(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.
(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.