Rest in Peace, Frank Pierson.
“At each level you reach, you have to tear up what you have done before, which cost an enormous amount of psychological and emotional energy. That makes the process of screenwriting very, very difficult. And I don’t know any screenplay that I have ever worked on where I did not go through ten to twelve or sometimes sixteen drafts before I showed it to anybody.”
[Quote via The Poor Dancing Girl She Won't Dance Again]
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.
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.
My father was an incorrigible name dropper. He called famous actors and directors by their first names, suggesting an intimacy that didn’t always exist. He had met a lot of celebrities when he worked as a unit production manager on The Tonight Show. One chance encounter with Richard Pryor and he was “Richie” forever. Dad reached the heights of chutzpah when he went to the theater with a friend one night and spotted the actress Gwen Verdon. He walked down to her, introduced himself, and kissed her on the cheek as if they’d known each other for years. Ms. Verdon was delighted. Dad’s friend was amazed.
I remember watching “12 Angry Men” with the old man when I was a kid. “It’s almost as good as the original,” he said, referring to the TV production. “You see how exciting a movie can be even if it takes place in one room?”
I was captivated and by the end, I felt intelligent, finally on the right side of the line that separates boys and men. It was directed by “Sidney,” Sidney Lumet. They had crossed paths once; Dad had wanted to turn “Fail Safe” into a movie, a project that Lumet eventually directed. The old man admired Lumet not just because he was a fellow New Yorker but also because they shared a similar aesthetic, a love of the theater and actors. Dad was an avid theatergoer starting in his early teens through his mid thirties when he became an independent documentary producer. He revered Lumet’s quick and efficient approach to shooting a movie.
“Sidney always comes in under budget and has it in his contract that he keeps the difference,” he told me, raising his eyebrows. “Now, that is a smart man.”
Not long after my mother kicked him out, Dad saw “The Verdict” and raved about the performance Lumet got out of Paul Newman as a lawyer who became an alcoholic when he got screwed over, then sobered up when the chance for redemption arose. His clients got justice, he got back his self-respect, and I got squat because I was 11 and Dad said that was too young to watch the movie. The closest I got was the commercials on TV. Everything looked dark brown, courtrooms and bars alike, and Newman seemed so frail I didn’t even notice his famous blue eyes.
Dad holed up on his own in Weehawken, across the Hudson, after his next girlfriend gave him the boot as well. There were two things that he liked about New Jersey: the view of New York City from his bedroom window, and that the liquor store down the block opened before noon on Sundays.
I remember visiting him without my brother or sister one time in January 1983, shortly after “The Verdict” came out. It was a late Saturday afternoon, almost dark, and the sun reflected off the tall buildings overlooking 12th Avenue. The old man was lying on his bed in his underwear and t-shirt smoking a Pall Mall. The heating pipes clanged. The windows were sealed shut around the edges by duct tape but still rattled when it got windy. A glass of vodka sat next to the ashtray on his night table. I used to fantasize about emptying his Smirnoff bottle in the kitchen sink and filling it back up with water. But I never had the nerve.
Most of the time he’d make me entertain myself on the other side of the apartment, in the room without a view of the city. He didn’t want me reading comic books but I did anyway. Or I’d trace the movie ads from the Sunday paper. “The Verdict” was nominated for five Oscars including best actor and best picture. The movie ad showed Newman in a rumpled white shirt, tie loosened, his eyes half closed looking down. The light from a window washed over his face. He looked defeated. The text above read: “Frank Galvin Has One Last Chance at a Big Case.” I traced the movie poster and then drew it freehand. I felt the seriousness of the title “The Verdict.” I didn’t know what that term meant and didn’t ask.
Now I was content to sit next to Dad on his bed and look out the window at the orange light bouncing off the New York skyline. The view reminded us of how far we were from where we wanted to be.
There was a small black-and-white TV on the chest at the foot of the bed. An episode of M*A*S*H, the old man’s favorite show, ended. The familiar and mournful theme song, “Suicide is Painless” filled the room. Dad was talking about his girlfriend. He didn’t seem too bothered by their breakup. Leaving Manhattan was the bigger issue. With Mom, he was devastated. He still believed she was foolish to divorce him and was convinced that one day she’d come to her senses and have him back
Soon enough Dad returned to the subject of Sidney because Lumet directed the Saturday Afternoon Movie. “He always comes in under budget, do you know why? Because Sidney is not stupid, that’s why.”
