Category Archives: Tinseltown

“The House on the Hill” – Introducing “Home: Stories From L.A.”


The Stein House as seen from the Vilner House, Los Feliz. Photo by Bill Barol

September 9, 2015 – Here’s a Hollywood story best told by friend, shipmate, and fellow writer, Bill Barol, author of Thanks for Killing Me. He’s launched a new podcast series, “Home: Stories from L.A.” with this segment. Give a listen to this fascinating twenty minutes.

Stay tuned…

An excerpt from City of Whores

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February 11, 2015 – In my debut novel, City of Whores, Dexter Gaines is reflecting on the two tumultuous years of his youth in Hollywood when he aspired to be a movie star in the early 1950s. His friend and mentor, Milford (“Milly”) Langen (Darryl F. Zanuck’s right arm at 20th Century Fox and husband of movie star Lillian Sinclair), has pulled the necessary strings to secure Dexter his first film role (albeit a tiny one). Trouble is, Dexter has a nervous condition that causes his hands to tremble, and the only thing that helps is marijuana. This scene was especially challenging when I narrated the audiobook! To hear a five minute sampling of the most challenging scene in which I play Noel Coward, Truman Capote, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Truman, and Tennessee Williams, please click here

From Chapter 6

The first time I walked onto a real movie set as a working actor was on Stage 4 of the 20th Century Fox lot. A small army of grips and gaffers and production assistants was swarming over an enormous set four stories high, the middle section of a massive ocean liner, complete with a funnel that reached nearly to the catwalks high above. I was already in makeup and wardrobe, in my case the tailored uniform of a deck steward. As I stood there, taking in the lights, cameras, and the cluster of costumed extras smoking cigarettes and eating doughnuts at the craft service table, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Well you certainly look the part,” Milly said, giving my arm a squeeze.

“Yeah, I’m drawing on my vast life experience as a waiter,” I tried to smile, but the truth was, I was nervous, and more than a little bitter.

“You know your lines?”

“Line,” I corrected, then, in my best British accent, “Would you like some bouillon, Madame?”

“Hey, kiddo,” Milly said, grinning, “you gotta start somewhere.”

“I’m not complaining,” was all I could muster, lying through my teeth.

The assistant director, Henry Weinberger, called for first team to take their places.

“That’s you,” Milly said with a gentle nudge. “I’ll tag along and introduce you to everyone.”

We headed over to the set and a production assistant improbably named Pook showed us around back where the clever illusion abruptly ended. The ship was just a façade, of course, its back a mishmash of wooden beams and a narrow staircase.

“Welcome aboard,” Pook said, then gestured toward the steps. “Bon voyage.”

I emerged onto the partial deck of the steamship where the extras were already in place, bundled up in steamer rugs and gloves despite the excruciating heat of the lights overhead. Behind us, a huge rear projection screen flickered to life with a black and white film loop of the ocean rolling by, and a giant wind machine began to spin, gently ruffling our hair. If you squinted, you’d almost believe you were in the middle of the Atlantic—on an impossibly hot day. Milly approached an utterly regal woman, already seated in a deck chair with a blanket over her legs.

“Milly,” she exclaimed, delighted to see him, “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’ve taken over the picture?”

“Just visiting, Babs,” he said, leaning down to kiss her elegant cheek. “I’m grooming a young actor,” he turned to me now, “Dexter Gaines, allow me to introduce Barbara Stanwyck.”

I’ll admit it, as much as I felt like the world owed me, and that I was going to be a huge movie star, there was still enough of the kid from Tyler in me that I was completely star-struck. She extended a hand which I took in mine.

“I’m thrilled to meet you, Miss Stanwyck,” I croaked. “The Lady Eve is one of my favorite pictures.”

“You’re very kind,” she smiled, and I immediately felt at ease around her. She was genuine, unlike so many other people I’d met in the months since I’d been living in Milly and Lilly’s cabana. “And here I am on the set of another luxury liner. Too bad this one has to sink in the end.”

