Monthly Archives: May 2014

Beyond perfect for the part…

ZeldaAndMBP001RZMay 28, 2014 – The best thing to come out of my year on David E. Kelley’s fantastic Picket Fences wasn’t the career cachet or even the Emmy statuette, it was my deep and lasting friendship with the incomparable Zelda Rubinstein. Zelda was a collector of people, and if she liked you, you were in for life. I count myself quite fortunate to say the first time I met her, she took a shine to me. One of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known, and one of the most wickedly funny, she would call from time to time and leave the most delightful ramblings on my answering machine. We’d see each other every two or three months, usually for dinner at one of her many favorite haunts were she was always welcomed like royalty. Suffice to say that what Zelda lacked in physical stature, she more than made up for with humor and heart.

In the ensuing years of my television career, I was always on the lookout for the right role for her on whatever show I was working on. I wanted her to guest star on Moon Over Miami, but we were cancelled before we found the right story and character. She would have been brilliant on Law & Order, but for the brief thirteen episodes I was on staff, the opportunity never arose. Same for so many series that followed: Party of Five, Time of Your Life, Pasadena, etc. I came close on a brilliant but tragically short-lived show called First Years, but it was shut down after only three episodes had aired.

At long last, just after the WGA strike in 2007, I got a call from a friend who was running the CBS Friday night hit Ghost Whisperer, asking if I’d come help out. As a random aside, this would be my third prime time show with Jennifer Love Hewitt. It ended up being so much fun, I stayed on for the end of the third season, and remained through the next two until the series was unceremoniously cancelled. It was a great creative departure for me, but fit right in with my love of horror movies and ghost stories. As one of our fifth season story arcs led inevitably to a big haunted house extravaganza, I pitched an idea for the character of the evil ghost of a spirit medium who’d been a presence there since the 1940s, a role that would be perfect—in fact, beyond perfect—for Zelda, especially when you consider that she was the inspiration for the part and it was created specifically for her. Our showrunner and casting director were thrilled with the idea, and so I ran it by Zelda one day on the phone. Madame Greta Hanson (a play on Hansel & Gretel because she lured the ghosts of children to the spooky old house she haunted) was a former fraudulent spirit medium who had scammed the families of executed prisoners into believing she could contact the spirits of their loved ones. Instead, she was unwittingly collecting a whole houseful of truly terrifying ghosts, only to become one herself when she fell down the stairs of the sinister old house, which, incidentally, had been the famous Chicken Ranch in the movie version of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and was within spitting distance of Boo Radley’s house on the Universal backlot, but I digress. Given Zelda’s mobility issues, I even suggested we’d put the character in one of those creepy old wooden wheelchairs. She loved the idea, and didn’t even balk when I told her that her character would have to say “Don’t go into the light” in homage to her career-making turn as the psychic in Poltergeist. “Oh, I’ll say it, honey,” she said with the delightful and ever present tone of mischief in her voice.

The episode was entitled Old Sins Cast Long Shadows (if you’re hardcore, go here), and as I was writing the script toward the end of 2009, Zelda had a mild heart attack and was admitted to the hospital. I visited her there, and she assured me the doctors were confident she’d be out in no time and ready to go back to work. But as the start date of production grew near, Zelda took a turn for the worse, at first losing her inimitable voice due to a tracheotomy, and finally slipping into a coma. I was bereft over the gravity of her condition, but learned the practical truth to the age old adage that the show must go on—only in this case, it would have to be with someone else as Madame Greta Hanson. The script was specifically written for a little person, but in the short amount of time we had, we couldn’t find anyone who could match Zelda’s diminuitive but powerful presence. Ultimately, we cast a wonderful actress, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and she truly rose to the occasion and created a fantastic character, but in my writer’s eye (and heart), I could only see Zelda in the role.

