[Photgraph by Amy Fichter]
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Lucy Lawless
By John Schulian
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.
Hard Labor, Hollywood Style
By John Schulian
Where to start with the wonders of “Hercules”? With the writers who couldn’t or wouldn’t write? With the terrified, unqualified directors who spent more time tossing their cookies than they did directing? With the executive producer who would have stabbed me in the back even if I had gone deep-sea fishing with him? With the star who thought he was the next Harrison Ford when he should have been thanking Jah or Allah or whatever deity it is that looks out for big lugs who show up at the right place at the right time?
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.
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.
If the Phone Doesn’t Ring
By John Schulian
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.