- George Burns (January 20, 1896 - March 9, 1996)
We were cruising along Hollywood Boulevard, squinting through the smog at the passing buildings, when Chris said, "Isn't this the second damned time we've gone by Grauman's?"
He was speaking of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater, where stars have left footprints and palm prints in wet cement for lo these many. I rolled down the window to get a closer look, waving at the smog as if shooing away smoke. Sure enough, the familiar facade of the Grande Dame of movie houses made itself known.
"This is totally screwed," I said, shutting out the polluted air and breathing in the fresh BMW air conditioner breeze. "Somebody ripped off the corner of Hollywood and La Brea."
"Okay, okay," Chris said. "Let's slow way the fuck down and look."
And so we slowed way the fuck down, ignoring the complaining horns behind us. I was under the apparently false impression that I knew the area well. I used to walk this way after school to an afternoon cleaning gig at my Aunt Rita's place, a popular night spot - Sancho Panza's - near the corner of Hollywood and La Brea.(I attended Hollywood High the last semester of my junior year.) And after Sancho's, there was a gas station, whose owner also ran a Homes Of The Stars bus tour, along with a newsstand that sold maps of same.
I knew Sancho Panza's was long gone, replaced by a succession of nail parlors, beauty salons and antique clothing stores. But the little one-story building that had housed it was absent. As was the gas station/star tour business. And across La Brea - where a rather palatial Christian Science Reading Room had once stood - was a gray, multi-storied parking lot.
"I don't get it," I said. "Everything's different."
"Holy shit!" Chris said, as he reached the end of the block, then squealed around the corner. "Looks like Stevie Poo has gone and done it."
The "Stevie Poo" in question was none other than Stephen J. Cannell, creator and co-creator of such classics as The Rockford Files, Great American Hero, The A-Team and so on.
Our mission that day was to meet with Steve and his partner, Frank Lupo, our old producer buddy from Galactica 1980. The objective: a gig writing an episode of their new show, Hunter, featuring former NFL star Fred Dyer. Lupo had called a few days before, said come on in, boys, the water's fine, then followed up with a messengered draft of the pilot.
"What's Steve gone and done?" I asked, trying to see what the hell he was talking about.
"He's built himself a fucking building," Chris said, pulling up to a red curb. He pointed upward. "Look!"
I looked. And finally saw. Where the source of my teenage income had once stood, was a tall, tastefully gray building. It towered over the whole corner, which is why we hadn't seen it. We were looking down, not up. And, oh, I did mention the eye-smarting smog didn't I?
"He's even got a big-damned sign with his name on it," Chris said.
I craned my head back and sure enough, there was a huge sign fixed to the top of the building: Cannell Studios.
"Take that, Fucking Universal," Chris said. (MCA/Universal had forever become Fucking Universal to Chris during our brief days of slavery there.)
It was said that Cannell had been ill-treated by the Black Tower - and who in "The Biz" hasn't? - and struck off on his own taking an amazing string of successes with him. "Sort of a Glen Larson with God Damned class," is how Chris put it.
After discovering the building, it now became clear that the matching parking structure across La Brea went with it. Chris whipped over the wheel of his BMW and aimed for the entrance.
"You know, about half the people in town got their break at Fucking Universal," Chris said as he smoothed over the speed bump guarding the entry.
"Including us," I pointed out.
"Including us," he agreed as he began his search for a nice safe spot to put his nice new car. "And yet, everybody hates the damned place. Instead of warm and cuddly teddy bear feelings, we all give the Black Tower the finger when we pass on by."
He found a spot where the car was least likely to get its sides or fenders scraped and pulled in. "They piss all over you and screw you for every dime they can, so in the end - when you've made a rep for yourself - you take your best stuff elsewhere."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I said. "There oughtta be a law."
"There is one," Chris said as we shut the doors and locked the car. "And a pretty fucking important one, at that."
Chris stopped and fixed me with his Great Wiseman look. "It just so happens, Cole, that in Hollywood it is totally illegal to drive a flock of more than two hundred sheep down the boulevard."
"No shit?" I said.
"I shit thee not," Chris said. "Look it up. It's on the books."
With that factoid to chew on, I followed Chris across the street and into the new Cannell Channel Building.
