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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