Category Archives: News

Dolly & Me

November 5, 2019 – I’m thrilled to share the trailer for Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, the new Netflix series dropping November 22nd. I was honored to write episode 108, a romcom/family dramedy inspired by the infectious tune “Two Doors Down,” starring Academy Award-winners Melissa Leo and Ray McKinnon, along with Andy Mientus, Michael J. Willett, Katie Stevens, and Dolly Parton as herself. Filming last January in my hometown of Atlanta was truly icing on the cake!

Ship of stars reborn…


Vintage postcard showing the SS United States in her heyday.

February 8, 2016 – What do Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Sean Connery, Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly (to drop just a few names) all have in common? Aside from being Hollywood legends, they also traveled to or from Europe aboard “the world’s fastest and most modern superliner,” the SS United States, an American built passenger ship that shattered speed records for racing across the Atlantic from 1952 to ’69. After 400 fabulous voyages in seventeen years, her fabled career was ended by the advent of jet air travel, and she was unceremoniously retired to mothballs in her birthplace of Newport News, Virginia. Thus began her longest and most improbable journey to date—a forty-seven year odyssey drifting aimlessly from one failed revitalization scheme to another all while trying to avoid running aground on the ship-breaking shores of India.


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The Big U rusting in Philadelphia, circa 2004.

Against all odds and defying all logic, the SS United States is still with us, moored and decaying at a pier in Philadelphia, her mid-century modern furnishings and interiors long-pillaged and stripped, and her paint faded and peeling. She’s a tough old broad who simply refuses to throw in the towel, or in the words of maritime historian Bill Miller, “She’s like a soap opera character that never goes away.” In my opinion, that’s a very good thing.

I have been fascinated by the story of the SS United States ever since “discovering” her in the late 1980s, so much so that I adjusted the time period of my debut novel, City of Whores, to allow my 1950s Hollywood characters to travel to Europe aboard the maiden voyage in ’52. Smitten with the storied vessel, I joined forces with a band of intrepid preservationists in 2004 when I became a founding board member of the SS United States Conservancy (“SSUSC”), a non-profit organization that currently owns the liner and is dedicated to preserving her for posterity. In 2008, I produced the first in-depth documentary about the ship for American Public Television. Entitled SS United States: Lady in Waiting, the film helped raise public awareness of the superliner’s history, significance, and ever-perilous plight. Years after the movie’s premiere, and thanks to the generosity of Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest as well as the ongoing support of our dedicated constituency, our group was able to purchase the United States and keep her afloat, though the specter of her destruction has always loomed large given that it costs a whopping $60,000 per month in dockage fees, insurance, maintenance, etc., to keep her safe.

Recently, as funding dwindled, we were forced to issue yet another Save Our Ship (“S.O.S.”) appeal and to actually begin the cruelly ironic process of soliciting scrap bids for the very piece of American history we were charged with protecting from such an inglorious fate. Which brings us to the most recent chapter in the vessel’s post-service peregrination.

Last week, at a well-attended gathering at Manhattan’s Pier 88 (right next door to the United States’ old berth), Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer and now the Executive Director of the Conservancy, greeted the press alongside Edie Rodriguez, CEO of Crystal Cruises, to drop a bombshell on the media and the community of passionate aficionados and fans of the “Big U” (as she’s also affectionately known). Gibbs and Rodriguez were pleased to announce that Crystal had signed a nine-month purchase option agreement with the Conservancy with the intention of conducting feasibility studies to return the venerable old ship to six-star luxury passenger service. On two large screens flanking the American-flagged dais, a video played showing highlights of the United States’ career and vintage amenities, followed by the unveiling of an artist’s rendering of the reconfigured and modernized liner.

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L-R: Conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs, and founding board members Mark B. Perry and Joe Rota pose with the unveiled artist’s rendering.

The news was greeted by dropping jaws and wagging tongues. While The New York Times and Fox & Friends were the first to break the story that morning, a tiny handful of us had managed to keep silent about the highly confidential deal in the weeks prior to the press conference. Our board of directors had voted to approve the agreement, well aware that the announcement would be greeted with mixed reactions from our supporters. Understandably so, I might add.

