Monthly Archives: April 2014

“Punch Lady” with a punch…

L-R Torrey Anne Cook, Fred Savage, & Vanessa Brown in a scene from "Little Debbie"

L-R Torrey Anne Cook, Fred Savage, & Vanessa Brown in a scene from The Wonder Years episode  “Little Debbie”

April 26, 2014 – During my second season on the hit show The Wonder Years, I pitched an idea about bringing back Paul Pfeiffer’s little sister Debbie (Torrey Anne Cook), who had been introduced in season two as having a monster crush on the show’s lead, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). The result was one of my favorite episodes that I had the privilege of writing. The story involved Kevin getting roped in against his will to take little Debbie Pfeiffer to her cotillion dance, when all he really wants to do is hang out with the guys at a football game and ogle the head cheerleader, Deena Delgado. I wasn’t involved in the casting of the guest characters, but was on set all day at a country club out in Malibu where the dance sequences were filmed. One of the adult supporting roles was simply called “Punch Lady” in the script, and she had, as I recall, two, maybe three lines. “My, what a fine catch,” was one of them, directed to Debbie regarding her date Kevin, and the other was something like, “Decided to sit this one out?” directed to Kevin as he bolts to get away from Debbie’s blind hero worship. The “day player” we’d cast as the Punch Lady was a woman named Vanessa Brown, and she did a fine job with her small part. During a break in shooting, I overheard one of the Assistant Directors mentioning that Ms. Brown had once played Jane in one of the many Tarzan movies back in the day. I remember thinking that was kind of cool, but thought nothing more of it even as she was wrapped for the day after her work was completed, just another actor with whom I’d briefly crossed paths.

It wasn’t until quite recently, with all the renewed interest in The Wonder Years resulting from the upcoming StarVista Entertainment/Time-Life release of the entire series on DVD, that I bothered to Google Ms. Brown and discovered her rather astonishing history―a career that resulted in two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for her TV work, the other for motion pictures). vanessa_brownShe had fled the Nazis with her parents in 1937, coming to the states where she pursued her love of acting. Apparently, she had a very high IQ that resulted in two years as a junior panelist on the TV game show Quiz Kids. As for acting, not only did she indeed play Jane in 1950’s Tarzan and the Slave Girl opposite Lex Barker, she originated the role of “The Girl” on Broadway in The Seven Year Itchlater famously played by Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film version. She was also cast as Babette in Lillian Helmann’s Watch on the Rhine on Broadway and later appeared in one of my favorite films: Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and The Beautiful (1952). In short, our “Punch Lady” had been something of a big deal, even making the cover of Life magazine in 1953.851-1

According to IMDB and Wikipedia, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years before her work on The Wonder Years, and a year after her diagnosis, her home had been destroyed in the 1987 Whittier earthquake. But I didn’t know any of this about the lady who had two lines in one of my episodes. Because even though my interest had been piqued by the tidbit about her role in a Tarzan movie―a role that turned out to be nothing compared to the rest of her career―I hadn’t bothered to strike up a conversation, despite the ample opportunities to engage in small talk during the rather tedious process of filming. As a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, this was one of my biggest missed opportunities, and one of my deepest regrets.

Vanessa Brown passed away May 21, 1999 at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. The “Punch Lady” is listed as the final role of her career. Stay tuned…

My TV Wonder Years…

mbptwyinterview

April 18, 2014 – On March 24, I took part in an on camera interview for the upcoming, highly anticipated release of The Wonder Years on DVD. It has been twenty-five years―a quarter century―since the phone call that changed my life forever. While working as an assistant and later a script clearance reader in the legal department at 20th Century Fox, I was spending all of my down time feverishly cranking out spec scripts. While temping, I’d written my infamous Murder, She Wrote episode, then followed that up with two specs for CBS’s short-lived revival of The Twilight Zone. The feature screenplays Temporary Insanity and Dead Reckoning followed. And while I was getting good feedback, I wasn’t getting a job. Finally, a friend of mine asked if I’d seen this new show that had premiered after the Super Bowl. Not being much of a sports fan, I hadn’t, but promised I’d catch the next episode. That show was, of course, The Wonder Years, and I instantly felt that I was reliving my own past, being only two years younger than Kevin Arnold. Over the first two seasons, I studied the show, then finally sat down to write a spec script loosely inspired by my thirteenth summer when my family vacationed in the place where my mom and dad had honeymooned―Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was there I met a girl who was a year my senior, and it was with her that I experienced my first French kiss. With that tiny seed of an idea, I cranked out “Summer Song” and sent it to my agent, Sylvia, who promptly passed it on to the producers of the show. A few days later, she called and told me they had liked the script and wanted me to come in and pitch. “Pitch what?” I asked, naively. “Ideas for other episodes.” “But I don’t have any others.” “Then you better come up with some before next Tuesday.” When the day arrived, I was nervously ushered into the producers’ offices on Hayden Place in Culver City, and even more nervously proceeded to pitch a handful of ideas including a Halloween episode, something about an essay contest, and a more personal story about the death of a beloved science teacher, Miss Sentelle.  It was this last idea that got traction with the Bobs―Bob Brush, the showrunner, and Bob Stevens, his second in command. We then scheduled a day that I would come back and we’d “break” the episode for me to write as a freelance assignment. As I left, I honestly don’t recall the earth being beneath my feet.