Zelda went into the light on January 27, 2010, not long after the episode wrapped principal photography, and when it aired in March of that year, I watched through a shimmer of tears. The part was written specifically for her, and ended up being my own private tribute to my truly astonishing and beloved friend. I urge you to watch the promo…

…or hell, watch the episode, and just picture Zelda in the role. I’m sure you’ll agree that she was beyond perfect for the part.

Today would have been her 81st birthday. So happy birthday, honey. I miss you each and every day. Stay tuned…

Perfect for the part…

May 15, 2014 – A few months ago, a friend brought my attention to an article that appeared in 2012 in American Airlines’ magazine, American Way. It was a profile of a two-time Academy Award-nominated actor whose career was (and still is) nothing short of red hot. In the article, this actor mentioned a pilot in which he’d been cast early in his career, way back in 1997, explaining that he’d been fired on the third day of shooting because “…the producers decided he looked too young for the part…”

A little background: before Push was an acclaimed “novel by Sapphire” and the basis for the film Precious, before it was a 2009 movie starring Dakota Fanning, it was a short-lived, execrable TV series on ABC. I can report this with confidence, being its creator and show runner. I had developed the pilot with some very colorful Brits who were having their Fifteen Minutes with American television, not unlike the leads of Showtime’s brilliant Episodes. My wacky colleagues from across the pond brought me a concept for a sexy, soapy series about college-age Olympic athletes juggling their fierce competitive natures and the rigors of training with the day-to-day realities of university life, studies, love, sex, relationships, and all the difficult challenges already built into that transitional period from teen to young adult. I’ve never cared much for sports, and was surprised that the idea had been presented to me of all people, but as I began to read some biographical material about these young champions, I became fascinated with their psychological makeup, and saw the potential for a great series that would explore real characters and competition, both in and out of their chosen athletic disciplines. The script was well received by ABC and subsequently ordered to pilot with Ken Olin hired to direct. Thus began one of the longest and most painful ordeals of my career. The ensuing months of writing, shooting, and ultimately getting the series on the air the following year is rich fodder for a whole chapter in my memoirs―if not a full scale tell-all book of its own. So I’ll save the bulk of the lurid details for one of those, and get to the gritty.

Victor Yates was the anchor of the show’s ensemble cast. He was a talented gymnast whose career had been cut short by an injury sustained while competing on the high bar during the then recent 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In the pilot, he’d been hired to coach the male and female gymnastics teams at a fictional prestigious sports-oriented college in Southern California (it was a TV show, after all, not a documentary). The entire point of his character was that he was only a year or two older than the athletes he’d be coaching, and casting the role proved nearly impossible. We needed not only a good actor, but one with a body who could pass for a former gymnast, and quickly learned the truth of our casting director’s words: “God does not give with both hands.” After a seemingly endless parade of gorgeous but wooden young men, an actor finally walked in who proved the exception to those words. He nailed the audition, aced the test for the network and studio, and was whisked into hair and makeup.

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I want to go on record as saying I was really proud of the script for that pilot. And I was equally excited about the cast of mostly unknowns we assembled to play the swimmers and runners and gymnasts and divers. More importantly, I saw so much story potential which could easily fuel the journey to the coveted 100 episodes. And we had a lead who wasn’t just good, he was perfect for the part. Production began in March, 1997, and the second or third day of filming―the most expensive on the entire shoot because we were recreating the men’s gymnastics competition from the recent Olympics―I received a very disturbing call on my shoe-sized mobile phone. It was from one of the network development executives overseeing the pilot. I exited the huge pyramid shaped arena at the school in Long Beach where we were shooting, pushed through the hundreds of extras playing other athletes, coaches, judges, and, of course, the sold-out crowd, until I was finally outside where I could actually hear what was being said on the other end. Flabbergasted is as good a word as any to describe my reaction. Fury is another.

“Well, we’ve been watching all the dailies and I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?” “The good, I guess,” I answered, apprehensively. “Okay, the good is that the show looks terrific. Ken’s doing an amazing job, and for the most part, the cast is fantastic.” “For the most part…?” “Yeah,” she replied quite casually, “we need to recast Victor.”

