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.’”