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From Ali to Xena: 40

Brass Cannolis

By John Schulian 

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.

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From Ali to Xena: 22

Schulian vs. Israel, or Vice Versa

By John Schulian

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.

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From Ali to Xena: 17

Friends and Connections

By John Schulian

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.

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From Ali to Xena: 10


By John Schulian

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.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver