"No matter which way you move your head," Chris observed, "it keeps staring directly at you. Kind of like the Mona Lisa, but with scales and a big fucking nose."
"Would you call that a Gioconda kind of look?" I asked. "Or a grimace of sheer terror?"
Chris rattled the ice in his empty glass to signal the barkeep for more Scotch. "He looks like I feel," he said. "Like a writer who has been hammering away at a book with his partner for almost three fucking years, and now that the end is in sight, they're flat out of god damned money."
"Jesus, guys, I can take the hint," the bartender said as he swept up our empty glasses. "The House is buying the next round."
"It's a good thing, too," Chris said. "I was afraid we'd have to go call our agent sober. Another scotch will make him seem like a little bit less of an asshole."
At this point in the game, we were repped (as Variety would put it) by the William Morris Agency, a Misadventure I'll save for another time because Chris and I had bigger problems that day.
"That's a total waste," I said. "They'll just try to stall by sending us out on cattle calls, then clip us for ten percent when we finally land our own job with no help from them."
In those days, the Writers Guild was trying to encourage the Free Lance market for their members by requiring that shows meet with a certain number of writers every season, whether they bought their stories or not. This quota system was easily met by cattle calls - scores of writers sent by their agents to meet with the producers en-masse in studio theaters.
Chris and I avoided them at all cost. Not only was it demeaning and unlikely to produce work, but there are few things more terrible - or smelly - than being jammed into a room packed with hungry, fear-soaked writers.
My partner nodded agreement. "The main problem is that we've left it too late," he said. "We should have seen this coming and hit the bricks a month ago."
Bottom line: It would likely take several weeks to land a gig. Then it would be many weeks more before we got paid. Studios were (and are) notorious late payers. Sure, if they took too long they might be fined by the Guild. But the fine was so small, no gimlet-eyed Business Affairs Boss worth his cash flow gave a shit.
Here's how we had (once again) found ourselves mired in the money mess: As mentioned in these Misadventures before, our standard MO was to sell the hell out of scripts, and when we had enough money stashed, we'd take the phone off the hook and write books. This had worked okay thus far for the Sten Series.
But our Vietnam novel - A Reckoning For Kings - was a different matter. It was a tough book: for the first (and still only) time in fiction we were telling the story of the war from both sides. The idea was to go hey diddle-diddle, right-down-the-middle and let the readers make up their own minds about the war. To that end we had over thirty major characters and fully half of them were Vietnamese.
Chris and I were betting our literary futures on the book. We were certain that once it was published our professional lives would be changed forever. Any round-heeled old pro reading this will accuse us of smoking funny cigarettes. And he'd be correct, although we usually stuck to scotch and soda. (easy on the soda - too much sodium)
As it happened, however, young and dumb as we were it played out as we'd hoped. After Reckoning was published in 1987 - and especially after the paperback was issued a couple of years later - we were able to start dropping Hollywood out of the picture and rely on books to make our living.
But getting there was a hellacious grind. We'd been hard at work on the novel for nearly three years. When we were about two thirds done we thought we had enough money to turn off the phones and complete the book. Then we could turn them on again and sell scripts until Reckoning and Sten rescued us. Unfortunately, we had fallen short of that goal.
And now we were agonizingly close to the end of the book, while perching perilously on the edge of financial disaster.
I polished off my drink, handed over my credit card for further bruising and said, "Well, partner mine, although it pains me terribly to say this this, it's time to put the book aside and get a job Sha-Na-Na."
As we slid off our barstools, Chris said, "Maybe let's skip out the agent and go directly to the source."
"Might speed things up," I agreed. "We can make a list of everybody we know and then try our hand at a little telemarketing Hollywood style."
I was living in Venice Beach, practically across the street from the Black Whale, and in no time we were hunched over our respective phones, sucker lists at our elbows, dialing for dollars.
The pitch we chose was nakedly avaricious. If a secretary answered we'd say, "Hi, (Jeannie, or Crystal or Kimberly) is (Frank, Joe, or Bernie) anywhere around?"
If he wasn't, we'd say, "Tell him Bunch and Cole called to scream: 'Help Us, Mr. Wizard!!! Save your favorite starving artists from getting kicked out of their garret.'"
If the guy was in, we'd say, "It's like this, (Frank, Joe, or Bernie)we are weeks away from finishing our Vietnam book and we are flat, fucking out of money. Buy something from us so we can finish the book. It'll be your contribution to World Peace and American Literature. And we promise you'll be remembered in the acknowledgements."
You might be surprised to learn that cynical old Hollywood was overwhelmingly positive. Really. Of course, some people weren't in the position to buy. We were very late in the season and most shows were scripted up. But we were promised back up scripts when that time came around. Others were in the process of pitching new series to the Networks and said if the Network bought, so would they.
So, there was promised money. And there was promised promised money. But no promised promised promised money. (Three promises equaled Cha-Ching!)
Finally, we came to Al Godfrey, our self-appointed producer/mentor. We both talked to him via the speaker phone. Unfortunately, Al was between jobs, but he had this to offer. "Have you tried Freilich?"
"The EatAnter?" Chris said. (He'd dubbed Jeff Freilich The EatAnter after the character in the BC comic strip for reasons previously explained.)
Godfrey laughed. He thought Jeff was an EatAnter too. Then he said, "He and Stu Sheslow have some sort of development deal in the works at Fox. (This was 20th Century Fox before the Rupert Murdoch era.) And I hear they're having script trouble."
"Trouble as in pay us immediate money to get out of, trouble?" Chris asked. "Or, just the usual EatAnter dithering chaos trouble?"
"Oh, there's money there," Godfrey said. "Go get it boys."
We called The EatAnter and sonofabitch if he didn't sound glad to hear from us. "Hey, guys," he said in that cheery EatAnter's voice of his, "I was just thinking about you two."
"Well, marriage is definitely out," Chris said. "But we might consider a brief affair."
The EatAnter laughed, but I knew him to be an overly sensitive soul who might not really be finding Chris funny. So, quick like a bunny rabbit I jumped in and gave him our "Contribution to American Literature" pitch.
"No shit," Freilich said. "You guys are really close to being done?"
"All we need is one decent, quick-paying gig," I said. "And your name will be writ large in the Acknowledgements."
"As a matter of fact," Freilich said, "I've got a two-hour pilot rewrite that has to be done right away."
"How right away?" Chris asked.
"Yesterday," Freilich said.
"We can do that," I said.
Chris said, "How much does it pay?"
Without hesitation, Jeff said, "Thirty five thousand dollars."
Chris said, "We'll do it."
Jeff said, "Don't you want to know what it's called."
"Not particularly," Chris said.
"Well, I'll tell you anyway," Freilich said. "It's called Towtruck Boogie."
There was a long silence from our end. We could tell from the way he said it that he wasn't shitting us. It really did carry the gut-clenching, no class at all, title of "Towtruck Boogie." Chris and I looked at each other. What should we do? Say fuck off and die? Or, close our eyes and think of Literature?
"Guys?" The EatAnter pressed. "Guys?"
Chris said, "We'll do it anyway."
And we did.
And yeah, William Morris got its ten percent.
(Some links: New Sten E-books and Audio Books. A Reckoning For Kings: A Novel Of Vietnam: Mobipocket. Kindle. Paperback.
NEXT: LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE "S" WORD