasters knew, he was teaching them some country songs, the kind he’d been listening to since he was six years old and saw Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys at a tent show in Marvell. And when they got back to rock and roll, Gary Cole–the Bonemasters’ drummer, the star of “Midnight Caller,” and the future Mr. Brady in the Brady Bunch movies–asked Levon if he would like to take a turn on the drums. Levon couldn’t resist. He sounded just the way he did on all those albums with the Band, the tasteful fills, the clever way he got behind the beat, everything so tight, so perfect. Cole and Singer stood off to the side and hoped they weren’t gawking.
They were seeing more than a great drummer at work, though. This was Levon’s life in microcosm, a life filled with nights like the one they were living with him, nights that go beyond getting rich, famous, high or laid and exist for the undiluted joy of making music. You could trace them back beyond the Band and Dylan to Levon’s stops with Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks and the Jungle Bush Beaters, all the way to those stolen hours as a kid listening to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters on the radio and imagining himself in their world. And if you follow his trail forward from his session with the Bonemasters, you will find more of the same, as a solo act, with the RCO All-Stars and the reconstituted Band, right up to the midnight rambles he hosted in Woodstock until throat cancer sent him off on his last ramble.
After a life so full musically, it is hard to imagine that Levon remembered sitting in with the Bonemasters, but there are pictures to prove he did. One of “Midnight Caller’s” prop masters came down to the lunchroom and snapped a bunch of them -– Levon surrounded by Singer, Cole, Behnke and Kenny Collins, the assistant director who played such solid bass. When the guys in the band checked out the pictures later, there was no denying that Levon looked like he was enjoying himself. But there shouldn’t have been any doubt as soon as he said his friend Clarence Clemons was in San Francisco and offered to invite him over to play some saxophone, the way he did for Bruce Springsteen. It didn’t happen, though, because one of the guys had kids at home and a babysitter going off duty at midnight, and that’s the way the real world goes around.
So the Bonemasters reveled in what they got with Levon, which was more than they ever expected and remains the first topic of conversation on those rare occasions when they run into each other more than 20 years later. In fact, the only thing Levon wouldn’t do that night was sing one of the Band’s songs, not that Behnke didn’t try to tempt him by playing the intro to “The Weight” at every opportunity. “The Weight” was a Bonemasters staple and it begged to be sung, but Singer, who usually did the honors, felt sheepish about it. After all, the man who put the song over the top for the Band was there with them. Finally, Levon said, “You sing it, Bob.”
There was no backing out–the load was right on Singer. He tucked into “The Weight” with no goal beyond getting to the end of it. It’s a surreal parable about a good deed that consumes its doer, and it’s filled with the kind of characters more often found in Flannery Connor’s novels than a rock-and-roll song. By the time he finished with Crazy Chester, Jack the Dog and all the rest of them, Singer wasn’t sure if he should take a bow or run for the hills. Then he looked over and saw Levon grinning and flashing him a thumbs-up. A fellow could live a long time and not have a finer moment.
Yes, Ali was unspeakably cruel to Frazier in the build-up to their fights, calling him “a gorilla” and, worse, an Uncle Tom. But no one ever said Ali was perfect. He was as flawed and complicated as any other human being, with his mean streak and his public philandering and, for all I know, his snoring. He may not have been a Rhodes scholar, either, which was a point Kram hammered relentlessly. But somehow Ali always managed to find his better self when the occasion demanded it. Rising out of a business in which men are paid to destroy each other—Ali-Frazier III is a classic example—he performed acts of charity, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Some were high profile—opposing the war in Vietnam, championing black pride—while others were small personal gestures, like financing soup kitchens or building homes for poor families. Ali may have been acting on instinct instead of intellect in some cases; in others he may have seen his selfishness morph into something good. Who knows what was going on inside his head? All I can say is that I saw him do far more good than bad, and when he was done, he had become far more than a heavyweight champion. He had become a great man.
It seems anticlimactic to say he was great to cover, too. A writer’s dream. He was funny and irreverent and brash and, when the occasion called for it, humble and sensitive. There weren’t many people in the sports media whose names he remembered—Howard Cosell, naturally, and Dick Young and George Plimpton, whom he called “Kennedy”—and yet the media flocked to him because they knew that when he was around, something was going to happen. He might trade insults with Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage, or back up a prediction with a goofy poem. When he took a vow of silence before his first fight with Leon Spinks, he slapped a piece of tape across his mouth—and even then he was more interesting than anyone who was talking.
I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Ali was a once-in-a-lifetime subject for a sports writer, maybe for any kind of writer. I know he was that way for me, and I always prided myself in saying the story came first. But he made me care about him in a way no other athlete did. It was his charm, his courage, his audacity, his greatness in the ring. When I saw Larry Holmes destroy him in Las Vegas, it was like watching an execution. It was the worst night of my life as a sports writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I felt bad for myself, of course, because I knew I wouldn’t be writing about him for much longer. But I felt worse for Ali because of the way he’d been beaten. Even though Holmes did what he could to hold back, he had to keep fighting until Ali’s craven manager, Herbert Muhammad, told Angelo Dundee to stop it. By then Ali had been damaged in a way he will never get past. All these years later, the memory still haunts me. Maybe that’s the measure of just how special he was.
Not a holiday season arrives that I don’t think of a gray, clammy day long ago on Baltimore’s waterfront and a lost soul who told me about the woman who had given him his only gift in years: a Christmas card. It was just the sort of story I was looking for when I was making my bones as a newspaper reporter, and now that I have a better understanding of the forces that drove me, I imagine it was a story that Joseph Mitchell would have gravitated to himself. If you don’t know who Mitchell is, or even if you do, the following is my gift to you.
In a perfect world, of course, I’d put fancy paper, ribbon and a bow on “My Ears Are Bent,” a collection of his newspaper features from the 1930s that came back into print this year after a criminally long time as a used-book store treasure. Devotees spent years searching for it in the past because, frankly, Mitchell was worth the trouble -– one of the 20th Century’s most remarkable journalists without being a scandal-breaking Washington muckraker or a dashing, trench-coated foreign correspondent. His specialty was chronicling New York’s human exotica: pickpockets and wrestling impresarios, tinhorn evangelists and burlesque queens, counterfeit royalty and watermen who bragged of sitting down with a friend to eat a barrel of oysters on the half-shell after dinner. And hold the sauce.
Every once in a while, Mitchell would slip and interview a celebrity–the lusty Jimmy Durante, for example, or the memorably rude George Bernard Shaw. But he seems to have always atoned by finding a character like the hooker who explained her calling thus: “I just wanted to be accommodating.”
Mitchell’s greatest affection may have been reserved for saloonkeepers and their well-oiled customers, which leads me to believe he would have liked the characters I chanced upon shortly before Christmas 1973. I never learned the most important one’s name; to me, he was simply The Flier because he claimed to have flown jet fighters in the Korean War. If The Flier had anything resembling a benefactor, it was Uncle Pete Drymala, who ran a bar called Pete’s Hotel. And then there was the girl who had given The Flier his Christmas card the year before. He had to pull the card out of his pocket so he could tell me her name. Francesca–that was it.
The Flier, Uncle Pete and Francesca dwelled by the docks in an area called Fells Point, which had been spared from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and from being plowed under when I-95 was built. Its reward for surviving, if a reward is what it is, now includes gentrified rowhouses and dives turned into bistros where, according to one review, the cell-phone generation can enjoy “honey-colored beer, steamed shrimp and sushi.” But all that has come to pass since The Flier wandered its cobblestone streets.
Back then, Fells Point was blissfully down at the heels, crawling with merchant seamen who figured no night was complete unless they got drunk, got in a fight, and got lucky with a local sweetheart. The Flier fit in perfectly, drinking white port wine that he bought for $1.25 a fifth, tax included, and pausing only to sleep in boarded-up buildings or to warm himself by the radiator in Pete’s Hotel. He drank at Pete’s, too, and when he got out of hand, Uncle Pete would 86 him, even at Christmastime.
There was an Edward Hopper quality about The Flier’s existence, and I see the same thing when I read Joseph Mitchell. The bleak, the stark and the unforgiving become somehow beautiful because they are in the right hands.
Story after story in “My Ears Are Bent” vibrates with Mitchell’s sense of wonder, for he was a young man out of North Carolina when he wrote them for two New York dailies, the Herald Tribune and the World Telegram. Soon after his anthology was originally published in 1938, he hired on at The New Yorker, where he remained until he died 58 years later, by then a seminal figure in literary journalism. The mature Mitchell’s grandest achievements can be found in a collection called “Up in the Old Hotel,” but as artful and profound as those pieces are, they can’t match the urgency and delight of his newspaper reportage.
At the dawn of his career, I imagine he felt the same way I did when I was breaking in at the Baltimore Evening Sun. My reporter’s notebook was a ticket to the kind of adventures most people with college degrees don’t have. I got tear-gassed by state troopers breaking up an anti-war protest. I heard a mother’s anguished cries after a shantytown fire at five in the morning. I latched onto pool hustlers who spun yarns about fleecing bus drivers and tobacco farmers. And I went looking for Francesca after The Flier showed me that Christmas card.
My search led me to Pete’s Hotel, and to Uncle Pete, who cashed the meager check the government sent The Flier every month, then watched out the front window as the inevitable happened. Sometimes The Flier drank up his money, other times his fellow stew bums stole it. Uncle Pete told him not to put all the money in the same pocket, but The Flier never listened.
It was hardly a scenario to generate Christmas spirit. Uncle Pete, however, wasn’t opposed to proving one of Mitchell’s pet theories: “…the saloonkeeper is apt to know the address or hangout of any citizen dopey enough or unlucky enough to be of interest to a great metropolitan newspaper.” He pointed at a woman sitting at the bar with three beer glasses in front of her, one full, one half-empty, one dead. It was Francesca.
She had made 30 the hard way, living on unemployment when she wasn’t stripping, but there was still a soft spot in her heart, and it was The Flier who found it. “I get mad at him when he sits out there and drinks all that lousy wine,” she told me. “But that don’t keep him from being a good person. He’s always been a good person, and he don’t bother nobody. That’s why I gave him the card. I gave it to him out of my heart.”
The sentiment was perfect for the season, and there was no diminishing it even when Francesca killed her second beer with a deep swallow and a belch. My head spun with the possibility of reuniting her with The Flier. The idea was so melodramatic it would have sent Mitchell running, but I clung to it until I realized The Flier had wandered off to a place that defied finding. It was just as well. He and Francesca had connected long before I stumbled into their lives, and the memory would get them both through another Christmas.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.”
Chapter 35:The Show Must Go On
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
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.
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. 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.”
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.
“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, Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese, 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, 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.
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.”
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.
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” 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.”
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.
Chapter 38: Crockett and Tubbs (Mostly Crockett)
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
In the space of two and a half years, I got fired from the Chicago Sun-Times and divorced, moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, changed careers, lived through the death of my father, moved from Philadelphia to L.A., tried to get my feet under me in show business, and wound up spending two weeks in the hospital with the back problems that afflict me to this day. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but my diagnosis is that my cumulative stress had to go somewhere, so it went to my back. Of course the problem is more complicated than that, but I truly was wrung out from the roller coaster ride I’d been on. The ride wasn’t over, though. I was simply changing roller coasters.
When I got out of the hospital, I turned down a chance to return to “Miami Vice” because there was a new dramedy on ABC called “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” that sounded like it wound be fun to write. Slap was a sports columnist, which made me right for the show, and he was played by Dabney Coleman, who specialized in self-centered misanthropes who made audiences laugh. ABC had to beg Dabney to do the show, though, and he didn’t say yes until a prickly comedy genius named Jay Tarses agreed to write the pilot and produce the series. Conveniently overlooked was the fact that they hated each other.
They had worked together several years earlier on “Buffalo Bill,” a wonderfully twisted comedy that went off the tracks when it addressed a subject that remains tetchy to this day. Dabney’s character, an oblivious Buffalo, New York talk show host, got his girl friend pregnant – “So, who’s the lucky father?” he asked – and she had an abortion. Ratings went in the toilet, Dabney went through the roof, and that was it for the Tarses-Coleman connection, or so everyone thought.
“Slap” was supposed to be the corrective for all that, but the era of good feeling lasted until the second or third day of shooting, when Dabney announced for one and all to hear that he wouldn’t say a line because it was “sitcom bullshit.” Jay, who had written the line and everything else in the marvelously quirky script, got up from his director’s chair – he was the director, after all – and stomped off the set. The battle lines were drawn.
Nobody bothered to mention that to me when I showed up for my interview with Jay. He was an easy guy to get along with unless you were a troublesome thespian or a network or studio executive. No artifice, no overweening ego. He even liked sports, which wasn’t always the case with the people I met in Hollywood. The business may amount to nothing so much as a boys’ club, but the boys don’t always care about who won last night. Jay cared. But even so, I was caught off guard when he asked me, “Why do you want to do this? You had the best job in the world.”
The way he emphasized “this,” leaning on it almost contemptuously, should have been a warning. But I was still in my fantasyland stage and wouldn’t come out of it until my first official day on the job as one of the show’s story editors. (Story editor is a synonym for writer, just as executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer can be.) Jay invited me to sit down with him and one of the show’s writer-producers as they punched up a script that was about to shoot. Encouraged to sound off with any lines I thought might work, I spoke up and Jay put both of my suggestions in the script. Just like that, I felt like I was part of the team. Then Dabney walked into the outer office, talking in a voice that would have cut through granite. Jay scarcely looked up from the changes he was making before he uttered the words that snapped everything into focus for me: “Oh, the asshole is here.”
“The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” was cancelled after one season.
When I moved on to my next TV job, as executive story editor on “Wiseguy,” our star, Ken Wahl presented a different problem: self-destructiveness. He had risen beyond his talent and developed all the bad habits typical of too many half-bright actors. What’s more, his tendency to put on weight had the writing staff joking that the name of the show should be changed to “Wideguy.” But blubber and bad behavior, and so-so ratings aside – can’t forget the ratings – “Wiseguy” was much loved by critics and viewers in search of a crime drama that welcomed their intelligence instead of insulting it.
Because “Wiseguy” was a Stephen Cannell production, Cannell is hailed as the mastermind behind it. Not so. He created a classic in “The Rockford Files,” a monstrous hit in “The A-Team,” and such exceedingly cool failures as “City of Angels” and “Tenspeed and Brownshoe,” but “Wiseguy” was his and co-creator Frank Lupo’s in name only. The brains of the operation was David Burke, who came out of TV news, was the son of a New York radio talk show host, and possessed an ego that was even bigger than his talent. Burke put his stamp on “Wiseguy” with a writerly verve inspired by his hero, Paddy Chayefsky, and stories that ran in arcs of four or five episodes, sometimes even more. He created beguiling, multidimensional villains like Sonny Steelgrave and Mel Profit and made them part of the pop culture dialogue in the early 90s. To watch him in action was to see a man possessed by both his work and the fame and wealth he was getting closer to by the day.
Twenty years later, however, you never hear Burke mentioned in the same sentence with David Kelley or Dick Wolfe or the cable grit-masters who work the territory he might have, David Simon and David Chase. I’d feel bad for him if I hadn’t walked into his office at “Wiseguy” office one morning just in time to hear him tell a producer, “I’m a genius and I’ve got the clippings to prove it.” That would be press clippings, of course, and I’m surprised that Burke, as smart as he was, never learned that they weren’t to be believed.
But let me not leave “Wiseguy” on a sour note. Better I should tell you about the show’s garment district arc, which, to my mind, was the crowning achievement for Burke and his mordant, ferociously hard-working right-hand man, Steve Kronish. They found something special inside themselves as they conjured up a tale about fathers and sons and risks that come with rewards that have a trap door beneath them. They didn’t do it alone, though. In fact, they were off trying to launch a Cannell series about serial killers – think body parts in a refrigerator every Thursday night — when Ken Wahl was injured during filming of the first garment district episode. It was Al Ruggiero, our square-shouldered, motorcycle-riding co-producer, and I who had to create an undercover agent to replace the one Wahl played and re-write the script in a weekend. Anthony Dennison got the part when he was still hot after doing “Crime Story,” and the first thing he said to us was, “This is better than any of the feature scripts I’ve read lately.” Burke and Kronish never bothered to thank us.
We were left to find our satisfaction in the performances of the movie-quality cast that brought our script to life. From the get-go, “Wiseguy” had been a magnet for emerging stars like Kevin Spacey and reclamation projects like the doomed Ray Sharkey. I still remember how impressed I was when Paul Winfield showed up at our office in a sport coat and tie and told us he’d just flown in from New York after reading Langston Hughes at the 92nd Street Y the night before. And it got even better when we shined our light on the garment district. Consider this cast: Stanley Tucci, Ron Silver, Joan Chen, and – I mention him last only for effect – Jerry Lewis. We wanted Lewis because we’d seen his bravura performance as the talk shot host in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” What we failed to consider was that movie making is done at a glacial pace and while TV shows are made at warp speed. The mercurial Mr. Lewis had trouble adapting to the lavish speeches we’d written for him. He could probably remember every joke he’d ever told, but dialogue was something that brought him to his knees until we promised to trim the excess from all of his speeches.
For Christmas he gave everybody connected with the show Jerry Lewis watches with his likeness on them. On the last day he worked, he told everybody that doing the show had been the greatest experience of his career. All right, so maybe he was exaggerating. That morning, in fact, when a producer had gone to him with dialogue changes, he had not been the ray of sunshine he was when he exited stage left. “You heard of Jerry Lewis’ reputation, pal?” he said. “I’ll show you Jerry Lewis’ reputation.” Better the dialogue changes should wind up in a wastebasket. And they did.
Chapter 40:Brass Cannolis
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.’”
Chapter 47: Vanishing Act
In my show business alphabet, the scarlet letter will always be “s” for syndication. The instant I started wearing it, the network and cable people doing high-end dramas treated me like I was descended from intellectual pygmies who eat rabid bats and worship Soupy Sales. Only the young and promising receive special dispensation for working on a syndicated show to get a foot in Hollywood’s door. But I was 51 when I crawled away from “Xena” and “Hercules,” old enough to have known better. I would have had to be a miracle worker to avoid being branded as a junk peddler and cast into darkness. Alas, I was fresh out of miracles.
My new status hit me like a pie in the face on my next gig, an appallingly uninspired private eye show called “Lawless.” The title had absolutely nothing to do with Lucy, though I couldn’t help wishing she were around to give our leading man lessons in how to roll with the flow instead of turning to stone whenever the camera was on him. Brian Bosworth was a washed-up football star who realized how badly he wanted to act when Bo Jackson trampled him on national TV. The Boz got his chance in a series of cheap action movies that proved he wasn’t any better at it than he was at tackling. But that didn’t stop the brain trust at Fox TV from handing him “Lawless.” The thinking seemed to be that if enough helicopters landed in Lawlesss’s mother’s backyard simultaneously, we’d have a hit.
I found myself in the trenches with Frank Lupo, who had created or co-created something like 16 series, and Richard Christian Matheson, who had scored big in TV and was now devoting most of his time to writing novels and screenplays. While the network dithered about choppers and the proper sidekick for Bosworth, our biggest decision every day was where to eat lunch. The rest of the time, we cashed fat paychecks, complained about our offices in a converted Culver City warehouse, and listened to Lupo tell stories. My favorite was about Robert Blake, in his “Baretta” days, introducing himself to this son of a Brooklyn pizza maker by saying, “I’m crazy, you know.”
On Friday nights, gang kids would gather in the shadows of our dead-end street to drink and howl at the moon while we scampered for our respective Mercedes. That was as close to the real world as we came, unless you want to consider the fate of “Lawless” itself. Fox didn’t get its desired number of helicopters and we were left to bang out scripts in a white heat. Predictably, the show was cancelled after one episode. The only reason “Lawless” lasted that long was because the network didn’t have anything to replace it at the half-hour.
From that point forward, I could see the last of the sand running through my hourglass. I tried to buy myself more time by writing screenplays, one of them based on W.C. Heinz’s unforgettable magazine story about Lew Jenkins, a go-to-hell prizefighter from Texas who became a war hero in Korea. The Jenkins script got me a flurry of meetings and, for a minute or two, made me the poster boy for the Creative Artists Agency’s in-house campaign to have its TV writers cross over to movies. Unfortunately my timing was dreadful. “Cinderella Man” was already in the works, and so was a Meg Ryan movie about a real-life female fight manager. I wanted to tell the people who were using those projects as a reason to say no to me that Jenkins’ story was better than either of them. But I kept my mouth shut, and when movie people asked if I had any other ideas, I always mentioned Gram Parsons, who married classic country music to a rock-and-roll sensibility and died of hard living way too young. I didn’t get anywhere with that one, either. Johnny Knoxville did. Need I say more?
Eventually I did what most every frustrated screenwriter does. I changed agents. Why not? I’d changed agents, and agencies, even when I wasn’t frustrated. I’d changed them because one agent was a creep who sexually harassed his female assistants. And because my instincts told me another was a bad fit for me. And because a woman who represented me left United Talent for CAA after she became a target for an abrasive, emotionally damaged colleague she had made the mistake of dating.
When I talked myself into believing she had lost sight of whatever it was I did best, I jumped again, to Paul Haas, at ICM. It was the worst move I ever made professionally. When I think of him now, I’m reminded of Murray Kempton’s analysis of Bill Clinton: “too smart by half.” Haas wasn’t book smart, though; he was Hollywood smart, slick and self-absorbed, almost feral in his quest to get to the top of the meat pile. Not unusual qualities in an agent, but I failed to see the warning sign that said “by half” until he told me to meet with the producers of a show about a fat cop who was a martial arts wizard. It was exactly the kind of claptrap I wanted to get away from, so I refused. Then the producers of another show about a fat cop said they didn’t want to meet with me because I’d done “Xena” and “Hercules.” They robbed me of the chance to say no to them first, the bastards.
Far worse, however, was that Haas soon lost interest in me. He had bigger fish to fry, more important clients who could make him more money, and a more prestigious place at the table to claim for his own. The only attention I got from him bordered on condescension. When I wrote pieces for GQ and Sports Illustrated to maintain my sanity, he congratulated me on “reinventing” myself, as if I’d never told him that I was a newspaper and magazine guy at heart. That wasn’t the only thing he didn’t pay attention to. There was also my Lew Jenkins screenplay, which he handed off to two of ICM’s young sharks. Their names were Todd and Danny, and on those rare occasions when I look at the trade papers now, I see they’ve prospered. But when they were supposed to be championing my cause, I never heard from them. After a year of being ignored, I complained to Haas and quickly got a call from Todd. Or Danny.
“That was a great script,” whichever one I was talking to said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Remind me what it was about, would you?”
I hung up. If it hadn’t, I would have told Todd – or Danny – I had a new screenplay that I had written specifically for the purpose of sticking up his ass. Even now I have moments when I fantasize about seeing one of them in some fancy-schmancy restaurant and decking him. Not so much as a “Remember me?” Just lights out. But I’m too old for such nonsense and too weary to get exercised over the everyday cruelties that pass for standard business practices in Hollywood. Maybe I was gassed back then too and just wouldn’t admit it. How else to explain the fact that I never fired Haas no matter how useless he was?
It took an old friend from “Midnight Caller,” Stephen Zito, to open the door for me at “JAG.” The show was more fun than I expected it to be with one exception: its creator and executive producer, Don Bellisario. With a foul-smelling cigar smoldering in his mouth, a disdain for any idea that wasn’t his, and a tin ear for dialogue, Bellisario leeched all the joy out of writing. He was a bully and a lout and a war lover who’d never been to war. You’d have to go a long way to find anyone in TV more despised. I’m surprised I lasted 25 episodes. Not that things improved when Haas steered me to “Outer Limits” and I promptly shot myself in the foot by telling an executive producer with a lube-job haircut that a story he embraced was no story at all. That would have been my last stand if David Israel hadn’t brought me aboard as his right-hand man on “Tremors.” It had monsters, oddball humor, and weird characters in a forgotten desert town. Hits have been made of less. But we were saddled with the two amiably passive-aggressive guys who wrote the movies on which “Tremors” was based, and they refused to adapt to the realities of TV. They just made the same mistakes over and over until they looked up one day and the show was off the air.
I was as far as I could be from those heady times when Steven Bochco invited me to come out and try my hand at writing scripts. Where once the TV business had given me with hope, I now felt diminished. I found myself remembering the long-in-tooth writers who had come in to pitch their tired episode ideas on “Miami Vice” and “Midnight Caller,” and how I had promised myself I wouldn’t end up the way they had. If I insisted on squeezing the last drop of juice from the orange, that was exactly who I’d be – short on pride and dignity, just a beggar with a nice car. It felt as though there were less of me every time I turned around. I was in a bad sci-fi movie and I was slowly vanishing.
Chapter 48:The Circle Home
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.”
“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. 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” 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.
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.
I’m always surprised and more than a little disappointed in myself when I tote up how many people helped me along the way and how easily I’ve forgotten some of them. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is Bill Tanton, who opened the door for me at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He was the sports editor there when I was using Army time to write letters in my campaign for a job at every paper that caught my fancy–the L.A. Times because of Jim Murray, the pre-Murdoch New York Post because of Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel, the Washington Daily News because of Jack Mann. Tanton’s response was like most of the others in that he said he didn’t have any openings, but he didn’t let it go at that. He passed my letter and clips on to the Evening Sun’s city editor because he thought I had the makings of a good feature writer. It turned out that Tanton recruited a lot of the first-rate talent that passed through the paper –Tom Callahan, Mike Janofsky, Phil Hersh, Dan Shaugnessy–but I wouldn’t realize I was part of the parade until after I had rejoined the civilian world in August 1970 and chosen between job offers at the Evening Sun and the Miami Herald, which, by the way, didn’t want me as a sports writer, either.
Unfailingly, every editor I met yearned to save me from life in what serious newspaper people considered the toy department. It was, I suppose, the curse of being a relatively bright young man. They talked about transforming me into a cityside reporter who might one day cover the state house or the White House or even become a foreign correspondent. I could tell I was going to have to get to sports by my own devices. The important thing at the time, however, was to work, to get some experience, and to develop as a writer. I’m sure I could have done that in Miami — working there certainly hasn’t hurt Carl Hiassen. But what I remember best about my visit was sitting in an editor’s office and looking out at Biscayne Bay sparkling in the sunshine. I worried that if I said yes to the Herald I’d always feel like I was on vacation.
I didn’t have that problem when I visited Baltimore. The city looked the way I imagine Dresden must have after World War II-–burned-out, desiccated, hopeless. On the ride in from the airport, I saw a sign for Shilinksi’s Lithuanian sausage and, a short distance away, the landmark Bromo-Seltzer Tower. For me, a great first impression. The clincher, though was my interview with the city editor, a live wire named Ernie Imhoff who called everybody “babe.” We had a cup of coffee in the Sunpapers’ cafeteria, a setting about as joyless as Death Row, and then we went back upstairs to the city room, where I was treated to a view of the city jail. All this and the Evening Sun had to play second fiddle to the Morning Sun, which had overseas bureaus and a Washington bureau and, obviously, a far bigger budget than the A.S. Abell Company’s p.m. stepchild. Hell, the Evening Sun had yet to assign a single reporter to cover Washington, which was all of 30 minutes away by car. And it didn’t have enough money to send reporters around the block, much less around the globe. But it had been H.L. Mencken’s paper, and it put a premium on tough reporting and lively writing. Add all that to the view of the city jail and there was no way I could say no to Baltimore.
I knew I’d made the right choice when my first assignment was to go to what is called the Block to find out what the strippers and lowlifes there were doing to get ready for the World Series between the Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds. The Block was a stretch of East Baltimore Street downtown devoted to strip joints, dirty-book stores, the city’s only tattoo parlor, and Polock Johnny’s Polish sausage emporium, all in the shadow of police headquarters. The strippers, especially one who called herself Fanta Blu, turned out to be raunchy and wonderful, particularly when talking about big-name baseball and football players who occasionally stopped by. I could only quote them up to a point–the Evening Sun was a family newspaper, after all-–but the story I wrote still got me the right kind of attention.
Just the same, I spent my first year in Baltimore covering suburban Harford County. I shared an office with the Morning Sun’s reporter, Edna Goldberg, a middle-aged dynamo who doted on her two sons, had a husband named Sol, invited me to dinner with her family, taught me Yiddish curse words, and was as competitive as anybody I ever bumped heads with in the newspaper business. My salvation was that she loved doing stories about budgets and zoning, subjects I would write about only under threat of death. Mostly I wrote features and slipped back into the city to see if there was something there I might do. The one good political story I wrote was about Joseph Tydings, a liberal Democrat from Harford County who was driven out of the U.S. Senate by the pro-gun crowd. Years later, in Hollywood, when I was the head writer on “Hercules,” we hired Tydings’ daughter Alexandra as a guest star. She played Aphrodite as if the goddess of love were a surfer girl, and she was dynamite. Small world.
Once I moved onto the city desk full-time, I was in high clover. Baltimore embraced weirdness and lionized eccentrics, and the Evening Sun basically let me run amok. I wrote features about pool hustlers and singing newsboys; vice cops on the Block and a saloonkeeper who put up a billboard supporting Nixon and Agnew; Edith Massey (the egg lady from “Pink Flamingoes”) and a vastly overweight Depression-era bicycle racer who watched me make the most of his neighborhood bar’s 10-cent beers and get hammered on the job for the first and only time in my career. One day I waltzed off to write about the Block’s last surviving tattoo artist and came back with a story about a hooker named Rosie who was just out of jail and wanted a rose tattoo. Our education reporter, a sweet little lady named Sue Miller, accused me of making the whole thing up. But the beauty of Baltimore was that you didn’t need to write fiction. The truth had it beat every which way.
And yet no matter how woolly the people I wrote about were, I was still who I was, and there was no getting away from it. I remember one of the pool hustlers I was always pestering for stories looking at me one day and saying, “John, you’re the straightest guy we ever met.”
Chapter 10: He’s Breslin and You’re Not
The Evening Sun didn’t have the biggest staff in the world, so a lot of us had to do double duty. For me, that frequently meant coming in at 6 or 7 in the morning to work re-write for the first edition before they turned me loose on the world. It was great experience because when I was under the gun, I had to force myself to write fast. You know, a news story 700 to 1,000 words long in 20 minutes or less, and you had to get the facts right from the reporters in the field who were calling them in.
Just as often, I’d be the one out on the street, hoping I’d be able to get back to the office in time to write the story myself. I’d get a call from an assistant city editor at 4:30 in the morning to get over to a rowhouse fire in West Baltimore that killed a couple of kids, and by the time I got there, I could hear their mother or grandmother screaming “My babies, my babies!” from two blocks away. Or it would be a shantytown fire in a speck on the map called Principio Furnace, with more dead babies. Or a bunch of volunteer firemen who drowned while trying to rescue somebody in a hellacious rainstorm. Or maybe just two motorcycle gangs that shot each other to pieces.
The story that still haunts me was about a town out in Western Maryland called Friendsville. Population 600 and six of its boys had been killed in Vietnam. I went out there to talk to the families of the first five casualties and wait for the body of the sixth to come home. I got a number for what I guess is best described as Friendsville’s general store, talked with the woman who ran it, and she wound up saying she’d have everybody ready to talk to me. And she did. If you want an example of small-town trust and graciousness, there it was. But the story was still a painful one to report because I knew I was opening old wounds for everybody I interviewed. The people I remember best were a couple my parents’ age, which is to say well into their 60s. They lived in a stone house on a dirt road outside town, just the two of them and the photos of the boy they’d lost in the war, their only child. All I could think of was how I could have been that dead boy instead, and my parents the ones stumbling around under the weight of their loss. Somehow I made it through the interview without crying, but as soon as I got in my car, I bawled like a baby-–for them, for my folks and me, for all the dead soldiers in that godforsaken war.
