Category Archives: Starstruck

Always, always inquire further…

EvePosterOctober 3, 2014 – Recently, a very gracious and charming neighbor invited me to a cocktail party in her spectacular 1920s era English cottage (just down the street). I had heard through the grapevine that the house had been built by Suzanne’s grandfather who had some connection to Hollywood’s golden age, but had never bothered to inquire further. (Note to self: Always, always, inquire further.) “Some connection” would turn out to be a woefully inadequate description. As we toured the gorgeously appointed interior, libations and canapés in hand, I spotted a framed photograph of a man posing with Cecil B. DeMille and inquired if that was the grandfather in question. I was subsequently flabbergasted and delighted to discover that I was in the home of Victor Milner, Academy Award-winning cinematographer of the 1934 Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra, and the man who shot one of my favorite films of all time, The Lady Eve, starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and written and directed by the incomparable Preston Sturges. Well, we had a thing or two to discuss once that cat was out of the bag, including how my adoration of all things Stanwyck had led to my specifically working her into my novel, City of Whores, along with a reference to The Lady Eve. After Suzanne had read the book, she dropped off a lovely handwritten card (recall I used the words “gracious and charming” to describe her). With her permission, I’m sharing an excerpt. For those of you who’ve read the book, you’ll know the Dexter she refers to is the stage name of my protagonist. For those of you who haven’t, what is wrong with you?

The only thing better than a good book is one you can’t put down. Thanks for the many enjoyable nights I spent reading City of Whores. I particularly liked your style and the cadence of your phrasing, which when combined with the storyline was so riveting I felt as if I wasn’t just reading, but was really there.

Your characterization of Barbara Stanwyck was particularly apt. The kindness with which she treated Dexter was well known in my family. One day during a break in Lady Eve, my grandfather was talking to Ms. Stanwyck (who he affectionately referred to as “Missy”) when he received a telegram on the set. In it, he learned that his son, my dad, who was a pilot, had been in a terrible plane crash, and was in an ICU in Texas with burns throughout his body. At the time, the movie was already over budget, and the production was under a great deal of pressure to finish the film. It was pretty close to wrapping with only scenes of the principal characters remaining.

Barbara Stanwyck did everything possible to encourage my grandfather to leave the set and go to his son, but my grandfather was resolute about finishing filming. He knew if he left he’d be instantly fired, and might not get work on another film in the future if this happened. The next morning, however, when he came on the set, it was announced that Ms. Stanwyck was horribly ill. She stayed “sick” for 10 (ten!) days until my dad was out of ICU—making it possible for my grandpa to see him. What a lady. And that was only one story, albeit my favorite.”

I just adore everything about this story, and am both thrilled and a bit awed to receive such nice words from a lovely neighbor with Hollywood in her DNA. When I called to ask if I could share this on my blog, she immediately said yes, and told me she’d dig around for more stories and material related to her grandfather.

I fully intend to inquire further this time. Stay tuned…

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…

Hollywood: Land of Missed Opportunity…

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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…

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…

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:

Hartsell2

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.

Hartsell

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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My first words on TV…

OfficerDonOnTVFebruary 13, 2014 – My first television work was broadcast in the summer of 1966, when I was all of eight years old. Thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show and a creatively inspiring third grade teacher, Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell at Briarlake Elementary, I knew I wanted to be a writer even at that very tender age. If playing darts and telling jokes all day was a job―for which Rob, Buddy, and Sally actually got paid―I knew that was for me. I had been writing short stories at school (many of them typed on my father’s old Royal typewriter which I still own), and judging from the response I got from the adults around me, felt as if I’d finally found something I was relatively good at. So I wrote a  story called “How Orville the Green Dragon Turned Green” and sent it to Officer Don, host of the local afternoon kiddie show The Popeye Club. Within days of dropping it into the mail, I found myself suddenly begging my mom to shut off the Electrolux because Officer Don had just opened an envelope “from Mark Perry in Tucker.” As his eyes scanned the first few lines, a brief look of puzzlement flickered across his face before he smiled and said, “Oh, I see. It’s a story.” “About what?” asked Orville the Green Dragon, the convivial policeman’s sidekick hand puppet. “About you!” Officer Don replied. “Me? Well, by all means, let’s hear it!” So with my mother beside me in front of the flickering black and white image on the TV, I watched Officer Don read my entire two page story aloud. As my words came out of the television, I sat shivering and flushed with exhilaration. When it was over, and Officer Don segued into a round of The Ooey Gooey Game, I sat stunned in the aftermath of that life-altering experience, my mother telling me how proud she was. I had been bitten, and there would be no turning back.

In the ensuing years, I continued to write stories and scripts of all kinds, make 8mm monster movies, study film and television production at the University of Georgia, until a series of events brought me to Hollywood where I’ve since been fortunate (blessed, even) to achieve my goal of being a working television writer now celebrating my twenty-fifth year in the business. As a starstruck kid from Georgia with no contacts and zero business savvy, I nevertheless managed to fumble my way into representation by an agent, land my first freelance job that turned into a staff position, and have now written more hours of TV than I care to tabulate.

It’s a long story. Often amusing. Sometimes tragic. But never, ever dull. Next up, How I Got An Agent by Being Completely Ignorant of How to Get an Agent. Stay tuned…