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From Ali to Xena: 46

Hercules Unchained

By John Schulian

While “Xena” began to kick out residual checks, I plunged back into the hellhole that was “Hercules.” My foremost problem was finding road-tested veterans and bright young writers to take a shot at a freelance script. They wrinkled their noses at the thought. A syndicated show? A cartoon with human beings? Better they should starve and wait for “NYPD Blue” to call.

The glossiest freelancer we got in my tenure was Melissa Rosenberg, who now writes the “Twilight” movies and delivered a splendid script. Most of the time, however, I was dealing with freelancers who couldn’t write or were connected to someone whose ass Rob Tapert was kissing. I remember telling the worst of them that there were only two words in his script I ever wanted to see again, and then taking a call from his network executive wife, who told me she thought he’d really knocked the assignment out of the park.

Things started to turn when I brought in Bob Bielak, whose credits included “Tour of Duty” and “In the Heat of the Night,” to freelance three scripts at the end of the first season. He came through in a big way, which convinced Tapert to give the gate to our season one writing staff, the useless Brit and the petulant kids. So it was that Bielak and I marched into the second season as the smallest staff in television. Reinforcements never showed up.

I wish I’d had the brains and courage to give assignments to the lean and hungry newcomers Tapert and Sam Raimi had lured into non-writing jobs with their horror-movie cred. God knows the kids have gone on to do great things. David Eick was one of the masterminds on “Battlestar Galactica.” Liz Friedman, who worked herself into an ulcer on “Hercules” and “Xena,” survived to become a highly regarded writer-producer on “House.” And then there was Alex Kurtzman, who was a go-fer the last season I worked on “Hercules,” a great kid who, like Eick, was always asking questions about writing. He and his partner, Roberto Orci, now write zillion-dollar action movies like “Transformers” and they’ve got a hit TV series too, “Fringes.” Liz wound up writing for “Xena” and Alex and Bob were the last to run the “Hercules” writing staff, but I was gone by then, done in by the ceaseless in-house battles that left me increasingly surly.

The lone moment of grace I can recall from that period occurred as I was driving to work on Ventura Boulevard. I pulled up next to a city bus that was stopped for a light, and there on its side was a large print ad for “Hercules” and another for “Xena.” They were my babies, just like they were Rob Tapert’s and Lucy Lawless’s and Kevin Sorbo’s. I’m not sure I ever felt prouder of those shows than I did then.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in the soup, dealing with directors who promised to do one thing when I met them at Universal and went native once they got to New Zealand. Tapert was no use whatsoever in reining them in. The actors were running amok, too, especially Hercules himself. Sorbo was jealous of Lucy’s instant success as Xena, and he wanted us to change the tone of “Hercules,” make it darker, quirkier, more violent, the way “Xena” was. Apparently wiping out a horde of mercenaries in loincloths wasn’t enough for him.

Sorbo thought he was going to be the next Harrison Ford, when it was a far safer bet that in 10 years he’d be the answer to a trivia question. But that is not to say that I didn’t appreciate what he did for the show. He was the perfect Hercules, as far as I was concerned, and I told anyone who would listen that very thing. But insecurity runs through actors like a fever, and Sorbo had it bad. I left cooling him out to Tapert, who never seemed to want me to have any kind of relationship with our star. That was fine with me. I had words to put on paper. But then Sorbo tried to make more of himself by running down the quality of the scripts in an interview with Newsday. Believe me, I knew they weren’t going to make anyone forget Shakespeare or Sam Peckinpah, but they were as good as you were going to find on a syndicated action show. When I wrote a letter to tell Sorbo as much, I challenged him to be a pro and do his job. If he didn’t want to do that, he could go to Tapert and Raimi and get me fired. And if that still wasn’t good enough for him, we could go out in the parking lot the next time he was in the States and he could try to kick my ass.

Sorbo was on the phone minutes after my assistant faxed him the letter. He said he’d been misquoted. Bullshit. You don’t give an excuse like that to someone who was in newspapers for 16 years. Then he said he didn’t want to fight. And he certainly wasn’t going to get me fired. Oh, no, Kevin Sorbo swore, he wasn’t that kind of a guy. Of course, all I heard after that was how Sorbo’s agent was saying he wouldn’t sign a new contact unless I was gone.

It took him six months, maybe more, but he got me. After 48 episodes of “Hercules,” 15 of which I wrote and another 25 or so that I re-wrote, I packed my bags and headed for the door. Tapert, after all the betrayals and backstabbing, told me it was the worst day in the life of the series. But had he stood up to Sorbo and his agent? No. Had he gone to the Universal brass and said I deserved a deal that would give me an office and a steady paycheck while I spent a year or two writing pilots? No. Had my agent advanced that argument, when such a deal was standard for someone who had delivered the goods the way I had? No. I’d helped put Universal in a position to make millions upon millions of dollars, but there were none of the traditional parting gifts for me.