I wish I could tell you I turned Friendsville into a great story, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the chops yet. I wrote it in, I think, 1971, and I was still trying on styles for size, still pretending I was somebody different every time I sat down at the typewriter. When David Israel and Mike Lupica burst onto the scene a few years later, I was struck by how fully-formed they were as writers, and they were kids. To read them was to think they never suffered from self-doubt or indecision. Tony Kornheiser was that way, too, an absolute joy to read seemingly from Day One. I had days when I was good, I suppose, but mostly I was a work in progress.
Throughout my time at the Evening Sun, Jimmy Breslin was my greatest influence, just as he had been since the day before I went in the Army. I’d ordered his classic collection “The World of Jimmy Breslin” as soon as I’d returned from grad school, but it didn’t show up until 36 hours before I became Uncle Sam’s property. I sat down and read the book from cover to cover, swept away by Breslin’s great characters–Marvin the Torch, Fat Thomas, Sam Silverware–and touched in a deeper, more profound way by his column about the man who dug JFK’s grave. When I put the book down, I told myself that if I lived through whatever the Army had in store for me, I wanted to come home and write just the way Breslin did. And I tried mightily when I worked in Baltimore. Of course I wasn’t the only young buck who worshipped Breslin. You could see his influence on hot young newspaper writers everywhere, whether they were on the city desk or in sports: Lupica in New York, Israel in Washington, Bob Greene in Chicago. And the hell of it was, they were all better at imitating Breslin than I was.
Chapter 11: Living and Dying in ¾ Time
Call me self-deluded, but my shortcomings as a writer didn’t stop me from campaigning to become the Evening Sun’s city columnist, the Breslin of Baltimore, if you will. The strategy I concocted was simple: in addition to writing the best feature stories I could, I would write about rock and roll. There were always great acts coming through town or playing in D.C. or out at Meriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, the planned city. But the Evening Sun acted as if rock and roll didn’t exist, even with Rolling Stone getting bigger and bigger in the cultural zeitgeist. So I asked the city editor if I could write about a Grateful Dead concert, and he said sure, why not. And then I wrote about Alice Cooper, who borrowed my pen and used it to stir his drink. I wrote about Muddy Waters, too, even though he was too drunk to talk before his show and I spent most of my time hanging out with his piano player, Pinetop Perkins, who was a hell of a nice guy.
Anyway, one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had a once-a-week pop music column. I spent a lot of weeknights and weekends going to shows and interviewing musicians in hotels and motels and bars. I still had to take my regular turn on re-write and do my features and anything else that came my way, but it was all worth it. The music was great even if Sly Stone never showed up and Al Green’s girl friend looked like she wanted to dump hot grits in my lap. I wrote about great, great talents like Bruce Springsteen (just before he hit it big), Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Sonny Stitt, Steve Goodman, Ernest Tubb, Bo Diddley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, the bluesman who wrote “That’s All Right, Mama,” which became one of Elvis Presley’s early hits. I wrote about Kinky Friedman, too. Twice, in fact, because he was so funny, Groucho Marx in a cowboy hat. He played the old Cellar Door in Georgetown and dedicated a song to my future ex-wife. Thank you for being an American, Kinky.
Wonder of wonders, when I said I’d like to go to Nashville to write a week’s worth of stories about country music, the Evening Sun sent me. Yeah, that’s right, the paper that threw nickels around like manhole covers. Nobody ever told me why and I never asked. I just went. And I had the absolute best experience of the nearly 16 years I spent in newspapers.
In a week of reporting, I played pinballs with Waylon Jennings, whose greasy mixture of country and rock stirred my soul; had an audience with Dolly Parton-–a genius songwriter, in case you didn’t know-–and she was as smart as she was funny and self-effacing; sat with Chet Atkins, the king of Nashville in those days, while he puffed on a cigar in his darkened office and mused about the shadow that Hank Williams still cast over the country music business 20 years after his death at the ripe old age of 29; had a beer and a bowl of chili at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where all the great songwriters–Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson–had taken refuge when they hit town; spent an afternoon with Tom T. Hall, a wonderful songwriter, while he laid down a demo of a song called “You Love Everybody But You”; and got on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when its home was still the Ryman Auditorium and it was strictly a radio show.
For the sake of perspective, I wanted to do a piece on Nashville as a whole–its aristocracy was locked in a culture war with the folks on Music Row–so a friend from the Army told me to call a guy he served with in Vietnam. A reporter from the Nashville Tennessean named Al Gore. He picked me up at my hotel and drove me all over town, giving me the rundown on its politics, social structure, race relations, and everything else I wanted to know about. Gore couldn’t have been smarter or more accommodating or nicer. Years later, when I saw his presidential campaign, he seemed like a completely different person, and not one I’d want to show me around Nashville. More like one whose brain waves had been intercepted by Martians.
And then there was Paul Hemphill, who was as open as Gore became sealed off. Along with Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison,” which I listened to almost every day that I was in the Army, Hemphill’s book “The Nashville Sound” opened my mind to country music. There’s certainly never been a better piece of work on the subject. I’d read Hemphill in Life and Sport, and one of the guys at the Evening Sun had worked with him at an Atlanta paper and carried his favorite Hemphill column in his walle. He said Hemphill was good people, so I got his home address and wrote him about the trip I planned to take to Nashville. He wrote back right away with the names of people I should look up. From that moment forward, we were friends until he died last year. Mostly we stayed in touch by phone and letters and, later, e-mail. I was stunned by how candid he was about his life, especially his drinking and his frustrations as a writer, but that was Hemp, honest in the way every truth-seeker should be.
We only met once, in ’97 or ’98, when I was in Atlanta working on a story for Sports Illustrated. He took me to a bar called Manuel’s, which was a favorite haunt for politicians, cops, and newspaper reporters He loved the place-–he’d written about it a lot-–and you could tell the people there loved him. He was one of the great writers of his generation and one of those true Southern liberals who overcome the ignorance and bigotry they’re born into. I wish more people knew about him, just like I wish I’d been able to make more trips to Manuel’s with him.
Chapter 12:The Book of Dreams
The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else. The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.
I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.
I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”
SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.
Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975″ was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.
When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.
It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.
[Illustrations by David Noyes]
Chapter 13: Up, Down, Up, and Out
In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.
Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.
Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.
All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.
By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.
When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.
So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.
“Is John Schulian there?”
“You got him.”
“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”
I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.
So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”
“I’m sure,” Solomon said.
My life had just changed.
Chapter 14: The Deep End of the Pool
Like every other job candidate at the Post in those days, I had to get the approval of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who had covered himself in glory with the paper’s Watergate coverage. One of the first things he said to me was that he liked my Jimmy Breslin style. As soon as I heard that, I knew I’d better develop my own style, and do it fast. If I was going to prosper at the Post, I couldn’t be a cheap imitation.
I realized I was in the deep end of the pool the instant I walked into the place. It was crawling with heavy hitters and on-the-make newcomers, intrepid reporters and positively wonderful wordsmiths, all of whom seemed to buy into Bradlee’s theory of creative tension. I’d hate to think of all the intramural treachery that went on there — and that was in addition to going out and bumping heads with the New York Times and L.A. Times and Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. On top of that, the people at the Post seemed exceedingly full of themselves-–no surprise, I suppose, since I showed up in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon and his cronies. In fact, the paper was building its Batman and Robin an office back by the sports department. Nobody thought it was funny when I asked if they were going to take high school football scores on Friday nights. What did I know? I’d just come from Baltimore, where people took their work seriously, but not themselves.
I’m probably going to wind up sounding negative about my time at the Post-–it was not the greatest 17 months of my life-–but I want you to know that it was an honor to work there. I was never on a better paper, never kept company with more talented people, never had more of a sense of the glamour of the newspaper business. Bradlee was forever strutting around in his Turnbull & Asser shirts-–the kind with bold stripes and white collars-–and he loved to go slumming in the sports department so he could see what we’d dug up on the Redskins. He was big pals with the team’s owner, Edward Bennett Williams.
One day I get into the elevator to go up to the newsroom and a guy jumps in at the last minute. He’s dressed the same way I am: tan corduroy sport coat, blue button-down collar shirt, Levi’s, cowboy boots. One big difference, though: he was Robert Redford and I wasn’t. They were making “All the President’s Men” then, and Redford must have been hanging around to do research on Bob Woodward, whom he played in the movie. When we got off the elevator, it was like I was invisible.
There was a copy boy at the Post-–the head copy boy, to be specific-–who wore Gucci loafers and was said to have a degree from the University of Virginia. And there was a copy girl who was an absolute babe-–absolute babes are a rarity in the newspaper business–and was said to have a tattoo of a butterfly on her ass.
In the midst of all that whatever-it-was, there was Donnie Graham, son of Katherine, the publisher who stood so tall during the Wategate era. Donnie would be publisher one day, too, but on his way there, he spent time doing every kind of job there was at the paper, from loading trucks to reporting to taking a turn as an editor in the sports department. This in addition to having been a beat cop in D.C. for a year or two. All of which is to say he was as decent and down to earth as he could be. I forget what job he had at the paper when I was there, but he still used to swing by sports to shoot the bull. One day he comes up to me while I’m pounding away on my typewriter and asks what I’m working on. I tell him it’s a feature about a former University of Maryland quarterback who washed out of the NFL and is playing semipro football in Baltimore on Saturday nights. And I mean down-and-dirty semipro football, on a field as hard as an interstate highway. “Oh,” Donnie says. He didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he thought this one was a loser. But I wrote the hell out of it, and when I came into the office the day after it ran, there was a note from Donnie saying that in the hands of a good writer, anything could be a wonderful story. With the note was a copy of George Orwell’s essays. Memories don’t come much better than that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pressmen’s strike a month or so after I started at the Post on Labor Day 1975. The paper was getting ready to change from hot type to cold type and jobs were being lost in the backshop. One night everything went sideways, blood got spilled, the paper didn’t come out, and the next thing I knew, my fellow members of the Newspaper Guild and I were voting on whether to honor the pressmen’s picket line. I thought we should. Many more people thought we should cross it. And so we did. A few people actually left the Post because of that. I wasn’t one of them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a sense of shame and betrayal every time I crossed the picket line. I did, and it has stayed with me to this day.
I’m still not sure exactly why the Post came after me, particularly when so many good young sportswriters around the country would have sold their wives/mothers/firstborn for a chance to work there. Nor am I sure whether it was Donnie Graham or George Solomon who spotted me first. Sometimes I heard that it was my SI story on the Baltimore fight promoter that stirred their interest. Other times it was a funny but barbed Evening Sun feature I’d done about students at the school where the Colts trained standing up to the team’s abrasive general manager.
A funny thing about that fight promoter. Well, not funny, because he died in the time between my departure from the Evening Sun and my arrival at the Post. His name was Eli Hanover and he was barely into his 50s, one of those guys who’s so full of piss and vinegar that you figure he’ll outlive everyone. George Solomon told me he tried to get hold of me to write something about Eli, but I was off on an assignment for Sports Illustrated and nobody knew how to reach me. (Ah, those were the days.) The Post had a new sports columnist, a guy named William Barry Furlong who had had a truly distinguished career as a magazine freelancer, and he wound up writing about Eli. But all he did was lift things from my SI story, quotes and paraphrases and anecdotes. I don’t recall his having another source for his column. I hope he did. I hope he made at least one phone call. But if he did, I don’t remember it. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t say anything about it, not to Furlong, not to Solomon, not to anyone. It was one of those things I just filed away and said, Okay, pal, it’s good to know that’s how you play the game.
Chapter 15: The Seeds of Discontent
George Solomon made sure I hit the ground running. I covered a couple of Redskins practices- it couldn’t have been much different than covering the Kremlin. Then I took off for Detroit to cover a three-game series with the Orioles, who were very much in the pennant race. And to write two features on them, too, even though I’d never covered a big league game before and they had never laid eyes on me. And I had to cover the Howard University-Wayne State football game, too. My football story was a stinker, but the baseball stuff I could do, partly because I had always followed the game and partly because the Orioles were so easy to get along with. All I remember from that weekend is typing, checking my watch, grabbing cabs, and drinking Vernor’s ginger ale when it was still strictly a Detroit delicacy. It was a trial by fire, and I knew I’d passed when George apologized for not being able to play my Monday feature on Jim Palmer on the front of the section.
It didn’t take George long to figure out that I wasn’t meant to be a beat reporter. It was like I had SHORT ATTENTION SPAN written in neon lights on my forehead. Besides, we had Len Shapiro as the first-string Redskins reporter, and he was terrific-–intrepid, fearless, tireless, all in the face of the paranoid monster that was George Allen. Lenny will tell you today that covering the Redskins, the prize beat in the Post sports department, took years off his life.
I filled in wherever George wanted me, the Redskins, a big NFL game, the NBA. But mostly I wrote features and series. One series was about black dominance in the NBA (to show you how long ago this was) and another was about the NFL psyche. I remember Shirley Povich, a lovely, classy gent whose sports column was an institution at the Post for half a century, coming up to me after part one of the NFL series ran and saying, “This is too good for a newspaper.” I was deeply gratified by the praise, but at the same time I was surprised that Shirley, who had been the Post’s sports editor when he was barely out of his teens, would say something like that. I’d read somewhere that Jimmy Cannon had said nothing was too good for a newspaper. He wasn’t in the same league with Shirley when it came to being gracious, but I think Cannon was right on the money about that one.
I had freedom at the Post and yet I didn’t. Nobody told me what to write, so I could continue trying to figure out what my voice was. That was one of the great things about the sports page in those days: it was a laboratory for writing. As time went on, there would be stylish writing throughout all of the country’s best newspapers, much of it inspired by the Post’s Style section, where there was great work done on society dames, movies, TV, books, and rock and roll. But the Post’s sports section was my new playground, and I was happy to be there.
I would have been even happier if George Solomon had let me turn one of my ideas into a story once in a while. But George didn’t do business that way. He bubbled over with his own ideas, many of them good ones but some clinkers too, and he had the energy level of a hyperactive two-year-old. As a result he didn’t expect you to ever be tired. I remember coming off one of his hellish road trips-–Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis to Milwaukee to Toronto to Cleveland in five hectic, work-filled winter days-–and the first thing he said to me was, “Come on in the office. We’ll talk about what you’re going to do next.” I told him that what I was going to do next was pick up my paycheck and go home and go to bed. And that’s what I did.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was probably the only writer on the staff who questioned authority. Everybody else was too damned nice. I mean, the place was crawling with good guys -– Tom Boswell, Dave Brady, Ken Denlinger, Paul Attner, Angus Phillips, David DuPree, Gerry Strine, Mark Asher. But I never heard any of them raise their voices. And they had reason to, particularly after the copy desk got through making a hash of their prose. All they’d do, however, was whisper among themselves while they licked their wounds. I couldn’t make myself do that. I marched into George Solomon’s office one day and said, “I’ve had more stories fucked up here in five weeks than I had fucked up in five years in Baltimore.” And that was the God’s truth.
Chapter 16: The Enemy Within
What a nightmare the Post’s copy desk was, its few capable pros outnumbered by drunks, burnouts, incompetents, and one hostile ex-marine. The worst of all, which is really saying something, was the slot man, who had covered University of Utah basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune during the Billy (the Hill) McGill era. I’d read every word he’d written when I was a kid and I thought he’d be an ally, maybe even a friend. Instead, he spent his time combing his vanishing pompadour and looking down his nose at writers. I don’t know that I ever met a bigger horse’s ass in the business.
One Sunday, after covering a Bullets game I swung by the office just in time to see page proofs. The slot man had rewritten the top of my story. Okay, you don’t like what I write? Fine. I don’t like a lot of what I write, either. But give me a chance to rewrite it in my own words. That’s why I called the office when I finished the piece, to see if there were any problems with it. The slot man hadn’t said a word then, and I wouldn’t have found out until I opened the paper the next morning if I hadn’t got lucky. The first thing I did was make the slot man take my byline off the story. That was my right, according to the Newspaper Guild. Then I sat down and wrote a new top for the story, and I wouldn’t leave until the slot man had signed off on it. Now he was pissed off. But I can tell you for a fact that I was more pissed off.
