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Tag: l.A. Law

From Ali to Xena: 48

The Circle Home

By John Schulian

I went from vanishing to vanished in the speed it took me to drive away from Universal for the last time. There was no talk of an opening on another writing staff, no phone call from my worthless agent to buck up my spirits. The truth was, my spirits didn’t need bucking up. I’d done what I’d set out to do. I’d worked in Hollywood and lived to tell the tale. I’d been part of the game, and now I wasn’t. That was fine with me. Hollywood never defined my life. Maybe that’s why there are days now when it feels like it never happened.

And yet it was a thrill each time I drove onto a studio lot. It didn’t matter which one – 20th, Warners, Paramount, Universal, old MGM – because miracles were the coin of the realm in them all. The real world was something that wasn’t supposed to get past the guards at the gate. They stood between the public and the buildings named for Jerry Lewis, Clara Bow, and Abbott and Costello where I tried to navigate a business that can make you Malibu royalty or leave you like driftwood on the beach.

At lunch one day in the Universal commissary, I saw Paul Newman get a big hug from Lew Wasserman, who was then the most powerful man in show business. I scribbled dialogue on a legal pad or typed it on a computer screen and watched actors use it to give life to characters who sprang from my imagination. I embraced the silliness when an assistant producer on “Hercules” told me why she couldn’t get an actress’s breasts to stay submerged in a milk bath and keep the censors off our back: too much silicone. Most of all, I’ll never forget the kindness of two actors on “L.A. Law,” Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, who sought me out to say thanks for the script I’d written. I blush at the fact that I didn’t tell them it was Steven Bochco they should be thanking, but maybe they already knew that. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even with the rough patches I hit, I wouldn’t give back a minute I spent in Hollywood.

I loved the work when it was just me and a piece of paper. As for the rest of it, I wavered between ambivalence and outright hatred. But I could never hate it for long because I didn’t know when luck might start breaking good for me again. Even now, eight years after from my last TV job, I’ve got an idea for a screenplay rattling around inside my head. A friend with big screen credits planted it there after he read a short story of mine and saw the makings of a movie. I’ve made notes on it, toyed with how to structure it for the screen, come up with dialogue while I’ve been out on my daily walk. I’ve also put it away, but always with the caveat that I can take it out again. That’s how the business works for most of us: once seduced, always seduced.

But let me not get carried away by dreams and nostalgia. I’m no longer part of the show-biz whirl with its non-stop talk about movies and TV pilots I’ve got to see, actors and writers and directors I’ve got to be aware of, and salaries that will make my head explode. When I’m around friends who are still in the game, it takes me half the night to get up to speed and the other half to forget what I’ve heard. There are too many names I don’t recognize or need to remember. And if there are any executives who remember me, they would probably just say, “Oh, yeah, the sports writer,” and move on to the next subject.

By the time I arrived in Hollywood, I had downgraded sports writer to the pejorative. It was a label that stuck to me like gum to the sole of my shoe and I resented it. I was sick to death of games and athletes and the words I lavished on them. But no sooner did I leave the Philadelphia Daily News than Sport magazine asked me to assay Sugar Ray Robinson for its 40th anniversary issue. Never mind that I’d not been closer to him than a TV screen. I wrote the piece. When I went to buy the magazine, convinced that it contained my unofficial farewell to sportswriting, I could hear practically hear a booming old-fashioned score in the background, something by Dimitri Tiomkin or Max Steiner or one of those Newmans who are related to Randy. Show business had such a hold on my brain that it wasn’t until years later I understood that the true significance of my ode to Sugar Ray. It stood as proof that part of me would always belong to sportswriting.

In 1988, when a screenwriters’ strike lasted five months, I wrote a spec screenplay that eventually ended up at the right studio at the wrong time, but I also wrote an essay for GQ about how the American male gets his first lessons in personal style from athletes. In 1992, when I came off my first unhappy year in TV, I regained my balance by doing a bonus piece for Sports Illustrated about L.A. when it was a minor league baseball town and an essay for the L.A. Times Book Review about my two favorite boxing novels, “Fat City” and “The Professional.”

Strange how I was taking refuge in something that just a few years before felt like a noose around my neck. And it felt as if I were writing better than I ever had. I don’t know how much, if any, of that I can attribute to my work for the screen, but I certainly felt more confident and more comfortable with the language. Maybe screenwriting–and the myriad smart people who did it for a living–opened my mind to ideas that enriched my prose. Just as important, I was no longer too good to rewrite something, and not just once either. What I once would have turned in as a finished product was now being constantly rewritten, tinkered with, and buffed to a shine until I had to turn it in or miss my deadline. That would have been unthinkable with a four-times-a-week sports column. In any case, it was a joy to be writing for magazines and the occasional newspaper again. Even when I was up to my ears in alligators on “Hercules,” I would write 1,000-word GQ essays not just on sports but on my favorite guitar shop, the joy of greasy-spoon dining, and why white-collar criminals deserve the death penalty. Never once did those pieces feel like work. They were a tonic. You might even call them a salvation, just as TV was a salvation when I bogged down as a sports columnist.