“Dog Day Afternoon” was on TV: an Al Pacino movie for grown-ups, but Dad let me watch it with him anyway. Maybe the vodka he was drinking softened his resolve. I knew enough not to question why. Pacino—Dad called him “Al”—played Sonny, a little guy who robbed a bank in Brooklyn. The movie was about what happened in the inside of the bank with Sonny and the hostages. It was tense but parts were funny and I laughed when Dad laughed.
During a commercial break, I saw that his eyes were closed. I studied him. His stomach inflated and deflated in short, hard spurts. Dad was forty-five, almost six years removed from a heart attack, and his deep, uneven breathing worried me. He flexed his right foot and his big toe cracked so I knew he wasn’t asleep. Maybe he was meditating. He opened his eyes and smiled at me, put his hand over mine and looked back at the TV. When he took it away, it was to reach for another cigarette. I stared at the movie until I heard him start to snore. So I slipped out of bed, moving like a cat on the branch of a tree, and butted out his cigarette in the ashtray sitting on a table covered with burn marks. Then I climbed back into bed, careful not to rouse him. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the old man. He didn’t have a job and wasn’t in show business anymore. If only he would quit drinking.
I checked to see the progress of the light on the skyscrapers during the commercials. The orange glow began to fade as the sun set, turning softer, then pink as the sky darkened to a purplish blue. I thought of what Dad said when Channel Five ran the same public service announcement every night: “It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” He’d say, “No, I don’t know where they are. I know they are not with me and that makes me very sad.” He told me so himself.
In “Dog Day Afternoon,” things were only getting worse for Al. It was nighttime in Brooklyn in the middle of summer and the air conditioning in the bank was turned off. The cops brought his boyfriend, Leon, to speak with him on the phone. Al was robbing the bank so he could afford a sex-change operation for the guy. That made sense to me. It was the right thing to do.
At last, the cops agreed to give him an airplane to escape. I imagined what the inside of the plane looked like and where they were going to go. But when they got to the airport, the FBI nailed him, the hostages were freed, and the movie was over.
I put my hands behind my head, lay back and looked at a water stain on the ceiling. I thought about Al, pushed onto the hood of the car at the airport, the loud sounds of planes taking off and landing in the background. His eyes looked like they were going to bug out of his head and he was on his way to jail which didn’t seem fair even though he was a criminal. Then I imagined Paul Newman. I was happy the old man had let me be a grown-up with him for a little while.
The white lights of Manhattan were twinkling on the other side of the Hudson when he woke up and refreshed his drink. I didn’t want to say anything stupid so I kept my mouth shut. Another cigarette smoldered in the ashtray. He picked up the New York Times crossword puzzle and said, “Good old Sidney. He never left New York.”
In all the tributes over this past week to Sidney Lumet, many have cited Lumet’s strong track record of guiding his actors to exceptional, even iconic performances. While Al Pacino’s work in Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” may be the most famous examples of this, I don’t think any of Lumet’s lead actors was ever better than Paul Newman as a down and out alcoholic Boston lawyer in “The Verdict.”
“The Verdict’s” success is due to the remarkable collaboration between Lumet, Newman and David Mamet, who wrote the script. Mamet’s screenplay takes what could have been either a run of the mill redemption story or courtroom drama and finds those keen details that Lumet and his cast bring to life brilliantly. There are those little moments, like Frank Galvin (Newman) sipping his shot of whiskey off of the bar, too shaky to dare risk raising it to his lips that make the bigger ones, like his argument in chambers with a corrupt judge (Milo O’Shea), or his stunning summation really pay off.
Newman doesn’t just play a drunk; he captures a drunk’s self-loathing, his fear, his shame and ultimately, the slow rekindling of his pride and the attendant panic that it may be too late. The supporting cast around Newman, including Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, Edward Binns, and particularly the great James Mason performs at the same high level.
Looking at the summation speech, I was struck by Lumet’s quiet but incredibly effective technique. The scene is one, long interrupted take. The camera holds the wide shot for a full two minutes, only moving when Newman approaches the jury box. Then slowly, it moves in on Newman, as his speech draws us in deeper, as if we are the jurors. Lumet’s decision to use one long take allows Newman to build up slowly, to really let Mamet’s words create the true force of their meaning. He finishes, and slumps back into his seat. We can sense the physical and emotional exhaustion of both the character and the actor.
Lumet, Newman and Mamet were all nominated for Academy Awards for “The Verdict.” None of them won.