In all honesty, my opinion has been that returning her to sea-going service wouldn’t be the ideal way of preserving the United States’ historical integrity. The concept of putting her back to sea has been the dream of many preservationists, but has always seemed the most expensive undertaking—impractical if not impossible. Her once state-of-the-art steam engines aren’t “up to code,” and her design no longer complies with Safety Of Life At Sea (“SOLAS”) regulations. In my heart, I’ve always felt that the ideal preservation scenario would be to have the ship’s exterior restored to her pristine 1952 appearance, and she should be permanently moored in New York as a stationary mixed-use attraction not unlike the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. In the years that followed our purchase of the vessel, we had been courting a few serious suitors who shared that vision while insisting on anonymity. The complexity of such an undertaking, requiring adherence to convoluted government and environmental regulations and approvals, constantly mired our progress and kept us in a world of uncertainty, all while we were still paying that burdensome $60,000.00 per month. The other option, returning the vessel to service, would require enormous modifications that would forever alter her sleek, historic profile. Both schemes would be prohibitively expensive, but building a new ship inside the old one would cost far more that the stationary option. Still, as our funding began to dwindle, the Crystal Cruises proposal was presented as legitimate, and the pragmatist in me trumped the dreamer and I added my voice to the “yeas.”

And now… the backlash. You see, the Big U has been down this road before. In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line (“NCL”) made a similar announcement only to abandon their plans and put the ship up for sale a few years later, generously offering the Conservancy first dibs at a price below her scrap value. It was believed at the time that even NCL knew it would be calamitous P.R. to be the company that sent the United States to the breakers. Now, in face-to-face conversations, online forums, Facebook comments, the press and elsewhere, people are asking why the Crystal Cruises proposal should have a different outcome. A legitimate query, to be sure.

Here’s my take on that: during the production of Lady in Waiting, we interviewed several of the key players at NCL, and we always asked for visual material (it was a film, after all). Could we please see renderings of what she might look like when returned to service? Would it be possible to share deck plans of the reimagined liner? All of those queries were met with evasive answers about claims of confidentiality and so forth, but honestly, the pervasive sense was that they didn’t have any such materials to share. Many rumors were circulating at the time that NCL had only purchased the Big U for her American-made hull which would help the cruise line circumnavigate the Jones Act, an arcane piece of maritime law that’s still in effect and gives great leniency to ships both built and crewed by Americans. Such vessels can sail from American port to American port unfettered, unlike ships built and crewed elsewhere who must add a foreign port in between. When NCL’s plans for a US-flagged fleet began to crumble under the weight of the reality of commerce, the company put the irreplaceable vessel up for sale and she wound up under the stewardship of the SSUSC.

Speaking as a private citizen and not as a board member of the Conservancy, I do believe that NCL was motivated more by financial considerations than historical ones when they purchased the ship. That said, I’m convinced that their then CEO, Colin Veitch, and a few of their department heads were genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of putting the vessel back to sea, but that business ultimately quashed their chimera. The current crop of Debbie Downers and Ned Naysayers are whining all over the Internet that the Crystal endeavor will simply be history repeating. They say it’s a publicity stunt. Well, generally publicity stunts are done to garner positive publicity, and if Crystal isn’t serious about succeeding with their proposal for the United States, why would they announce it in such a way that would be picked up by media outlets around the globe and shine a blinding spotlight on them? Why put themselves in exactly the same position NCL was in when it opted to lose money and sell the liner to the Conservancy? And why would a company whose goal is to be profitable sink a minimum of just over half-a-million speculative bucks into an enterprise when another company had already proven that failure really was an option? I believe, again not speaking for the SSUSC, that it’s because Crystal Cruises has a vision, and when they look at our ship, they don’t see a rusting hulk and financial liability, they truly see an opportunity for success and a way to capitalize on the United States’ glamorous and historic past, the nostalgic allure of 20th Century ocean travel, all while making a lot of money in the process. Not to be crass, but isn’t that the American way? No other theory makes any sense.

Crystal’s plan also differs from NCL’s in that they’ve made it clear that the “United States by Crystal Cruises” will be an 800-passenger, high end, luxury cruise vessel catering to the upscale and well-heeled—a far more practical approach than trying to convert a sixty-four-year-old purpose-built ocean liner into a mass market party ship.

To those who say Crystal’s true plan is to run the clock, buy the vessel from the Conservancy for a rock bottom price, then turn around and sell her for scrap to recoup their investment, I’d answer by saying that’s a terrible business strategy given that the scrap metal market is practically at an all time low and they’d barely break even if not lose money. And again, there’s that pesky bad P.R.

To those who say Crystal should make a goodwill gesture and paint the ship and/or her funnels in situ  while conducting their feasibility studies, I counter that regardless of the fact that it would be a waste of money, it’s quite simply environmentally impossible to sandblast lead-based paint without some of it getting into the Delaware River.


A reimagined “United States by Crystal Cruises” at sea.