In the lulls that grew longer and longer as I neared the end in Hollywood, I wrote for old friends at SI, GQ, and msnbc.com and new ones at the Oxford American magazine and the New York York Times. Yes, finally the Times – but I arrived in its pages not as Red Smith’s successor but as the author of a piece about a reclusive country singer named Willis Alan Ramsey. Vic Ziegel, whose death last year left a hole in a lot of lives, thought that was hilarious. “A shitkicker?” he scribbled on a postcard.

It was guys like Vic, Bill Nack, Tom Boswell, and Dave Kindred who over the years made certain I didn’t forget the ballparks and boxing halls where I’d battled deadlines, the all-night diners where I’d eaten too much too late, and the friendships without expiration dates. I heard from John Ed Bradley once in a while via a predictably courtly hand-written note, and talked on the phone with Peter Richmond, and had dinner with Leigh Montville when he was in L.A. I wondered if Charlie Pierce was ever going to come this way again and provided lodging for Mark Kram Jr., Phil Hersh, and my favorite editors at SI, Rob Fleder and Chris Hunt. And always there were the old sportswriting friends who had become L.A. guys, too – Mike Downey, Randy Harvey, Ron Rapoport. They were conduits to my past, the lot of them, and to my future, too.

Oscar Charleston painting by Michael Hogue

In Hollywood I rarely thought beyond my next job. But when there were no more jobs for me, it seemed only natural to write a piece for SI about Oscar Charleston, the black Ty Cobb, and to begin putting together a collection of my baseball writing called “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” No trumpets blared, no one hailed my return, and that was as it should have been. The days of need I’d experienced as a columnist – the need for acclaim, money, and a chunk of space in the paper to call my own – were gone. I was seeking something different now, a chance to recapture the joy I’d felt when I was a kid alone in my room, listening to Little Richard on the radio as I wrote for an imaginary newspaper or sketched scenes for a movie that would never move beyond a wish. I couldn’t recapture such innocence, of course, but that kid still lived inside me just the same. I counted down from three and stepped into the wind.

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From Ali to Xena: 37

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.

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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.

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From Ali to Xena: 34

A Message From Mr. Bochco

By John Schulian

In the midst of the terror that paralyzed me in my first Hollywood story meeting, I heard a voice from my newspaper days tell me to do what I’d always done when other people were talking: take notes. So I madly started scribbling down everything Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher were saying. And I kept scribbling until the day was done (thank God) and the story was broken (no thanks to me).

The story would become a script called “Gibbon Take.” It was about, among other things, a trust for the poor people of Beverly Hills. Steven sent me off to write the beat sheet for it, so we could see how the story looked on paper and where it needed shoring up. A beat sheet is a scene-by-scene outline that serves as the foundation for a script and a safeguard if a writer (me, for instance) makes a hash of said script. In the movie business, it’s known as a step outline, but movies take forever to make and writers come and go, leaving step outlines trampled and forgotten. But in TV, where the pace is furious-–a new episode is shot every seven or eight days-–a beat sheet is a rock to cling to.

On my way out the door that day, with my head still spinning, Steven’s assistant asked me the magic question: “John, where would you like us to send your check?” I hadn’t done anything to earn it yet, but I’ve never been one to turn down an offer of money, so I gave her my address in Philly and hurried off before she learned the awful truth about me.

I was staying at the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard–the fabled rock-and-roll Riot House from the 60s-–and I spent the next day or two arranging and rearranging the order of scenes, looking for coherent act breaks, and basically taking baby steps as a TV writer. I worked on the same Olivetti portable typewriter that I’d hauled around the country as a sports columnist.

Steven would make changes in what I concocted, but still what I handed him wasn’t so bad that he banished me back from the premises. Instead, he gave me a big smile, wrapped an arm around my shoulder and asked, “You all right?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you looked like a horse in a burning barn the other day.”

Then we sat down to do some more work on the story. He wanted to get me writing as soon as he could, just as he had the other two untested TV writers he was taking a flier on. One was a woman whose name I forget. The other was a young lawyer from Boston named David Kelley. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Created “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Picket Fences,” to name but a few series. Wrote almost every episode himself (to the amazement of even the most prolific and best writers in the business). Won every kind of award they hand out. Married Michelle Pfeiffer. All that and he was a good guy, a certified Boston sports nut who kept asking me what his favorite ballplayers were really like. I told him they were all princes. I was in no position to disillusion anybody.

Anyway, Steven wanted to find out about me as a writer as fast as he could. The woman he’d taken a chance on had just delivered her script, and it was a disaster. If I turned out to be just as bad, he wanted to send me packing as quickly so he and Terry Fisher could do a salvage job.

