Written By November/December 2010 : Page 28

Class of ’80 Written by Rosanne Welch 1980 How (and why) the writers of . are creating the culture of 2010 28 • WGA W Written By NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010

Class Of

Rosanne Welch

I have a confession to make: I’ve never understood remakes. Which means I’ve also never understood their new kissing cousins, “reimaginings”—especially when the thing being reimagined is not being reimagined by the person who first imagined it. Perhaps in the days of celluloid, when films only played once upon a distribution time and then were relegated to the vaults, it made sense to remake The Maltese Falcon over and over again until they got it right. But once they did, that’s the version folks are still ordering on DVD. In television, the issue is similar.<br /> <br /> In a world of Internet reposts where I can still show my son original episodes of shows I watched years before he was born, why would I choose to show him a remake?<br /> <br /> With this question in mind I perused the most recent rash of remakes, discovering a pattern. Most of the latest—The Rockford Files, V, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Bionic Woman, Quantum Leap, The Incredible Hulk, 21 Jump Street—come from the same pool of prolific writers who honed their talents while under contract to Universal Studios in and around 1980. Which brings us to our title: How (and Why) the Writers of 1980 are Creating the Culture of 2010. What’s more, all of these men are still writing and creating in a town notorious for constantly turning to the next new thing; however, none are being invited to write for the new versions of their old hits.<br /> <br /> We know that a combination of business and branding is the excuse given for the revival of many of these shows—business because the studios, not the writer-producers, owned the copyright; branding because in an increasingly fractured market, studios want a built-in audience. But the question remains: Among the hundreds of shows with a built-in audience that could have been chosen, why these by these writers?<br /> <br /> I decided to find out what it was about Universal circa 1980 that allowed these writers (in alphabetical order, because Order of importance would be impossible) to thrive and survive: Don Bellisario, Steven Bochco, Stephen Cannell, and Kenneth Johnson. Turns out it was just what you’d expect: tenacity, timing, talent. No third act twists in these stories, but lots of twists and turns in their professional working relationships and later independent careers, beginning with how they all came to this place on the television time-and-space continuum.<br /> <br /> <b>Steven Bochco</b><br /> <br /> Bochco and Cannell came to the Universal lot via different paths just in time to be instrumental in helping the other two through the door. Bochco rode in as the result of a well-worked college internship, while Cannell entered on a well-written spec. Each man gives credit to a mentor or godfather from an even earlier generation of Universal producers who helped them establish their careers; later, each man appears to have emulated that by hiring or mentoring many others, including Bellisario and Johnson.<br /> <br /> “In 1965 I had a summer job while still in college,” Bochco says. “The head of the Story Department, Mike Ludmer, asked me to come back when I graduated the following June. I had the enviable position of having a job waiting as I completed my last year of college.” As an assistant to Ludmer, Bochco read and synopsized incoming scripts, but, “Mike knew I wanted to be a writer so he very quickly began to funnel me to producers for whom I could do projects.” Before writing freelance episodes of then-current Universal shows, Bochco was put to work expanding unsold pilots, taking them from one to two hours so they could be distributed as films in Europe. “I’d write the additional hour of material, shoot it, and they’d splice it.<br /> <br /> Universal was very efficient. Nothing went to waste. That allowed me to work for a bunch of old-time universal producers, and I learned a lot from them.” When asked his most important lesson, Bochco hesitated, then decided that it was how not to behave toward people. “I worked for and with a lot of people who I felt Didn’t behave well, particularly toward the people who worked under them. There’s a lot of that in a very competitive and rigid corporate culture.<br /> <br /> A guy I worked for once said, ‘I get shit on by people above and so I shit on those below.’ Now that was overshadowed by the dozen years I was there where I met and worked with extraordinary people, incredibly generous toward me with time, talent, instruction. They taught me how to do what I do.” Bochco went on to do things like earning an Emmy nomination for his first Columbo script and working with its series creators Richard Levinson and William Link. Bochco later co-created the short-lived Richie Brockelman, Private Eye with Canell before leaving the lot in 1978. Post Universal, Bochco created, developed, and earned further Emmy nominations for such shows as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue. His latest series, Raising the Bar, ran from 2006-2009 on TNT.