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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.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

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.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

From Ali to Xena: 43

Wish for a Boxer, Get a Warrior Princess

By John Schulian

By the time I got to “Hercules,” I’d all but given up on the best idea I ever had for a TV series. There was a boxer at the heart of it, naturally, but there was more to his life than left hooks and roadwork. He was part of a family that embodied the yearnings and diminished dreams of blue-collar America. His old man worked in a tannery in Chicago and had a gambling problem. His mother was ready to walk out after holding things together for as long as she could. His sister was trying to distance herself from the quagmire at home after becoming the only member of the family to graduate from college. His kid brother was in and out of trouble with the law. And the fighter would come to know every up and down in the brutal sport that might or might not be his salvation. His name was Nick Pafko and I called his story “The Ring.” If there was anything I did in Hollywood that touched my soul, that made me feel the way I did when I wrote about Muhammad Ali or Josh Gibson or Pete Maravich, this was it.

I can even tell you where I was when inspiration struck in 1989: on Mulholland Drive, heading toward another day at “Wiseguy.” I called my agent of the moment, Elliot Webb, as soon as I got to my office in that pre-cellphone era. “This is your million-dollar idea,” he said. Unfortunately, nobody I tried to sell it to for the next five years agreed with him. The networks, infatuated by glitz and glamour, wanted no part of a drama about people with broken noses and callused hands. So I put it in a drawer and concentrated on a world as unreal as “The Ring” was real.

Toward the end of our initial 13-episode order for “Hercules,” just as I prepared to introduce a warrior princess named Xena to the show, I got a call from the latest in my procession of agents, Nancy Jones. She said the Fox Network was curious. I told her curious wasn’t enough, not when I spent every waking moment writing scripts with one hand and fending off Rob Tapert’s serial treachery with the other. Nancy turned on her best stern-mommy voice and said, “John, go pitch it.” So I did, and when Fox said no, I thought “The Ring” was done for good. But the network had a new president, a bookish gent named John Matoian, and something about it caught his attention when he sifted through the discard pile. The next thing I knew, I had a deal to write a pilot script for “The Ring.”

Ah, but I still had “Hercules” and the warrior princess to deal with, didn’t I? I told Tapert and my would-be staff that I was all theirs from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. After that, my door would be closed and I would be working on a long-shot script that might save me from cleaning out the Augean Stables they created daily. High-handed? You bet. But I knew “The Ring” might be my last best chance to do a serious drama, and I’d be damned if I would waste it for the sake a show I’d never imagined doing when I came to Hollywood. Besides, I had already worked out the story that would introduce Xena, and I had promised to write it as soon as I finished my pilot. Tapert, in a rare moment of grace, acquiesced.

I’m not sure I ever had a better time writing anything than I did “The Ring.” I was dealing with characters I could practically hear breathing, in a sport that clamped its gnarled hands around my heart the first time I walked into a gym full of broken dreams. And the amazing thing – the truly once-in-my-lifetime thing – was that Fox loved the script. I’m not talking about a version of it that had been tinkered with by well-meaning young know-nothings from the studio and network. I’m talking about the script as I delivered it on the Monday after Thanksgiving 1994. Somehow it had bypassed the usual gauntlet of prying eyes and half-baked ideas and landed on the desk of the head of the network himself. And John Matoian called it “impeccable” with me sitting there in his office. He said it was one of his two favorite scripts in that development season. He embraced it as much as someone in his position could, but not so much that he didn’t have two problems with it. He thought it was too bleak and – you guessed it – too blue collar.

So much for my euphoria. I didn’t know how to address either of his concerns. “The Ring” by its very nature had to be blue-collar–rich kids don’t take up prizefighting. As for being bleak, I didn’t understand that at all. “The Ring” was about a working-class kid chasing his dream, which seemed to me the polar opposite of bleak. I was optimistic enough to think the show might even send a message to kids like my fighter that it was all right to seek a better tomorrow.

But there was too much at stake for me not to try to bend the script to Matoian’s liking. I’d given the fighter a rich girlfriend in my original script, so I added a party scene where he met her mother, who disapproved of him instantly. I moved the location of a fight from the dowdy old Aragon Ballroom to the sparkling new United Center, too. I must have made other changes, too, but they are lost to time, just like “The Ring.”

It died before it could ever go in front of a camera, at the same time I was part of the team bringing Xena into the world and unknowingly establishing the only cash cow I’ve ever had. Some might call that a better than fair trade. If “The Ring” had been like most TV series, it might not have lasted six episodes. “Xena: Warrior Princess” ran for six seasons and spawned a cultural icon. But when I tote up my own scorecard, I find myself thinking I would rather have seen “The Ring” die of bad ratings than have had a moment’s success with Xena. No, I’m not giving back the money the old girl made me. I’m just saying it would have been nice to see if I really could have spent my last years in Hollywood doing work I was proud of instead of work that usually made me want to change the subject.

But I still have my memories of “The Ring” to console me, and sometimes someone else tells me they remember it, too. When I was making my last stand in TV on a show called “Tremors,” I ran into a guy who’d been a young executive at 20th Century Fox TV when “The Ring” had its moment in the sun. He pulled me aside after a meeting and said he’d been talking with the man who’d been his boss then, and that “The Ring” had come up. “We agreed it was the best pilot we never did,” he said. I suppose I could have gotten angry. Instead, I damn near wept.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

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