Things with the copy desk finally got so bad that when I wrote a piece that was supposed to be special in some way, I’d stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check it. Nuts, huh? But maybe you’ll understand why I did it if I tell you about a long feature I wrote about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. Went to his pre-fight meal with him, hung around his overheated hotel room with him, watched him warm up in his dressing room, then go out and lose to Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Last scene of the story: he’s out on the street hunting for a pay phone so he can call his wife in Baltimore and tell her what happened. When I dictated the story the next day–it was still the typewriter era at the Post–the girl getting it all down told me it sounded just like a short story. Made my day. But when I came home a couple of days later–-no short road trips when you worked for George Solomon–I discovered that there was an entire section missing from my story. The section about the fight. Call me foolish, but I thought it was critical, seeing as how the fight was the reason for the story’s existence. Maybe it got sacrificed for reasons of page make-up. (Not an acceptable excuse.) Maybe it was incompetence. Maybe it was sabotage. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent because I was on the road. But I promised myself that when I was in town, I was going to do some serious lurking in that goddamned office.
George Solomon finally told me I couldn’t talk to the copy editors the way I did. I told him I was going to keep talking to them the way I did as long as they kept screwing things up. Poor George. You have to remember that he was still getting used to being sports editor, and I was one of the first real tests of his patience and managerial skills. I know he liked my writing and I think he liked me as a person-–we still trade e-mails occasionally all these years later-–but I also think I made him uneasy. I was the first writer he ever had who fought back loudly and passionately. You’d think it would have been different on what was considered a writers’ paper. But the Post was also a serious newspaper, a newspaper of record, and when you’re dealing with an animal like that, editors ultimately carry more weight than writers.
My salvation was a copy editor named Angus Phillips, who later turned to writing and did beautiful, even poetic work covering the outdoors. Maybe he was worried that violence would erupt or maybe he actually liked to read what I wrote. Whatever, when a story of mine came in, Angus would raise his hand and ask to handle it. If he had questions about the piece, he’d ask me. If he made changes in my copy, I trusted him enough not to argue. I believe this is known as mutual respect. You’d think someone at the Post would have thought of it before.
Chapter 17: Friends and Connections
When I became a sportswriter, it was as though I was inducted into a special lodge filled with lots of guys and a few women who shared my interests, my passions, my problems. I didn’t have to explain to them who Red Smith and Larry Merchant were. They thought it was cool if I slipped an obscure cultural reference into a game story, and they sympathized if an editor boned me on deadline. They even knew when I was looking for a job, sometimes before I did.
I never experienced anything like it during my five years on the city desk in Baltimore, and I say that even though I loved the Evening Sun and still consider many of the people I worked with as friends. But when I started there, I was a rarity–a single person. Everybody else seemed to be married, with children, and dead-set on becoming middle-aged before they hit 30. Only later did more single people start showing up, bringing with them their passion for rock-and-roll and sports and carrying-on.
With sportswriting, on the other hand, I knew instantly that I belonged. And by the time I left newspapering, I was part of a band of ink-stained gypsies that seemed to turn up at every major event: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, Blackie Sherrod, Eddie Pope, Furman Bisher, David Israel, Mike Lupica, Bill Nack, Dave Kindred, Leigh Montville, Ray Fitzgerald, Diane Shah, Stan Hochman, Joe Gergen, Pete Axthelm, George Vecsey, Jerry Izenberg. Unfortunately, Tony Kornheiser didn’t fly much, which cut into his traveling, but on those rare occasions when he did go airborne, he had to drink his courage first, which only made his legendary neuroses more fun than ever. Anyway, they were, and are, good folks one and all, and if I forgot to name anybody, the same description applies to them. I was proud to be in their number.
My best friend at the Post was Tom Boswell, even though he had made his peace with those rat bastards on the copy desk. He had better diplomatic skills than I did, for one thing, and he also loved what he was doing. Where I looked at things strictly as a writer, he maintained a fan’s sensibility. He was, and is, very much an enthusiast. I didn’t have a name for it until a year or two ago when I heard Robert Hilburn, the L.A. Times pop music writer for 40-odd years, speak. Here was a guy who was absolutely in love with the music and the artists and the world they lived in, a guy who was as excited by U2 as he had been by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Totally unjaded. Just like Boz. Boz is as fired up about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as he was about his first Roy Sievers baseball card. He writes like a dream for readers who are on the same wave length as he is. That’s why he’s the biggest sportswriting institution in D.C. since Shirley Povich.
Boz and I were both single and about the same age when we met at the Post. He was finishing up a tour as the prep writer-–you’ve never read better or more imaginative high school coverage-– and he was moving onto the baseball beat, with golf as a sideline. If we were working late, we’d walk across the street to get dinner at the Madison Hotel. This is the same hotel where a Style section writer canoodled with Kathleen Turner when she was the hot-tomato femme fatale in “Body Heat.” All I remember Boz and me getting there was Reuben sandwiches and an English trifle for dessert. There’s a reason why sportswriters are seldom lean.
Boz was great company, not just full of baseball stats and theories but an endless source of quotes from French philosophers and Emily Dickinson. The only knock on him was his threads–no natural fibers, colors unknown to civilized man. The kindest thing that could be said about his wardrobe was that it didn’t contain white shoes. Then, when I was working in Philly, he shows up wearing a blue blazer, a pink polo shirt, khakis and nice loafers. I knew instantly that he was in love. Only a woman who truly cared about him would have taken the time to dress him at Brooks Brothers. He married her, too.
The other great friend I made in Washington was David Israel, who was then the enfant terrible sports columnist at the Star, the city’s No. 2 paper. He was 23 or 24 and as different from Boz as Mick Jagger is from Tony Bennett. David was all hair and opinions and hot babes and finding out where the party was. I was dating the woman I would marry, so I wasn’t doing any night crawling with him. What we bonded over was writing.
I was looking for a way out of Baltimore when he hit Washington, and I remember my friend Phil Hersh, who was covering the Orioles for the Evening Sun, saying that David had liked a feature I’d written about a stolen pool cue. (My hustler friends again.) David asked if this guy Schulian was a city columnist, and when Phil told him I was a rewrite man, David threw the paper in the air. That’s when I knew he might be a kindred spirit.
He’s six years younger than I am, but he’s always been the best-connected guy I know. Back then he was already friendly with Breslin and Dick Schaap. He’d met them when he was a summer intern at Sport magazine. If I’m not mistaken, it was Breslin who helped him get the column at the Star. David had the chops to handle it, too. He was smart and outrageous and fearless -– he’d knock anybody and anything, and he did it with more style than whoever passes for a newspaper hell-raiser today.
I remember one time in Dallas, after a big Redskins-Cowboys game, the first thing he said to me as we were leaving was, “Did you use the tape?” The Redskins had lost and the tape they’d peeled off littered their dressing-room floor. It was forlorn and bedraggled, perfect for evoking the mood.
“Yeah,” I said. “You?”
Just a little thing, but also the kind of thing someone with a writer’s eye looks for.
Anyway, David and I talked a lot about writing, and he went with my girl friend and me to see some concerts, and I hung out with him on the road. Before I knew it, there was talk he might become the Star’s city columnist. He couldn’t have been there much more than a year, but in those days, dying No. 2 newspapers were always taking chances like that. That’s why they were so much fun to read.
David had this plan that if he became the Breslin of D.C., he’d lobby for me to succeed him as the Star’s sports columnist. I would have done it in a heartbeat. But the city column didn’t work out, so David stayed in sports and I stayed at the Post. I wasn’t beside-myself unhappy there or anything, but I knew I could be happier somewhere else. I just wasn’t sure where that was, or if I would ever get a chance to get there.
Then, later that year, David told me his old paper, the Chicago Daily News, was looking for a new sports columnist. The Daily News had been at death’s door since before I read it in grad school, and now its new editor, Jim Hoge, who was already running the Sun-Times, was importing talent for a last stand. David had covered college sports for the News before he became the Star’s columnist, and predictably he had stayed tight with Hoge.
“Tell him I’m his guy,” I said.
“You mean it?” David said.
“Damn right I do.”
Not long afterward, just before the NFL playoffs are about to start, Hoge comes to D.C. on business. He doesn’t have time for a sit-down with me, but he wants to know if I’ll share a taxi out to National Airport with him. Hell, yes, I will. I don’t know what I said to impress him, but he asked to see my clips. And then I got a call to meet with the Daily News’ sports editor, a folksy, easy-going guy named Ray Sons. And then, wonder of wonders, I was the new sports columnist at the Chicago Daily News.
My first day on the job was Jan. 31, 1977. It was my 32nd birthday. Best one I ever had.
Chapter 18: Remembering Royko
I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the DailyNews had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of the Alamo.
I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.
Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.
It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.
And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.
When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point: “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”
He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.
The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.
Royko with Studs Terkel
Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call Murdoch “The Alien” in print.
Mike was the best.
Chapter 19: Fighting the Good Fight
Chicago was a great city for anyone who worked on a newspaper. There were three dailies when I got there–the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune–and people read them voraciously, passionately. They were part of the fabric of life in the city. There wasn’t a great paper in the bunch, but they were still lively and full of first-rate reporting and writing. What they did not have when I hit town, however, was memorable sportswriting. It was, if I may be blunt, painfully mediocre.
The sports-page revolution that had swept through New York, L.A., Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington hadn’t caused so much as a ripple in Chicago. Nor did the city’s newspaper executives seem to realize that all over the country, young hotshots were seizing the moment — Dave Kindred in Louisville, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis-–and seasoned wordsmiths like Wells Twombly in San Francisco were still going strong. The Tribune had two first-rate sportswriters, Don Pierson, a wizard at covering pro football, and Bob Verdi, a droll stylist who went back and forth between baseball and hockey. Otherwise, the Trib was dreary, uninspired and burdened with lazy, burned-out columnists. The Sun-Times was trying to shake things up by bringing in consummate pros like Ron Rapoport, Randy Harvey and Thom Greer. Tom Callahan, a ballsy columnist from Cincinnati, was supposed to be part of the revolution, but he took one look at the in-house chaos and went right back where he’d come from.
Nobody was going to get rid of me that easily. I wrote an introductory column laying out my ties to Chicago -– the days I’d spent in Wrigley Field’s bleachers, the night I’d seen Bobby Hull score the 499th and 500th goals of his career -– and I followed it up with pieces on Al McGuire, a columnist’s dream, and the Bulls’ tough guy guard, Norm Van Lier. Next thing I knew, some guy was walking up to me and saying, “So how does it feel to be the best sports columnist in town?”
Jesus, the hours I put in. The deadline for the first edition at the Daily News was something like 5 in the morning, and I can’t tell you how many times I came close to missing it. (It always made me feel better when I heard that Larry Merchant did the same thing at the New York Post.) Understandably, my work habits grated on my wife when I got married. They also raised the anxiety level for the two guys who put the sports section together, the positively Zen Frank Sugano and Mike Downey, who went on to become a star columnist at the Detroit Free Press, the L.A. Times, and the Chicago Tribune. I can still quote headlines that Downey put on my columns: “She’s Dorothy, Not the Wicked Witch” for one in defense of Dorothy Hamill, and “That Mother McRae” (well, for one edition, anyway) after things between the Yankees and the Royals got chippy during the 1977 playoffs.
As soon as I proved myself, I had the clout to lobby for bringing in Phil Hersh, an old friend from Baltimore, to cover baseball. Phil was a first-rate writer, an intrepid reporter, and a fount of story ideas. While I covered Leon Spinks’ upset victory over Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas, he jumped on a plane to St. Louis and wrote a killer feature about the God-awful Pruitt-Igoe housing project where Spinks’ family lived on government-issue peanut butter in a blistering hot apartment with no way to control the heat.
Once we did a few things like that and wrote the hell out of whatever was on the agenda for the day, the bright kids on the Daily News staff caught the fever. Kevin Lamb, our Bears writer, already had it, because he’d broken in at Newsday, which had been at the heart of the revolution. All Downey needed was someone to free him from the copy desk and point him in the right direction. It was the same with Brian Hewitt, who was straight out of Stanford.
We didn’t have much space at the Daily News, but we made the most of it by out-hustling and out-writing the competition. Even when the sports department got moved downstairs to a dreary space next to the backshop, we didn’t miss a beat, just kept on kicking ass.
Seeing that happen was one of the real thrills of my first year as a columnist. I was in the middle of something that was more than just exciting, it was important. We were doing our part to keep the Daily News alive.
After I’d been in Chicago for a couple of months, I started hearing from papers that wanted to lure me away. The Tribune was the first of them. Fat chance. Then it was the San Francisco Examiner because Twombly had up and died when he was barely 40. The only call I paid attention to came from Larry Merchant. I would have sworn he didn’t know my name and here he was on the phone telling me he was in discussions to become the New York Times’ sports editor. If he took the job, he said, he wanted his first hires to be Peter Gammons and me.
Once again my head was spinning. But Merchant didn’t get the job, so I went back to busting my hump in behalf of the Daily News. I wish I could tell you every column I wrote was a work of art, but that wasn’t the case. Sometimes they were good, maybe even very good; other times I floundered and grasped for ideas and phrases that were beyond me. Still, I’ve always been grateful that I could break in as a columnist on a p.m. paper. It gave me the time I needed to master the form. If I’d been at an a.m. paper, I’m not sure I would have survived as well as I did.
And here’s something that could only have happened at a p.m.: When I walked out of the paper to look for a cab home in the wee small hours one snowy morning, my footprints were the first on North Michigan Avenue. I had my dream job, in my favorite city in the country, and in a few hours, the people in that city–some of them anyway–were going to read what I had stayed up all night to write for them. And in that moment, I felt the romance of the newspaper business as I never had before.
It didn’t seem anywhere near as romantic late on March 3, 1978 as the Daily News staff waited for the paper’s final edition to come off the press. My face was as long as anybody’s, but I wasn’t entitled to sadness, not the way the people who had given their lives to the paper were. I was standing next to M.W. Newman, who wrote elegantly about architecture and books and local history and pretty much anything else that popped up on his radar. He’d been at the Daily News for something like 30 years. He was the one who had the right to sing the blues. I was just somebody who came along too late to help save the paper. And yet you’d be surprised how often I think of it. And how proud I am to have been there.
Where there are sports writers, there is booze. It’s been that way since the first scribe raced a deadline and decided he deserved a pop afterward. Or maybe he was drinking while he committed his deathless prose to paper, just a little something to kill the pain of knowing that the desk was going to make a hash of it. All these years later, I’ve seen it work both ways, heard the funny stories that the sauce inspired, and the sad ones, too.
I was supposed to give a certain shaggy wordsmith a ride to the airport the day after Sugar Ray Leonard’s first comeback, in Worcester, Mass. But my hirsute friend never showed up in the hotel lobby, and he didn’t answer his room phone, so I had to take off without him. The next week I called him at his paper to make sure he was all right, and he told me the tale of how he’d fallen in with, if I recall correctly, a toothless barfly and her one-armed boyfriend. (The mind boggles at the proposition they must have put before him.) Somewhere along the line, they slipped him a mickey, stole all his money, and left him unconscious in a fleabag hotel. It was like listening to Charles Bukowski when he told the story, laughing and coughing, savoring every dirt-bag detail. Some guys you just can’t derail.
And then there was Pete Axthelm, a genuinely good soul and a great talent who was undone by alcohol. How lucky we are that he wrote “The City Game” when he was young and the lost nights had yet to take their toll. Ax wasn’t even 50 when he died, but in the clips of his final TV appearances, he could have passed for 75. That’s not the way his friends want to remember him. Better to think of the big smile on his face as he cashed a winning ticket at Churchill Downs.
The curious thing is, sports writers of my generation will tell you it was the old-timers who drank like they had hollow legs. The king of them, as far as I could tell, was Red Smith. As Wilfred Sheed once said, “Weight for age, Red was the greatest drinker I’ve ever seen.” He favored Scotch, lots of it, but only after he had worked so hard on his column that he had sweated through his Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth shirt. He was lifting a glass to his parched lips after the Preakness one year when his hands trembled so badly that Bill Nack’s wife grew visibly alarmed. Red put down his glass, took her hand, and, patting it gently, said, “Don’t worry, dear, it’s an old Irish affliction.”
With drinking, as with writing, the wisest thing to do was to admire Red, not compete with him. In Montreal during the 1981 baseball playoffs, I wound up at dinner with him, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Jane Leavy, and Mike Downey – not a bad lineup, huh? – and Red got into the Scotch pretty good. Before the evening was over, he was telling us about the annual Christmas party the New York papers used to have and how people would rewrite carols and holiday songs to make them fit the occasion. And then he sang “Hark the Herald Tribune” in that wonderful old man’s voice of his. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d taped him.
Myself, I’ve never been much of a drinker. Don’t like the taste of the hard stuff, and I can go years between beers. I’ll drink wine with dinner, but that’s about it. The last time I got stupid with alcohol was at a party in Baltimore in the early 70s. I drank bourbon from the bottle until I was sufficiently inspired to do somersaults down the hallway of a friend’s apartment. A nice lady drove me home in the wee small hours of that cold winter’s night but refused to come inside with me, if you can imagine that. I went into a full pout and curled up on my front porch, saying I’d just fall asleep there and probably freeze to death. In her infinite wisdom, the nice lady said, “Have it your way,” and drove off. Eventually, I stumbled inside and didn’t come out for two days. I was so hung over, my eyelashes hurt.
It’s a good thing I knew I couldn’t run with the big dogs before I hit Chicago. Otherwise, I might have drowned in what the city’s newspaper booze hounds called the Bermuda Triangle of Drinking, three bars they tried to take down to the last drop every night: O’Rourke’s, Riccardo’s, and the Old Town Ale House. You could get decent Italian food at Riccardo’s, so I ate there once in a while, and I loved the jukebox at O’Rourke’s – it was one for the ages, with classical music, Miles Davis, and Hank Williams side by side. But get stupid drunk at any of those joints? No thanks. I just listened to the stories they generated, like the one about the night Nelson Algren and a Sun-Times columnist named Tom Fitzpatrick threw drinks at each other. Or were they spitting? Hell, I can’t remember. And if Algren and Fitz were still around, they might not remember, either.
All this happened just before newspapers were overrun by tight-assed careerists, so there were still reporters and editors who kept bottles in their desks in case they didn’t have time to duck out for a shot and a beer. And I’m not just passing along the legend. I saw it for myself one Friday night at the Sun-Times when I walked into the city room to get a drink of water. There was a long-in-tooth reporter with a quarter-full bottle of gin in one hand and a bottle with a few splashes of vermouth in the other. He was pouring one into the other, back and forth, back and forth, when he looked up at me with a glassy-eyed smile and said, “Welcome to my laboratory.”
Here’s mud in your eye.
Chapter 21: The Sun-Times Also Rises
I forget how far in advance we knew the Daily News was going under. A month, six weeks, it couldn’t have been more than that. The publisher, Marshall Field IV, climbed up on a desk in the city room, gathered the troops around him, and broke the bad news.I was on the road, hearing everything second-hand. By the time I got back, everybody was scrambling. Some Daily News people were just moving down the hall to the Sun-Times. The others were left to their own devices.
The one big-name defection to the Tribune was Bob Greene, who had been a cityside columnist at the Sun-Times pretty much since the day he got out of Northwestern. And a damn good one, too. Inspired by Breslin, of course, and yet very much his own guy, great instincts, irreverent, a lively writer. I remember a column he did about a trial where this kid who’d been shot down in the street was close to death and the jury went to the hospital to listen to him testify. It was a stunning piece of work. And Greene wrote books too, not just collections of his newspaper stuff but one about covering a presidential campaign and another about touring with Alice Cooper. But by the time I got to Chicago, it was as though aliens had seized control of his brain. He’d lost his edge and turned precious and cloying. And he was barely 30. To compound Greene’s problems, Royko hated him as only Royko could. The kindest thing I ever heard Mike call him was a “ dirty little shit.” Obviously, the idea of their working shoulder to shoulder wasn’t going to fly. So Greene jumped to the Trib and took at least one friend from the Sun-Times with him.
There may have been other defections, but the mass exodus wouldn’t come until Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times six years later. In 1978, there was a different mindset entirely. Whether you worked for the Sun-Times or the Daily News, your first thought was “Beat the Tribune.” Those of us who came from the Daily News thought we were better than either the Trib or the Sun-Times. If the Sun-Times had been the p.m. paper and the Daily News the a.m., we firmly believed the Daily News would have been the one that survived.
Even today, if you ask Daily News people who moved to the Sun-Times, they’ll tell you their hearts still belong to the Daily News. And it’s been gone for 33 years. Not surprisingly, there were Sun-Times people who despised the newcomers from the Daily News. That was the way it should have been, too. Hell, the papers had been at war for decades. Why make nice now?
The merger, as it was euphemistically known, worked pretty much swimmingly in sports. The guys from the Sun-Times were great, especially Ron Rapoport, a very smart, lively columnist with a well-developed social conscience, and Randy Harvey, who could do anything and do it well. Combined with Mike Downey, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons (who’d gone back to writing full time), Kevin Lamb, Brian Hewitt and me, that was a formidable staff. Not on a par with the Boston Globe or L.A. Times or the Philadelphia Daily News, but still a damn good read. Problem was, some of our best people quickly started moving on to stardom elsewhere. Downey became a columnist at the Detroit Free Press. Harvey jumped the New York Daily News’ experiment with an afternoon paper and our executive sports editor, Kerry Slagle, headed for Inside Sports. But Kerry’s replacement, Marty Kaiser, turned out to be a masterful editor, and the staff, even depleted, was one to be proud of.
The joker in the deck was a Sun-Times sports columnist named Bill Gleason, a professional South Sider who got it in his head that he hated Royko and me more than anybody else on the planet. I heard that Gleason had even taken the cigar out of his mouth long enough to walk into the city room and announce that he wanted to punch out Royko. Mike thought that was hilarious. I don’t think he would have minded tangling with Gleason. As for me, I didn’t know how Gleason felt until the Daily News was in its final days and I ran into him at O’Hare. I said I was looking forward to putting out a great sports section at the Sun-Times, and he started running his mouth about how I tried to get him fired. Believe me when I say I never tried to get him fired. I never tried to get anyone fired. A newspaper guy’s life is hard enough under the best of circumstances. We’re all in it together. But from that moment forward, I never spoke another word to Gleason.
Our feud, if that’s what it was, created some complications, of course. The worst was during the 1978 World Series when we both wrote about the classic duel between Reggie Jackson and Bob Welch. If I’d been teamed with another columnist, we would have talked things over and gone in different directions. But Gleason and I just put on our blinders and wrote what was the story of the night. I didn’t realize the conflict between us had reared its head in such an obvious way until I talked to the office the next day. For what it’s worth, though, my column got big play and his was buried inside. And that’s the way it was going to stay no matter what the subject for the rest of my days at the Sun-Times.
Chapter 22: Schulian vs. Israel, or Vice Versa
Once the word got out that the Daily News was going belly up, life got real interesting.The Tribune took another run at me, a serious one this time, and the Sun-Times wanted me, too. But the brain trust there had a fallback plan if I jumped: they would hire my old friend David Israel. If I landed at the Sun-Times, the Tribune would hire him.
I don’t know how the executives we were dealing with felt, but Israel and I had a hell of a good time. We told each other what the kind of money we were being offered, and we wound up settling for pretty much the same deal, Israel at the Trib and yours truly at the Sun-Times, which was where I belonged. The people who were running the paper were the same ones who had hired me at the Daily News. It was great to tweak their noses-–you’ve got to keep the big cheeses honest, you know-–but it also would have been severely bad form to turn my back on them a little more than a year after they gave me the chance of a lifetime.
The end result of all the wooing and courting was supposed to be a showdown: Schulian vs. Israel, or, if you prefer, Israel vs. Schulian. All I can tell you is that I did what I did and he did what he did, and we were both damn good at it. We weren’t going to make anybody forget Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon battling for the heavyweight championship of New York’s sports pages, but we gave the people what was probably the best show of its kind for the next couple of years.
Israel made the Trib’s sports section better by walking in the door. With his brains and writing talent, he forced the sleepwalkers on the staff to step up and do better work.He still loved to stir things up, too, especially when he was ripping Larry Bird, who was an uncommunicative dolt in college. And yet Israel wasn’t as outrageous as he’d been when he was the Washington Star’s enfant terrible. Maybe he had outgrown that stage, or maybe he was already looking for a life beyond sportswriting. He’d seen Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake make the jump from Sports Illustrated to doing books and movies, and he wanted to do the same. After the 1981 Final Four, he left the Tribune to take a job as a city columnist at the L.A. Herald Examiner. It was his first step toward a new life in Hollywood.
I thought he’d made a smart move, but even though I’d had show business in the back of my mind since I was a kid, I still saw myself as a newspaperman. There was something exhilarating about writing four columns a week and having a magazine piece to do on the side. I was making more money than I ever dreamed of (but never as much as some people thought I was), and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like the awards and kind words, too.
Just when I’d start to need a bigger hat, though, I’d have one of those days where, to borrow a line from Red Smith, I didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t say it very well. Amazing how something like that can remind you how great you aren’t.
Chapter 23: A Summons to Manhattan
It’s startling to think of how much movement there was among sports writers in the ’70s and ’80s, especially when you consider the state of the business today, with everybody frozen in place, just glad to have a job. Dave Kindred took his column from Louisville to the Washington Post, Skip Bayless traded feature writing at the L.A. Times for a column at the Dallas Morning News, Bill Nack gave up his column at Newsday and became one of Sports Illustrated’s most venerated writers. I suppose it was inevitable that I would have my day in the barrel.
Oddly enough, it was the New York Times again, and this time I got a call from someone who really was the sports editor there, Le Anne Schreiber. She was the first woman to hold that job at a major American daily, and one of her first challenges, in 1979, was to find a successor to Red Smith. He was in his 70s but still wrote with the elegance and gentle wit that was his trademark. I remember in particular a column about morning at Saratoga, and how Mike Lupica and I instantly started quoting lines from it the next time we saw each other. Just the same, the Times wanted an heir apparent in house for the day Red crossed the finish line.
I went to New York to meet executive editor Abe Rosenthal and the paper’s other mucky-mucks, and they pumped me full of praise and told me my picture might one day be hanging on a wall filled with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer prize winners. The job they were offering was a big step down from the one I had at the Sun-Times: one column a week and long features the rest of the time. When Red left the paper, I would be first in line to replace him as a four-times-a-week columnist. The money they were offering wasn’t what I was making in Chicago, either. But this was the New York Times. Better yet, this was a chance to claim a small piece of newspaper history by being the man who succeeded Red Smith.
I was married at the time, and my wife, Paula Ellis, wanted me to take the job. Not only would she have been closer to her family, in Bethesda, Maryland, she would have had more opportunities professionally. She was in the newspaper business, too-–very smart, very driven, with a glorious future ahead of her as an editor, publisher, and journalism foundation executive. I understood where Paula was coming from. I felt more than a little guilty, too, since I was giving far more of myself to my column than I was to being a husband. But I was the one whose career would be at risk if I went to the Times. I didn’t want to be sportswriting’s answer to George Selkirk, the poor soul who replaced Babe Ruth.
I thought about the Times’ sports section, which Tony Kornheiser, bless his heart, once compared with to Raquel Welch’s elbow. It seemed to be improving steadily. But no matter how brainy and talented Le Anne Schreiber was-–and, buddy, she had brains and talent in spades-–there was no guarantee that the section might not backslide into mediocrity. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure the Times would give me the freedom I enjoyed in Chicago. Rosenthal and Co. might have loved the character sketches I did, but some of my commentary got pretty rough. I don’t recall ever seeing a Times sports columnist peel the hide off someone the way I did.
So there was that. And there was the thought that people would think I was sitting around waiting for Red Smith to die. Worse, maybe Red would, too. And the money bothered me, even though it was only a couple grand shy of what the Sun-Times was paying me. And then there was New York itself, which was decidedly short on charm in that era, a point that was driven home every time I visited and saw the decay, poverty, and violence.
But I also heard the siren song of friends and colleagues who said the Times would give me the biggest soapbox in the business. There would be chances to write books that would never come my way in Chicago. Dave Anderson, a wonderful guy as well as a pro’s pro, called to say how much he was looking forward to working with me. Lupica told me he was looking forward to reading me regularly, although I suspect he really wanted to see if I was as slow a writer as he’d heard.
Long story short: everything was up in the air when I arrived for my final visit with Abe Rosenthal. He ushered me into a small sitting room off his office. It was the essence of plush–perfect furniture, exquisite Oriental rugs, pricey art on the walls. All together, it was probably worth more than my entire house in Chicago. I’m sure I gawked like the hoople I was.
Rosenthal offered me tea and I said no thanks. After some obligatory chitchat, I told him, nicely, that I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable perched on Red’s shoulder, waiting for him to finish his last stand. If I said no, would the Times come back to me when Red was gone? And Abe Rosenthal said, “John, the brass ring is coming around now. You better grab it.”
In that instant, I knew I wasn’t going to take the job. No way I was going to be told to take it or leave it. Some friends who heard the story later told me I was nuts to be offended, that Rosenthal had every right to put things in those terms. But grabbing his brass ring wasn’t my style.
I read later in the Village Voice that Frank Deford and Pete Axthelm had turned down the Times, too. That was good company to be in. And the guy who ultimately took the job was good company as well. Ira Berkow was a perfect fit at the Times–a thoroughly engaging writer who came at his column subjects from a unique angle and had a big heart for the underdog. What Ira wasn’t, of course, was Red Smith. He was Red’s biographer, and a damned good one, but that was as close as he was going to come.
I wouldn’t have been Red Smith, either. I would have tried mightily and I would have failed and I have no idea how I would have reacted, only that it wouldn’t have been pretty. One Red Smith is all you get. It was one of those basic truths that took a long time to sink in, but once it did, it made me gladder than ever that I said no to the Times. And when I tell you that I never second-guessed my decision, feel free to factor Red into the equation.
Chapter 24: The Job, Chicago Style
The best advice I ever got about business came from my old baseball coach, Pete Radulovich: “Nobody plays for free.” My lawyer passed Pete’s wisdom along to the brass at the Sun-Times when the New York Times was courting me, and the next thing I knew, I got a raise and a deal with Universal Press Syndicate, which had made a fortune with “Doonesbury” and a host of other wildly successful comic strips. Funny how a little leverage works, isn’t it?
Close to 100 papers bought my column at one point, some because they actually used it, like the Atlanta Journal and Miami News. The talent-rich Boston Globe, on the other hand, bought it just to keep it out of the Boston Herald’s hands. Whatever their motivation, those big city papers all paid a decent buck. It was the small papers, however, the ones in Iowa and Louisiana, that relied on me most heavily for a national voice, even though they paid only a couple of dollars a week. But I stopped worrying about the price when John Ed Bradley, that most poetic of sports writers, told me his father used to cut my column out of his hometown paper and mail it to him at LSU.
With syndication, I was traveling the same road that Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray had before me. That was an honor in itself, but Universal Press made things even better by publishing my first book, “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” It’s a collection of my boxing writing that came out in 1983 and has achieved what is best described as cult status. God knows it was never a big seller, but there are still people who speak of it fondly, not just old goats of my vintage but young writers and fight fans who stumble upon it. I’m not sure it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with any book by Hugh McIlvanney, the superb British boxing writer, but I’m still grateful that people haven’t used it for kindling.
For all this talk about the fruits of being a columnist, it’s high time I said a something about the job itself. At the Sun-Times I wrote four a week–Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They ran 1,000 words apiece, which was standard for my generation but looks like literary abuse compared to the three that today’s columnists get by with. Of course the old-timers thought guys like me were pansies because they had written as many as seven a week. Red Smith, when he worked for the Philadelphia Record, even covered a beat in addition to writing his column. And then there was Arthur Daley of the New York Times, who was writing seven when his editor cut his load to six. Instead of celebrating, Daley thought his boss didn’t like him anymore.