And for those dreamers who say—and I’ve read this comment more than once since the news broke—that the preliminary artist renderings of the reimagined ship are so unappealing that they’d rather see this beloved icon scrapped, I’d answer by saying those commenters obviously don’t truly care one whit about saving the legacy of the SS United States. Crystal Cruises has said that the aluminum superstructure of the vessel—the white decks between the black hull and the iconic red, white, and blue funnels—will have to be replaced with SOLAS-compliant steel to accommodate staterooms with the much-in-demand private balconies for today’s cruise market along with modern navigation and life-saving equipment. They also said that no decks will be added as was done when the venerable SS France was converted into the cruise ship Norway. Yes, her profile will change, and purists may hate that, but if she returns to service as Crystal has described, with her rakishly patriotic funnels in place and interior spaces honoring the spirit of the originals along with onboard historical exhibits curated by the Conservancy, she will introduce this celebrated vessel to a new audience, thus accomplishing one of the SSUSC’s primary goals: to ensure that America’s flagship will never be forgotten. A modified United States traveling the globe will be an ambassador for her legacy, as will the Conservancy’s proposed land-based museum which is envisioned to be the definitive collection of her most important artifacts. These two endeavors will complement one another and assure that the Big U will continue to inspire future generations. To me, that’s the true spirit of preservation, and it’s practical, as well.

Fortunately, the SSUSC has more fans than detractors, but it’s still disheartening to read the disparaging comments from people who haven’t been on the front lines of the preservation effort, and don’t seem to understand the colossal complexity of saving a 990-foot long vintage ocean liner. I got involved because I believe wholeheartedly in the cause, and would much rather have a modernized ship that embraces the integrity and spirit of the original while preserving her legacy, than to see her scrapped and relegated to the dustbin of history and obscurity.

I tried to bring the SS United States back to vivid life in my novel, and I’ve also tried to save her in reality by putting my money where my mouth is by producing the documentary and my continued involvement with the SSUSC. True fans of the ship should be rooting for Crystal Cruises to exceed even their own expectations for success, rather than armchair quarterbacking, criticizing, and thus in effect rooting for the demise of the ship they claim to love.

Stay tuned…

And then it happened: My wholly biased review of The Wonder Years: The Complete Series on DVD

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989.

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989. Photo copyright the author.

January 19, 2015 – Life is a series of moments—some casual and small, others significant and profound. And sometimes, a tiny, passing and seemingly insignificant instant will turn out to be a seed that flourishes and forever alters the course of our lives. One such moment happened to me in February, 1988, when a friend from my then wife’s acting class, John Rocha, asked if I’d happened to catch a show that premiered after the Super Bowl the previous Sunday. I gave him my signature raised eyebrow that clearly said, “Why would I be watching the Super Bowl?” so he went on to tell me a bit about this hysterically funny and profoundly touching new series. It was the first time I’d ever heard of The Wonder Years, and, as fate would have it, certainly not the last. I’ve written about the exhilaration of getting my first professional television writing job before, but with the recent release of the entire series on DVD, I’d like to revisit a few omitted tidbits:

First, it almost didn’t happen at all. Let me rewind a bit…

On John’s recommendation, I tuned in for episode #2 entitled “Swingers” which was written and directed by the series’ creators, Neal Marlens and Carol Black. I was immediately smitten with the show’s universal appeal. In the episode, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) are hell-bent on getting a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask after a particularly hilarious but Saharianly clinical and decidedly un-educational sex education class. And the thing is, I felt like I was watching my own childhood. Which was, of course, one of the secret’s of the show’s huge success. We were all Kevin Arnold, after all (or, in my case, Paul Pfeiffer).

The author looking his most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

Yours truly looking my most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

In the case of “Swingers,” the episode vividly evoked the burning curiosity, confusion, and pure, wanton lust of raging adolescent hormones. I remembered my own furtive excursions to the Magic Market where I’d try to peek at Playboy and Penthouse and Oui, only to be chased away by the watchful cashier. I recalled vividly when I finally got my hands on a copy of EYAWTKASBWATA after snooping through a neighbor’s nightstand (while babysitting their sleeping kids) and finally getting some informative and titillating answers—hey, I never said I was proud of it. The thing is, having been born just two years after Kevin Arnold, this show was a spot-on reflection of my own adolescence. For me, The Wonder Years was the proverbial love at first sight—the equivalent of that moment in the pilot when Kevin sees Winnie Cooper walking toward him at the bus stop wearing a miniskirt and go-go boots.

As that too-short first season (only six episodes) went on, the show took up permanent residence in my heart, and about half-way through season two, I had the temerity to try my hand at writing an episode on spec. It was inspired by a long ago family vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was fourteen or so and met a beautiful blonde girl a year my senior while blissfully raft-surfing in the ocean in those pre-Jaws days.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired "Summer Song." And yes, the tan is real. Photo (c) the author.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired “Summer Song.” And yes, the tan is real. Photo copyright the author.

