Category Archives: Writing

An excerpt from City of Whores

WhoresBook1TSPRZ copy

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?”

“Cut!”

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.

#

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.

You can purchase my 1950s Hollywood novel, City of Whores, by clicking here.

The proof is in the reading…

Heddy

October 23, 2014 – I despise tpyos–damn it, typos. Those persistent and pernicious finger gaffes that sneak full of mischief into my prose. Crafty little devils with the super power to render themselves invisible by hiding in plain sight, especially when they are being deliberately hunted. Sometimes, I’m typing so fast that I generate what I call “word-os.” These appear when motor memory takes over my fingers and I write “was” for “want” or “see” for “she” or, just now, in writing this very sentence, “thank” for “that.” I diligently and purposefully try to keep these foul beasts at bay, and yet the more time I spend at the keyboard—and I spend a lot of time at the keyboard—the more the little gremlins sneak into my prose, successfully avoiding detection until after I hit “send” or worse, publish and distribute.

When I was writing City of Whoresmy invaluable and eagle-eyed editor, Alice Peck, managed to catch and corral (which I just now typed as “coral”) probably 100% of them in the last draft she worked on for me. So of course I released them all right back into the wild while revising, allowing them to breed and multiply like coat hangers. When I sent the “final” manuscript off (which I just typed as “of”)  to the talented book designer Duane Stapp and copied the precise Ruth Mullen for conversion to eBook format, I confidently (read idiotically) told them both that it was “ready for publication.”

And that’s when the grim grinning goblins of transposed words, missing letters, extra letters, and incorrect homophones and heterographs (sexy words to be sure) started to reveal themselves in all of their mortifying glory, humiliating me just like Sissy Spacek in the “they’re all going to laugh at you” scene in Carrie. Panicked, I began to test the patience of poor Duane and Ruth with several rounds of corrections and revisions. Nevertheless, until recently, the paperbacks and eBooks in circulation still had “Hedy Lamarr” as “Heddy,” “made our way” as “made or way,” (thanks Martin Turnbull for catching those), “drove away” as “drove way,” and the most recent, “world-renowned” as “world-renown” (kudos to Carl Wesch for that one). I have corrected these in all editions as they emerge, but now live with a feverish paranoia that more are still hiding in that thick forest of characters, waiting to jump out and terrorize me just in time for Halloween.

Those of you who know me can confirm that I’m about as O.C.D. about this stuff as a person can get. Being a southerner, I want everything in my world to at least present itself as neat, tidy, and nothing short of perfect. Still, as I prepared materials for my recent blog tour, I proofed and reproofed and proofed the reproof of the various excerpts, interviews, and bios I had been asked to provide. And still, when the first day of the tour arrived, there I was debuting on BooksDirectOnline with my main character listed not as “Dan Root,” but “Dan root,” instead. In the very first sentence no less. And here I am trying to be taken seriously as a writer, destroying my professional credibility from the start. Fortunately, I was able to email two of the blogs running that particular boo-boo, and they kindly corrected it for me. On a different site, two–count ’em two–rather obvious typos appeared, one fully my fault:

typo2And the other somehow managed to stowaway in my prose somewhere in transit to going public. I’m telling you, these things are devilish little living creatures who have it out for me:

typo1

Fortunately, none of these have even come close to matching my first most spectacular and memorable typographical error. This one was of the “missing letter” variety. It just happened to be a letter that radically changed the meaning of the intended word. In 1980, I was working for a small company in Atlanta called TCG (The Communications Group), writing and producing industrials (training videos and corporate annual meeting presentations and such). We had one of the very first dedicated word processors I’d ever seen, manufactured by a company called Lanier. As a writer, I marveled at the amazing technology of being able to make corrections without the use of tape or White-out, and to compose one draft of a letter, then have the machine replace the address and salutation over two hundred times so that we could send out that many personalized general query letters, hoping to solicit new business. I composed and typed that letter, and even though all two hundred or so hand signed copies were mailed with the proud proclamation that  “our firm excels at pubic relations,” we still didn’t get a single response. Stay tuned…