Years later, David Eick told me how he and Liz Friedman had looked at each other after I’d been gone long enough for them to get a handle on what had happened. “We said, ‘John really got screwed.’”


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From Ali to Xena: 45

The Original Creator

By John Schulian

No matter how well Kevin Sorbo played Hercules, rarely giving off sparks but always earnestly Midwestern, he could only gape along with the rest of us as Lucy Lawless’ Xena rocketed past him in the pop culture sweepstakes. Once the warrior princess was spun off into a series of her own, we found ourselves with a star who had something for everybody. She gave little girls an assertive role model, guys a finer appreciation of leather bustiers, and lesbians someone to drool over. On the New York Post’s Page Six, if there was a story about lesbian doings, the headline was likely to refer to “The Xena Crowd.” How was a big galoot from Minnesota supposed to compete with that?

Sorbo sulked, no doubt remembering the days when “Hercules’s” ratings in New York were so good that streetwalkers must have been watching between assignations. Lucy, to whom the Xena experience must have felt like a dream, never stopped laughing about her good fortune. She showed up expecting nothing more than a paycheck for the 13 episodes she was guaranteed on “Xena,” and she got six seasons of stardom and increasingly fat paychecks that, when you got right down to it, were completely attributable to her.

Much as I hate to say it, forget the scripts I wrote to launch Xena as a character. Forget the hole in the ozone layer that gave our New Zealand locations the golden glow that was so perfect for “Xena” as well as “Hercules.” Forget the other actors, writers, producers, and directors. Forget the kind hearts and gentle people who took care of the special effects and costumes and music and everything else that went into making the series. They were all wonderful, but they never – no, never – would have had a chance to be if it weren’t for Lucy.

She inhabited Xena. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, strapping, and athletic. It was that there was always something going on in her startling blue eyes. They suggested wit and intelligence that went far beyond her station as the world’s reigning female TV action star. This entire exercise was more than a testament to outrageous good fortune. It was a colossal cosmic joke, and Lucy got it, as only the truly smart ones do. She embraced the experience without letting it change her into a monster. She took the work seriously, only rarely herself. She could be counted on to apologize to the stuntmen she regularly clocked by accident. (Oh, the stitches.) She read books that had nothing to do with show business and relished good conversation. Best of all, she maintained her sense of perspective. True, she ended up marrying my sparring partner, Rob Tapert, but who am I to question what the heart dictates? All I know is that the lady was a champ.

For a while, Tapert talked about having me run the writing staffs of both “Xena” and “Hercules,” which probably would have put us both in an early grave. If I’d been better at reading tealeaves, I would have volunteered to go with the warrior princess. But “Xena” had yet to prove itself while “Hercules” had a solid track record, so I stuck with what I thought was a sure thing. Big mistake for me, but a good break for “Xena.” To serve as the show’s head writer, Tapert hired R.J. Stewart, who had been around the block in movies and TV and possessed a more flexible imagination and a less combustible personality than yours truly. R.J. and Tapert combined to give the show a darker sensibility than “Hercules” without robbing it of its in inherent fun. All I did for the rest of its run was cash residual checks.

If there was anything I didn’t like about “Xena,” it was sharing the Created By credit with Tapert. He hadn’t been with me in the room when I came up with Xena’s name or wrote the first script or laid the foundation for the kickass babe who would become one of TV Guide’s 50 most memorable characters. But he thought that since he had suggested a female warrior, he was entitled to share the credit. As things stood, he was going to make a pile of money for executive producing the show if it succeeded, but he was greedy enough to want to snatch some of my money, too. It’s a Hollywood tradition.

I could feel a shudder run through the Tapert-Sam Raimi camp when I decided to stick up for myself instead of rolling over and playing dead. By now I didn’t give a damn for either of them or for my job security, so what did I have to lose? We went to arbitration with the Writers Guild of America and I received sole credit as “Xena’s” creator. But wait – there was a glitch in the voting process, something the Guild thought swayed the panelists’ opinion in my favor. So we had to go through the arbitration process again. When I walked into the lobby after telling my side of the story to the second panel, there was Tapert with a stack of papers under his arm and a lawyer at his side. I’ve often wondered what those papers contained and if he told the panel they contained my marching orders for the first Xena script. I received no such orders, of course, and if Tapert said I did, the panel never called me to ask about them. All I heard was that it had decreed that Tapert and I would share the Created By credit, 60 percent for me, 40 for him. There would be no third arbitration. I know. I asked.

When the final episode of “Xena” aired, Tapert and Lucy threw a party at their San Fernando Valley home and I got a last-minute invitation. It was the first time I’d been invited to anything involving the show. I think I made Tapert nervous, if you can imagine that. Anyway, I went and the evening was lovely and the people were, too. I hadn’t met a great many of them, and at least once, when Lucy was introducing me to someone, she said, “This is John Schulian -– he’s the original creator of the show.” I wish I’d brought her in to tell it to the Writers Guild.

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From Ali to Xena: 41

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.

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--Earl Weaver