Now, never mind that “Victor” was the star of that day’s shoot where we were spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to film a flashback to his tragic accident at the Olympics. Our actor’s scene work in the previous days’ dailies had been spot on. He looked amazing in his gymnast uniform. He was not only handsome, he was a damn good actor to boot. I repeat, he was perfect for the part. Naturally, I protested and told the development exec that she had lost her mind. What could the network possibly find wrong with him? The answer was stunning: “He looks too young. In some cases, younger than the other athletes he’s supposed to be coaching.” “But that’s the whole point!” I argued futilely. “He should be their age. That’s his central conflict!” It was almost as if no one at the network or studio had actually read the script they’d bought, so I fought against this harebrained decision. I argued. I refused. I caved.

To make an already long story short-ish, I couldn’t fire him myself. Ken rose to that unpleasant task. An actor himself, he knew how to communicate the bad news to a fellow thespian and so he did most of the talking when we called our shining young Olympian into the producers’ trailer at lunch time. Me? I’m not ashamed to admit that I stood in the corner and quietly wept as we were forced to crush the soul of this talented young man. To his credit, he handled it with incredible dignity and maturity, and in his grace, won my lifelong admiration.

We scrambled to cobble together the rest of that day’s shoot, then had more frantic casting sessions over the weekend, ultimately finding a replacement that seemed to please the “suits.” The pilot had its problems as most do―and I certainly don’t fault the actor we cast as our lead―but I was more or less pleased with the result, all things considered. Of course, after those months of off screen drama, ABC didn’t pick up the show for the fall season, but once the dust had settled, I got the call that they wanted to retool and reshoot the pilot as a midseason replacement series. I was forced to recast most of the male roles―again, over my most passionate objections―and add a “vixen” character to slink around the women’s gym and stir up some soapy trouble (I have to admit, Jaime Pressly nailed it). By the time the show premiered, I had been fired for “being too difficult” (translation: I fought the network every step of the way trying to make a good show all the while they were screaming in my face that they didn’t care about character development or rich storytelling, they just wanted “Sex! Sex! Sex!” [actual quote] and “Melrose Place in Spandex!” [ditto]). Push was viciously skewered by the critics: “Like many a locker room, this show often stinks,” “Perhaps the more fitting title Putrid was already taken,” and the most succinct, “Laughably bad.” It’s premiere set a record Nielsen low in its time slot in the history of ABC, and my disastrous little show was mercifully cancelled after only two episodes aired. That summer, they decided to burn off the 8 episodes that had been produced, but when its re-premiere repeated its rating performance from the first time around, the show was abruptly yanked from the schedule. I’m now fond of telling people I created a show that was so bad it was actually cancelled twice. 

But back to our original Victor. Over the years, I’ve followed that young actor’s career, and swelled with an almost paternal pride tinged with pure vindication when he got the first of his two Oscar nominations. I’ve always believed that the show would have been an entirely different experience had we kept him in the lead. And now, should his people Google his name from time to time to see what the masses are saying about him, I hope they’ll find this blog post and tell him that it most certainly wasn’t the producers who fired him from that pilot. Far from it. It was the network. This producer was―and still is―a huge fan of an actor named…

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…Jeremy Renner. Though I’ll admit, getting fired from that pilot may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Stay tuned…

Links:

Here’s the original American Way article.

Remarkably, the show still has a fan site that’s worth checking out.

Push on IMDB.

An old man’s hands…

_63298095_63298094May 6, 2014 – In the fall of 1966, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell, showed the class a photograph she’d clipped from a magazine over the weekend. It was a black and white still of an old man’s hands, serenely folded in his lap. Our instructions were simple: write a short story about the image. Without hesitation, I put my freshly sharpened #2 to a crisp sheet of blue-lined notebook paper and let my imagination run wild. While the other children turned in their stories with titles such as “My Grandfather’s Hands” and “Saying a Prayer,” it was my story that got Mrs. Hartsell’s attention. Luridly titled “Jack Arthur: Serial Killer,” it told of the gruesome murders of one Lois Jackson (strangled) and her friend Rose Hillbird (stabbed), the chief of police (shot), and the governor (M.O. unknown) at the old man’s hands of its titular psychopath, and how the FBI ultimately trapped and killed him in a bloody shoot out in a mountain shack.

photo 5Today, this most likely would be seen as symptomatic of some mental depravity, resulting in panicked calls to my parents, mandatory counseling, drug testing, psychiatric evaluation, and possible suspension. But Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell saw it as a sign of a kid who’d probably seen too many episodes of The FBI (R.I.P Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), had a healthy imagination, and perhaps even a bright future as a writer. Throughout the year, she continued to bring in photographs that struck her fancy, and we continued to exercise our creative muscles so that by school year’s end in 1967, each student had enough stories to self-publish our collections. We even designed and executed our own cover art. In my case, I like to believe the contents outshone the packaging:
photo 1On the last day of school, Mrs. Hartsell gave me something that remains my most prized possession, and follows me from office to office as I pursue my vagabond career:

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People often ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I always reply without hesitation, giving full credit to Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell at Briarlake Elementary in Tucker, Georgia. She nurtured and encouraged creativity with passion and kindness. As it turns out, she only taught at Briarlake for two years, and I was lucky enough to be in her classroom for one of them. Years later, I started searching for her, just wanting to check in and says thanks. It was my computer savvy mom who finally located her, and when we at last spoke over the phone after some forty-five years had lapsed, I was both astonished and pleased that she actually remembered me as “a well-spoken little boy whose hair was always perfectly combed.” Since that first conversation, we’ve spoken several times, and she still takes great interest in whatever I’m working on.

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So, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, a shout out to Roslyn Hartsell, who tops my list of extraordinary educators who made a real and immeasurable difference in my life. Stay tuned…

 

Hey, Boo…

May 3, 2014 – Turn up your volume and watch this. I’ll catch you on the other side.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tops so many of my lists of favorites: novel, adapted screenplay, movie, title sequence, film score…to name the majors. I owe a debt of gratitude to my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Lee (coincidence, but no relation), for introducing me to the world of Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus and Tom Robinson. When I finished the book, I started to second guess my dream of being a writer because Harper Lee had set the bar impossibly high. It’s a novel that stays in my “to read” pile on the night stand, and one that I often move to the top so that I can experience it yet again. And if the movie happens to be on when I’m flipping channels? There goes my afternoon. I still tear up at the court room scene when Scout is sitting in the segregated balcony, and is told to stand up when her father’s passing. I’ve also been known to reply to a greeting in an old lady voice, “Don’t you hey me, you ugly little girl!” So, with all of that said, I feel very fortunate that my professional path has crossed with the film twice, albeit in teeny, tiny ways. The first, way back in 1983, when I co-wrote and co-produced a documentary about the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP under the auspices of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where I worked in the audio visual department. With the help of Julian Bond, we managed to get Brock Peters (Tom Robinson in the movie) to narrate, and I “met him”  when I had the privilege of directing his voice over work by phone from my office in Atlanta to a recording studio in Los Angeles. And yes, I was incredibly starstruck but managed to remain professional. The second time was more recently when I was a writer and co-EP on the CBS series Ghost Whisperer. First, I was thrilled to realize that the courthouse that dominated the Back To The Future town square set on the Universal Studios backlot (where many of our exteriors were filmed) still bore traces of its appearance in Mockingbird. Second, I was blown away one day while we were filming on Elm Street at the house the show’s protagonist lived in. I’m pretty sure it was our script supervisor, Suzan Lowitz, who told me that although the structure had been modified, we were standing on the porch of none other than Boo Radley’s house! Over the course of my 2.25 seasons on that series, I always felt an indescribably wondrous connection to Harper Lee and the indelible world she created every time I had the privilege of visiting that set. It was, as they say, almost like being there. Stay tuned…

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