<br /> <br /> How does Bochco explain the rash of reimaginings? “When we made those shows, there was a robust independent television industry, which doesn’t exist anymore. Today, TV is controlled by five giant conglomerates. The vertical integration of those companies has virtually killed fresh, independent television as we knew it then. On the other hand, there’s been a boom in the growth of cable drama. In a medium that has become incredibly more expensive, the TV universe is more crowded, not a stable universe the way it used to be. Back then, if you put a show on the air and people missed it, you had a reasonable expectation that they might come around and check you out again.<br /> <br /> Look at Hill Street: the lowest-rated show to get second season, thanks to all the Emmy nominations. TV is too crowded now.<br /> <br /> “Opening a television show has become like opening a movie,” Bochco continues. “You have to get them up front so the inclination is to reach out for things that have familiarity and memory. I personally think the Rockford remake was a bad idea, but I [understand] the network thinking—it’s an iconic, brilliant show.”<br /> <br /> <b>Stephen J. Cannell</b><br /> <br /> When it comes to all the current reimaginings, Stephen Cannell, the man behind many of the originals—including The Rockford Files—admits, “I never tried to analyze what it was about my television programming that was special. All I was trying to do was to write an episode or create a show that I would go home and watch.<br /> <br /> I just wanted to like it myself.<br /> <br /> That was my whole goal. Then, even if I failed—like with Ten Speed and Brown Shoe, which I felt was well done—then I failed with honor, because I failed doing something I believed in.” Cannell came to the studio as a working writer a few years after Bochco. “I was freelancing and I wrote an episode of It Takes a Thief, which did not get shot, but I did get paid for it. Then I wrote a couple of episodes of Ironside with Raymond Burr. Then a producer on Adam 12 asked if I could write a script over the weekend. I agreed to do it. He was very concerned if I could write it in two days, but I was sure I could. They liked it so well they made me the executive story editor.” What magic did Cannell mine while at the studio? “At the time when we were all there, Universal was like going to a great big, wonderful college. There was the acting program— [actress] Sharon Gless was my buddy and I’d write stuff for her and call her and tell her, ‘I’d like you to play this,’ so she’d come in. It wasn’t just Ken [Johnson] and me and Steve [Bochco].<br /> <br /> It was Levinson and Link, Roland Kibbee—all these amazing talents. They were great, great people. So much fun to be a young guy walking around on that lot and meeting guys like Kibbee, who was 65 or 70 and who hadn’t lost any of his craft. I would walk around and say how blessed I was to be there at that time. When we talk about those days, there was just something about being part of that mix.” After his time on Adam 12, Cannell worked with Roy Huggins. “I really wanted to work for Roy. All of us guys in that time had godfathers, and our godfathers were pretty important to us. We all of us learned from these guys. They would teach you how to do it. They were very nurturing. I always felt I was very lucky to have Roy as my godfather. I did Toma for him, then did Rockford and Baretta together. I had the advantage of working for him, seeing his vision, how he would guide them. He knew how to fix a movie that was really sick and not doing well.<br /> <br /> “His theory was the POV,” Cannell remembers. “He would take everything that was bad out of the movie and you’d end up with a picture that was nine minutes short.<br /> <br /> Then he would sit there and ask, ‘How can I bring this back to footage?’ Clever ideas of reshoots, a musical segment to fill time. A scene with a girl and a grandfather wasn’t great but we could reuse it in a certain way. When he was done, it was always a great episode.”<br /> <br /> <b>Donald P. Bellisario</b><br /> <br /> Cannell kept the collegiality going by opening the Universal door to a former marine, ex-advertising director named Don Bellisario. “When I first ran into him, I had read a spec Baa Baa Black Sheep he had written,” Cannell remembers, “so I’m thinking this guy can write. I mean, you look so long for someone who can do dialogue. So I set up a meeting with him. I said, ‘God where have you been?’ and he said, ‘I’ve been outside your office waiting,’ and I said, ‘No, I meant for the last 10 years.’” Bellisario picks up the story: “Cannell wanted to talk to me, but he was half an hour late. When he called me in, he did a double-take. I was 10 years older than him.” After the, ‘Where have you been hiding?’ moment, Cannell said, “I’m going to shoot this spec as is. If the show gets picked up, you’ll be my story editor. Welcome to the Universal family.” In true godfather fashion, Cannell sent Bellisario’s spec around the lot. It led to Bochco and earning an assignment on Kojak. “I wrote three scripts in the next month and thought Jesus, I made more money in the last month than in the last year.” Money was important at the time: Bellisario had quit a lucrative career to come to Universal. “I came out from advertising. I’d turned 40 and decided I didn’t want to do advertising all my life. I worked freelance directing and wrote a couple of specs. Somebody read a script, took it to an agent, and the agent said, ‘You’re a good writer, I’ll handle you.’ I said, ‘How long till I sell a film?’ He said, ‘Couple of years.’ I said, ‘I only have enough money to last six weeks.’ That’s when he said, ‘You ever thought of writing television?’” Bellisario became prolific at writing television. While at Universal he contributed scripts to Black Sheep, the original Battlestar Gallactica, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Airwolf before making his name with Magnum P.I. in 1980. “I learned everything at Universal. It was the time of actors under contract so they were always coming to you and asking if you could put this actor in a show. A lot of my television I learned in what I call my freshman semester—from Cannell. I learned production. I learned how to handle network notes. Everything.” Magnum is an example of each of these lessons. “The network wanted Tom Selleck as a PI in Hawaii. I had never been to Hawaii. I wrote it out of the Fodor’s Travel Guide from<br /> <br /> 1955. When I got [to the islands] to shoot, I was shocked by the city that was there. I said I never want to see power lines, condos. I wanted it all to be sandy beaches, little roads through sugar cane fields.” That covered the writing and production lessons.<br /> <br /> But then came the network: “CBS did not love the fact that [the characCharacters] were three Vietnam vets. This was 1980. The war was just over in 1975 and every Vietnam veteran you saw was a killer, ruined. I portrayed them as normal guys who had been through Vietnam, gone through that experience as best they could, and were living a normal life. The Village Voice called it a watershed show, but CBS said I had to take out the flashbacks to the Vietnam War. I said that’s what created these characters, I want to show what that was and how it affected them. I had to pull a trick, this was my first show. I said, ‘If you don’t like the flashbacks, I’ll pull them out.’ But of course I wrote them in so completely that they could never be pulled out and I got hundreds of letters from vets thanking me for that portrayal.”<br /> <br /> <b>Kenneth Johnson</b><br /> <br /> Letters from a rising niche audience also built the career of Kenneth Johnson, who invented the Bionic Woman for an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man early in his tenure at Universal.<br /> <br /> The mandate from the beginning was to kill the Jaime Sommers character off, but Johnson insisted that, in an era of rising feminism, killing the only empowered female on television would be the wrong decision. Johnson came to Universal thanks to his college friendship with Bochco while the two were at Carnegie- Mellon University. “I came out to be a director, so Steve [Bochco] introduced me to Stephen [Cannell], who hired me to direct an Adam 12. Then I wrote a couple episodes of the show and Belden had nothing on me. I can still get lost in a book. So I’m writing one.<br /> <br /> I wrote my first story in second grade: a mystery-thriller titled “A Scary Adventure.” I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but in the meantime I’ve seen much worse. On Parents’ Day, I was to read my story aloud. Dad was working, but I was excited for Mom to be there. I knew the work had moments, lazy ending notwithstanding. When the day came, I read, beaming in my A-line shift and white tights with the crotch that sagged halfway to my knees. That night at supper, my dad asked how it went.<br /> <br /> “I was terribly embarrassed,” Mom replied. My stomach clenched. She continued: “The other parents wanted the chance to hear their kids, but it’s not like I could go up and stop her.” I didn’t write another story for 25 years, when a broken heart sent me back to the blank page. I wrote, but— still bad with endings—never finished anything. I would stop just shy of the End and start something else. Ninety pages of script a week, every week, is a good excuse for not writing that novel.<br /> <br /> I didn’t have to explain the vestigial fear of embarrassing myself and others, left over from the second grade.<br /> <br /> Back then, I was also scared of the twilight, when the pattern on my bedroom curtains seemed to blink open hidden eyes, waiting for me to close mine. My fear of “making a spectacle of myself” is the same kind of bad-magical-thinking.<br /> <br /> What’s the worst that can happen? I’ve failed before. Fall down seven times, get up eight. Or 12. It’s not like I have a choice.<br /> <br /> There is no going back. I’m out of excuses.<br /> <br /> Before turning in my final script for As the World Turns, I was privileged to write the unlikely but perfect wedding of Barbara and Henry, two free spirits who overcame a faked pregnancy, a shotgun wedding, a significant age difference, and imprisonment in a warehouse with an unlimited supply of Pixie Stix, wax lips, and a life-size clown doll. I loved writing a happy ending for my favorite fictional Couple. After taping, Colleen Zenk, who played Barbara, took the time to seek me out and thank me for my work. I had written more than 400 soap episodes, but she was only the second actor to ever do that. It was good to end my soap-writing career feeling appreciated.<br /> <br /> Of course, a few moments after talking with Colleen at the reunion finale, I introduced myself to Trent Dawson, who played her soulmate, Henry. Flush with Colleen’s praise, I told him how much I’d enjoyed writing for him, especially the final few episodes.<br /> <br /> “You wrote those?” I nodded, beaming like a second grader. But Trent wasn’t finished. “Could you stop writing me so many monologues?” I froze, gobsmacked, as the clueless actor walked away. I briefly wished I could go back and rewrite Henry as a mime. Then I realized: Henry and Barbara are gone. Oakdale is a memory.<br /> <br /> The ending’s been written. But my story is just beginning. And it’s all mine.<br /> <br /> Fade in.<br /> <br />

Previous Page  Next Page

Publication List