Our forty-eight hours together were a hokey movie montage complete with a soundtrack by Seals & Croft, four silly poses in a photobooth, arcade games, amusement park rides, and the gift of a frog made entirely out of seashells. We fell madly, passionately, head-over-flip-flops, and I had my first ever French kiss when we made out on the porch of her motel the night before she and her family returned home. I ached horribly the entire, rainy drive home, and knew that someday, somehow, we’d be together again and for all eternity. She sent me a few perfumed letters over the next year or so, and then, as these summer romances go, vanished from my life forever. Until, that is, I resurrected that glorious angst in “Summer Song,” my episode which was named after a Chad & Jeremy song. In it, Kevin meets a beautiful blonde girl on the beach (played by Holly Sampson who went on to a career in porn of all things)—an older woman, no less—and ultimately shares a tender kiss with her under the boardwalk.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate that magical summer of 1973. Photo (c) the author.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate my magical summer of 1973. Photo copyright the author.

The thing is, I thought my script didn’t measure up to the quality of the show. The Wonder Years was one of the best written series on TV—who the heck was I to think my work would be good enough? My incredible wife at the time, Cayce Callaway, vehemently disagreed and famously vowed that if I didn’t send the script to Sylvia Hirsch (my then agent at Preferred Artists in Encino), then she would. So I mailed it off, begrudgingly enough, and was subsequently shocked when, a few weeks later, Sylvia (rest her soul) called to tell me that the producers had actually liked it and wanted me to come in and pitch.

The rest, as they say, is my-story.

I joined The Wonder Years as a staff writer at the beginning of season three, and left some three years later just prior to the show’s final season. In that time, I was fortunate enough to have a writing credit on seventeen episodes—some which I’m still really proud of, and others, well, not so much. I did a lot of writing on the show, both credited and uncredited, and it was the best boot camp an aspiring television writer could ask for. After I resigned and moved on, I never really looked back, but in the ensuing years the question I was most often asked was: “When’s it coming out on ‘home video?’/DVD?” And I’d always explain that I had no idea because all of that great music that helped make the show what it was in its initial run had to be re-licensed which was a daunting and nearly impossible task. You see, as the 1980s became the 1990s, no one envisioned a day when people might want to actually own an entire television series on bulky VHS cassettes, so the music was initially licensed for network broadcast, reruns and, I’m guessing, syndication. I don’t know if the latter had the original music or not because the handful of times I tried to watch an episode on ION or wherever, I couldn’t get through more than a few minutes because they’d been savagely butchered to make room for more commercials. It’s still astonishing to me that the original show had one—and I mean one—act break right in the middle. Two acts. One commercial break. Yes, those were simpler times.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show's writing staff.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show’s writing staff. Photo copyright the author.

And now Time-Life and StarVista Entertainment have finally accomplished the impossible. They have  released the entire series—all 115 episodes—on DVD with most of the original music. Apparently, some artists (I’m looking at you, Neil Young), either refused to license their tunes or maybe demanded astronomical payments. Wikipedia has a good list of all the music that was replaced along with the titles of their substitutions here, saying that the new DVD release retains 96% of the first-run music.

Which, I have to say, is far better than no DVD release at all. Though I’ll admit, the absence of Richie Haven’s cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” from the episode “Heart of Darkness” made me die a little inside when I recently rewatched it. In one of my absolute favorite scenes from the show (oddly from one of my least favorite episodes), Winnie comes over to find Kevin and Paul sitting on the curb in front of his house as another school day lingers before stretching into dinner time. She’s wearing her cat-eye glasses, and Kevin and Paul tease her saying “You definitely look stupid in contacts” or some such, and it’s such a perfectly real, tiny, relatable moment in time you can almost believe it happened to you and not the characters on the show. The music was so perfect that I made sure to include the scene in a clip show that Mark Levin and I wrote and produced at the end of season four. Sadly, it’s been replaced in both episodes of the DVD release, but if I’m ever feeling especially hardcore, I can always bust out my VHS of the original broadcast. Being the antiquarian-contrarian that I am, I still have a working player connected to my TV. I may have to do the same with “Family Car” when I finally get to it. Hard to imagine that amazing montage with anything but Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.”

Full_Series-shotMusic quibbles aside, the rest of the release is simply superb. I’ve read online that some videophiles are disappointed in the image quality—but the show was originally filmed on 16mm and edited on BetaMax and was never intended to be shown at 1080dpi on a plasma flat screen. If you ask me, all things considered, it looks pretty damn good—certainly better than the episodes streaming on NetFlix (with nasty, bad music substitutions). The set is housed in a metal school locker with notebooks that hold the discs along with a yearbook with additional information about the series. The new release also contains hours and hours of delicious bonus material, all of which demonstrates that the folks who produced the set had a deep and abiding adoration for the show that shines through even in the packaging. The cast reunion and interviews are particularly charming, and I’m thrilled that my on camera interview was used throughout the fantastic featurettes, and that the producers of the DVD set gave me the last line of narration by making my full interview the final segment in the whole set.

