Category Archives: Thoughts


May 1st, 2017 3 Comments



My wife and I were recently guests at the Hollywood gala celebrating the publication of LEADING LADY, our friend Stephen Galloway’s biography of pioneering producer and studio head, Sherry Lansing.


As one of those whose contributions to the book Stephen acknowledges in a postscript—my name is there right alongside Jerry Brown’s, I approached the party with trepidation, fearing I might be overwhelmed by a hoard of people seeking the pleasure of my company and the bragging rights that would go with it.


You know.


Those hoping to be able to tell their friends and neighbors that they spent most of the evening in conversation with Dan Bronson!


I needn’t have worried.


It was a bit like high school when everyone was afraid to ask out the prettiest girl and she ended up without a date for the prom.


People, intimidated at the prospect of introducing themselves to me, seemed to gravitate to lesser lights like Angelica Huston, Christine Lahti, Judge Judy, Adrian Lyne, and the heads of Fox, Sony and Universal.


It was a relief, frankly, to have been spared the crush of the crowd.


I did, however, end up in a long conversation with Nick Meyer, whose list of minor credits—things like The Seven-Percent Solution, Time after Time, Sommersby and the even numbered Star Trek films, emboldened him to approach me.


Though our resumes are somewhat different (he’s famous, and I’m not), it turned out that, as certifiable film fanatics, we did have something in common—a boundless, obsessive love of the movies.


We chatted about all things film, finding ourselves in agreement, for example, that Carol Reed’s three best films were The Third Man, Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. This led to talk of James Mason, whose death, Nick pointed out, was virtually ignored by the press.


I said, “Well, his real death couldn’t have compared to his death scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Nick responded with my favorite quote from this, one of my favorite films: “I am dying…” And I joined him in chorus to complete the line: “…and the Nautilus is dying with me”


“I am dying, and the Nautilus is dying with me.”


To this day, these words, which I first heard at the age of thirteen or fourteen, send chills up my spine.


(Mason was terrific at death scenes. Just as good…his departure in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, where he commits suicide by walking into the sea.)


Nick and I were lucky to have come of age during a great blossoming of film artistry.


We were there to witness the last, occasionally great gasps of a studio system weakened by the Paramount Consent Decrees and the competition of television.


And we were there to experience first-hand the rise of the independents, what Peter Biskind has called the era of easy riders and raging bulls.


Hardly a week went by that we did not see a film so breathtaking, so original that it stood us on our heads.


The dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal.


Slim Pickens, riding that bomb like a bucking bronco at the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove, shouting in triumphant celebration of the end of the world.


The dazzling cut in 2001 from that thighbone tossed into the air to a nuclear satellite circling the earth—from the first, most primitive weapon to the most recent and most sophisticated, tens of thousands of years of evolution in a split second on the screen!


The magnificent film fugue of Godfather One and Two—which, together, are an offer I can never refuse.


The twenty-three characters tracked with dazzling editing and overlapping dialogue in Nashville and the unforgettable death of Barbara Jean, which still worries me.


Week after week.


Year after year.


Masterpiece after masterpiece.


It is no wonder that Nick and I and countless others, fired by our love of these wonderful films, found our way to Hollywood.


Love brought us here, and love sustained us…even in the face of the almost insurmountable obstacles of the system.


But I have to admit that, of late, my love has faltered.




A glance at the cover of the latest Entertainment Weekly, with its summer movie preview, provides a quick answer.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Wonder Woman






Pirates of the Caribbean


Atomic Blonde


And more!


Would that God could spare us more.


But even He seems to be no match for the corporations that have engulfed and devoured the studios, handing the bean-counters and the marketing gurus the reigns of power, pandering to their “target audiences” of fifteen year-old kids and uneducated third-worlders, turning out of steady junk-food diet of remakes and sequels, comic book fantasies, teen sex comedies, and horror films.


These are not the sort of films likely to inspire the next Nick Meyer or even the next Dan Bronson.


They are, instead, the sort of films that led Sherry Lansing to say goodbye to Hollywood.


The turning point for her, as Stephen reports in Leading Lady, came with Lara Croft. It was, from a story-telling point of view, an absolute disaster—a film about nothing at all.


But her top marketing executive told her not to worry—he could sell it in spite of its flaws. He advised her against spending any more money to improve it because it wouldn’t make any difference at all at the box-office.


He was right.


Lara Croft made $275 million dollars worldwide.


Sherry—who loved dramas about serious issues, who was proud of films like The Verdict, China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction and The Accused—was disturbed by the increasingly corporatized environment in which she was working, where quality no longer mattered, where “clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies…”


And so she left.


Her departure came not long after my own.


Hers was voluntary.


Mine was not.


In my case, the work dried up…simply because there was no longer a market for the sort of stories I loved to write.


When I left the business, my enthusiasm for the movies left me. I—who used to see every movie that came out (and the good ones two or three times), who built everything in my life around what was in my opinion the greatest of all the arts—found myself seeing fewer and fewer films.


It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for pictures like The Fate of the Furious or even the mindless but mildly entertaining Kong: Skull Island.


I was convinced that my love had died, but a chance encounter not long ago brought it back to full-blooded life.


Sonja and I were staying at a friend’s house in Morro Bay, and we headed into San Luis Obispo to catch a screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife, a movie we hoped would break the corporate mold of today’s films.


But we got there early and discovered that the local multiplex was showing…


Are you ready for this?


I was not.


The local multiplex was showing…North by Northwest!


One of my favorite films of all time.


A film I’d not seen on the big screen since it’s release in 1959.


I went.


I saw.


It conquered.


It conquered me all over again and reignited my love of the movies, the love I was able to express in that conversation with Nick Meyer.


It’s not a love likely to be fulfilled in theatres featuring today’s studio films–like Snatched or the umpteenth remake of The Mummy.


But there are the occasional cable wonders like Downton Abbey and Feud.


And there is TCM.


And so, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…




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April 28th, 2017 1 Comment



For twenty years, Bill O’Reilly has been reporting (perhaps I should say interpreting) the news.


Now he is the news.




The answer is simple.


Bill committed the unpardonable sin.


He got caught.


It was an unfortunate, completely unexpected blunder on his part. He is, after all, a sophisticated, experienced man of the world. He knows how things work. His carelessness is and will remain a mystery.


As for the dozen or so accusations of sexual harassment, they are simply evidence that Bill has been upholding a noble, long-standing tradition of the entertainment world: the liberal use of the casting couch.


Now some of you might argue that Bill is in news, not entertainment, but such an argument reveals an appalling ignorance of the glorious revolution Fox brought to the world of news, transforming it virtually overnight from a matter of dull facts to provocative, stimulating, sometimes thrilling entertainment.


It began with the introduction of long blonde hair and jiggle to weather reporting and moved out in ever widening circles until, in no time at all, newsmen and newswomen were superstars—superstars like Bill O’Reilly.


As a star, Bill was simply exercising a prerogative shared by many at the top of the Hollywood and Broadway pyramids.


By making himself available to young ladies much further down the ladder of success than he, he was offering them opportunity—the opportunity to keep the jobs they already had and possibly even the opportunity to become stars themselves.


It is, as I suggested earlier, a venerable tradition that dates back to the very beginnings of theatre and film and that reached its fullest expression in the heyday of the studio system.


No one—not Howard Hughes, not Harry Cohn, not Jack Warner—was a more accomplished practitioner of the art of the casting couch than Darryl F. Zanuck.


In fact, there are even those who say he invented it!


Zanuck was devoted to his art.


Every afternoon at four o’clock, no matter how busy he might have been (and he was a busy, busy man), he would take half an hour to entertain one of the many starlets at 20th Century Fox and encourage them in their hopes for a big career opportunity.


His generosity was legendary—he shared himself (well, at least a part of himself) with virtually every aspiring actress he had under contract.


While the couch never again attained this level of perfection and institutionalization, it continued to play an important role both in Hollywood and on Broadway for decades to come.


In fact, my lovely wife Sonja was offered its comforts many times during her decade as an actress in New York.


A wide-eyed Minnesota girl who, like Gatsby, saw in the City nothing but beauty, promise and wonder, she once arrived for an interview at the office of a well-known producer who proceeded to chase her around his desk…until, breathless, she stopped…and started to laugh.


He, having lost his…enthusiasm…and realizing that she was not going to take advantage of the opportunity he was offering her, shifted course and began to tell her how much she’d like his handsome young son.


She, for reasons I’ll never understand, rejected both father and son and the big break that might have come with them.


On another occasion, she walked into the office of another big-time producer, and as she was sitting down, he asked, “Shall we fornicate?”


(He actually used a somewhat stronger term.)


Her answer?


She stood up, and without speaking a word, left the office.


Opportunity knocked at her door so many times, but talented as she was, she never answered it.

Then there was the case of a close friend—an actress, blonde and blue-eyed like Sonja but much better known—who was discovered by one of the best-known directors of stage and screen.


(I can vouch that she’s a hell of an actress because she has always insisted that her initial encounter with said director occurred when she was thirteen or fourteen when, according to the IMDB, she was, in fact, twenty. Okay, she fudged a bit, but she had me convinced for years. That is what I call acting!)


In any case, the great man cast her as a teenaged seductress in what turned out to be a classic play, and in his selfless attempt to prepare her for the role, he worked very hard to seduce her.


It was the quintessence of Method acting and direction, with its heavy reliance on associative memory: he was, I’m sure, simply trying to give her some memories she could draw upon to enhance her performance.


She, however, rebuffed him, and as a result of her obstinate refusal to take his direction, never worked for him again.


Though I myself never witnessed it during my years in Hollywood (possibly because I was neither blonde, blue-eyed, sexy or female), I’ve always suspected that there are still those out there working diligently to perpetuate the custom of the couch.


And now we have such sterling types as O’Reilly and his former boss, Roger Ailes, confirming my suspicion—along with Bill Cosby, who has taken the ritual to a whole new level.


In a world suffering future shock, a world reeling and writhing with unprecedented change, it’s reassuring to know that certain revered practices abide—fixed, immutable, imperishable.


If only the current custodians of the couch had had the wisdom of their predecessors—the wisdom to keep their generosity a closely held secret from the public, we’d still have Ailes sharing his fair and balanced view of the world, O’Reilly spinning his stories freely, and Cosby telling his big lies in one of his Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers.

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March 17th, 2017 2 Comments


First of all…


…an apology.


In a recent blog, I vowed that I would banish seriousness from my posts—that in the future, I would revert to the irony, the self-mockery, the smart-ass tone that characterized my work in the past.


I lied.


It’s to be expected, of course.


As I pointed out in my irresistibly funny memoir Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, it’s what we do in TinselTown: every player knows it’s one of the requirements for the job.


There was no malice aforethought. I truly believed I had put sobriety behind me forever.


However, as I pondered my latest subject, I found myself following the example of Herman Melville and his famous meditation on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the whiteness that “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.”


Melville’s goal was to punch through the blank mask of God and the universe.


Mine: to comprehend the complexities of a white suit worn by one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite movies.


(Okay, okay, so there’s a little bit of a difference in scale, but I’m serious about this, folks. I really am.)


The movie in question is my late friend Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.


Heart stars Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute named John Singer. Isolated in a world of silence, Singer seeks to relieve his loneliness by reaching out in friendship to those around him. He transforms their lives. But they—inadvertently, unwittingly, unconscionably—fail him, and in the end, he takes his own life, unaware of the love and respect each of his friends feels for him.


This intense, profoundly moving film opens at night in a Southern town, with Singer’s friend and fellow deaf-mute, Antonopoulis, rolling a hoop down a sidewalk, playing hopscotch on a court chalked on the walkway, and then breaking a bakery window to get at the goodies inside, unable to hear the burglar alarm that summons the police.


Singer’s first challenge is to get his only friend out of jail.


Robert’s first challenge was to get the film made.


He wanted Arkin to play Singer, but Jack Warner insisted that he wasn’t a star.


Besides, because the character never speaks a word, Warner wanted to use a big-name French or Italian actor in the role, thinking that it would enhance the European box-office.


Robert held out for Arkin.


Warner refused to budge.


The film did not go forward.


Then The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming hit big. Alan called Robert and said, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to become a star, so I want you to call Jack Warner and tell him he can go ahead and cast me now.”


Once he had the green light, Robert had to find an unknown to play Mick, the gawky but sensitive teenager who is befriended by Singer and who dreams of a life outside the confines of her impoverished family and her small town with its small-minded values.


He placed a small ad in the local classifieds, and a young woman named Sondra Locke showed up in a beat-up van and bare feet. She read for him and simply blew him away.


The next big challenge was casting Antonopoulis, who is obese, developmentally disabled, driven by insatiable appetite for food and drink.


Antonopoulis’ very size made the casting a challenge—very few actors fit the physical description of the character, and it was, for a while, an open question whether Robert and company would find anyone right for the role.


The answer to that question came out of the mouths of babes—or rather, Alan Arkin’s eleven year-old son Adam, who suggested Chuck McCann, a local television clown he’d discovered while on location with his father.


There remained the question of the white suit Antonopoulis wears in most of his scenes, the suit that reflects his innocent, childlike nature.


(There it is, finally—that white suit that I announced would be the subject of this column! Back in my days as a college professor, my students loved leading me off on tangents—it was, as you may have guessed, an easy task.)


The problem?


The film had virtually no budget.


Robert’s costume people couldn’t find a white suit that would fit McCann and couldn’t afford to have one specially tailored for him.


This time, it was Robert’s wife Pola who rode to his rescue.


She remembered the white suit that Sidney Greenstreet wore in The Maltese Falcon and had the costume designer call Warners to see if it still existed. It did, and Chuck ended up wearing Greenstreet’s white suit…twenty-seven years after it was created for the Huston film.

The irony is, of course, that the suit itself was ironic in The Maltese Falcon.


The white fabric—the embodiment of innocence in most people’s minds, like the extreme politeness of Greenstreet’s Gutman, like the cliché of the jolly fat man, stood in striking contrast to the reality of the ruthless, rapacious figure it clothed.


The suit, in its second screen appearance, played it straight—an innocent color for an innocent character.


My point?


Yes, there actually is a point to my ramblings on these pages.


In fact, there are several.


Film is a collaborative business.


Yes, the director is in charge…sort of.


He (or she) is in charge if he can manipulate the studio into giving him what he wants.


He is in charge if he can communicate his vision for the story to all of his collaborators—if he can put everyone on the same page.


He is in charge if he’s open to good ideas whatever their source—be it a child, a spouse, or even (God forbid) a screenwriter.


A last point?


Costuming plays a more important role in filmmaking than most people realize.


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March 11th, 2017 4 Comments



Back in the day when I enjoyed the safety and security of a tenured Associate Professorship at DePauw University, I was thrilled to learn that Jack Kennedy was coming to visit our campus.


No, not that Jack Kennedy.


Our Jack Kennedy—I can call him that because he was a distinguished graduate of the University—was a novelist and a screenwriter who had changed his name to Adam Kennedy in order to distinguish himself from the late President and who was returning to campus to talk about his work.


His most recent achievement?


A screen adaptation of his own novel, The Domino Principle, as a Stanley Kramer film starring Gene Hackman.


As a certifiable film fanatic, I was beside myself with excitement when Jack and his lovely wife Susan arrived on campus. I got to know both of them well in a short period of time and reveled in their stories of TinselTown, where I myself desperately wanted to be.


I remember two of those stories in particular.


The first had to do with Jack’s credited work on a now-forgotten movie called The Dove.


Jack attended the premier with Susan. After watching a few minutes of the film unreel, she turned to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?”


His reply?


“God, I hope not.”


Now, it was my secret hope that I would one day join the ranks of Hollywood writers (and directors—yes, like everyone in the world, what I really wanted to do was direct).




…in spite of this obvious “trigger warning” which should have sounded in my mind like the tocsin on a battleship under attack…


…Jack and Susan’s story merely strengthened my determination to find a magic carpet and ride it to the glamorous, beckoning capital of the film world.


Their second story was more personal.


It was actually Susan’s story.


Her mother, you see, was Carmel Myers.


Who? you ask.


Well, as a crazed film freak, I was possibly the only person among the DePauw faculty and students who could answer that question.


Carmel Myers was the female star of the silent version of Ben-Hur.


How did I know?


Well, my other obsession was F. Scott Fitzgerald.


I had done my graduate work in American literature at Princeton simply because Fitzgerald had gone there.


The subject of my doctoral dissertation?


Scott Fitzgerald, of course.


I knew who Carmel Myers was because she had also been the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in Fitzgerald’s masterful Tender Is the Night.


I just about did a backflip in my excitement to know that I was sitting there talking to…CARMEL MYERS’ DAUGHTER!


Now Susan did tell me that in spite of the fact that her mother’s career had ended forty years before and that she’d been completely forgotten by the American public, she saw herself as a queen and expected to be treated like one.


Susan’s story should have been a flashing red light.


An alarm.








The tocsin sounded…


But once again, I…


…I failed to hear it.


Nothing could change my mind.


I ignored the lessons buried in the Kennedys’ stories.


I ignored the warning of a colleague who’d done time in TinselTown and who said, “DON’T DO IT! You’re not tough enough.”


The latter part of his advice, of course, made me all the more determined—“Godammit,” I said to myself, “I’m plenty tough enough.”


And so I did it.


Henry Higgins probably said it best: “What an infantile idea. What a wicked, brainless thing to do.”


I did it, and that’s how, a few years later, I found myself working with Bruce Willis, who taught me a few lessons about star ego and the powerlessness of writers in Hollywood.


Let me quote me in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody—a frightfully entertaining book I couldn’t recommend more highly.


(Okay, so there might be just a tinge of the aforementioned ego in that last comment, but what can you expect? I did, after all, spend a quarter of a century in Hollywood.)




…let me quote me describing my first meeting with Bruce, a meeting that took place in his mobile dressing room on the 20th Century Fox lot.


“Big as the motorhome is, it seems claustrophobic. I’m having a hard time getting my breath, and I feel crowded, like a commuter in a crowded subway car.


“Then it hits me.


“It’s just star ego.


“It fills the room and leaves very little space for anyone else.”


(For further detail, consult Chapter 90, “What Price Hollywood?” You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.)


All of this is by way of saying that I have great expectations (the working title of my book—a book you really don’t want to miss) for FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s look at the rivalry between two fading stars who took show biz ego to dizzying new heights.


Though I know very little about Crawford, I do have two stories about Davis.


The first came from A. C. Lyles, who saw Wings as a film-struck Florida teen, wrote Paramount founder and head Adolph Zukor a letter asking for a job every day for four years, was rewarded with a position in the mailroom and eventually worked his way up from office boy to publicist, producer and ambassador of good will—the official greeter of Paramount for decade after decade.


When Queen Elizabeth came to town, it was A. C. who arranged a banquet for her at Paramount, a banquet attended by all the studio’s top stars, including Bette Davis.


Lyles himself sat at the same table as “Miss Davis.” (Nobody, not even A. C., dared call her Bette.)


It was the table closest to the dais where the Queen and her entourage were dining, and as the evening wore on, A. C. noticed (it would, he claimed, have been impossible not to notice) that Miss Davis was unhappy.


He turned to her and asked, “Miss Davis, you seem upset. What is it that’s bothering you?”


Miss Davis drew her self up and replied, with appropriately dramatic outrage, “She doesn’t seem to realize that there is more than one queen present this evening.”


She was right, of course.


Hollywood ego does not allow for the presence of more than one queen in any one room, and that, my friends, is, I’m sure, the basis for Murphy’s “Duel”—a series that might be best described by Davis herself in the classic All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”


Bumpy and, I suspect, breathtakingly entertaining.


My second Davis story is tied directly to her rivalry with Crawford. It came to me from my friend Robert Ellis Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as the aging star and who happened to be present when Miss Davis returned to the building after the news of Joan Crawford’s death was reported.


A small army of reporters swarmed her and wanted to know how she felt about Crawford now that she was gone.


Miss Davis once again drew herself up and announced, in a tone and posture that dramatized how dim-witted she knew them to be, “People don’t change just because they die.”


So there you have it…


…my meditations on star ego.


If you should want more (and who would not?), you can find them in that wondrously entertaining tome, Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, where I really put the screws to the impossibly bloated egos of TinselTown.


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February 16th, 2017 14 Comments



During the course of the last two years, I’ve been busy—obsessed really—doing what professional writers do best: finding excuses not to write.


I don’t want to boast, but I have to admit that when it comes to this particular skill, I have no equal.


First, there was the clean-up of the sixty trees brought down by a killer snowstorm. I had to cut the crowns from the trunks, drag those tangles of branches hundreds of feet up the slope to the ridge where our house sits, and reduce them to sawdust with an industrial-size chipper that seemed as eager to swallow up me and my companion as it was to devour the broken limbs we were feeding into its voracious maw. Then I had to cut the trunks down to size, haul them up the ridge, feed them through a splitter, and stack them in a woodpile that now rivals the house itself in size.


This months-long chore left me utterly exhausted, much too tired to even think about writing.


Then, of course, there were the mandatory backpacking trips into the Sierras—six or eight of them in the course of the last two summers, two of them over 12,000 foot passes where the trail was little more than a ledge and the eight and nine hundred foot drop-offs struck terror into my timid heart. (I, like Jimmy Stewart, suffer from paralyzing vertigo. Like him, I look up. I look down. I look up. I look down…and nearly pass out from the dizziness and nausea at war with my desire to jump.)


Sit down and write after such experiences?


No way.


I was simply too busy healing my shattered psyche.


Last but far from least, I wrote a novel—Masquerade, the book I had promised you, dear readers at the end of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


Wait! I hear you say.


That was writing. I thought you said you’d done no writing during the last two years.




It was, and I did.


But here’s the really clever thing: I used the writing of my novel as an excuse not to write my blogs.


Writing as an excuse not to write!


It’s that sort of genius that separates me from my peers.


Peers like Jameson Parker, who brings shame to the ranks of writers everywhere by faithfully doing a weekly blog, by producing an endless stream of magazine articles, and by composing a new novel even as he publishes another (Dancing with the Dead—due in April and not to be missed).


Far be it from me to be critical of a fellow wordsmith, but he seems to have no conception of the fundamental role procrastination plays in the life of the serious writer.


He simply can’t help himself.


I forgive him, however, not simply because he is a writer touched by the gods with talent but also because he is the one who called my attention to the fact that there has been a recent surge of demand for bringing back my blog, informing me that two (count them—two!) of his readers had asked him what had happened to me and whether my weekly column would ever reappear.


It’s hard to argue with numbers like that.


Even so, I decided to do a little research to confirm this great reawakening of interest in my work.


First, I went to the IMDB, where I discovered that my rank on the Star Meter was 494,256! I was beside myself with excitement until I discovered that this was not the number of followers I had. It was, instead, my position on the list of Hollywood types covered by the site’s date base—that there were 494,255 people more popular than I.




A disappointing number on the surface.


But it occurred to me that it might look different if placed in context.


I decided to check the rank of my old friend Steve White, producer of both Death of a Cheerleader and Talk To Me.


These were, of course, his most important credits, though he does have a few other minor show-biz accomplishments: road manager for The Grateful Dead, founding member of The Groundlings, first head of Francis Coppola’s American Zoetrope, head of movies and mini-series at NBC, head of New World Pictures during the era of Heathers and Hell-Raiser, producer of The Devil’s Advocate and a handful of other features along with dozens of television films, and on and on and on.


I thought it would be instructive to compare Steve’s IMDB rating with mine.


Guess what?


Steve was at 624,795…and falling!


A pathetic record compared to mine: 494,256…and rising!


494,256 and rising!


Numbers don’t lie, and these numbers clearly confirmed the popular demand that had surfaced on Jameson’s website.


But before I made a decision, I decided to seek out further evidence of this incredible surge in my numbers.


I launched a Google search for interest in my Death of a Cheerleader (the movie that launched Tori Spelling’s career in television films and spawned such classics as Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? and Coed Call Girl), and the results were astonishing.


1,850,000 hits!


Oh, a few of them were for Nicole Kidman’s To Die For and a handful were for foods to die for, but there it was: page after page of hits, in Chinese and Russian, French and Spanish, and God only knows what other languages. Even a current blog about it. And get this. A song about it!


I was entirely unprepared for what I had found, but when I calmed down and had a chance to think rationally about it, I concluded that the numbers were very likely inspired by my masterful performance as THE JOGGER who opens and closes the film.


And so…


…here I am.


Like Crispy M&M’s…


Like McRibs…


Like the legendary Twinkie…


I’m back!


















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April 18th, 2015 11 Comments

DJ & Cecil Puppets


In the brightly colored comic book world of my youth, I was infatuated with Time for Beany, a wonderful puppet show recounting the adventures of a wide-eyed boy named Beany as he sailed the seven seas on the Leakin’ Lena under the command of his pompous uncle, Captain Horatio K. Huffenpuff.


The characters were wonderful: their names alone told you almost everything you needed to know about them.


There was Beany’s faithful, if somewhat dimwitted friend, Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent.


There was, of course, the yogurt-loving Tear Along the Dotted Lion.


And let us not forget his fellow terror of the jungle, Mouth Full of Teeth Keith—the mangy lion with the slippery, ill-fitting dentures.


But my particular favorite was Dishonest John, whose black cape, black hat and black mustache announced his villainy to the world as he swept on stage, holding his cape in front of his wicked face and cutting loose with a nasty, sneering, sniggering laugh.


You had to love this guy, and I did.


The thing is, I’ve always been drawn to villains.


Ming the Merciless of Mong was always more interesting to me than Flash Gordon.


Jeffrey Hunter as Christ was a bit of a snore, but Frank Thring as Herod the Great stepping on his father’s corpse as he ascended the throne, now he was something!


And Darth Vader?


The Dishonest John of the future!


Who would not prefer his “foul stench” and unforgettable voice—the very embodiment of EVIL—to the nice guy heroics of Luke Skywalker?


I like villains, and I’m proud to say that my five year-old grandson is following in my footsteps.


In the games he plays during recess at pre-school, he always wants to be the villain. He almost always gets his wish. And he almost always get the holy crap beaten out of him as his good-guy friends, determined not just to overcome evil but to wipe it from the face of the earth, gang up on him with their fists flying.


He is undeterred, and I admire him for it.


I admire him for succeeding where I myself, in my high school acting days, failed.


I always wanted to be the villain, and I always ended up playing the dull, colorless, nice-guy hero.


I was, for example, doomed to portray Mortimer, that nicest of all bewildered nice guys, in Arsenic and Old Lace when the role I really wanted was Jonathan—Mortimer’s demented brother whose plastic surgery had made him a dead ringer for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein.


Now there was a role I could really have gotten my teeth into!


But it was not to be.


It turned out that my high school stage experiences were a preview of coming attractions—a trailer for my adult life.








It’s a sad story and I won’t go into it here, but you can imagine my excitement when I recently discovered that for one brief shining moment I actually achieved my life-long ambition to be proclaimed a villain.


I, it turns out, was the villain who destroyed a masterpiece of filmmaking art.


I learned about it this way.


A few days ago, I engaged in that most popular of current pastimes: I googled myself and discovered that I appear in a footnote to an academic essay entitled “The Screenwriter as Auteur: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.”


A footnote? you ask.


Well, it’s not just any footnote.


I happen to be keeping very good company in this particular note.


My companion in academic esoteria?


Jeffrey Katzenberg!


The footnote cites the development notes I wrote for Jeffrey about Ephron’s script, and the text which this note documents holds me personally responsible for ruining Ephron’s work!


I can’t say that I fully understand just how I managed this because the essay’s author uses all sorts of wonderful words with meanings beyond my feeble understanding.


She is, in fact, a mistress of academic jargon and clearly more brilliant and insightful than I could ever hope to be.


According to her, I intimidated Ephron and her director, Mike Nichols, into cutting the heroine’s monologues and fantasies…or to put it in her own unforgettable words, “the film omits the diegetic Rachel and refrains from adding any goal or obstacles for the enacted Rachel, [and so] the film’s narrative fails to present a compelling narrative.”


There’s some other stuff about “syuzhet structure” and the film’s “fabula,” but the bottom line is this…


I SINGLEHANDEDLY…well, I may have a little support from Jeffrey.


Let me rephrase that.




I am so proud.


It turns out that I was, if only for a moment, what I’d always aspired to be.


I can almost hear Hamlet denouncing me.


“Oh, villain, villain, damned smiling villain.”


It was, I feel, a major achievement to have reduced one of the finest writers and one of the three or four most powerful directors in Hollywood to quivering jelly, shaking in fear of the consequences if they failed to execute my notes!


This strikes me as all the more remarkable when I recall an experience at director John McTiernan’s Wyoming ranch. I was there, working with him and Jonathan Hensley on the screenplay for Die Hard: With a Vengeance.


Jonathan and I had just received Fox’s notes on our work, and we were in despair—the notes were so wrong-headed and destructive.


Just then, McT walked into the room, took one look at our faces, and asked what was wrong. The notes, we told him. We just didn’t know what to do with Fox’s notes.


John’s response?


He picked up the notes.


Said, “I’ll show you what to do with them.”


And he threw them into the fire burning on the hearth!


Now John was big, but Mike Nichols was even bigger, and I—little ol’ me—had forced him to alter his entire conception of his film.


Now I have to confess that I didn’t even remember that I had done the development notes on Heartburn until I stumbled across this insightful essay on the Internet, so I headed out to our storage barn, dug up my coverage from my Paramount days, and found a copy of the coverage in question.


I started to read, prepared to be dazzled by my brilliance.


And what did I discover?


That I had loved the Annie Hall approach Ephron had taken to her material!




I’d loved the heroine’s monologues and fantasies?


The very elements the essayist claimed I had forced from the script?


Oh, I’d suggested they were a bit too verbose and could use some tightening, but search as I might, I could find no place in the notes where I recommended they be cut.


You can imagine my disappointment.


One minute, I had stood proudly in the villain’s hall of fame, heir to the legacy of Dishonest John, Ming the Merciless, Herod the Great, and Darth Vader himself.


The next, I was just another nice guy.


Oh, the pity of it!








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April 3rd, 2015 1 Comment


Not long ago, I experienced an epiphany—one of those sudden moments of revelation that James Joyce compared to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.


It came to me, as such godsends often do, under the most commonplace of circumstances—a tutorial with a student who alerted me to the existence of a screenwriting manual humbly entitled Save the Cat.


The book, perfectly designed for the Millennial Generation, is a wonder—so clear in its step-by-step instructions that you don’t even have to read it!


A quick glance at the table of contents tells you everything you need to know.


Make sure your hero does something nice in his introductory scene.


Include the fifteen plot points every script must have.


Take care to place those plot points on the correct page.


Do all these things, and you can’t fail to produce a guaranteed-to-sell screenplay!


If I’d only known!


Oh, the wasted years!


Watching all those movies!


Reading all those scripts!


Fumbling around, clumsily trying to teach myself the craft of the screenplay when all I’d have had to do is peruse Save the Cat.


I’m now embarked on a new adventure as a writer.


I’m attempting to write my first novel.


(Well, my second actually. I did my first back in the eighth grade, but the manuscript has—much to the regret of literary historians, I’m sure—been lost.)


I’m attempting to write my first novel, and I’ve vowed not to repeat the mistakes I made when I fumbled my way into the screen trade.


For help, I’ve turned to an old friend.


Acclaimed novelist Ron Carlson.


Author of ten or twelve books of fiction and director of the creative writing program at UC Irvine, Ron has published what I’m hoping is the fiction writer’s answer to Save the Cat.


He calls it Ron Carlson Writes a Story.




An odd title.


I myself would have preferred something along the lines of The Twelve- Step System for Writing Great Fiction.


No matter.


Let’s see what Ron considers the first step in writing a story.




Finding an idea.


Well, not finding it so much as selecting it.


Ron insists that every experience, whether the author’s own or someone else’s, is a potential seed for a story.


That’s pretty vague, Ron. Can you be more specific?


If an idea, an experience, an image or an event matters to the author, then Ron feels it’s worthy of exploration.


But what are the rules? What are the five elements of a great story idea?


There are no rules, Ron insists, and every idea is different.




All you have to do, he claims, is choose an idea or experience that you the author care about—something that you yourself would like to read about.


Ron chooses, as the subject of his eponymous story, the time he lost a mattress off the back of his pick-up truck.




…I know Ron knows what he’s doing, but…how many of us are going to want to write about the day we lost a mattress?


How is his choice going to guide us in making our own choices?


Well, perhaps he’ll be more helpful when it comes to developing a character or crafting a plot.


No. Apparently not.


He claims that when he wrote the first word of his piece, he had no idea who was speaking and even less idea where the story was headed!


He insists that writing a story is a journey—a journey of discovery, a journey that requires focus, attention and effort—and that the most important thing a writer must do after writing the first sentence is stay in the room.


Resist the temptation to refill your coffee cup.


Ignore the television screen that beckons from the den.


Forget about the chores crying to be done.


The carpet that needs vacuuming.


The lawn that needs mowing.


Barricade your mind against all the wonderful excuses you can invent not to write and stay in the room.


Stay in the room and write the next sentence and the next and the next.


Stay in the room and watch the characters reveal themselves.


Stay in the room and watch the story unfold.




Where are the steps, Ron?


Give us some rules!


Some blanks to fill in!


Some dots to connect!


It’s hard for me to admit because Ron is such a good friend, but the fact of the matter is…


…I’m disappointed.


I’d hoped for Seven Days To a Better Novel, and all he’s given me is some malarkey about the mystery of creation and some advice about how to nurse that process along.


I have to face it.


Ron Carlson Writes a Story offers me next to no guidance on how to write my own story.


I wonder.


Do you suppose the For Dummies series includes a volume on crafting fiction?


I certainly hope so.


In fact, I’m going to check into right away.


But in the meantime, I think I’ll send Ron a copy of Save the Cat.


Blake Snyder could certainly teach him a thing or two.


Yes, Ron can claim rave reviews from shabby journals like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but he’s never written anything to compare to Snyder’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.


After all, what are a Booklist Starred Review, an NDEA Fellowship in Fiction, a National Society of Arts and Letters Award, or a Ploughshares Cohen Prize alongside a Golden Raspberry for Worst Writer of the Year?



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March 27th, 2015 5 Comments



Not long ago, one of the readers of my book contacted me to inquire about the possibility of one-on-one screenwriting lessons.


It’s not something I’d ordinarily consider, but he said that he’d read everything that had ever been written about the subject and that nothing he’d encountered could come close to Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


He wanted, he said, to learn from a master of the craft.


It’s hard to say no to a person of such obvious taste and discrimination, and so it was that we arranged to get together for a tutorial.


I asked my student to read, as his first assignment, my own The Last Innocent Man, hoping it might serve as a springboard for our conversations about the art of writing for the screen.


He showed up eager, enthusiastic and full of questions.


His first question?


Why had I failed to save the cat in the scene introducing my hero?


I patiently pointed out that there isn’t any cat in The Last Innocent Man, and he, attempting to suppress his contempt for my appalling ignorance, explained that “saving the cat” is a phrase from a popular book about screenwriting.


The notion, it seems, is that the hero of your story must do something nice in his first scene—something like saving a cat—something that will make the audience like him and sympathize with him.


Oh, my!


What could I say?


I had clearly failed to save the cat in The Last Innocent Man.


When we meet my hero (I’d foolishly thought of him as my protagonist), he is tense, nervous, a criminal attorney awaiting the verdict in the trial of a former Green Beret accused of the bludgeon slaying of his wife.


His client is pretty obviously guilty as charged, but my guy, through dazzling turns of courtroom magic, manages to manipulate the jury into throwing justice out the window and declaring him innocent.


My hero, when he should be out saving cats, is putting monsters back on the street!




I don’t know how I could have screwed up so badly.


My one consolation?


I’m not alone in my unforgivable blunder.


Poor Robert Towne did the same thing in Chinatown, which opens with cheap detective J.J. Giddes, full of insincere sympathy, showing an agonized husband raw photos of his unfaithful wife and her lover in bed together. Giddes comes across as someone who probably doesn’t even like cats, let alone save them.


Then, of course, there’s old Joe Stefano, who opened Psycho with his heroine conducting a sleazy affair in a seedy hotel. Probably lots of stray cats in the neighborhood, but does she go out of her way to rescue one of them? No way! Instead she goes on to steal a shitpile of money from one of her boss’s clients.


And what of Walon Green and Sam Peckinpaw, who began The Wild Bunch with their hero leading his gang of outlaws into a small town, knocking over a bank, and precipitating a bloody gun battle. Pike Bishop and his friends are clearly more at home with scorpions than cats.


I blush to admit that, until my student set me straight, I had thought of each and every one of these films as masterworks.


I clearly had a lot to learn about screenwriting.


In fact, it seems that I had made catastrophic mistake after mistake in The Last Innocent Man…as well as in the twenty-four other screenplays I wrote.


My student, now my teacher, generously pointed out that no screenplay should have more than thirty or forty scenes.


The Last Innocent Man has thirty scenes in the first thirty-five pages!


What could I have been thinking?


What about the fifteen beats every screenplay must have?


Oh, my God!


I don’t even know what they are!


Well, my student informed me, you need a statement of your theme on page five.




All these years I’ve deliberately avoided such statements!


My credo has been “Show. Don’t tell.”


I actually believed that the theme would simply emerge from the action of the piece!


There are, it turns out, fourteen other beats a good screenplay must include, and mine, as my student so astutely pointed out, has only a few of these beats, all of them on the wrong pages!


If only I’d known.


For years, I labored under the delusion that screenwriting is a journey of discovery, that the characters will dictate the action, that the material determines the style and structure of the piece.


And now, I’ve learned that writing a script is really more akin to one of those wonderful paint-by-the-number books that I so enjoyed as a child.


For years, I struggled.


I agonized.


I waited endlessly for my characters to talk to me.


Waited for them to show me what was going to happen.


Waited for them to lead me to the end of their stories.


But I now realize that they gave me nothing.


No hint of where my acts should end.


No clue to where my B-story should begin.


Not even a suggestion about my debate section or my fun and games segment.


By listening to them, I not only failed to save the cat; I failed to write anything that deserves to be called a screenplay.


But thanks to my student, I’ve seen the errors of my way.


I’ve seen the errors of my way, and I make this public vow.


I will read Save the Cat.


I will paint by the numbers.


I will fill in the blanks.


I will connect the dots.


And one of these days, if I get very lucky, I will sell a script to one of the studio idiots who’ve read Save the Cat, attended Robert McKee’s weekend seminar, and now know everything anyone needs to know about the art of writing screenplays.

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March 21st, 2015 8 Comments



I’m a huge fan of My Fair Lady.


In fact, I not only have all of its songs committed to memory; I put Rex Harrison to shame back in my high school theatre days when I essayed the role of Henry Higgins.


One of my favorite moments comes after Eliza, that squashed cabbage leaf of a Cockney girl transformed by Higgins into a proper Edwardian lady, manages to pass herself off as the real thing at an ambassador’s ball.


Higgins and his associate Pickering celebrate her triumph in song. “Tonight, old man, you did it! You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it. And indeed you did.”


They continue in that vein until Higgins modestly reminds Pickering that he didn’t do it alone. “Now wait! Now wait! Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to you!”


I’m sure it’s just an oversight—the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, but they unfortunately manage to ignore Liza’s not unimportant contribution to the evening’s success.


It’s shame that the film industry was still in its infancy back in 1913 because Higgins and Pickering were born to be directors.


Many directors are plagued by faulty memories.


Rarely do they recall that the films they claim as their own (“A Film by….”) began life as scripts by someone else.


A recent example?


Ava DuVernay.


Ms. DuVernay was, you may recall, distressed at her failure to win an Oscar nomination for her direction of Selma and the failure of David Oyelowo to win a nomination for best actor.


She registered no such distress over the failure of the film’s writer, Paul Webb, to win recognition for his contribution to the project.


In fact, she herself not only neglected to acknowledge him but also claimed credit for the script, especially the scenes which distorted President Johnson’s role in the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act.


DuVernay, laying claim to authorship of the screenplay, goes a step beyond the memory lapse that seems to afflict many directors.


Most don’t claim credit for the writing because they don’t have to.


The studios, with the granting of possessory credits, and the critics, with their embrace of the auteur theory, do it for them.


Here’s the way it works out in practice.


If a film is a big success, everyone credits the director, conveniently forgetting that it ever had a writer.


If a film is a failure, it is, of course, the writer’s fault.


The poor director did his best, but in spite of all his talent, he just couldn’t overcome the problems with the script.


It used to be much worse.


Back before the Writers Guild won the right to arbitrate film and television credits, producers sometimes awarded credit to themselves or to the girlfriends who served them so well.


It was, from the producers’ point of view, a wonderful system—lamented, I’m sure, for years after its unfortunate demise.


Today, for better or for worse, the responsibility for the determination of credit belongs to the Writers Guild.