MBPspecs

The following week, I met the Bobs at the writers’ offices―an apartment building about a mile or so from the converted warehouse where the show was filmed. We tried valiantly to crack the teacher dying story, but as often happens in a writers’ room, we weren’t getting any traction. The Bobs decided to “put a pin” in that idea as something I might write later on, and the conversation turned to the show’s impending third season. That’s when someone mentioned that the character of Wayne would be celebrating his 16th birthday. “Then you should do the episode where he gets his driver’s license and uses it to terrorize Kevin.” I’m pretty sure it was Brush who snapped his fingers and said, “That’s your episode.” And that’s how I pitched “Wayne on Wheels,” which became the third episode of the third season, and my first professional writing assignment. Flash forward a few weeks, and the Bobs liked my revised draft enough that they offered me a ten week staff gig, and on my first day as a professional writer, working with a staff of freshly Emmy-nominated scribes*, I learned that they were also planning to buy “Summer Song” as the season opener that year. After that high note, I went on to do three seasons of the show, racking up a total of eighteen writing credits before deciding it was time to move on and broaden my horizons. To this day, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to say The Wonder Years―a show about first crushes, first kisses, first pimples, etc―was also my first. Stay tuned…

Look for The Wonder Years complete series on DVD, with the original music (unlike the episodes streaming on NetFlix), coming late fall from Time-Life.

* Although The Wonder Years had four of the five Emmy nominations for best comedy writing that season, Diane English won for the pilot of Murphy Brown.

 

My debut novel…

WhoresBook1TSPRZ copyApril 14, 2014 – What better day to announce the impending publication of my debut novel, City of Whores, than the anniversary of the Titanic  striking the iceberg? I started the book as part of a writers group exactly twenty years ago, and tinkered with it between TV gigs until I now feel like it’s time to put the baby in the stroller and take it down the promenade. It’s a pastiche of all the things I adore: the Golden Age of Hollywood, old school celebrity dish, scandal, the 1950s, people behaving badly, redemption, and, of course, the SS United States. City of Whores is now available for pre-order, exclusively through Amazon. Stay tuned…

Fair winds and following seas, Mr. Rooney…

MickeyRooneySSUSApril 9, 2014 – Mickey Rooney, shown in the above 1963 photo by Bela Zola aboard the venerable SS United States, was one of the last truly big stars of the real Golden Age of Hollywood. He died this past Sunday at the age of 93. It’s said that he has had the longest career in show business of any other performer/entertainer, though it’s now being revealed that he died essentially penniless. To add to the indignity, in true Hollywood Babylon fashion, today’s Los Angeles Times  reports that Rooney’s body now lies in a morgue at Forest Lawn Cemetery while family members close and estranged argue over his final resting place. Hollywood can be a glorious love affair, but it can also be a very cruel and unforgiving mistress. RIP Mr. Rooney. Here’s hoping you put on a great show with Judy and friends on that big backyard stage in the sky. TCM’s remembrance is here. Stay tuned…

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 10.47.39 AM

UPDATE – April 13, 2014 – The LA Times reported on Friday that the families have worked out their differences, and Mr. Rooney’s final resting place will be Hollywood Forever Cemetery, one of my absolute favorite places in Los Angeles. He’ll be in very good company there with the likes of Tyrone Power, Ann Sheridan, Fay Wray, Janet Gaynor, Adolphe Menjou, Hattie McDaniel, Peter Lorre, Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Darren McGavin, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and Clifton Webb (to name just a few). And, of course, for those in the know, producer Milford B. Langen. Stay tuned…