She was referring, of course, to the Titanic, on whose faux decks we now stood, awaiting our cue to shoot the one scene Milly had managed to secure for me. It was early November, 1952, and Milly had been successful in his campaign to ditch the working title Nearer My God to Thee and go with the more recognizable name of the actual doomed liner—an idea I had suggested to him poolside one Saturday afternoon, by the way. I had been in Hollywood for almost a year before he’d pulled enough strings to get me in front of the cameras. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember Robert Wagner out on deck when he spots Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the mother of Wagner’s love interest. He chats with her, and she reads a poem to him. What you won’t remember is the very beginning of the scene where Stanwyck is seated alone with her book, and a handsome young deck steward approaches and offers her morning bouillon.

“Well look what the cat dragged in,” said Robert Wagner, approaching and chucking Milly affably on the shoulder. Milly beamed when he saw the young actor.

“R.J., a little respect.”

“For you? Please,” Wagner said, all in fun. Milly stared at him for a moment before remembering his manners.

“R.J., this is Dexter Gaines,” Milly said, pivoting to include me in the conversation.

“How are you, Dex?” Wagner said, shaking my hand so firmly I almost flinched. “Nice to meet you.”

“You, too” was all I managed in return.

“Places everyone!” called an authoritative voice with the slightest trace of an eastern-European accent. “And will someone please help this poor lost producer off my set?” It was the director, Jean Negulesco, a kind man in his early fifties, his eyes twinkling as he came rising over the deck railing, riding alongside the cameraman on a huge crane. He gestured toward Milly. Immediately, everyone snapped to attention.

“Johnny, you shouldn’t work so hard,” Milly said to the director. “You need to rest up for croquet at Darryl’s this weekend.”

“Pfffft,” was his only response to that. “Good morning, Barbara. Lovely day to hit an iceberg,” he quipped.

Miss Stanwyck frowned. “I don’t think we should joke, considering the true story.”

“I meant no disrespect,” the director said in reply.

“I was just leaving,” Milly chimed in, good-naturedly. Then, as he passed me, “Okay, kiddo, break a leg.” Which was more or less exactly what I was afraid of.

“Any questions, anyone?”

“Let’s shoot,” Wagner said, hopping over a railing with the ease of an acrobat and trotting down the ship’s stairs to assume his place on the deck just below. I admired his self-assured athleticism, but the fact that he had the role that should have been mine filled me with resentment from the moment he confidently shook my trembling hand.

My first screen test at Fox had been the very scene Wagner was about to play with Miss Stanwyck. After months of gentle badgering from Lillian, Milly had finally acquiesced. I tested opposite a woman I didn’t recognize playing Barbara Stanwyck’s part, and while the bulk of the experience has been blocked from memory, I do remember Milly telling me how well I’d done afterwards over drinks at Ciro’s, one of his favorite haunts. I didn’t bother to tell him I’d been so high I could barely remember the dialog. In the end, Wagner got the part, and I got a walk on as a consolation prize, so here I was.

As we were getting ready to roll camera, the prop master, a diminutive man in his forties, brought over the silver tray of china cups and saucers, steaming with hot bouillon. “Here you go,” he said, thrusting the tray with its dangerous contents into my hands. Immediately, I heard the delicate and foreboding rattle, but the prop master had already moved off, checking to make sure that Miss Stanwyck had her small book of poetry for the scene.

“On a bell!” the first A.D. boomed, startling me and bringing another wave of clattering from the tray as a loud buzzer sounded. I stared at the roiling sea of broth, as agitated as the fake ocean projected behind me.

“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!”

Titanic! Scene thirty-five! Take one!” the camera loader barked, then snapped the clapper board, startling me and triggering a renewed round of tinkling bone china.

There was a long pause as I stood out of frame, desperately clinging to the tray, kicking myself for not having the sense to toke up prior to leaving my tiny dressing trailer outside.

“Aaaaaand…Action!” Negulesco shouted.

I turned toward Miss Stanwyck, who sat serenely reading her little book, the fake breeze gently ruffling her scarf. I approached.

“Good morning, Madame, lovely day.” I said crisply, so far so good, “Would you like some bouillon?”


I turned, annoyed. I wasn’t done, yet.

“Something technical?” Miss Stanwyck asked.

“No, Babs. Uh…” Negulesco looked at me, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”

I bristled, tried to hide it. “Da-Dexter.”

“Well, Da-Dexter, please stick to the script,” he said, good-naturedly enough. “You will not want to meet the angry writers.”

“I just thought it would be more courteous if I—”

“Just stick to the script,” he said firm but not unkind, then nodded to the first A.D.

“Back to one! Two is up!” the A.D. shouted. “We’re on a bell!”

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have taken it all so personally, but that was always my knee-jerk reaction. My cheeks were warm with humiliation as I caught a sympathetic look from Miss Stanwyck. “You’re doing fine,” she said, and I mustered a smile as I carefully carried my tray back to my starting mark.

“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!” “Thirty-five, take two!” “Aaaaaand…Action!” The ritual was repeated. I turned again and approached Miss Stanwyck, exactly as I had done before. She looked up, marking her page with her finger, and smiled.

“Would you like some—?” was all that came out of my mouth before my shivering hands jerked uncontrollably and the entire tray of delicate china and steaming bouillon landed all over Barbara Stanwyck’s lap in a horrible cascade of clattering metal and shattering crockery.

With a yelp, she threw off the blanket which had fortunately spared her from being scalded. “Oh my god!”

“Cut! Cut it! Barbara, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But my dress is another story…”

In the ensuing pandemonium of wardrobe, makeup, and hair people swarming their star, I remained frozen in abject horror, ignored. Finally, Miss Stanwyck caught my eye. “Dexter? Are you all right?”

The only words of kindness spoken to me.

“I’m so…sorry, Miss Stanwyck…I don’t know what happened…”

“It’s all right, really.”

“Everybody take ten!” the assistant director shouted, and I quickly spun around and made my way down the hidden stairs, blowing past a frowning Milford Langen standing near the director.

“Dex!” he shouted after me, but I kept going. I couldn’t face the man I knew I had so bitterly disappointed.

Outside the soundstage, I hurried into the empty trailer I shared with the other bit part actors—stinking bit part actor, that’s what I was. I found my stash and was well into my third significant hit when the door swung open and Milly came in. I braced myself for the worst.

“Are you okay?” he asked, surprising me with the genuine concern in his voice.

“I’m sorry, Mill. I know you stuck your neck out to get me this part, but…it’s my goddamned hands.”

He came in and closed the door, sat down opposite me.

“Let me see,” he said, and I held them up. They were still trembling even though the marijuana was slowly working its magic. I saw his expression as I put away the now cold joint.

“It’s the only thing that makes it better,” I said.

Milly nodded. “I spoke to Johnny. You’ll get through it. Just relax.”

“I’m so sorry, Mill.”

“Dex,” Milly said, reassuringly, “stop saying you’re sorry. You can do this. I know you can. I believe in you.”

No one had ever said those words to me in my entire life. I nodded and looked away, grateful for his kindness, but still not wanting to let him see me cry. Of course, everyone was bending over backwards to be nice to me later when I returned to the set. No harm done, they all said. The prop master wisely changed the contents of my tray, but even my amended line of dialog, “Would you like a fresh scone, Madame?” was cut from the final picture.