We met Steve in his spacious penthouse office, whose floor-to-ceiling windows rivaled any of those occupied by the Guys With The Big Telephones over at Universal. Lupo was with him, perched on an identical long-legged director's chair.
They were a study in contrasts. Steve had dark blonde hair, a short beard - almost a goatee - and a leading man's profile. Frank was dark Italian, with a heavyset, muscular build. Frank always had the look of a guy who has a deep secret, and an amusing one at that. He wore his usual sardonic grin and his eyes were bright with intelligence. Chris and I liked him a lot.
"Hey, guys, how ya doin'?" Frank said. "Done with the book yet?"
He was referring to our Vietnam novel, A Reckoning For Kings. And he knew very well it was done and that we were on to our next book - Sten #4, I think. (See "promised, promised" scripts in Towtruck Boogie & The EatAnter) His comment was meant for Steve, to goose his partner's interest in one of Lupo's favorite writing teams. Namely, Bunch & Cole.
It worked, because Steve's interest was immediately piqued. From merely polite, he went to: "That's right. Frank mentioned you boys were Real Writers." (His emphasis - and, yeah, mine as well.)
He came off his chair and started showing us his little office treasures. Mementos from shows he'd worked on, like Colombo and The Rockford Files. (which he also co-created) Various impressive awards. His battered typewriter, which he said he'd had for two small forevers. He also confessed that he was dyslexic and that his longtime assistant was "the only one in the world" who could translate the seeming nonsense words that he poured out into actual English.
His prize office toy was a new brass telescope mounted on a tripod. It was pointed at the rooftop garden on the building opposite. "The secretaries over there," he said, "are incredible. They take sun-tanning lunch breaks almost every day." He shook his head. "I didn't know bikinis could get that small." He waved an inviting hand. "Go ahead, take a look."
Chris stepped up and peered through the telescope. Suddenly, his face lit up. "Holy, shit," he said. "She's taking her top off!"
"Let me see, let me see," Cannell said, pushing in to look.
Frank chuckled - he knew Chris' evil ways. Then shook his head in amusement when he saw the look on Cannell's face when he realized he'd been had. Nary a chick in sight, much less a topless one.
"Better have some great fucking stories, guys," Frank advised, then led us back to the directors' chairs.
But Cannell wasn't ready to get down to business. Instead he pressed us on novel writing. What was our schedule like? How did we juggle books with our Hollywood chores? And how did two guys go about writing a book?
"With scripts," Chris said, "one guy sits at the typewriter and types, while the other paces, and we pitch stuff back and forth. All the dialogue is spoken aloud, so we know an actor can deliver the lines."
"They write great dialogue," Frank testified. "I used to hear them go at it when my office was down the hall from theirs."
"With books," I put in, "we make a really thorough outline. Then split up the chapters. We don't go - here, you take chapter one, two, three, and I'll take four, five and six. We split things by subject and story lines. Things we like best, or know best."
"If there's a preacher in the story," Chris said, "I stick Cole with the sermons. He gives great fucking sermon."
"I hate sermons," I said. "But I do them anyway. Then Chris feels guilty and I can toss him scut work scenes."
Chris said, "When we're done with our sections, we swap them. Then rewrite the other guy. And blend in the writing styles so the whole thing is seamless. That way, when we're done with our first draft, it's more like a second draft. And a polished second draft at that."
"It's a lot more satisfying writing books than scripts," I said. "For better or worse, a book is all yours. But soon as you hand in a script, it no longer belongs to you."
Cannell appeared a little wistful. I saw him glance over at a picture on his desk - it was of him and his family standing in front of a large yacht. Handsome family. Expensive-looking yacht.
He sighed. "I really envy you guys," he said. "Maybe someday..."
Then it was to work and we started pitching Hunter stories. As mentioned before, the series was headed by former NFL star Fred Dyer as Sgt. Rick Hunter. The story they finally chose was one we called The Legacy.
The basic idea was that the son of a mob boss, who is also an old friend of Hunter's, is killed in what appears to be a burglary. But Hunter (who has a suspicious past) is unconvinced. Despite pressure from above he goes after the real killer, preventing an all out mob war in the process. Not particularly original, but with tons of action, lots of fun and a plethora of plot twists.
Cannell and Lupo said go thou and write. And so we did - after retrieving Chris' BMW from the lot and picking up a bottle of scotch to wash out the taste of smog.