The Wonder Years has assumed its rightful place among the greatest series in the history of television, and I still honestly have a hard time believing that I was blessed to have been one of its many contributors. Sure, I’m biased, deeply so, but that doesn’t change the truth that this is one of the best DVD releases I’ve ever come across, and if you’re even marginally a fan of the series, you won’t be disappointed. My connection to the show is rather profound and personal, and rewatching the episodes in order has been particularly poignant for me. While The Wonder Years initially evoked a universal nostalgia for the angst and innocence of youth, it has now taken on even more significance for me in that it perfectly enshrines the bittersweet beginning of my career, of a time when I shared all of my life-altering experiences with my dearest friend Cayce as we, too, grew up together and became adults.

So there you have it. The Wonder Years was truly a second adolescence for me, and with this gorgeous release of the show on DVD, I couldn’t ask for better home movies of that particular time and place in my life. Well done, Time-Life and StarVista, well done, indeed. Stay tuned…

You can purchase The Wonder Years: The Complete Series by clicking here.

No trespassing…

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December 9, 2014 – If you’ve read my novel, City of Whores, you’ll know I’m a rabid fan of Hollywood’s golden age. I’ve also been a lifelong fan of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and abandoned places. So imagine my surprise when I was recently scrolling through the posts on the Vintage Hollywood Homes Facebook page and came across an item about all of the above: famed director Vincent Minnelli’s abandoned mansion which stands empty and in ruins in the heart of Beverly Hills. My first thought was how could I not know about this? I had been to the Beverly Hills Hotel many times, never realizing that the derelict Minnelli estate sits directly catty-corner from its famous entrance. I immediately shared the article with my friends, and, long story short, found myself with a date to visit the place with my friend from The Wonder Years, Val Joseph. As I was walking toward the house earlier today, Val appeared from the driveway. Seems she’d beaten me to it, and had already been exploring a bit of the house’s exterior.

The minute I stepped into the driveway, a very strange feeling came over me. It was a mixture of vague uneasiness and the dawning of a profound sadness. This only intensified as we drew nearer. I joked about how we shouldn’t be trespassing (there are signs everywhere, after all), but Val rightly pointed out we wouldn’t be the first or the last, so I gamely followed her around to the front of the house. As I stood there in the circular driveway looking up at the forlorn facade, I couldn’t help but imagine it in its heyday. My mind unspooled a vivid Technicolor™ scene of a line of gleaming vintage cars easing through, stopping only long enough to deposit the cream of Tinseltown society at the front door where a tuxedoed Vincent Minnelli himself convivially shook their hands and welcomed them in through the front door and into his dazzlingly lit, capacious manse. From somewhere inside, a piano accompanied a young Liza as she belted out a song for her father’s elegant soiree, and the windows were alive with the silhouettes of the motion picture royalty inside. Perhaps Judy, in a show of magnanimity, had even agreed to put aside her differences with her ex-husband and attend this particular shindig, finally joining their daughter in wowing the partygoers with an impromptu duet of her greatest hits.

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As we moved around the side of the house, I peered through a huge picture window into what was left of the living room. Impossibly, a few pieces of furniture remained, but the space had been destroyed by vandals and squatters, someone having scrawled “LIZA WAS HERE” in spray paint on the wall, among other things. The sadness haunting me intensified, though I tried to conceal it from Val.

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In the backyard, the drained and ruined swimming pool came into view, its walls defaced by graffiti above the brackish puddle of water in the deep end. Again, I imagined a vignette from the distant past: a maid in a crisp uniform was bringing a telephone with an extraordinarily long cord from the house, informing Minnelli (who was sitting on a chaise lounge watching the shirtless pool boy fish leaves from the water’s surface) that Gene Kelly was on the line. Minnelli eagerly took the call, then had an amusing and animated conversation with the screen legend even while his eyes remained glued to the worker’s glistening torso. When the pool boy realized he was being watched and smiled, Minnelli quickly snatched his eyes away.

And then, from all of this enchantment, a thought intruded that utterly changed the experience for me: I was suddenly standing in my own backyard. The destroyed pool was now mine, and the house that I’ve loved since I walked through the front door in 1999 had been equally defaced and disrespected, my belongings rifled through, stolen, broken, and in tatters. How would I feel knowing that people were exploring there, writing on my walls, breaking my windows, and burning my furniture in the fireplace? The unease and sadness deepened.