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…

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…

Almost like being in the Cities of Whores…

September 12, 2014 – Probably chief among my peculiar hobbies: I collect other people’s vintage 8mm, super 8mm, and 16mm home movies. I’m primarily drawn to footage of the classic passenger ships of the 20th century, but every now and then something different will strike my fancy. What I adore about these films is how they perfectly capture a fleeting time and place from the point of view of those who experienced them first hand, thereby bringing the past to glorious life. For me, it’s even closer to time travel than watching the films of classic Hollywood where everything has been stylized and art directed to within an inch of its life. After my debut novel City of Whores was finished and off to the presses, I was trolling around eBay trying to get a home movie fix when I found an entire reel of 8mm color film shot in 1953 (a big part of the setting of my book). A week or two later, I was uploading the now digitized footage into my computer, and loving what I saw. The photographer wasn’t the greatest, tending to shoot very short clips while moving the camera around too much, but what s/he captured is absolutely golden—and more than a little coincidental. Having spent so much time immersed in that era while researching and writing, I was both surprised and pleased to see just how many locations from my book are featured. The movie starts in Vegas, and the camera captures a garish pastiche of pulsing, throbbing neon. And right there, on the Sands marquee, is none other than TALLULAH BANKHEAD. While researching her life, I read in Joel Lobenthal’s excellent biography, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, that she had headlined in Vegas in 1953—at exactly the point in my story when I needed my protagonist to have a private, candid moment with “the glamorous and unpredictable” star and personality. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, what’s wrong with you? Our intrepid travelers then arrive in Hollywood where they capture in quick succession the Farmer’s Market, the Hollywood Bowl, Ciro’s, the Mocambo, the Palladium, and Grauman’s Chinese (featuring a huge poster for the Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb starrer, Titanic, which also plays a key role in Whores), to name just a few. And what really knocked me over: there’s even a quick glimpse of the sign for the Hollywood Center Motel! This one was so fleeting, in fact, that I slowed the footage down. The HCM is a crumbling relic that miraculously still stands on Sunset Boulevard, just east of Highland Avenue. I’ve been fascinated by the place since the first time I saw it way back in the ’80s. Coincidentally, and without my knowledge until after the fact, it was used as a location in my very first episode of The Wonder Years, “Summer Song.” It was also featured prominently (and beautifully cleaned up for the shoot) in the film L.A. Confidential, which also takes place in 1953. If you’ve read City of Whores, you’ll know the motel plays a small role. If you haven’t, well, you know…

Be sure to set the quality to 480p, the highest resolution available for the film. I really hope you enjoy this little trip back to the cities of whores in 1953. Stay tuned…

Let’s go to the hop!

TurnbullPostCoWSeptember 6, 2014 – Martin Turnbull is the author of the enormously successful Garden of Allah novels, which were recently optioned for film and television. If you love Hollywood and/or Southern California history, you’ll surely savor his books. Each in the series is set in a different era in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and his attention to detail coupled with his charming style seduce the reader into a wonderful world of movie make believe. I first encountered Martin’s enchanting website,, while Googling for images of the interior of the Mocambo nightclub which is featured in my book. Then I started following and “liking” his terrific Hollywood-centric posts on Facebook, and before I knew it, he posted the above on my City of Whores page. Shortly thereafter, we struck up a very entertaining correspondence, and he’s been enormously generous with his knowledge of the world of indie publishing. To that end, he invited me to participate in a Blog Hop, which sounded more like a very awkward dance than an opportunity to promote my work, until he explained. To participate, I’m to answer four questions here on my own blog, then link to any other writer friends who’d like to join in. Martin graciously offered to link to my blog from his, MartinTurnbull.wordpress, so let’s get to it:

1. What are you working on/writing? I’m currently dividing my creative focus between two projects. One is my bread and butter day job: ongoing revisions to my Southern Gothic ghost story TV pilot which was optioned by TriStar Television. The other is my as yet untitled second novel, which is very different from City of Whores. Yes, the protagonist works in Hollywood, but as a television writer this time, and he’s dealing with some life-altering issues rooted in having grown up in the South of the 1960s—a time when bigotry and prejudice were more or less accepted as the norm. It’s a more reflective piece than Whores, and only autobiographical in a few of the specific details.

