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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: 44

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Lucy Lawless

By John Schulian

Xena was TV’s foremost riot grrrl, an ass-kicker in a leather bustier who stirred up the Sisters of Sappho as easily as she did fraternity boys and long haul truckers. She possessed an outlaw quality that spoke to the origins of the series that bore her name. There would be no network development fandango for this bad girl. She stepped out of the ether of syndication and into the world’s consciousness, untouched by a process that is arbitrary, capricious, and skewed to reward writers and producers who have already had shows on the air. Not that I can argue with the major networks’ reliance on known quantities. Better a big hitter–Steven Bochco in my day, John Wells today – than a guy who got thrown off the hay truck about noon, the way I did.

If my math is correct, I wrote nine pilot scripts, and all I got for my trouble was a paycheck, never a pilot order, never a series commitment. “The Ring” was the only one that shook the peaches out of anybody’s tree. But it still didn’t get made, which put its up-from-nothing boxer protagonist right alongside the rest of my fevered creations. There was a gladiator and a high school basketball coach and an ex-L.A. newspaper columnist turned hard-boiled problem solver. I pitted a rehabilitated Long John Silver against modern-day pirates in the South China Sea and put a version of World War II in outer space because the young executives to whom I pitched the war itself appeared not to be aware of it. When I swung for the fences with an idea about America in 2024 after a revolt of the underclass, I was foiled when one of the executives figured out whom the bad guys were. “You’re talking about us,” she said.

It was the kind of response you can laugh about, but only after the pain subsides. I didn’t need TV’s development season to know about pain. I was working on “Hercules,” which I like to think as the predecessor to Abu Ghraib. And yet Xena sprang from it with a succession of miracles that amounted to one giant Percocet. The miracles started when Rob Tapert, the executive producer who doubled as my nemesis, and I came to a meeting of the minds on something. I wanted to write an episode about a woman who comes between Hercules and his sidekick, and Tapert, who loved “The Bride with White Hair” and all the other great Chinese action movies, wanted an episode about a ferocious (but comely) female warrior. Just like that, Hercules had a girl friend who wanted his head on a pike.

There was no second-guessing when we came up with such a character because “Hercules” wasn’t a network show. It was syndicated, which meant that if Universal was happy with what we did, we were good to go. No problem there. The studio executive overseeing the show was a puppy dog who was just happy to tag along after Tapert and Sam Raimi, and not bold enough to bark back when I barked at him.

So it was with an untroubled mind that I went to my office one Sunday afternoon, with nobody else around, certainly not Tapert, and noodled with names until I settled on Xena. I haven’t the slightest idea where it came from. I just knew the warrior princess’s name had to start with an X because X, as Tapert and I and every sentient fan of the genre will tell you, X is cool. Xena, meanwhile, remained a mystery until I walked into my dry cleaner’s when the show was a hit and the man behind the counter enlightened me. “Is Russian name,” he said.

What I eventually wrote wasn’t a pilot script in the traditional sense. It was a script for “Hercules,” and if the Xena character worked out, she would be spun off into her own series. She appeared in three episodes and was transformed from a bloodthirsty, Hercules-hating harridan to a good woman intent on making amends for all the harm she had done. It all seems so simple now – I wrote it, we shot it, the syndication salesman went out and sold “Xena: Warrior Princess” as a series – but we one more miracle to get past the biggest hurdle of all, finding an actress to play Xena. Our first choice couldn’t have been more wrong. Vanessa Angel was a delicate beauty you could have bruised with a hard look. Tapert sent her to take lessons in horseback riding, martial arts, and everything else he could think of to butch her up. But she was still cotton candy when she went off to spend the holidays in London. The plan was for her to fly back through L.A. on her way to New Zealand to shoot the first three “Hercules” episodes in 1995, the Xena trilogy. She never made it. The flu, she said when she called a day or two after Christmas, coughing and wheezing. Others attributed her backing out to what I’ll call the lovesick blues. Either way, we caught a break.

Of course we didn’t think so when we found ourselves without an actress to play Xena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, annually the deadest week in Hollywood. Tapert and Raimi worked the phones relentlessly, calling every amply endowed actress who had ever paraded in front of them, and, brother, they knew hundreds, maybe thousands. They talked to redheads, blondes and brunettes, country girls and city hoochies, Asians, Latinas, and African-Americans, and they struck out every time. And then a young assistant producer named David Eick said the magic words: “What about Lucy Lawless?”

There was much hemming and hawing at first, even by Tapert, which must have inspired some interesting conversations when he was convincing Lucy to marry him. But everybody had definitely noticed her when she had acted in the Hercules movies and a series episode. Better yet, she was massively available when Tapert tracked her down. My memory tells me she was panning for gold in Australia with her first husband, and if that’s not the truth, I don’t want to know what is. I like the idea of Lucy being an earthy babe.

If she hadn’t been one on screen, too, our gooses would have been cooked. There was nothing to do but offer up prayers to the fickle gods of show business, the ones who rarely give with both hands, and wait for the first day’s dailies to arrive. I watched them in my office, alone. There was Lucy looking great on a horse and even better when she jumped off it to swing a sword the size of Vanessa Angel and kick the stuffing out of a gang of marauding thugs. I called David Eick instantly.

“She’s Xena,” I said.

Miracles do happen.

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