This wasn’t anything he told me, of course, but I could see it written on his face just as he had seen the fear written on mine. Inspired by our mutual discomfort, I made a proposal: what if I wrote five or six scenes from my beat sheet as a test run? If he liked them, I would finish the script. If he didn’t, I’d go back to sportswriting and we would part as friends. It didn’t take any convincing for him to say yes.

By now I was staying at Mike Downey’s apartment in Marina del Ray while he was on the road for the L.A. Times. Just me and my Olivetti as I tried to bring those great Bochco-esque characters to life. If I had any gift at all for what I was attempting, it was that I was a decent mimic. Steven’s characters spoke with such specific voices that I could imitate them without embarrassing myself. So I wrote and re-wrote each scene, polishing them until they had as much shine on them as I could muster. Then, on a Friday afternoon, I stopped by Fox and handed them to Steven. He said he’d read them and get back to me as fast as he could. Both of us were nervous, though for far different reasons.

I spent most of the next day wandering around and didn’t get back to Downey’s apartment until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The message light on the phone was blinking. It was Steven, with a verdict: “I don’t know what you’re doing hanging around with sports writers, kid. You’re in show business.”

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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.

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[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.

From Ali to Xena

John Schulian is one of our most gifted storytellers and a wordsmith who has been compared to Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. He came of age as a newspaper reporter and sports columnist in the 1970s, part of a generation of young turks that featured the likes of David Israel, Leigh Montville, Mike Lupica, Jane Leavy, Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell. Then he left sports behind and went to Hollywood where he wrote for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “JAG,” and numerous other series–including “Slap Maxwell,” the short-lived Dabney Coleman show about a sportswriting hack. He was also the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Before, during and after his foray into show business, Schulian wrote long-form articles for Sports Illustrated and GQ. His work has been collected in “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,” “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and the forthcoming “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian has been featured in “The Best American Sports Writing,” and, on ten occasions, the old “Best Sports Stories” series. He also edited “The John Lardner Reader” and co-edited (with George Kimball) “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.”

Last fall I sat down with John to talk about his career and what came out was more than just an interview but an oral history of the newspaper business, of the sporting scene and of Hollywood.  So I am proud to present John’s story, in his own words, “From Ali to Xena,” which will be posted in column-like segments twice a week.

You are in for a treat.

–Alex Belth


From Ali to Xena

By John Schulian



Good things have happened to me all my life, whether I deserved them or not, and “At The Fights”is the latest of them. When George Kimball and I started working together, we had nothing more in mind than a modest book of stories by writers who had won awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. The way we looked at it, no sport has inspired more wonderful prose than the Sweet Science. But for every great piece we found, there was another one that even a generous critic would have had a difficult time calling mediocre. I won’t say we were ready to give up, but the bloom definitely was off the rose.

Then, out of nowhere, George’s literary agent, Farley Chase, called and said the Library of America was interested in having us edit an anthology of great boxing writing. “The same Library of America that does Twain and Poe and Raymond Chandler?” we said. “That’s the one,” Farley said. So we wrote a proposal and talked to LOA’s big cheeses and lobbied like a couple of Tammany Hall politicians. And we got the gig.

It turned out to be an incredible amount of work that was definitely pleasurable. You don’t have to ask me twice to read Heywood Broun, W.C. Heinz, and Carlo Rotella, and I know George feels the same. But there was also more than a little pain in the process because we didn’t have room to include all the pieces we love and all the writers we admire. The book we wound up with, though, is one we believe in wholeheartedly. “At the Fights” reflects both our personal tastes and the importance of boxing in American nonfiction. Just think of the big names whose work we’ve showcased: Mailer, London, Baldwin, Schulberg, Plimpton. Maybe George expected to be to sit in judgment of them at some point in his career, but it’s a complete surprise to me.

Honestly, I never expected any of what has happened to me over the last four decades. Not the big-city sports column or the magazine work or the books, not Hollywood and the modest success I had in TV, not the fascinating projects that still fall in my lap as I enter my golden years. Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but dreaming is far different than expecting. There were guys I met on newspapers who fairly radiated their expectation of success and became wet-behind-the-ears sensations. I, on the other hand, moved at a far slower pace, forever unsure of what lay in store for me.

I don’t mean to be disingenuous. That’s just a natural fact. I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist, but I thought I might just as easily wind up as a copy editor. (I can hear the copy editors I worked with saying, “You never could have cut it.”) If I saw myself doing anything, it was bouncing around to a lot of different newspapers — but not papers in glamorous cities and not papers with glowing national reputations. I was thinking more along the lines of Toledo for a couple of years, then maybe see what was available in Portland or Albuquerque. The only thing I was sure of was that I had a shot at an interesting life.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver