"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: hill street blues

From Ali to Xena: 35

The Show Must Go On

By John Schulian

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.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

From Ali to Xena: 33

The Deep End of the Pool

By John Schulian

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.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

[Swimming Pool Photograph by David Lee Guss]

From Ali to Xena: 32

 

The Great Escape

By John Schulian

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.

Steven Bochco

When I returned two weeks later, there was a letter from Bochco telling me he’d received my package and promising to read what I’d enclosed. He also warned me that a lot of journalists had tried to make the leap I was contemplating, and failed. But if I were still interested, he’d be glad to send me some “Hill Street” scripts to study. I wrote him back in a heartbeat: please send the scripts. Then I went on vacation for two weeks. I came home to find this letter, on Twentieth Century Fox stationery:

July 17, 1985

Dear John:

Herewith some HILL STREET scripts. I read about half your book so far. It’s wonderful. You’re a terrific writer, and if you can’t make the transition to film writing, I’d be very surprised. Not to mention disappointed. As soon as I get my next project (a series about, God help me, lawyers) perpendicular to the ground, I will send you what we’ve written and invite you to write a script. (For money, of course.)

If you have any questions, or just want to talk, call me. My office number is XXXXXXXXXX.

Best regards,
Steven Bochco

P.S. You also type great. I didn’t spot a single do-over in your letter.

Today, that letter, framed, hangs in my office at home. I’m still amazed by it and still everlastingly grateful for the lifeline it represented. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t guaranteed anything except a chance. A chance was all I was looking for. I would have to write in a different form and a different medium. I would have to navigate a world I knew nothing about. But at last I had something to hope for again. And I owed it to Steven Bochco, a man I’d never met.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver