Monthly Archives: January 2015


January 28th, 2015 5 Comments




Some years ago, I was sitting in the orchestra section of the Wiltern Theatre, pretending to ignore the barrel of the video camera aimed straight at my head.


The occasion?


The Cable Ace Awards.


The reason for my presence?


An HBO film called The Last Innocent Man.


It had received multiple nominations from the Cable Academy back in the days when cable programming was not yet eligible for Emmy consideration: Best Movie or Mini-Series, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Art Design, and best of all…


…Best Writer.




So there I was…in heady company: Sammy Davis, Jr., Raymond Burr, Ted Turner, Billy Crystal, Hal Holbrooke, Larry King, Bernadette Peters, Rod Steiger, and many, many others.


I was there, and I was ready.


Speech rehearsed and memorized.


Looking relaxed but ready to spring up and bound to the stage.


The writing nominees are announced.


A pause for the opening of the envelope.


The camera moves in close on me.


And the winner is…


Ted Whitehead for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.


Ted Whitehead?


For The Life and Loves of a She-Devil?


I’d obviously been robbed!


I erupted in silent indignation.


Did I consider the possibility that I hadn’t deserved the award?


Are you kidding me?


No, I was clearly the victim of shocking bias on the part of the Cable Academy.


They obviously had something against the small but significant minority I represent: former DePauw University Professors of English born in Pomona, California.


How did I know?


Not a single one of us had ever won an ACE Award!


I suffered similar disappointment some eight or ten years later when my NBC film, A Friend To Die For, was overlooked in the Emmy nominations.


It had received fabulous reviews.


It had attracted the largest television audience of any MOW aired that year.


And it had gone totally unrecognized by the members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences!


Oh, it had starred Tori Spelling, and the producer had refused to spend a dime promoting it during the awards season.


But what difference could that have made?


Once again, I’d been robbed!


Not only had my film been overlooked, but my heartbreaking work of staggering genius as “The Jogger” had also been ignored.


I’d opened and closed my movie in a silent turn so dazzling that every actor who undertakes such a role in the future will, I am sure, have to measure his performance against mine.


Never has an extra contributed so much to a motion picture and received so little in the way of recognition!


The Television Academy was obviously as biased as the Cable Academy.


If you looked at the record, there was only one conclusion possible: former DePauw University Professors of English from Pomona, California simply didn’t stand a chance.


Twice the victim of Hollywood’s institutionalized bias against me and my kind, I understand Al Sharpton’s fury at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s failure to nominate the star and the director of Selma in this year’s competition.


The only possible explanation for such oversights is, of course, unrepentant racism.


Never mind that the President of the Academy is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a charming, talented black woman I had the pleasure to know back in my day at Paramount.


Never mind that last year, 12 Years a Slave received nine nominations from the racially biased Academy members and won Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Supporting Actress.


Never mind that Paramount, the American distributor of Selma, failed to get the screener DVD’s out to the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild in time to qualify for their awards.


Never mind that the film’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson has been challenged by distinguished historians and by actual participants in the events leading up to Selma and to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.


Never mind that Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave the performance of a lifetime in Nightcrawler, and that Amy Adams, whose portrayal of Margaret Keane in Big Eyes won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, were overlooked as well.


As for those who have made the preposterous suggestion that perhaps the members of the Academy simply didn’t feel director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo deserved nomination…well, that’s simply beneath contempt.


Then, of course, there are those who ask how the membership of the Academy could be racist in light of the fact that they did nominate Selma in the Best Picture category even though they overlooked the director and star.




Clearly nothing more than the Academy’s shameless attempt to cover-up its appalling bigotry.


No, Al Sharpton is right to call an emergency meeting of his Task Force on Diversity to consider action against the racist Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


As the victim of obvious bias from both the Cable Academy and the Television Academy, I say to him, I share your pain.


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January 21st, 2015 1 Comment



Years ago, I was on the faculty of an innovative school with a fellow by the name of Sam Kean.


A mainstay of Esalen, a touchy-feely type who was in many ways the incarnation of the sixties, Sam had written a book called To a Dancing God.


His thesis was that Apollo, the god of order and reason, had become too powerful in our society—a repressive tyrant—and that the time had come to overthrow him and put Dionysus, the god of spontaneity and creative disorder in his place.


I’ve always wished I could do that, but to be honest, the only place I’ve ever succeeded is on the page.


I once wrote a screenplay for Disney called Blood Money. The premise was simple. A tough, by-the-book FBI agent—the first female Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle office—is forced to recruit the services of a drunken ex-cop who quit the force because he hated the goddam rules.


She’s a feminist with a broomstick up her ass, and he’s an outrageous sexist. In fact, she first meets him when he’s playing tittywinks, using an opulently endowed barmaid’s cleavage as the cup.


These two characters are Sam’s Apollo and Dionysus, left-brain order and right-brain chaos, the outer me and the inner me.


When I begin a project, Apollo has the upper hand.


My first step is exhaustive, obsessive research—initially in libraries and on the internet and eventually on the scene of the story.


Take the example of Juggernaut, the sci-fi epic I wrote for director John McTiernan. The story of an alien machine invading the earth, it required weeks of study in the bowels of the UCLA library, where I read everything I could about NASA’s plans to send probes to other worlds and about the organic machines they planned to use to accomplish the task.


This led me to late-night sessions at Jet Propulsion Labs, where some of the world’s most accomplished scientists helped me work out the physics and the chemistry of my story.


Then it was off to the Central Plains of Montana.




Both John and I loved the notion of this highly sophisticated machine from the future landing in a remote part of a state where most of the residents still had one foot in the nineteenth century. We wanted to place the responsibility for stopping this technological marvel squarely on the shoulders of a small-town sheriff more comfortable on his horse than behind the wheel of his patrol car.


So…two weeks on patrol with a back-country deputy sheriff, questioning him relentlessly about his job, the scattered communities he served, the world in which he lived and worked—observing him and his friends, the way they talked, the way they dressed, the way they moved.


Then back to my study in Studio City, where my left brain continued to work away, preparing outlines, character sketches, notes.


Only when I felt I had completely immersed myself in the two worlds of my story…


Only when I was convinced that I’d learned everything I could about my characters and the place that produced them…


Only then could I let go.


I turned my back on Apollo and fell down in worship of Dionysus, giving my left brain a well-deserved rest and placing the burden of creation on the right.


How did I achieve this?


I isolated myself on the small power cruiser we kept at Channel Islands Harbor.


Allowing myself conjugal visitation only on the weekends, I locked myself up, saw no one, and walked the empty beach, waiting for my characters to start talking to me.


I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning, jog, shower, and after a quick breakfast fortified by a few quarts of coffee, go to work.


Work consisted of reviewing the basics of the scene I hoped to write that day, grabbing my pocket recorder, and heading to the beach where the white noise of the breaking waves let me slip away to the world of my story and encouraged my characters to speak.


I always felt that I myself had little to do with it. I was simply observing these people as they lived out their lives, making a record of what they said and did.


Once I had a scene on tape, I’d return to the boat and transcribe my characters words and action onto yellow legal pads, revising as I went, amused to find that when I was voicing the female players, I sounded a bit like Norman Bates voicing his mother.


I’d ordinarily do two or three scenes this way, and then, at the end of the day, I’d transfer the material on the legal pads to my computer, once again revising as I went.


A simple dinner, a book or a movie in the same vein as my current project, and early to bed before beginning the process all over again the next morning.


And when I finally finished and returned to Studio City, I would collapse, physically and mentally spent, afflicted with what felt like terminal cold or flu, abandoned by both Dionysus and Apollo, neither right brain nor left capable of functioning.


Do all writers work this way?


No, certainly not.


I am, I suspect, more controlling than most.


I give Apollo more than his due.


Most, I’m sure, are more like Jameson Parker, possibly the finest writer I’m privileged to know. Oh, he does his homework, but he often begins a story with nothing more than a character and a situation, and has no idea where his tale will take him.


Very different from Yours Truly who often knows the end of his story before he figures out the beginning.


Every writer develops his or her own “daily ritual,” but most of these rituals have elements in common: a rigid routine, isolation from the everyday world, a stimulant to stave off exhaustion.


And the objectives of these rituals are always the same…


To overcome the fear of the blank page.


To dwell in a world elsewhere—a world where the writer can observe his characters acting out their lives.


To meet the overwhelming mental and physical demands of the job of creation, a job that requires the blessings of both the tyrant Apollo and the dancer Dionysus.

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January 14th, 2015 6 Comments



A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…


…I had respect, job security, and a title—Associate Professor of English!


I spent my days reading and discussing great literary works like Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and The Grapes of Wrath.


Then I came to Hollywood.


Respect went out the window.


I was now a reader—a nameless drone in the hive of Universal Studios.


As for job security, that too was gone.


In fact, I spent three months unemployed before the Story Analysts Guild allowed me to accept the job that had inspired me to resign my academic post.


And my title?


Well, let’s just say that “reader” doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe as “ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR.”


Frankly, none of this mattered.


I was inside!


I was where I’d dreamed of being all my life.


In my film fanatic’s mind, I had just entered the Kingdom of Heaven,  and I was eager to try my wings.


I must admit, however, that I was somewhat daunted when I received my first assignment—a pile of Judy Blume books topped by Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.


It was, of course, a test.


The Story Editor, who had taken a chance hiring me, wanted to start me off with something I couldn’t screw up: the Blume books were born to be “Afterschool Specials” but had no chance whatsoever of making it to the big screen.


I passed the test and worked my way up to more serious projects like The Lords of Discipline and Sophie’s Choice, but I’ve always remembered the humbling experience of my descent from Joseph Conrad to Judy Blume.


So when I came upon Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was an instant fan.


Funny as she is, Chelsea is clearly a woman to be taken seriously, and when I later stumbled upon a Handler interview in which she recommended a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I had to have it.


The book, by Mason Curry, is an account of the working habits of well-known creative talents—writers, artists, composers and the like.


It is filled with fascinating anecdotes.


Thomas Wolfe fondled his “male configurations” to spur creativity. (No surprise to this reader who has always considered Wolfe’s shameless indulgence in the purplest of prose a form of verbal masturbation.)


Proust, who remembered things past while snugly ensconced in his sheets, had many bedfellows—from Edith Stiwell, who was rumored to find inspiration by lying in an open coffin, to Truman Capote, who described himself as a “completely horizontal writer.”


W.H. Auden began his day with Benzadrine and ended it with Seconal. Edward Abbey started with uppers and finished with downers.


Alcohol was, of course, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and, one suspects, for his rivals Hemingway and Faulkner, though both claimed to write sober and drink only in the interval.


But by far the most popular drug of choice, it seems, is coffee. For Beethoven, it was precisely sixty beans per cup. For Balzac, fifty cups per day. For David Lynch, a mere six or seven…augmented by heaps of sugar and a chocolate shake.


What conclusions can one draw from a reading of Daily Rituals?


First and foremost, creative types are eccentrics.


They swim outside the mainstream. They are not “normal,” and it is, perhaps, their status as outsiders that inspires them to re-examine cherished beliefs, to question the norm, to look at life from unique perspectives.


Second, the vast majority of them adhere to strict routine, to disciplined scheduling of their working lives, and they rely upon some sort of external stimulus to get them through their working day.




The creation of anything—a novel, a play, a sculpture, a dance—is hard, physically as well as mentally demanding. Phillip Roth describes it as “a nightmare.” William Styron, as “hell.”


So it is that writers go to astonishing lengths to find reasons not to write.


The most common solution?


Write every day. Write at the same time every day. Write the same number of words every day. And make sure the coffee pot is always full.


The third and final conclusion to be drawn from Daily Rituals is that most creative types are loners…at least, while they are involved in the impossible task of creation.


They, like Greta Garbo, want to be alone.


They achieve this goal by retreating to a place apart.


For Robinson Jeffers, it was the remote California coast, Tor House and his “tower beyond tragedy.”


For others, it is something as simple as a bedroom, a study, a cabin…with a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign posted outside.


Or a swim in the sea.


Or a walk in an isolated wood.


Writers and other artists want to be alone…alone in the world of their creation, alone with the characters and the images they are creating, undisturbed by the noisy world that constantly threatens to intrude and send their castles in the sky crumbling down to earth.


All of these things are, I suspect, true not just of the greats examined in Daily Rituals, but of lesser talents like Judy Blume and Chelsea Handler.


I know they are true of me, and while my achievements as a writer are modest at best, I’m convinced that there may be value in an account of my own daily rituals, which will be the subject of my next diatribe.



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