2. How does your work/writing differ from others in its genre? For a time, I was “type cast” as a “family dramedy” and “youth oriented” writer. I used to joke that I’d spent most of my adult life firmly stuck in high school while toiling away on shows like The Wonder Years, Party of Five, and One Tree Hill. Fortunately, as I matured, new opportunities presented themselves and I had such fun on the series Ghost Whisperer and Revenge. But I can’t really say my work differed “from others in its genre” because a television writer by nature has to be adaptable to the voices of their showrunner. My ghost story pilot opens up some new terrain for me, and will allow me to finally work in the horror genre which I’ve adored ever since racing home after school to watch the original Dark Shadows (and no, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, I will never forgive you). In terms of my fiction, City of Whores is my debut novel, and while I say it’s about Hollywood in the 1950s, that’s just the high stakes and glamorous setting for an unconventional love story about one man’s journey toward redemption.

3. Why do you write what you do? Honestly, I write television because it’s usually gratifying, fun, and rewarding. I’ve always said that if you hate change, don’t go into TV because it’s a very nomadic lifestyle. I also crave instant gratification, and in television, sometimes what you’re writing today will be in front of the cameras as early as tomorrow, then all-prettied up and playing on your TV a very short while later. It’s also been an amazing training ground for developing characters, plot, and long story arcs. In fact, a season of a television show is rather like a novel in a series, each episode representing one chapter. With City of Whores, I mostly wanted to tell a dysfunctional love story. The fun part was setting it during the twilight of Tinseltown’s Golden Age, which allowed me to immerse myself in the Old Hollywood I’ve loved since falling under its spell as a child thanks to NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. For me, fiction writing is a form of time travel: things I never had a chance to experience—like the Mocambo or the 20th Century Fox back lot or the maiden voyage of the SS United States—could be brought to life through research and imagination. By putting my fictional characters in these extraordinary settings, I could live vicariously through them. As for why I’m writing my next novel, I can only quote the woman who penned my favorite book of all time: “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” – Harper Lee

4. How does your writing process work? Network television, where you’re usually writing and producing twenty-two episodes per season (which is really twenty-two forty-five minute films in ten months!) is exactly like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Once the show starts production, that conveyor belt is rolling, and you only have a certain amount of time to make sure all those little gems are perfectly packaged. Some will be great, some you’ll stuff in your apron, and some you’ll eat. The process is fast and only seems to speed up as the season unfolds. There’s no time for writer’s block when you’re constantly running around with your hair on fire while feeding the ravenous beast. As for my fiction, I usually start by cleaning out a closet or some other task. Seriously. It isn’t about avoiding the work, it’s a chance to think about the story, the characters, and their world, without having to face that panic-enducing blinking cursor. I started Whores in 1994 as part of a writers’ group, and then put it away for many years while I was constantly working crazy hours on the various TV shows that have made up my career. But when I discovered those chapters and notes again—while cleaning out my file drawers, by the way—I realized that my characters and that world had been subconsciously percolating during all the ensuing years, so I eagerly dove back in. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything, in no small part because it was so liberating. Gone were the voices in my head: no line producer screaming at me that there’s no way we could recreate the filming of a scene from the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck film Titanic; no actors arguing heatedly with me while refusing to say a crucial line of dialog; no director freaking out about the sheer number of scenes; no studio telling me my characters would have to travel on the Queen Mary because it’s right here in Long Beach. Fiction set my imagination free, and it was so exhilarating, I’m now an addict for life.

And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Which brings us to…

One of the best things about working in television is the writers’ room. It’s my favorite part of the process—the camaraderie of other writers. Along the way, if you’re lucky, you even meet some keepers: fellow scribes who quickly become friends outside of the room and beyond the life of the show. For me, one of those keepers is the incredibly talented Ann Lewis Hamilton. Her delightful debut novel, Expecting, was just published in July. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant and moving. I devoured it. So now, as part of this here Blog Hop thingy, hoppity hop on over to the her very entertaining blog for bibliophiles, MyBookClubForOne. 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…