February 1, 2018 – The file drawer is chock full of dead TV and feature scripts, which is why I refer to it as “the morgue.” While most of these generated income during the development and writing process, they are now virtually worthless. Still, I just can’t seem to part with my dearly departed babies, even knowing that I’ll never disturb their slumber. The closest I’ve come to trying to resurrect any of them is a reference in my novel, City of Whores, to a pilot called Walking Trouble being developed by one of the characters. Walking Trouble was, in fact, my very first pilot, written in the early ’90s under a deal with Columbia-TriStar Television for ABC about a busybody named Tally who moves back in with her flamboyant former actress mother Sadiebeth in a Los Angeles neighborhood in decline. In the book, my fictional aging movie star Lillian Sinclair is attached to play the zany mom. In reality, Anne Bancroft read the script and wanted the role–but that wasn’t enough to get it made. I still marvel at that particular “what might have been.” That said, I’m well aware that by today’s market standards, the script is woefully dated and quaint.
The year Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery was all the rage, every network was developing their own TV version. Mine was called Driving Me Crazy and centered on a bored housewife desperate to help her private investigator husband solve his cases. In other words, Lucy wants to be a detective until ABC agreed with her husband that she shouldn’t. Can’t say as I blame them. The word I’d use to describe the script today would be “cute.”
And then there was a pilot called Stuff Happens which I sold to Fox as an hour long family dramedy about divorcing parents as seen through the eyes of their snarky 13-year-old son. You know, a mashup of The Wonder Years and Kramer vs. Kramer. The gimmick in the first draft was that the kid was addicted to watching old TV shows on Nickelodeon–in fact, used it as his escape from his warring parents and evil identical twin big sisters. At key moments in the story, he would have daydreams wherein he reinterpreted real family events as they might have been portrayed on any number of classic TV shows like The Brady Bunch or Family Affair or Gilligan’s Island. I was pretty pleased with the script that I handed into the network, and the network suits at Fox seemed pleased, too. The meeting began with me clicking my pen to write on my clean copy of Stuff Happens just as the head suit said, “You’ve probably noticed that none of us have a copy of your script with us.” I hadn’t, but confirmed this truth by a quick glance around the room. Uh-oh. “That’s because we don’t really have any notes for you. It’s a beautifully written piece, and the characters are so funny and real.” Naturally, I sensed a colossal “but” lurking just beneath the surface. And when it finally burst through gasping to be heard, well, let me just say it was doozy.
“We just feel like it’s missing that one thing… that one element that would Foxify it for our network.”
Here, I’m pretty sure I blinked and tried not to laugh. The guy had actually made up a word. Later in the same conversation, he added “Foxification” to the meeting’s vernacular. His suggestion for Foxifying my pilot? “It just needs something extra. You know, like a talking dog.”
I didn’t add a talking dog, but I did drop the TV fantasies and replaced them with animated vignettes. That wasn’t Foxified enough to get a green light, so into the morgue it went.
Keeping Up With the Joneses was a half hour about a family of gypsies on the run from their tribe, conning the rich to give to the poor. That one wasn’t Foxy enough, either. Blessings in Disguise brought us a dysfunctional family that has to go into the Witness Protection Program after the father has a front row seat to a mob execution. Another failure at proper Foxishness.
Dicks was written with Jeff Kline and was about two slacker-types (remember when “slacker” was all the rage?) who decide to become private investigators. This one cleared the first hurdle with Fox, and the Head Honcho there gave us the green light to hire a casting director so we could find the two leads. Production of the pilot was thus “cast contingent,” so Jeff and I along with our intrepid casting director sat through hours of auditions hunting for the right actors with the right chemistry to carry the show. As the search continued without success, the Head Honcho then decided we should have a table read despite the fact that we hadn’t found suitable leads. Our casting director called in favors from friends for the reading–including a generous and hilarious Lainie Kazan who agreed to play the waitress at House of Pies where our slacker dicks had their informal HQ. The reading went well, the script was funny, and when it was over, the Head Honcho killed the project because the two leads weren’t right. The two leads we all knew were just there for the table read. So that project got a tepid green light before abruptly turning red, and joined all the other dearly departeds in the morgue.
There they are resting in peace alongside their failed brethren: Heartland (couple trying to keep their family together in a conservative midwestern town after the husband/father comes out as gay) which was loved and summarily killed by the then WB network…
Free Ride (guy dies but wakes up as his 18-year-old self the day he left home to go to college at Playboy magazine’s number one party school of 1976, The University of Georgia)–a spec that was optioned by Fox and, you guessed it, fell short of the requisite Foxification…
Haints (young female artist inherits a haunted plantation in Georgia) which was ultimately passed on by the SyFy Channel…
And my most recent attempt, Triple Threats (three singer-dancer-actor sisters move to L.A. to pursue stardom after their mother dies, only to learn that their father is a career-challenged Prince-like rock star) which was shot down at NBC because I refused to make it dirtier (I’m not kidding).
And then there were two more scripts that were greenlit before they were redlit. Way back in 2001, I was fresh off several seasons of teen dramedies including The Wonder Years, Party of Five, and Time of Your Life. That resume caught the eyes of ABC and MGM, and I was hired to write a two-hour Sunday Movie Special Event and “back door” series pilot. The property? A sequel to the 1980 smash feature film Fame.
The studio even flew me to New York so that I could hang out with the students and faculty at the real Laguardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience, and I put my heart and soul into that script. September 11th had happened only two months prior, and the post-9/11 world of New York figured into my story. I wrote it as a valentine to the tenacity of the city and her citizens and a tribute to the healing powers of art. I had the thrill of working with Michael Gore, the composer from the original film. The conceit for the sequel was that Coco (Irene Cara) had graduated from Laguardia and gone on to release a few big hit songs (“Fame” being one of them) and had a brief career in films until her behavioral and drug/alcohol problems got the better of her. Twenty years later, she’s desperate for a comeback, and agrees to be a “guest judge” for her alma mater’s annual auditions for new students. We even tracked down Irene Cara who agreed to reprise her role despite the fact that she couldn’t wrap her head around the character being 40 present day– basic math be damned! For me, as a still relatively young writer, the whole experience was heady and amazing. It really could have been Glee well ahead of Glee…
Until it wasn’t. MGM and ABC were deadlocked over a budget. They also couldn’t agree on whether the film should be shot in New York City or Toronto and so… another corpse was added to the morgue.
Speaking of corpses, ABC also liked my adaptation of a terrifically trashy British soap set in the world of a high end hair salon. Cutting It was greenlit straight to series with the idea that it would be a cheap summer show–cheap because most of the action took place in one set. The plan was to use standing sets from daytime soaps for other locations. ABC was committed to the project, and proved it by ordering a script for episode two. Naturally, right about the time I finished it, I was informed they didn’t have money in their budget to produce the show after all. So once again I hit another green light/red light on the way to the morgue.
In my almost 30 years in the biz, only one of my pilots managed to avoid the morgue. It went to series and by the time it premiered, I’d been fired for trying to make it good. But that’s a story already told.
Today, despite my penchant for nostalgia, I’m fond of saying that Memory Lane is a dead-end street. And while I like to think I’ve learned something while clawing my way to the middle and leaving all these corpses in my path, I’m still in the ring pitching and hoping that one of my precious babies will thrive and grow into a series. In the interim, hey, let’s do lunch. Stay tuned…