August 10, 2014 – After surviving twenty-five years in television (with a few, brief and aborted forays into features), it would be difficult to avoid racking up a major regret or two along the way. Now, I’m the first to say What If and Would’ve, Should’ve, Could’ve might as well be cross streets on that dead end road known as Memory Lane, but every now and then, pangs bubble to the surface and linger, aggravated and aching like an old war injury. One of my biggest started with a phone call from my then agent, Mark Rossen, back around 1995 or so. He informed me that a Big Name Feature Director (“BNFD”) had an idea for a television series and had loved my writing samples so…could he set a breakfast? This being no ordinary BNFD, coupled with hearing that this Hollywood Legend had sparked to something I had written, filled my eyes with stardust so I readily agreed. Now bear in mind that this man’s career spanned from the early drama anthology days of television in the 1950s to multiple Oscar nominations as an artist who many call one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. All these years later, he was still going strong, working regularly, and would continue to do so for another decade. Now, not only was he a BNFD, he was also a BFD, a household name, and a man whose work I didn’t just admire but revered. I arrived for breakfast at some forgotten eatery on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica to find Rossen and BNFD already seated and chatting over coffee. Mark stood as he saw me approaching, undoubtedly grinning like a jackass, and quickly made introductions: “Mark Perry, BNFD.” I shook the man’s hand in awe, told him what an honor it was to meet him, then sat down with them and self-consciously spread my napkin in my lap and took a nervous sip of water. Once we’d exchanged the usual icebreaking chit chat and ordered our food, BNFD spoke a bit about whatever he’d liked in whatever script of mine he’d read (probably at that time a Moon Over Miami, Picket Fences, Law & Order—or perhaps my unproduced pilot, Walking Trouble). My inner dialog was impossible to silence: “Holy crap—BNFD likes something I wrote enough that he wants to develop a pilot with me!” Finally, he got around to the pitch, which was so “ripped from the headlines” it was borderline docudrama. The premise concerned a protagonist who was a well-known figure (maybe an actor or a politician but not an athlete for specific reasons to be revealed) who has been arrested, indicted, and tried for a particularly savage murder—one where every shred of circumstantial evidence pointed directly to the defendant. The pilot would begin as our protagonist watches the jury file into the box after a short deliberation and present the shocking verdict: not guilty. (Reminder: this was 1995, so it shouldn’t be hard to guess which headline this was ripping.) “I love it,” I said, “And what’s the series?” BNFD smiled as he explained, “It’s about his return to day-to-day living after being held without bail during his arrest and trail for well over a year. It’s about his reassimilating into his old life, where even his closest friends and loved ones can’t separate themselves from their serious, lingering doubts.” My initial silent reaction at the time was: “That’s it?” My “out loud” reaction was, “I love it. Really smart…” And then I’m sure I pulled a few vague ideas out of thin air to pitch back as we lingered over coffee, chatting a bit more about the idea and how to make it even more lurid than the O.J. story, then, since it’s industry law that you never commit to anything at the table (and try to never pick up the check), I shook Rossen’s and BNFD’s hand with a promise to “mull it over” and get back to him. (Of course, if this had happened today, I probably would’ve handed my phone to Rossen and insisted he take a picture of me and BNFD, or at least get a selfie, but it wasn’t so I didn’t.) Driving home, coming down from an exhilarating high, my thoughts eventually turned to his series idea. I could well imagine a gripping pilot and the first couple of episodes as our guy goes back to his family, his mistress, his job or whatever and the emotional and practical obstacles a man in his situation would face, but then my train went off an abrupt story cliff and I asked myself the dreaded question: “What’s the back nine? Hell, what’s season two?” And try as I might in the next couple of days, I just couldn’t crack it, so I finally called my agent and told him I didn’t think I was right for the job, had been thrilled to meet BNFD, but ultimately just couldn’t see the series. And that, I’m afraid, was that. With one phone call, I had walked away from a once in a career opportunity. Never mind that today there’s an excellent incarnation of a version of this premise done by people far smarter than I am. It’s called Rectify and it’s on Sundance TV. And my first cousin once removed is working on it to boot.
So here I am, a guy whose name is often preceded by the words “veteran TV writer-producer.” I’ve written countless hours of television, racked up a handful of nominations and awards, gained experience and staying power—not to mention a head full of grey hair. Heck, I’ve even written a critically well-received debut novel. I’m certainly older and like to believe a tad wiser as I look back and ask myself: what the hell were you thinking? This was a chance to work with one of the biggest directors of all time, a man whose work you loved, a man who had the jumping off point for a visionary TV show, and you were too young and too stupid and maybe even too lazy to realize that you might have found the answers to all of your questions through that thing that’s at the heart of pretty much every single television show in the history of the medium: Collaboration! In short, you might have had a chance to work with BNFD, and who the hell knows what the result might have been?
BNFD died some eleven years later, after expanding his body of work with a few more astonishing credits and accolades (including an honorary Oscar months before his death), so any hopes of a do over are just that. Hopes. And if aging is the getting of wisdom, I can only second the words of George Bernard Shaw that still ring with a bittersweet ache in my ears: “Youth is wasted on the young.”
You can read all about the BNFD here. Stay tuned…