As we were driving home, Chris said, "Poor son of a bitch."
"Who's a poor son of a bitch?" I asked.
"Steve Cannell, is who," he replied. "Did you see the look on his face when he asked about writing books? He was practically weepy. He'd really, really rather write books than be a big time producer."
"Yeah, I saw," I said. "But he's stuck. Probably has two or more houses - expensive houses, at that. And you saw the yacht. Then there's the family. Plus, he's got a whole string of shows on the air. People relying on him. All those payrolls to make."
Chris sighed. "Money has got to be the ultimate Jones," he said. He stared at the traffic a moment, then added, "Wonder if he'll ever be able kick the habit?"
I shrugged. "Probably not."
As it happens, we were dead wrong. Years later, Cannell shook the Jones, broke out of Hollywood and became the best-selling author of the always intriguing Shane Scully Series. Good on you, Steve.
We got to work on the script. It came pretty easily, although it was a good thing we were no longer wet behind the ears. This was the kind of a job that took a couple of guys with experience.
Our star - Fred Dyer - was a six-foot six former defensive end who was not only a Super Bowl champion, but was also the only guy who had ever made two safeties in a single NFL game. But the jury was still out on whether he could actually act. Hell - could he even memorize his lines?
Frank had warned us to keep it stupid, simple, until he and Steve sussed out their new star. To that end we tossed the main lines - and acting chores - to his two co-stars: Stephanie Kramer as Lt. Dee Dee McCall and Charles Hallahan as Capt. Charles Devane. If you check their creds, you'll see that they were already experienced hoofers when they were hired for Hunter.
That's the trick smart producers like Frank and Steve used when dealing with amateur stars. Surround them with pros. Tell your writers to give the pros the main lines, the heavy lines. Then give the star the Button, or last line. And the pros will react in ways that will make the audience think the amateur is a bloody genius. (We used that trick later on shows like Walker, Texas Ranger, starring Chuck Norris, which Lupo also produced.)
Within a couple of weeks we wrote Fade Out, punted the script forward and got back to writing Sten #4 - Fleet Of The Damned. A few days later we got the call to come on in for our second draft notes.
I don't remember who we met with - by now Frank and Steve had a full crew on board and were busy with their Executive Producer chores. Maybe it Jo Swirling Jr... I'm not sure. I do know that ours was the first episode they bought after the pilot and it ended up running the fifth week of the first season. The point being - these were early days. Everybody was feeling their way into the show, which ran for seven very successful seasons.
Swirling (or whomever) said, "Good first draft, boys. Got a few things we have to change because the situation has changed. And a few suggestions for this and that."
Chris and I nodded. Pens poised over notepads.
"Shoot," I said - rather unfortunately, as it turned out.
"The first thing," Swirling (or whomever) said, "is a cover note." He tapped the face of the script for emphasis. "A really important cover note."
We said go ahead.
"Now, this is going to sound really stupid," Swirling (or whomever) went on. "But we want you to go through all of Fred's lines - all his dialogue - and change any word that begins with the letter 'S'"
We both reacted. "What the fucking fuck?" Chris said for both of us.
"Sorry about that, guys," Swirling (or whomever) said. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "You know that Fred was a football star, right?"
We said, yeah, we did.
"Well, in one of his last games he got his two front teeth kicked out," Swirling (or whomever) said. "He got some new ones. But it turns out they don't fit real well.
"And whenever he says a word that starts with the letter 'S' he spits his fucking teeth into the camera."
As you can imagine, we were nearly knocked out of our seats. Swirling (or whomever) said, "That going to be a problem boys?"
Chris said, "Other than the fact that our bad guy is named Sam, and the Vic has a boat named, Silverado, and a dog named, Sunshine, plus a fucking sister, named Sue - no... we've got no goddamned problem at all."
Swirling (or whomever) sighed. "Yeah, I saw that. Guess you're going to have the retype every page of the entire script from the Fade In to the Fade Out." (This was in the pre-Search & Replace days)
"Aw, shit," I said.
Swirling (or whomever) raised a warning finger. "You mean, Aw, Thit, right?"
We both nodded. "Right."
NEXT: WE LEARN TO STOP WORRYING, AND LOVE THE MOB.