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Val was determined to go inside despite the padlock on the front door, and she soon found easy entrance through an open kitchen window. As I watched her climb through, I blurted out that I had no intention of going inside. She jokingly cajoled me, but I was firm. I didn’t know how to explain, but I really didn’t want to walk around inside the tragic remains of these people’s lives. After Minnelli’s death in 1986, Liza inherited the place with the promise to her father that she’d take care of his widow, Lee (despite his homosexuality, or perhaps because of it, Minnelli was married four times during his life). Liza wanted to sell the house, which she finally did in 2000, having purchased a half-million dollar condominium for her elderly stepmother. Lee refused to move and the situation became contentious. Ultimately, the house was sold and Liza rented it month-to-month from the new owners so that Lee could live out her years there, finally passing away in 2009 in her nineties. For reasons unexplained, the house remained mostly furnished even as the new owners finally took possession, but never moved in. Never restored the place. Never tore it down to make room for a McMansion. Never did…anything. Inexplicably, they just let the house sit there in inexorable decay.

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I had seen enough to satisfy my curiosity. I didn’t need to experience firsthand the disrespect of vandalism. The stained carpets. The broken mirrors. The filthy toilets. The ransacked detritus of famous people’s lives. I preferred to imagine the house in its prime, when a doting father maintained a closet in Liza’s room filled with child-sized reproductions of costumes from Gone With The Wind and The King and I for his daughter to play dress up with her friend Candice Bergen. I preferred to try and imagine where the backyard playhouse had been. I preferred to picture the house when it was alive.

Over lunch at Chin Chin afterwards, Val and I managed to catch up on all the years since we’d last seen each other. I was still a bit overwhelmed by my strange experience, and didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling. Instead, I told her I’d been concerned about snagging my black linen shirt on the window frame and joked that our official story would be that I’d stood guard while she went exploring. And I’m glad she did, as I could see the genuine delight in her eyes. Val is and always has been, after all, a force of nature.

But for me, considering the gloomy story of that decaying and forlorn palace, the word “trespass” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Perhaps some ghosts are best left undisturbed. Stay tuned…

Under the influence…

Los Feliz Murder House

Photo by Brian Boskind © 2014

September 3, 2014 – I’ve had a lifelong obsession with abandoned places, particularly those with especially tragic histories. Growing up in Atlanta, I was drawn again and again to the old Heinz Mansion where Henry Heinz had been murdered by an intruder in 1943, and within a decade or so, the sprawling Mediterranean stood empty and neglected, haunted by ghosts and thrill-seeking teenagers. Despite my normally timid nature, I returned there again and again. To this day, I’m convinced I saw a ghostly apparition hovering in the dining room on the anniversary of Heinz’ death. A few years ago, the flesh on the back of my neck prickled when I opened the Los Angeles Times to find a headline including the words “Murder—and Then a Mystery,” complete with a photo of a particularly foreboding and somewhat sinister looking mansion that conjured within me a delicious deja vu. The story of the house on Glendower—in my own neighborhood of Los Feliz, no less—was even more lurid and sensational than the Heinz saga. On the night of December 6, 1959, with Christmas just around the corner, something possessed Dr. Harold Perelson to bludgeon his wife to death with a ball-peen hammer as she sat in bed reading. He then attacked his teenage daughter, inflicting savage head wounds, before leaving her for dead and calmly going upstairs to check on his other two sleeping children—telling them that all was well and whatever they heard was just part of a vivid nightmare. Injured but still conscious, the teenage daughter managed to flee the house and alert the neighbors who called the police. Before they arrived, Dr. Perelson calmly sat down in his living room and drank a bottle of acid. The authorities came and concluded their investigation, cleaned up the traces of the savage crime, removed the children to safety, and then locked the place up.

And no one has lived in that colossal old mansion since that night.

In fact, it sat for decades like some macabre time capsule, everything exactly as it had been when the police finally left and locked its doors, the events of that horrific night forever memorialized by the decorated Christmas tree and its vintage paper-wrapped gifts, the old television set the family had watched together before Father embarked on his murderous rampage, and the children’s toys and games that would never be played with again. I immediately drove over to see this imposing edifice, but was too intimidated by the “No Trespassing” sign to go up and peek through the grimy windows to see if the Christmas tree still held its vigil over the house’s gruesome past. Subsequent owners left the Perelson’s belongings mostly untouched, and used the house only for storage. Rain has leaked through the roof in places, and scattered pots and buckets collect brackish water. As a writer, these details will be forever seared into my imagination, and the imagery of the story of “The Los Feliz Murder House” will undoubtedly recur in my work throughout my career as I remain under its spell. In fact, minus the ghastly slaughter, a few of the house’s more poignant details can be found making cameos in City of Whores. I hope you enjoy discovering them. Stay tuned…

For more fascinating reading, including photos of the interiors, go here and here. Or just Google “Glendower Murder House.”

Goodnight, Slim…

This photo sat in a frame on my desk for many, many years.

August 13, 2014 – Way back in a different world known as the Mid-1970s, I discovered a magical place in Atlanta known as “The Silver Screen” in the parking lot of the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, not far from another favorite haunt, Peaches record store. With its shiny blue metallic vinyl seats and ever-present cologne of popcorn, George Lefont’s monument to the movies was a mysterious, shadowy palace where I could disappear for hours while savoring the double features of the best that classic Hollywood and Foreign Cinema had to offer. It was like TCM  unspooling 24/7…only with the shared experience of being among all those “wonderful people out there in the dark.” And it was within its sacred walls, one rainy Saturday afternoon, that I first heard that voice. Saw that face. And was thereafter and forever smitten.

Anybody got a match?” she asked in the sultriest of smoldering voices as she gave “the look” to Humphrey Bogart. Never mind that her lowered chin and upward gaze were really just an attempt to stop herself from shaking with nerves while filming her very first scene as she embarked on a long and legendary career. What matters is that it was a trick that worked. The black and white photography, the way her clothes flattered her frame, those eyes, that face, and honestly, the way she lit and smoked a cigarette as if it were sexual foreplay, made an indelible impression.

The film was, of course, her introduction to the world at the tender age of 19 (making her a peer had we been of the same generation) in To Have and Have Not, on a double feature with, as I recall, Key Largo. I was instantly a fan, and returned again the next day…and the next…until I practically had those movies committed to memory. Thus was my introduction to the inimitable, definitive femme fatale, Lauren Bacall, and the beginning of my obsessive quest to see all of her films, greedily searching each week’s TV Guide, and relishing every screen appearance I could find. When her candid autobiography came out in 1978, By Myself, it was to be my first in a long line of movie star memoirs and biographies. I may have already had a fondness for classic cinema even in my late teens, but when Lauren Bacall slinked into my orbit, I fell wildly in love. So much so that in a college playwriting class, I slaved over a one-act about a contemporary young man so disillusioned with modern life that he retreats into a world of vintage clothes and furniture and cars and snappy banter, trying to wish away the present so he can live in the more glamorous black and white past, where walls were slashed with the dramatic shadows of venetian blinds and everything was caressed by lazy curls of cigarette smoke—all with the ever-present hope of discovering La Bacall in a candlelit booth in some tony jazz and swing supper club, just waiting for him, gazing upward with that signature look of hers. This young man was on an obsessive quest to find his own Betty Bacall, only to learn that everyone and everything couldn’t find a candle let alone hold one next to his screen idol.

Lauren Bacall was my very first classic movie star crush, and with her passing, the lights on my mind’s marquee will forever be respectfully dimmed in her honor. Thanks, Ms. Bacall, for years of inspiration. “Just put your lips together…and blow.” Indeed.

Stay tuned…

Call Sheets 101…

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 10.07.19 AM(Above: Patty Duke and real-life son Mackenzie Astin in NBC’s short-lived 2001 series First Years.)

June 18, 2014 – In the spring of 2001, I had one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my television career, and true to the laws of this peculiarly mercurial industry, it was also one of my most short-lived. My fantastic writer friend who I’ve known since the halcyon days of The Wonder Years, the incomparably, impossibly talented Jill Gordon, had adapted a British series called This Life for American television for NBC. The show was a deft mixture of comedy and drama, with enough heart to bring the occasional tear to the eye―in short, firmly inside both my comfort zone and my wheelhouse. With an incredible cast including Sydney Poitier (yes, his daughter), Samantha Mathis, James Roday, Ken Marino, and Mackenzie Astin, the set up was a group of first year legal associates right out of law school sharing a Victorian rental in San Francisco while working for a powerful law firm headed by an insane senior partner portrayed by indie-favorite Eric Schaeffer. Despite being eviscerated by some particularly nasty reviews to rival those I received for my own series Push, I still stand by my belief that this show would have succeeded if the trigger-happy NBC executives at the time―all long gone from those jobs, it should be noted―had just given it a chance.

