The Money Trap
By John Schulian
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.