Whether you’re doing seven columns a week or three, it’s still tough to do them right. Anybody can fill space, whether it’s an overmatched kid or an old hack running on Jack Daniels fumes. But if you really care about the craft right down to the last syllable, you inevitably wind up feeling like you’re married to a nymphomaniac: as soon as you’re finished, you’ve got to start again. For all the joy that attends a column you get right, whether it’s funny or sad or angry, you’re still staring into a black hole when you wonder what you’re going to do for an encore. There were times I started worrying before I finished the column I was working on. Other than that, it was the best job on the paper.
I’ve always felt lucky that I worked in Chicago, which, in addition to being a great city, overflowed with sports to write about, professional and college. The National League was on the North Side, the American on the South. I could write about the Bears any time of year. I could have done the same with Michael Jordan, but I was gone by the time he arrived. The best I could do in basketball was DePaul, which had a great run in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Better yet, most of the time I was there, the teams were terrible-–and terrible teams are a hell of a lot more fun to write about than good teams. When a team is good or, worse, great, most everybody connected with it turns secretive. They don’t want to run their mouths for fear the fates smite them. But when a team is bad, the fear is gone. Players start to reveal their true selves, whether they’re hilarious or soulful or complete assholes. There’s always something going on, always somebody running his mouth, always somebody begging to have his ears pinned back.
There isn’t a more reliable bunch of losers in all of sports than the Cubs. And yet, in my Chicago years, they had a world-class right-hander in Rick Reuschel and a great reliever in Bruce Sutter and a batting champion in Bill Buckner, whose bad legs should have qualified him for handicapped parking and who was the bravest player I ever covered. Each was a good guy in his own way. Not the life of the party, by any stretch of the imagination, but honest and insightful and professional in surroundings that would have turned lesser men into drooling loonies. There was one year when, miraculously, the Cubs were still in the pennant race on September 1 and Buckner came to Wrigley all fired up for a game he thought would sell the old joint out. Instead, it was almost empty. “It’s like they turn the lights out every August 31st,” he said. He deserved better. They all did.
No, let me amend that. There were exceptions. There were those Cubs who were such chowderheads that they were like batting-practice fastballs for a columnist. The biggest one of all was Dave Kingman. Of course you couldn’t say much bad about him the year he hit 48 homers, but he showed what a wasted blob of protoplasm he was when he spent most of the next season lolling on the disabled list. He’d come in early in the morning for treatment on whatever his injury was, but he wouldn’t hang around to watch the game, ever. One day, one of the team’s good guys pulled me aside and told me Kingman was hustling jet skis at a big summer blowout called ChicagoFest when he should have been at the ballpark. I did my due diligence as a reporter and then ripped him as a feckless, narcissistic slug. I thought he’d try to strangle me the next time our paths crossed, but he didn’t say a thing. He just looked scary, the way he always did: 6-foot-6, with a permanent Charles Whitman stare.
Herman Franks did two tours as the Cubs’ manager while I worked in Chicago. It’s hard to believe a bigger lout ever darkened baseball. Some days his greatest joy in life seemed to be throwing his dirty laundry at the clubhouse man and telling him, “Get the brown out, Jap.” The clubhouse man was, as you probably guessed, Japanese.
To say Herman was an uninspired manager would be understatement. He consistently made a bad team worse, and when I kept calling him on it in print, he whined to friends back home in Salt Lake City. That’s right. We came from the same town. We even went to the same high school, albeit 30 years apart. “Get this goddamned Schulian off my back,” Herman begged a friend with whom he had played CYO ball. Not a chance. Herman was just too much fun to write about. There was, for instance, the day he said the difference between Jose Cardenal, who’d been traded from the Cubs, and Greg Luzinski was the difference between ice cream and horseshit. I seized the moment and wrote that the difference between Cardenal and Herman was the difference between ice cream and, taking my readers’ sensitivities into consideration, horse manure. The next time I was beside the batting cage at Wrigley, Herman challenged me to a fight. When he saw that I couldn’t stop laughing, he stomped away.
I wasn’t wild about George Halas, either. Forget the Monsters of the Midway and the Decatur Staleys and the running board of the car that he and the NFL’s other original owner posed beside. All of that was real, but it became part of a mythology that served Halas as a protective shield. He was about 1,000 years old when I worked in Chicago, and he could give you an E.T. smile that was supposed to pass for charm, but underneath it all, he was still a tightwad and a mean SOB. For years he employed a team physician who did nothing but screw up players’ knees. Big name players like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. I always wondered about Halas’s feelings about race, too. He was, if I recall correctly, the next-to-last NFL owner to integrate his team. And even at the end of his reign, he publicly tortured Neil Armstrong, an eminently decent man who happened to be a less than wonderful head coach. I’m not sure Halas a word of what I said about him, but it still felt good to tee off on the old bastard.
All things considered, I’d rather be remembered for the work I did that wasn’t the product of outrage–the magazine pieces about Josh Gibson and Chuck Bednarik and the old Pacific Coast League, the newspaper columns about Muhammad Ali and Pete Maravich and a high school basketball star named Ben Wilson whose dreams were canceled by a stranger with a gun. But raising hell was part of the job, too, and I did my share of it. Maybe I even liked it too much. I remember Mike Royko telling me there’s no sense in peeling a grape with an ax. Sometimes I forgot to heed his advice. But other times the grape deserved the ax.
Unquestionably the toughest column I ever wrote was about Quentin Dailey, a basketball player the Bulls shouldn’t have drafted. He’d terrorized a student nurse at the University of San Francisco. Didn’t rape her, mind you. But left her with bad dreams that still may not have gone away. The Bulls drafted him No. 1 in 1982, and I went to the press conference where they introduced him. I was the only one there who asked if he had had any regrets, was getting any counseling, was doing anything positive to make amends for the harm he had done. And he turned out to be utterly unrepentant. I went back to the paper and wrote the harshest column I could. It might be the harshest column I’ve ever seen by anyone. Then I waited to see what would happen.
There were calls and letters that accused me of being a racist, lots of them. But there was also an invitation to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show as a defender of women. I accepted, of course. NOW thanked me and started making plans to picket the Bulls’ games. Reggie Jackson called and said he’d paid for Dailey’s lawyer because his niece had been going out with Dailey. Bill Veeck called and said he wanted me to know he was in my corner. Best of all, my wife said she was proud of me.
Still, it felt like I was breathing thin air, maybe having an out-of-body experience. I felt terribly self-conscious. It wasn’t like seeing my face in an ad on the side of a bus, and it wasn’t like my wife nudging me in a restaurant and saying, “Those people over there recognize you.” It was disconcerting. When I walked to a courthouse a few blocks from the Sun-Times to take care of a ticket-–I’d raced a stoplight and lost-–I couldn’t help wondering if some cop was going to get in my face and call me a racist motherfucker. And if I would have the stones to hold my ground and say that race had nothing to do with what I wrote. It never happened, though. Life went on, the way it usually does.
Chapter 25: Fast Company
I never wrote as a fan. To civilians, especially every Cubs fan who ever told me to go back to the South Side because I’d written a column on the White Sox, that may seem a startling confession, but there’s no getting away from the truth. I wrote sports because I yearned to be a writer and the sports page provided a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments with words. When I was breaking into the newspaper racket, there was a freedom of style in sports that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Contrary to what I see too often now, when most every columnist seems to be shouting ceaselessly, I could do a character sketch, attempt whimsy, review a book, and rant and rave about whatever was vexing me all in the same week. The idea was to entertain my readers, but the truth is, I was trying to entertain myself, too.
On the days I succeeded, it was often because I had written about a boxer with a hard past or a ballplayer who had more stories than base hits. I was never a funny writer, the way Jim Murray, Leigh Montville, and Mike Downey were, but I embraced characters who could make me and my readers laugh. And yet there was a melancholy streak in my work, too–the athletes who died young, the broken-down gyms where fighters chased their dreams, the hardscrabble playgrounds where basketball looked like the only alternative to drugs and gangs. Those were the pieces that put sports in perspective, though people never seemed to react to them the way they did when I was cutting someone up in print. When I die, if anybody bothers to write my obituary, I fully expect to be identified as the columnist who called Billy Martin “a mouse studying to be a rat.”
The important thing, if you cared about your craft, was that you had to be good a lot more often than you were bad or the competition would bury you. I’m talking about the years between, say, 1960, when sportswriting’s Chipmunks started nibbling away at sacred cows, and the mid-90s, when the sports page was finally overwhelmed by the screeching talk-radio mentality that continues to assault us.
In the beginning, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon were still around to remind the new wave of what true greatness was. As good as we were – and I think we represented the golden era of sportswriting–none of us ever reached the heights they did. And there were plenty of other writers, younger than Red and Jimmy but older than we were, whose very presence gave us a sense of perspective: Murray in L.A., Edwin Pope in Miami, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, and Blackie Sherrod, who, before he conquered Dallas, made Fort Worth the launching pad for Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Gary Cartwright. Then there was Ray Fitzgerald, Montville’s stable mate in Boston, and Wells Twombly, a world-class columnist wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot before landing in San Francsico. And a pox on my house if I neglect to mention Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, and Larry Merchant, whose wry, cerebral column influenced more young writers than anyone will ever know.
They cleared the beach for the wave of columnists I rode in with: Montville, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Bill Nack at Newsday, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis, Scott Ostler in L.A., Skip Bayless in Dallas, Ray Didinger in Philadelphia, and, begging his forgiveness for putting him last in this sentence, Tony Kornheiser. I always thought that Tony’s true genius lay in long newspaper features and magazine work–his profile of tragedy-stricken Bob Lemon will tear your heart out–but he tripped the light fantastic as a columnist, too. While Tony worked in New York and Washington, D.C., on papers where the spotlight was automatically his, Tom Archdeacon was lost in the shadows. You had to go out of your way to track down his evocative prose in the tattered Miami News, but it was always worth the trouble. Likewise, you had to keep an eye on Detroit, where Mike Downey’s star shined brightly and Shelby Strother and Mitch Albom found their way to town by the light it gave off. The auto industry was going to hell, but Detroit could claim a procession of wonderful sports columnists. And Elmore Leonard, too.
I read them all every chance I got. When I was at the Washington Post, still dreaming of becoming a columnist, there was a wall in a corner of the newsroom stacked with out-of-town papers, and I used to plow through it seeking out the bylines of old heroes and new competition. I still remember how good Lupica was when the New York Post let him have a two-week summer fling at writing a column. I’d just met him at the 1976 NBA finals, this baby-faced kid who looked like he’d fit in your pocket, and here he was writing with verve and moxie that left me wilted with envy.
There was a lesson there, just as when I started reading Kindred regularly and realized that he had studied the cadences of Red Smith’s sentences as religiously as I had. If I was going to be anything better than ordinary as a columnist, I would have to work my ass off, and it wouldn’t hurt if I wrote about things that appealed to my writerly instincts as often as I could. There were days when I couldn’t ignore the news–the big trade, big firing, big game–but when I was left to my own devices, I went where my heart took me.
For me, the best sports to write about were baseball and boxing. I felt as though I understood baseball in a way I never would football or basketball or, God help me, hockey. Baseball was still producing characters then, and better still, I was well versed in its history. But the truth of the matter was that the game still fell short of boxing when came to material that made for memorable writing. There were characters and shenanigans and life and death. I mean death literally. I saw it happen in Montreal, where a fighter named Cleveland Denny was fatally injured on the undercard of Leonard-Duran I. In the very next fight, Big John Tate, an Olympic heavyweight who was supposed to have a solid gold future, got knocked out and one of his legs started twitching uncontrollably. All I could think was, Jesus Christ, two in two fights? Tate lived, though. Cleveland Denny didn’t.
I can gin up a defense of boxing if I’m cornered, but I’d rather just tell you that I realize what a dreadful sport it can be and I love it just the same. I love the stink of the old gyms, and the fighters with their dreams that are almost sure to go bust, and the crotchety ancients who untangle their fighters’ feet and tend to their wounds and offer up wisdom written in the blood of those who didn’t heed them. Sometimes I even stop hating promoters and managers, though never long enough to think of them as anything except potential thieves. But it is the fighters I always come back to, the guys who step into the ring knowing they may die in it.
In a sport filled with liars–charming, quotable liars, but liars just the same–there is an open-book honesty about the fighters that could disarm the most resolute cynic. Want to know why a fighter ended up in jail? Want to know how it feels to fight with broken ribs? Want to know how desperately he craves a woman after going without during training? They would tell it all to you, and then invite you to a party after the fight, the way a Baltimore brawler named Wild Bill Hardney did one night. “Party at Loretta’s,” he said, which sounded great until Wild Bill’s wife read about it in the next day’s paper and asked him ever so sweetly just who the hell Loretta was.
Chapter 26:A Vanishing Art
Somewhere along the line, human beings went out of fashion in America’s sports pages. You wouldn’t think it was possible, given that flesh-and-blood people play our games, but the tastemakers have deemed statistics and cockeyed opinion more important. There are exceptions, of course, like Joe Posnanski when he was pounding out a humanity-infused daily column that would have been a treasure in any era. And there are others who would love to craft character sketches and mood pieces, but realize that won’t put any biscuits on their table. And then there are the glory seekers who latch onto people only when they have a sob story to tell, because sob stories win prizes. But all the prizes tell me is that the writers who chase them so shamelessly are manipulative at best, hypocritical at worst. Forgotten are the small dramas that are played out every day in sports, and the people who inhabit them, and the artistic impulses they stir.
Over lunch, a friend who has just finished writing a non-fiction book about a boxer tells me he used a column of mine from 1980 as part of his research. The column opened with someone describing Joe Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, in full flower as a hard ass. Frazier was about to fight Ron Stander, whom he could have beaten blindfolded, but Durham bitched loud and long about some TV lights he said were part of a plot to blind Smokin’ Joe. The people televising the fight pleaded innocent, but Durham refused to believe them. “That’s it,” he said. “We ain’t fightin’.” The TV people went into shock. So, for that matter, did Frazier. But Durham didn’t let up until the lights were taken down. That was how boxing worked then, and that’s how it works now. The guy with the biggest balls wins.
“Great column,” my friend said, “but you couldn’t write it today.”
I couldn’t write it because I used the tools of fiction – character, dialogue, dramatic tension – to depict a hard man in a hard business. I couldn’t write it because I populated the column with human beings, and I didn’t pass judgment on them. It was up to the reader to choose between Yank Durham and the TV people. I thought it was permissible for a columnist to do that. What did I know?
Let me tell you what else I couldn’t write today. Once in a great while, I would do a column about duende, an Andalusian word that is best defined by example: Willie Mays had duende, Henry Aaron didn’t; the Rolling Stones had it, the Beatles didn’t. I was borrowing shamelessly from the late George Frazier, an eccentric general interest columnist who made his last stand at the Boston Globe with a red carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers suit and a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald for every situation. I was following in the tradition that inspired many another columnist to borrow Jimmy Cannon’s pet gimmick, “Nobody asked me, but . . . ” You didn’t think Mike Lupica came up with “Shooting from the Lip” by himself, did you? He and I were indulging in what Hollywood likes to call “an homage” because it sounds so much better than “theft.”
Whatever, I had a fine time passing myself off as an arbiter of style in my duende columns. In fact, I would encourage today’s columnists to do the same, but my friend Randy Harvey, once an intrepid sports writer and now one of the top editors at the L.A. Times, says duende wouldn’t fly. The wounded look on my face when I hear his verdict seems to touch something deep inside him, though. “Okay,” Randy says, “I’d let you write duende once a week if your other three columns were on the Lakers.” Call me an ingrate, but that still doesn’t sound like such a great deal.
I’m the product of an era when a sports columnist was pretty much left to his own devices. Sometimes the news dictated what I wrote about, and sometimes there were subjects that just couldn’t be ignored whether I was interested in them or not. But the rest of the time, my column reflected who I was, for better or worse. When I wrote a sad one, it was because the subject touched my inner blues man. When I did a rip job, I was putting my mean streak on display. But never was I so infatuated with myself that I thought readers wanted a dose of my opinions every day. They were smart enough to figure out where I was coming from personally and politically without my beating them about the head and shoulders with the first person.
More than anything else, I wanted to write about the human condition, good or bad, happy or sad. The fact that the people I wrote about wore uniforms, had their names in headlines, and cashed big paychecks for their labors was mere coincidence. The important thing was to let my readers know that their heroes were people, too, not the remote gods who dwell in the parallel universe that exists today.
One of the beautiful things about newspaper work is that you never know whom you’re reaching, or what your words mean to them. There are letters to the editor and angry phone calls, of course, but there are also the personal notes that become small treasures. And one night at the Chicago Sun-Times, I heard the highest praise I ever received. It came from the cleaning lady who swept the floor and emptied the wastebaskets in the sports department. She had a bad eye and a balky hip that crabbed her stride, and she was there the day I started at the paper and probably long after I left it. I’d say hello to her, but I never wondered whether she read the paper or, if she did, made it as far as the sports section. But when she reached my corner of the office that night, she looked at me and said, “You got a lot of soul.”
I know I thanked her more than once. Other than that, everything is a blank. I’m only guessing when I say I think she liked a column I had written about Johnny Bratton, a former welterweight champion who was living on the street. But maybe the subject isn’t as important as the fact that this woman had seen something in my work that had nothing to do with winners and losers and everything to do with the forces that drove me.
Still, there were times I wasn’t aware of just how much of myself I was revealing in print. I’m thinking of one column in particular, written in 1983 about regrets and missed opportunities. It opened with my musings on the White Sox, who were very good that year, as I drove home from Wisconsin on a rainy late-summer night, and then it veered into personal territory I rarely visited. By the time I finished writing, I had quoted William Blake and Tom T. Hall and pretty much revealed myself to be a ball of confusion. I could feel the first rumblings of profound changes in my life, and change was a stranger to me.
A few days later, I ran into a documentary maker named Ken Solarz and the first thing he said was, “Man, you were really hurting.” Though he and I would later arrive in Hollywood at about the same time and become great friends, I barely knew Kenny then. But he was very perceptive. I was hurting. And it would only get worse.
Chapter 27:Murdoch Descending
The world changed for everybody at the Sun-Times when the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. It was one of those things that I, forever blind to the realities of business, thought would never happen. I’d seen how he’d trashed the New York Post with his lowest-common-denominator journalism. I wasn’t wild about the Boston Herald, either. Then again, the Herald might have gone out of business if he hadn’t shown up. And it did provide a showcase for the stellar sportswriting of George Kimball, Charlie Pierce, and Michael Gee. But that was small consolation to those of us counting down the days until Murdoch took over in Chicago.
The Sun-Times had become a first-rate tabloid, solid from beginning to end and, on its best days, capable of driving the stolid, well-heeled Tribune into Lake Michigan. The newsroom was packed with aggressive young hard-news reporters–Jonathan Landman, now a ranking editor at the New York Times, was one–and they were always breaking big stories and doing great investigative work. There was plenty of good writing, too. My goal every day was to have the best-written piece in the paper, but I’m not sure how many times that happened, not when I was surrounded by Royko and Roger Simon, another fine city columnist, as well as a corps of lively feature writers that included my old friend Eliot Wald, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in the Eddie Murphy years.
And then there was Roger Ebert, who could out-write us all. I always thought Roger was too generous in his movie reviews, but his features were exquisite. It didn’t matter whether he was writing about John Wayne or a B-movie queen, his prose sang. And when a movie star died, Roger soared higher still. A copy clerk would fetch him clips from the paper’s library. He’d scan them and then write 1,200 of the most beautiful words you’ve ever read in 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it seemed like his fingers never touched the keyboard–he just waved them like a magic wand and, abra-ka-dabra, a masterpiece appeared.
It’s for someone else to say how many masterpieces appeared in our sports section. I just know we won more than our share of honors, that out-of-town writers regularly took the time to say how much they enjoyed what we were doing, and that I was proud to be part of it. I was in the company of pros who cared deeply about what they did for a living, guys like Jerome Holtzman, Ron Rapoport, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons, Kevin Lamb, and Brian Hewitt. If I was covering something with one of them, it was easy to divvy up the workload. We knew what the stories were, and one of us would look at the other and say, for example, “Smith or Jones?” There would be an answer, not a debate or a clash of egos, and then we’d get busy with what we were there for: the work.
Our era of good feeling lasted until Super Sunday 1984, the day Murdoch and his zombies took control of the paper. There must have been three or four of us in Tampa for the game – that’s the way we did things back then–and we gathered around the phone as Rapoport called the city desk and asked, “How bad is it?”
The answer came in a headline: “Rabbi held in sex slave ring.”
It ran on page three, which was prime tabloid real estate but hardly the place where the previous administration would have played the story if it had run at all. Looking back, I confess that the headline doesn’t seem that terrible. But I have to remind myself that it wasn’t so much that I was offended by the presence of the dirtbag rabbi in the paper. I was offended by what the story about him portended. Murdoch’s people were just getting warmed up. Overnight they had changed the look of the paper, turning its bright, lively design into something garish and cheap, the print equivalent of a streetwalker addicted to rouge and eyeliner. It stood to reason that the stories would be increasingly tarted up, too.
But when Murdoch tried to foist his trademark crap on them, the good people of Chicago just said no. The Sun-Times’ circulation dropped like a shot put in a goldfish bowl. Murdoch’s henchmen were forced to pull back on the cheap thrills and gaudy garbage. The paper would never be what it had been, nor would it lure back all of its readers, but at least it regained a modicum of respectability. The readers who refused to roll over and play dead were better than Murdoch deserved. The same was true of the editors, reporters, and columnists who didn’t abandon the sinking ship. They would endure, some would even prosper, but when you looked around, there was no ignoring the empty desks.
The biggest departure, of course, was Royko, who jumped to the Tribune, which he had hated and baited throughout his career. In sports, we lost our top two editors, Marty Kaiser and Michael Davis, plus Phil Hersh, who went to the Tribune by way of the Philadelpia Inquirer and became, with Randy Harvey of the L.A. Times and Mike Janofsky and Jere Longman of the New York Times, a reigning expert on Olympic sports. I like to think that Roger Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times because he truly loved the paper where he has spent his entire career.
Would that I could say the same about myself. Truth was, I wanted no part of the Murdoch regime. I would have gone anywhere that could afford me, but the columnist gigs at papers fitting that description were locked up. The editors who had looked out for me at Sports Illustrated were gone, Inside Sports had been taken over by nickel-and-dimers, and The National had yet to become a gleam in Frank Deford’s eye. Maybe I should have tried freelancing, maybe I should have gone to work on a screenplay or a novel. But I liked the idea of a steady paycheck. When the new regime offered me a contract that would pay me six figures a year for three years–big money in that era–I forsook my principles and misgivings and signed on the dotted line.
I would pay for it.
Chapter 28: The Breaking Point
As much as I detested how Murdoch had cheapened the Sun-Times, I kept pushing myself to write the best column I could. For a while, I might even have succeeded. But things were too different and too weird for someone as irascible as I am to keep his mouth shut for long. The paper’s new editor wanted to cut a wide swath in Chicago society, and his wife was just as pathetic and desperate for the spotlight as he was. The new sports editor was a young dolt who seemed to spend most of his time sniffing around a pretty copy clerk. I’d worked for a string of first-rate sports editors before he showed up, guys who wouldn’t have hired him to fetch coffee, and here he was acting like he knew something.
One day he made the mistake of asking what I thought of the changes Murdoch’s infidels had made to the paper. When I told him, he looked like I’d hit him between the eyes with a sack of wet brownies. I’m sure he scampered off to let his bosses know that I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s the way they operated. I’m surprised we weren’t required to take a loyalty oath.
It’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one at the Sun-Times who loathed Murdoch and his henchmen. But people needed a paycheck. They had families, mortgages, bills. They needed the work. And if the people they worked for were a bunch of bums, so be it. They would soldier on and hope for a better tomorrow.
I was one of them until I came home from covering the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles. I’d been fighting a virus for weeks and I felt like dog meat. But I’d never called in sick in Chicago and I wasn’t about to start now. It was a Friday and I went to Wrigley Field and interviewed Ryne Sandberg, who was having his breakout season with the Cubs. Then I came back to the office to turn the interview into my Sunday column. It was noisy in sports, so I took refuge in the features department, which was empty except for two deskmen laying out the Sunday sports section. All was right with the world until this guy I’d never seen before walked up and started insulting me, saying my column wasn’t any good and I was overpaid. It turned out that he was a features editor who’d been imported from Murdoch’s paper in San Antonio. Maybe the editors there could get away with acting like drill instructors and prison guards, but this was a first for me.
I should have just hauled off and hit the son of a bitch. But I’d been ambushed. I was stunned. On top of that, I was so weary and sick that I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. It was all I could do to call him a weasel and a motherfucker and invite him to go to the editor who had decided to pay me all that money and get me fired.
The deskmen, both gentle souls, were gob-smacked, which, in retrospect, was the only amusing thing about this episode. I don’t think they realized their jaws were on their chests until Murdoch’s provocateur left and I finished my column and drove home to Evanston, about a half hour from the office. The longer I drove, however, the angrier I got. This was before cell phones so I had to wait until I walked I the door to call the office and ask if that mouthy prick was still around. He was. “Don’t let him go anywhere,” I said.
There are people who will tell you I went back to the office that night and punched him out. I didn’t. I realize this will come as a disappointment to both those who regard me as some kind of a hero and some kind of a lunatic, but it’s true. I’ve often wished that I had beaten the son of a bitch so badly that his unborn children felt it, but I’m not nearly that tough. Almost everything I’ve punched in my life has been inanimate. I do, however, have a temper, and I refuse to be bullied, and that’s why I returned with malice aforethought. But when I saw the guy for the second time, a voice in my head started saying, “You don’t want to go to jail, you don’t want to get sued.” Hardly the thoughts you associate with someone on the verge of violence, but there you have them.
I settled for calling the guy every kind of a gutless motherfucker I could think of, hoping he’d throw the first punch. But his mouth had written a check his ass couldn’t cash. He kept backing up, and just as he was about to turn and run, I grabbed him – one hand on his collar, one on his belt — and threw him over the nearest desk. He bounced once, as I recall. Then I walked around the desk, picked up him, and threw him back where I had found him. The only real satisfaction I got was the expression on his face. He looked like the noose had just been put around his neck and I was the hangman.
The next day, the sports editor called to say I’d been suspended me without pay. In doing so, the paper violated its contract with the Newspaper Guild, which said I was entitled to a hearing before any action could be taken. The Sun-Times responded by firing me. But the Guild fought the good fight in arbitration and I won a healthy settlement. It came on top of a different kind of reward from the people in the features department who had been bullied by the son of a bitch I bounced around. He had been making their lives a misery from the day he showed up. To them, I’d struck a blow for justice.
My wife was less convinced of my virtues. I didn’t blame her. I still don’t. I wasn’t easy to live with in those days. I was either on the road for work or at home raging about a computer that had crashed or a column I’d written poorly or a typo the copy desk hadn’t caught or . . . Jesus, I was a runaway train. The blow-up at the Sun-Times only added to my anger and my wife’s confusion and frustration. The strange thing was, we never argued. Maybe we should have. But my being fired was where our paths diverged for keeps. We divorced quietly, amicably, painfully.
For the rest of the summer, I rode my bike up and down the North Shore, from Evanston to Highland Park and back, always by myself. I had a million thoughts running through my head and no concrete plans. About the only person I saw on a regular basis was a big-hearted used-book dealer named Roger Carlson. He had a little shop in an alley in Evanston. It didn’t have any windows, so Roger had one painted next to his front door. The window looked in on a bookstore, and there on the shelves, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a book with a name on it that really didn’t belong there or, for the moment at least, anywhere else. My name.
Chapter 29: The Road to Philly
I know how I ended up in Philadelphia: I drove.
What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.
The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.
None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.
The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.
No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.
But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.
I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.
Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.
Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.
I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.
I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.
Chapter 30: The Wrong Fit
I had come up in the newspaper game and I had succeeded in it, even if I was in the penalty box. I thought I had to be a sports columnist again, if I was doing any thinking at all that summer. But I was so numb that I couldn’t even get angry when my phone didn’t ring with offers. I just climbed on my bike and pedaled away, numb to a business that would take its own sweet time to acknowledge my existence again.
Finally, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called to ask what I’d think about working there. I actually liked the town, but not well enough to make it the next place I rolled the dice with my career. The Philadelphia Daily News was a different story. I’d considered jumping to the News in ’81 or ’82, when a beguiling character named Gil Spencer was running the paper. Gil was the kind of free spirit you don’t find in an editor’s office anymore-–a Main Line kid who hadn’t bothered going to college, an ex-marine, a devout horseplayer, a Pultzer prize-winning editorial writer, and a tabloid guy in the best sense of the word. Here’s how smart he was: he gave Pete Dexter a column when Pete was a reporter best known for getting himself in bizarre situations. The first time I met Gil, he was driving me to lunch. “While we’re fucking around,” he said, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?” How could I not like an editor like that?
By the time I was on the market again, Zach Stalberg had replaced Gil. Zach was someone to like, too, a Philly guy who wore cowboy boots, an ex-City Hall reporter, a bit of a swashbuckler. But it wasn’t Zach who came after me. It was the paper’s executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, who had been an Associated Press sportswriter and a Miami Dolphins PR man. And I still don’t know why.
Sometimes I think it was because Rathet liked the way I wrote. Other times I think it was because he wanted to say he’d tamed John Schulian. He made a point of telling me my column could be edited, and he made sure I knew that he was making more money than I was.
I took a 25 percent pay cut when I went to the Daily News, although I’m not sure anyone at the paper except the brass knew it. I always had the feeling that everybody, in and out of sports, thought I was still pulling down six figures. It probably didn’t help that I bought a little restored farmhouse out in Bryn Mawr when most everybody else on the paper seemed to live either in the city or in the South Jersey suburbs. The way it turned out, though, I traveled so much while I was at the Daily News that I should have just rented a motel room by the airport. Between work and vacation, I was gone 195 days in 1985. I get tired just looking at that number now, but back then, I was glad to be on the move.
It quickly dawned on me that Philadelphia was going to be a hard city to embrace. Chicago still owned my heart, and the only two cities in the country that could compete with it in my mind were L.A. and New York. If Philly had any charms, they eluded me. The cheesesteaks were borderline inedible, the drivers were second only to Boston’s when it came to apparent homicidal urges, and the city’s general disposition seemed to flow from those same drivers.
It wasn’t much better at the Daily News. Once I got past Zach Stalberg and his secretary, the only people outside of the sports department who engaged me in real conversations were Maria Gallagher, a reporter who later married Ray Didinger, and Gene Seymour, who went on to write about movies and pop culture at Newsday. And Pete Dexter, of course. He was already on his way to becoming a great novelist when he told me with a straight face that he really wanted to write an episode of Bob Newhart’s TV show. Pete could always make me laugh, but something in his eyes said he knew how it felt to be an orphan in the storm, too.
That solitary feeling followed me into the sports department. I’d invaded territory to which the Daily News’ other columnists had long ago staked claim. Only the unfailingly gracious Didinger refused to let that stop him from treating me like a friend. Stan Hochman, who had always been so amiable when I was an out-of-towner, warily kept his distance, and Mark Whicker left the impression that he’d rather talk about me than to me. Not surprisingly, Bill Conlin proved harder to read than any of them. I assumed hated me – what can I say, he just has that way about him – but we bonded over our antipathy toward Whitey Herzog at the 1985 World Series.
Even if we’d all been singing “Kumbaya,” however, it would have been hard to get the sports staff together because we were always racing somewhere to cover the next big story. I had dinner a couple of times with Rathet and his delightful wife, Lois, who would die much too young, but that was about it. The one person I truly connected with was a woman who didn’t even read newspapers. She was very artsy, very stylish, and brave enough ultimately to live through four years with me.
True to form, my career butted in line ahead of my personal life as I set about re-living what I had gone through as a columnist in Chicago. But the first time was a thrill: to discover that I was good at it, to be anointed a star, to be covering the sports events that every writer dreamed of. The second time, in Philly, was borderline torture. It wasn’t because of the chilly reception I received at the Daily News, either. I’d been the new kid in school more times that I cared to count. I could deal with that, even though it was a bit disconcerting to think that I was getting along better with editors than I was with my fellow troops. What I hadn’t counted on was the toxic reaction I found myself having to the job itself. I’d long ago tired of airplanes and hotel rooms and room service meals that were guaranteed to shorten my life, but now the dread with which I faced them was spreading. I couldn’t generate any excitement for the crowds, the bright lights, or even the biggest games and fights and horse races. The stories all felt like I’d written them before. Worse, I could barely stand to read my own prose.
I needed a new challenge, not one I’d already conquered. I needed something to save me from a future as a grumpy, overweight sports columnist who was odds on to keel over dead while running to catch a plane. Shortly before dawn on the day I turned 40, I discovered what my ticket out was. It had been in my head nearly all my life.
Chapter 31:Hello, I Must Be Going
My life began to change for the better as soon as I caught a glimpse of Hollywood in my future. I believe that’s known as the magic of show business. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers, being mostly very tall, as professional basketball teams inevitably are, did what they could to obscure my view by playing a game they appeared to be as uninterested in as I was. But we all had to be someplace that January night in 1985, so there we were. Afterward, out of desperation more than anything else, I tried, unsuccessfully, to coax a sentence or two out of Moses Malone. All Moses seemed to have in him was a few grunts, and a few grunts do not a column make.
It was snowing when I headed back to the Daily News wondering how I was going to tap dance my way through this one. Sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., I remembered the “Red on Roundball” feature that Red Auerbach used to do on the NBA’s TV games. One of his guests had been Moses, and when Auerbach asked him what the secret of rebounding was, Moses said, “I take it to the rack.” Though hardly as memorable as “Give me liberty or give me death” or “I can’t get no satisfaction,” those words became my inspiration for an ode to Moses, who, after all, would end up in the hall of fame as a player, not an orator.
Afterward, while driving home through the snow, I realized that (1) I had turned 40 while I was in the process of immortalizing that big sphinx, and (2) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this. In truth, I didn’t want to spend another day doing it. But I needed the dough, and besides, in just a few hours, I had an appointment to see Steve Sabol at NFL Films about his search for someone to replace the late John Facenda as the voice that would stir the soul as the game’s behemoths shook the earth. For what it’s worth, I wrote a column nominating Tina Turner. She didn’t get the job.
Not that I cared. I was too busy thinking about Hollywood. At first it was an abstraction, the way it had been when I was a kid so fascinated by movies–-never TV, always movies–that I drew crude versions of them on sheets of paper. If you want to be generous, I guess you could call what I did storyboards. The movies I chose to give my special touch were primarily Westerns, and not great ones, either. We’re talking about the bottom half of a double bill. I didn’t start thinking bigger until I picked up “The Craft of Screenwriting,” a book of interviews with heavy hitters like William Goldman and Robert Towne that my wife had given me for Christmas in 1981. In her inscription, she had said she expected me to be writing in Hollywood in five years. She was my ex-wife by this point, of course, but I realized that if I hustled, I still had a chance to make her deadline.
I’d been in Philly for less than three months, and I already knew it wasn’t for me. The only time I liked the city was when I was looking down at it from a plane bound for Los Angeles. Mike Rathet, the Daily News sports editor, was incredibly generous about giving me assignments on the West Coast. I must have made eight or 10 trips there in 18 months. In each of the two holiday seasons that I worked for the News, I spent three weeks in L.A., ensconced in an out-of-the-way hotel where somebody interesting was always in the lobby–Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones. I heard that Elvis Costello stayed there, too. Lots of rock-and-rollers did. God bless them, because the women they attracted made the rooftop swimming pool the eighth wonder of the world. But I was equally fond of the clerk who greeted me on one of my visits by saying, “Oh, Mr. Schulian, welcome back. Are you filming?” Only in my dreams.
The spoiler was always my return trip to Philadelphia and the low-grade depression that set in the moment my flight touched down. Once again, I would be trapped in a world where the good guys were becoming harder to find. They were still there, of course–the ones with the stories and the one-liners and the moments of insight and reflection–but there were more and more athletes, coaches and executives who were the writers’ enemy and reveled in it.
And so there came a night when John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, decreed that there would be no speaking to his two star players after they had mumbled a couple of forgettable clichés in a post-game press conference. This was in Madison Square Garden after the Hoyas had just beaten Chris Mullin and St. John’s. I marched down the hallway to Georgetown’s locker room, determined to either talk to the kids or get thrown out trying. And then I hit the brakes. Screw it, I told myself. There would be no confrontation with Thompson or that horrible crone he had watching over the team. There would be no more groveling.
I’d spent enough time choking on the cynicism in the press box at wretched Veterans Stadium, too. There wasn’t any place in the country that was its equal for toxicity. While the artificial turf curled like discount-store shag and the paying customers howled for blood, some immensely talented knights of the keyboard entertained themselves by, among other things, mocking a ballplayer with a speech impediment.
What I was sickest of, however, was my own writing. I’d read years before that someone–-I think it was Russell Baker, the New York Times’ op-ed page wit–said you spend your first year as a columnist discovering your voice and the rest of your career trying to get over it. In Philadelphia, where I was new to readers, everything felt old to me -– the anecdotes, the turns of phrase, the choices of column subjects, the striving to establish myself. I’d done it all in Chicago, and the prospect of doing it again felt like a death sentence.
Faulkner in Hollywood
Writing in Hollywood promised to be as different as fiction is from fact. There was a chance it might even be my salvation. That may seem a curious choice of words when you consider the fate of writers far better than I who have washed up on the rocky shoals of the movie and TV business. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the most beautiful prose America has ever seen, was baffled by screenwriting no matter how hard he worked at it. William Faulkner, weary of executives who thought he was loafing if his typewriter wasn’t clickety-clacking, simply went home to Mississippi and soothed his soul with bourbon. But I couldn’t be scared off by Fitzgerald’s fate, nor could I drink as much as Faulkner. This was about me and no one else. I had to close my eyes and jump.
John Schulian is one of our most gifted storytellers and a wordsmith who has been compared to Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. He came of age as a newspaper reporter and sports columnist in the 1970s, part of a generation of young turks that featured the likes of David Israel, Leigh Montville, Mike Lupica, Jane Leavy, Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell. Then he left sports behind and went to Hollywood where he wrote for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “JAG,” and numerous other series–including “Slap Maxwell,” the short-lived Dabney Coleman show about a sportswriting hack. He was also the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Before, during and after his foray into show business, Schulian wrote long-form articles for Sports Illustrated and GQ. His work has been collected in “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,”“Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and the forthcoming “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian has been featured in “The Best American Sports Writing,” and, on ten occasions, the old “Best Sports Stories” series. He also edited “The John Lardner Reader” and co-edited (with George Kimball) “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.”
Last fall I sat down with John to talk about his career and what came out was more than just an interview but an oral history of the newspaper business, of the sporting scene and of Hollywood. So I am proud to present John’s story, in his own words, “From Ali to Xena,” which will be posted in column-like segments twice a week.
You are in for a treat.
From Ali to Xena
By John Schulian
Good things have happened to me all my life, whether I deserved them or not, and “At The Fights”is the latest of them. When George Kimball and I started working together, we had nothing more in mind than a modest book of stories by writers who had won awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. The way we looked at it, no sport has inspired more wonderful prose than the Sweet Science. But for every great piece we found, there was another one that even a generous critic would have had a difficult time calling mediocre. I won’t say we were ready to give up, but the bloom definitely was off the rose.
Then, out of nowhere, George’s literary agent, Farley Chase, called and said the Library of America was interested in having us edit an anthology of great boxing writing. “The same Library of America that does Twain and Poe and Raymond Chandler?” we said. “That’s the one,” Farley said. So we wrote a proposal and talked to LOA’s big cheeses and lobbied like a couple of Tammany Hall politicians. And we got the gig.
It turned out to be an incredible amount of work that was definitely pleasurable. You don’t have to ask me twice to read Heywood Broun, W.C. Heinz, and Carlo Rotella, and I know George feels the same. But there was also more than a little pain in the process because we didn’t have room to include all the pieces we love and all the writers we admire. The book we wound up with, though, is one we believe in wholeheartedly. “At the Fights” reflects both our personal tastes and the importance of boxing in American nonfiction. Just think of the big names whose work we’ve showcased: Mailer, London, Baldwin, Schulberg, Plimpton. Maybe George expected to be to sit in judgment of them at some point in his career, but it’s a complete surprise to me.
Honestly, I never expected any of what has happened to me over the last four decades. Not the big-city sports column or the magazine work or the books, not Hollywood and the modest success I had in TV, not the fascinating projects that still fall in my lap as I enter my golden years. Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but dreaming is far different than expecting. There were guys I met on newspapers who fairly radiated their expectation of success and became wet-behind-the-ears sensations. I, on the other hand, moved at a far slower pace, forever unsure of what lay in store for me.
I don’t mean to be disingenuous. That’s just a natural fact. I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist, but I thought I might just as easily wind up as a copy editor. (I can hear the copy editors I worked with saying, “You never could have cut it.”) If I saw myself doing anything, it was bouncing around to a lot of different newspapers — but not papers in glamorous cities and not papers with glowing national reputations. I was thinking more along the lines of Toledo for a couple of years, then maybe see what was available in Portland or Albuquerque. The only thing I was sure of was that I had a shot at an interesting life.
The train to glory left without James Crumley, who seems to have been too busy examining life’s gnarly side to bother catching it. There are no best-sellers for him, no money-bloated deals with Hollywood–just hard-boiled novels that are better than anybody else’s because all those lost nights stashed in the margins make each one a survivor’s story.
Crumley has never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but he knows how blood looks when it’s spilled against a backdrop of whiskey dawns, cocaine pick-me-ups, and wall-shaking sex. His is a wisdom acquired by bellying up to the bar in roadhouses where bikers, ranch hands and oil-field workers beat each other senseless for playing the wrong Merle Haggard song on the jukebox. It’s no life for the delicate, but the delicate don’t have a taste for Crumley’s novels anyway, so the hell with them.
The time is right for saying so now that Crumley has again unleashed Milo Milodragovitch, one of his two memorably unapologetic rogue heroes. Milo comes barreling back in “The Final Country” because he needs something to keep Texas and a woman who’s the queen of mood swings from driving him crazy. To tell the truth, he’d rather be home in Montana after reclaiming his father’s stolen inheritance and snagging some unlaundered drug money in the process. Failing that, he uses a sap on a sucker-punching lady bartender, knocks the teeth out of a one-armed man’s mouth, and almost twists the nose off a security-company executive’s face–all before the shooting gets serious. Crumley, for what it’s worth, says Milo represents his kinder, gentler side.
They’ve both passed 60 without a whimper, no problem for Crumley, but strange territory for a hero in a genre that avoids aging as if it were a homely blond. Be advised, though, that when readers first met Milo, in “The Wrong Case,” in 1976, he was in strange territory for a PI then, too–the modern West–and he survived nicely. So when he talks about the two white streaks in his hair early on in “The Final Country,” he isn’t worried. It’s like he says: “I’m old, babe, but not dead.”
Of course, he comes close to making a liar of himself when the simple job of tracking down a runaway wife puts him in the path of a drug dealer “no larger than a church or any more incongruous than a nun with a beard.” The drug dealer, fresh out of prison, is looking for a woman, too, and when he doesn’t succeed, he decides the next best thing is to kill a bar manager. In the midst of the mayhem, over drinks, naturally, he and Milo connect. So it is that Milo decides to help a guy who doesn’t look like he needs any.
The set-up is straight out of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” which Crumley admits and which, when you think about it, is only fitting since he has been described as Chandler’s “bastard son.” Anyone who doubts the accuracy of that label should read Crumley’s 1978 masterpiece, “The Last Good Kiss.” With all due respect to Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke and the genre’s other heavyweights, it’s the best hard-boiled novel of the past 25 years. Some admirers swear it is even more than that, comparing it to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” To make their case for Crumley’s artistry, true believers don’t have to go any farther than “The Last Good Kiss’s” first sentence:
“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
The hero of “Kiss” is C.W. (Sonny) Sughrue, whose last name, as Crumley once explained it to me, is pronounced “sug as in sugar and rue as in rue the goddamned day.” Sughrue is a little younger than Milo and he isn’t as bright, but he’s a lot meaner, which comes in handy for a private eye wading through obsessions, sordid pasts and the dark places in men’s souls. When questioning a particularly difficult thug, Sughrue shoots him twice in the foot: “‘Once to get his attention…and once to let him know I was serious.’”
Culture critic Greil Marcus recalled that quote in the issue of Rolling Stone devoted to the September 11 attacks, as if to suggest that America can play as rough as any terrorists. But the quote’s presence so many years after it appeared in a novel that didn’t sell all that well also suggests an enduring fascination with Crumley. It’s not just that there’s enough demand for his six novels before “The Final Country” to keep reviving them as paperbacks; it’s that there are people who pay upwards of $300 for leather-bound copies of scripts he has written for movies that were never made. And there are even more people, it seems, who will gladly recall finding this expatriate Texan in his Missoula, Montana, lair and joining him in debauches worthy of rock stars.
Documentation of such events is hard to come by, if not impossible, but nothing Crumley has written or said in interviews discourages the telling of such tales. “I think there are more people who drink a lot in America than ever show up in fiction,” he said once, the implication being that he was one of them. And he said, and implied, the same about drugs. But there was a 10-year lull after 1983’s “Dancing Bear” that left the impression his excesses may have gotten the best of him. When he finally reappeared with “The Mexican Tree Duck,” he used the acknowledgments to thank his agent for sticking with him and his publisher for gambling on him. The sentiment didn’t sound like it was coming from someone who’d been lounging on top of the world.
Three years after that, Crumley delivered “Bordersnakes,” which teamed Milo and Sughrue for the first time. And now there is “The Final Country,” his finest work since “The Last Good Kiss,” a splendid balancing act between Milo’s sense of moral outrage and his flare for the outrageous. It’s good to know there’s still a private eye who can enjoy a ménage a trois and then face down a rich, corrupt Texan he sees as “a hyena in the rotten wake of the multinational prides.”
Crumley obviously has a full head of steam, and the news from his camp is that he’s deep into writing his next Sughrue novel, “The Right Madness.” It’s hard to say what’s driving him. Maybe he feels the dogs of mortality nipping at his heels, maybe he has decided to get the most out of his vast talent. Not that he has ever given the impression of someone burdened by regrets. He did, however, apologize the day he showed up 10 minutes late for a writers’ panel on which he was the cult hero.
“I lost my watch,” he said.
“Any idea where?” asked an unsuspecting straight man.
“Yeah,” Crumley said. “I threw it out a car window in El Paso in 1978.”
He really was the last of a breed. For 58 1/2 minutes in the NFL’s 1960 championship game, he held his ground in the middle of Philly’s Franklin Field, a force of nature determined to postpone the christening of the Green Bay Packers’ dynasty. “I didn’t run down on kickoffs, that’s all,” Bednarik says. The rest of that frosty Dec. 26, on both offense and defense, he played with the passion that crested when he wrestled Packer fullback Jim Taylor to the ground one last time and held him there until the final gun punctuated the Eagles’ 17-13 victory.
Philadelphia hasn’t ruled pro football in the 33 years since then, and pro football hasn’t produced a player with the combination of talent, hunger and opportunity to duplicate what Bednarik did. It is a far different game now, of course, its complexities seeming to increase exponentially every year, but the athletes playing it are so much bigger and faster than Bednarik and his contemporaries that surely someone with the ability to go both ways must dwell among them.
Two-sport athletes are something else again, physical marvels driven by boundless egos. Yet neither Bo Jackson nor Deion Sanders, for all their storied shuttling between football and baseball, ever played what Bednarik calls “the whole schmear.” And don’t try to make a case for Sanders by bringing up the turn he took at wide receiver last season. Bednarik has heard that kind of noise before.
“This writer in St. Louis calls me a few years back and starts talking about some guy out there, some wide receiver,” he says, making no attempt to hide his disdain for both the position and the player. “Yeah, Roy Green, that was his name. This writer’s talking about how the guy would catch passes and then go in on the Cardinals’ umbrella defense, and I tell him, ‘Don’t give me that b.s. You’ve got to play every down.’ “