"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
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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

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.


Dynamite Hack

Here’s the TV theme song of the night. Remember this short-lived Dabney Coleman vehicle? Played a sports writer? Wish they had it on DVD, man.

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