Network executives often don’t know when to leave a good thing alone, and such was the case with our little pseudo legal dramedy. First off, they made the number one mistake on the “List of Greatest Blunders You Can Possibly Make When Launching a New Prime Time Series”―despite a legacy of history demonstrating irrefutably that it’s a bone-headed move―by deciding to ditch the pilot altogether and air the first three episodes out of order. Never mind that a pilot generally introduces the audience to the characters and the world by design. So if you drop your viewers―and your television critics―smack dab into your second episode, they naturally are confused by the characters’ interpersonal dynamics, quirks, back stories, etc., and are prone to change the channel in frustration. Undeterred, the NBC folks decreed that we’d air the second episode as the first, and the third as the second. Fortunately for me, I got to write episode three, entitled And Then You Die, which guest starred the fabulous Scott Grimes from my Party of Five days.

Which brings me to episode six, which was titled There’s No Place Like Homo. The story centered mostly on Mackenzie Astin’s character, Warren Harrison, the well-spoken young gay man among the first year legal associates and college friends. In it, he was to receive an award for doing some pro bono work for GALLA, the Gay & Lesbian Legal Association, and desperately wanted his ultra conservative deep-in-denial parents to attend and share in his accomplishment. While drafting a final will and testament for his folks, Warren is trying to work up the nerve to tell them about the gay honor–only to be thwarted at every turn by his mom who pretends to have been diagnosed with cancer as a guilt-inducing means of keeping her son’s truth at bay. Until, of course, tensions finally boil over before the denouement. I was thrilled to again work with Timothy Busfield (the actor-turned-director who starred in thirtysomething and Revenge of the Nerds) who had helmed And Then You Die. Obviously, we needed a couple of powerhouses to play the parents, and were fortunate enough to cast the amazing Tom Bower as the dad, Roy Harrison. And I was both elated and starstruck when none other than Patty Duke, Mackenzie’s real-life mom, agreed to play the part of Evelyn Harrison, affording me the opportunity to work very closely with a Hollywood legend and honest-to-god Academy Award-Winner. I was not disappointed.

Patty Duke and Me2(L-R: Anna, yours truly, and Mac. Note: Anna’s in makeup for a flashback scene. Taken with a crappy early 21st century digital camera.)

The consummate professional, Anna (as she preferred to be called in person) nevertheless enjoyed chatting between takes, at one point explaining that as a professional actor, one of your single most important responsibilities is to know how to read the Call Sheet―each production day’s list of scenes to be shot, actors working, locations, special equipment requirements, etc. prepared by the shoot’s First Assistant Director. She said she made it a top priority when advising young actors, schooling them in what she referred to as “Call Sheets 101”: know your lines for the day’s scenes, be on time (if not even a bit early) for hair and makeup, be professional, don’t keep your colleagues waiting, etc. This, of course, made the shoot’s second day particularly interesting when her own son, Mac Astin, was forty-five minutes late for his first scene with Mama. Sadly, I don’t recall the reason now, and can attest to Mackenzie’s usually faithful adherence to his mother’s teachings, so this particular anomaly was especially surprising, and led to a great deal of good-natured mother-son taunting for the rest of the shoot. As a side note, another treat was that Mac’s brother Sean was hanging around the set for most of the shoot, shadowing our director, fresh from a long stint in New Zealand filming The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and he proved to be a very entertaining presence as well. In other words, this kid from Tucker, Georgia, was having a ball.

As Anna and I warmed to each other, I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question that had been eating away at me: “So…how do you explain Valley of the Dolls?” Anna gave me a look that included a sheepish grin and a self-deprecating twinkle in her eyes as she simply shrugged and said, “We didn’t know.” She explained how they all played it as if it were Shakespeare, and the rest, as they say, is infamy. I’m pretty sure that’s the moment I fell madly in love with the former star of a childhood favorite show with the preposterous but lyric-friendly premise of identical cousins.

By the time our second episode―er, our third episode in our second outing―aired, the writing was on the wall with the network. We were already shooting our eighth and final show (besides the pilot), and the ratings were abysmal―again, thanks to poor promotion, irresponsible and confusing scheduling, and the resultant bad reviews. We were notified that the next week, our third broadcast, would be our last. As devastated as I was by this news, there was one tiny silver lining which was brought to me by my friend Jill when she explained that the head of the network had loved the cut of There’s No Place Like Homo so much that he’d decided it would be the series’ finale and swan song. So episode two was first, three was second, and six was third. But at least my work with the legendary, professional, funny, generous and very, very kind Patty “Anna” Duke, got to take its small place in the history of broadcast television. Honestly, for me, it was a shining hour. And by me, I mean me alone, as I’m pretty sure I was the only person who actually watched the episode when it was broadcast. Maybe I’m delusional, but I’ll let the episode speak for itself. Below is the climactic scene in the Anna/Mac storyline, where the gloves finally come off, and both mother and son speak their respective truths to each other. Being on set that day was an experience I will always treasure. Apologies for the poor quality as it was ripped from an antique VHS cassette tape. Ah, the things that might have been.

Stay tuned…

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…

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…