Once a film wraps, the producer submits a proposed writing credit to the Guild, which then sends a notice of that credit to every writer who worked on the project. If any one of these writers challenges the proposed credit, the Guild conducts an arbitration to determine the fair and proper credit.


Three anonymous arbiters—veteran writers with produced credits of their own—review the various drafts along with position statements from the involved writers. When their review is complete, they make a credit determination—a decision that is final and subject to appeal only on procedural grounds.


It’s an imperfect system—an attempt to impose objective rules on what is inescapably a subjective judgment.


I myself have been frustrated on more than one occasion while serving as an arbiter, forced by the rules to award credit to the author of an inferior version of the story and deny it to a writer whose work was clearly superior but whose contribution to the shooting script was insufficient to justify acknowledgement of his or her role in the development of the film.


This, of course, is a problem not with the WGA rules but with studio executives, producers and directors who, in their inept attempt to make the script better, almost invariably make it worse.


What was it Churchill said about democracy?


It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.


So it is with the WGA credit arbitration system.


Everyone hates it…until they consider the alternatives.


One thing about the system that everyone can applaud?


The rule that anytime a proposed writing credit includes a production executive (that means you, producers and directors), the credit goes to automatic arbitration.


It’s a wonderful brake on the producer and director’s potential abuse of their power.


It’s our Writers Guild saying to the Henry Higginses and the Pickerings of the film world, “Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to…the writer.”


He or she did it!


He or she created the damn thing, and without him or her, there would be nothing.


Who knows?


With a little bit of luck, the writer might one day be acknowledged as the real author of the film, just as the dramatist is acknowledged as the author of the play.


I’m kidding, of course.


Only a cockeyed optimist stuck like a dope could express such a hope.


It could happen only if screenwriters, like every other kind of writer in the world, were able to retain the copyright on their work, the copyright the studios now hold “throughout the universe unto all eternity”—a standard phrase in every contract I ever signed.


The studios give up screenplay copyright?




When hell freezes.


And when it happens, I’ll dance all night on the ice.











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March 12th, 2015 4 Comments





Late sixties.


Weathered face.


Mouth open. Chin on chest.


Sound asleep in a worn easy chair.


PULL BACK to reveal…


…a busy FILM CREW hard at work on a practical set, moving cables, lights, and other equipment into place for a new set-up.


A WAG approaches the sleeping figure and lays a hand-written card on his chest: “WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD.”


The FLASH of a Polaroid camera, and we CUT TO…


…THE SLUMBERING FIGURE, awake now, holding the photo, joining the Crew Members assembled around him in laughter.


And that, my friends, is how I remember Billy.


William A. Graham.


Director of a dozen features and over fifty television films, including the first one ever made, he had started in the days of live television.


He had directed screenplays by giants like Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Ernest Tidyman.


He had worked with Bruce Dern, James Coburn, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, and virtually every other major actor in Hollywood.


He had helmed a handful of classics—features like Where the Lilies Bloom and MOW’s like The Amazing Howard Hughes and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, and he would go on to do The Man Who Captured Eichmann.


At the time I met him, he was sixty-nine years old, had a thirty-nine year old wife, a four-year old daughter.


He rode a motorcycle to the office every day from what he called “the all too aptly named Carbon Canyon” where he had once stood on the roof of his home fighting a wildfire that destroyed every structure in its path…except Billy’s.


And he flew a helicopter, kept a boat on the coast of France, and had once sailed a private yacht around Cape Horn.


He was, in short, one of the most remarkable men I have ever been privileged to call a friend, but what I remember most vividly about him is that moment on the set of Death of a Cheerleader when he was caught napping and had a good laugh at his own expense.




It was the essence of Billy.


What? you ask.


Was he lazy?


Disengaged with his own project?


Too old and too tired for the responsibility of directing?




He had so mastered the craft of filmmaking, had such comprehensive knowledge of the script, such command of every aspect of the shoot that he could relax between set-ups, even nap if there were no immediate demands on his attention.


He was, in short, the calm eye in the middle of the storm that is filmmaking.


Nothing rattled him.


The first day of our shoot was dedicated to a sermon by a priest to his privilege parishioners.


Eugene Roche, the experienced character actor whose blue-collar look had inspired Billy to cast against type, gave a wonderful performance but kept going up on his lines.


And so it was that at the end of the first day, we were already behind schedule.


No problem, Billy said.


He’d make up the lost time in the days that followed by dropping a few of the set-up he’d planned for some of the other scenes.


The second day of the shoot, the Network demanded that we fire Bob Steadman, the cameraman Billy had worked with for years.


Now, I had written the film as a noir piece, and Billy, Steadman and I had agreed to go for a high-contrast look with lots of dark, deep shadows.


In those days, Networks hated that sort of thing. They wanted bright, uniform lighting so the images could easily be seen on television, so Billy had expected trouble and was prepared to deal with it.


Trouble is what he got.


The dailies were so dark they could hardly be seen, and the Network wanted Steadman’s blood.


Billy calmly refused to give it to them.


Completely confident in Steadman’s ability, he simply and calmly said there had to be a problem at the lab.


He kept Bob on the picture, the negative went back to the lab, a new print was struck, and guess what?


The lighting was perfect.


Another crisis averted.


And so it went, day after day, with Billy calmly meeting and resolving problem after problem.


No agonizing.


No complaint.


No muss. No fuss.


Billy had the confidence a good director must have—in his case, confidence backed by long experience.


Did he have all the qualities most successful directors seem to share?


Did he, for example, play God on the set?


If he did, he was a New Testament God—more loving father than vengeful tyrant.


Was he ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted?


No, at least not in my experience.


But he got what he wanted…with kindness and reassurance.


Was he completely obsessed with his projects?


Yes and no.


He was in love with filmmaking and grateful that he’d been able to make his living at something he loved so much.


I remember at the end of a casting session, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t this fun? Can you believe they pay us to do this?”


He loved it so much that he sometimes made as many as three films in a single year.


Was he confident?


Oh, yes!


So confident that he could take those little naps between set-ups.






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