There was a light rain upon LA as we headed out to the ass-end of Burbank, where, appropriately enough, Michael (Not The Walt) Eisner and his seven dwarfs held forth over his daily Gong Show.
Chris swerved to dodge a fish-tailing Mercedes, got the nose straightened in time to avoid another Merc, then got stuck beside a huge Cinemobile. He cut his eyes this way and that, but it was hopeless. The traffic wasn't going to allow us to escape the river of freeway goop being thrown up by the wheels of the Cinemobile.
"Fuck a bunch of Disney," Chris said. "I don't like those sons of bitches as it is. So why the hell do we have to drive through the fucking rain to see them? It's like fetching the stick for your own whupping."
"In a word," I said, "Money."
"Shit, Cole, we've got enough money," he said. "We could go, maybe three months without another gig. Three months to do sane work, like writing novels."
"Yeah, but what about the strike?" I reminded him.
"Aw, hell," Chris grudged. "That's right. We're maybe gonna withhold our services, yet again, to teach those conniving Studio Fuhrers once and for all not to mess with us writers."
"Not 'Maybe' strike," I said. "Definitely strike."
"Yeah, yeah," Chris said. "Whoopie shit." He took a hand from the wheel long enough to pump a fist. "Solidarity, Brother."
Don't misunderstand from the above that Chris was anything but a union stalwart through and through. He liked to boast that his railroadman grandfather used to pepper scab trains with buckshot when on strike.
"If we can get some post-strike gigs set up," I reminded him, "we'll be able to replenish our bank accounts when it's over, instead of starting from ground zero."
"Yeah, yeah," Chris grumbled.
I pressed on: "Last time we were forced to go to work for fucking Irwin The Towering Toupee Allen at Code Dead." (See episodes 28-39)
"Don't rub it in," Chris said. "I'm the poor sap who fielded the money call.
Then he saw a hole in traffic, performed some maneuvers worthy of a NASCAR driver, and got out from under the Cinemobile. He sighed and settled back, mood improving.
Driving in the rain in LA is dangerous as hell. It rains so infrequently that nobody knows how to handle actual weather. Some Angelinos claim a light rain is worse than a torrential downpour. No quarrel from me. A light rain provides just enough moisture to float months of petroleum products to the freeway surface, making everything slick as a newly Zamboni'd ice rink. One errant brake-tap guarantees a spin that'd stress the skills an Olympic figure skater.
"The thing is," Chris said, "I grew up thinking that everything Disney did was pure, unadulterated, genius."
I snorted. "Give me a break. You just liked how Annette Funicello looked in that tight, white sweater."
Chris turned his head just enough so I could catch the sneer. "What, and you were hot for Tommy?"
"Okay, okay," I said. "When you are a kid, everything Disney is a wonder. But when you get older..." I shrugged... "Knew a lady once who got stuck on the Small, Small World ride. She was ripped on psilocybin at the time, and went round and round with those squeaky voices going 'It's a small, small world,' over and adfinitum over again."
Chris shuddered. "Enough!" he said. "Keep going and I'll upchuck in your lap."
"I have to admit that I'm as leery of this deal as you are," I said. "We've had to jump through Uncle Walt's hoops before."
"Still pisses me off about Scrooge McDuck," Chris said.
"A real McBummer," I agreed.
Uncle Scrooge was a definite sore point. A few years before, Disney had hired us to turn a Scrooge McDuck comic book serial - a takeoff on Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves - into a three-parter for the Ducktales TV series. The episodes had been so popular with the Neilson-metered kiddies that Disney cut the three-parter into a straight-to-VHS animated movie. Unfortunately, writers who do animation lack the protection of the Screenwriters Guild. So, we not only didn't get paid for the feature (about ten times more than three animated TV episodes) but we didn't even get any onscreen credit.
Forcing cheer, Chris said, "On the other hand, we got paid okay on that Disney World gig."
This was true. We'd been hired to write a scenario for one of the Epicot rides in Orlando. It had been fun - it was a new sort of writing experience - and had paid decently. Although the checks took an interminable time to come.
Gloom returned. Chris said, "I just don't want to write Disney, blood, sweat and baby urine garbage, then have to fight them for each and every fucking dime they owe us."
"Look on the bright side," I said. "We're meeting with Michael Ovitz's brother. That ought to protect us at least a little."
We'd recently signed with CAA, the hottest agency in town, whose boss - Michael Ovitz - was fast becoming a legend. (In his own mind, as it turned out.) It proved to be a foolish decision, and I can only blame The Weasel (See: We Save Flipper From A Tuna Can), whose squeaky mannerisms and low cunning drove us to drink earlier and earlier each day. It was our livers or the Wease, so we dumped the Wease.
"What's the mark's name?" Chris asked.
"Mark," I said.
He snorted. "No, no. What's the asshole's name."
"The asshole you are speaking of," I replied, "is named Mark. Mark Ovitz."
Chris chortled, "Who's on first, blah-blah."
It was still raining when we reached the gates of Disney Studio, which was on Buena Vista, just off Bob Hope Drive. A frowning gate guard leaned out of the shack, the frown disappearing when he saw who was in the car.
"Bunch and Cole," he exclaimed. "The fuckin' Blues Brothers!"
A tall black guy with a leading man's profile, we recognized him immediately.
"Shit, you used to guard the gates of MGM," Chris said. (See: The Movie Rock Mogul) "Way over in Culver City. What the hell are you doing here?"
The guard shrugged. "Lousy hours," he said. "I need a more flexible schedule, so I can make the auditions, you know?"
"Still on the comedy club circuit?" I asked.
"Check it out," the guard said, then struck a comic pose: "What's the difference between a Movie Star and God."
We said we give up.
He said, "God doesn't think He's a Movie Star."
Laughter all around.
The guard preened a little. "Heard Robin Williams swiped it already," he said.
One of the nice things about being acquainted with studio gate guards - plus crossing their palms with occasional bottles of Scotch, whether it's a holiday or not - is that you get to park in the very best spots. In this case, he had us pull up next to the guard shack, then called a buddy who whisked us over to the Administration Building in a covered golf cart.
The grounds surrounding Disney Studios were like no other. The place looked more like a big park, with many newly-planted trees and the greenest lawns in all America. There was one big area in the center that boasted a By-God Bandstand right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. You almost expected to see musicians in band uniforms, and a big damned tuba sticking out of the center.
"They have picnics there at least one weekend a month," the driver said, indicating the bandstand "All the employees and their families are invited."
"What fun," Chris said, not meaning it.
"Uh-huh," came the noncommittal reply from the driver. "The Big Boss is usually there," he went on. "Mr. Michael Eisner. Gives a speech about family values and all."
"So, not showing up isn't really an option," Chris surmised.
"That'd be a guess," the driver said. Flat.
He let us out at a portico, where we could walk the rest of the way shielded from the rain. We stopped a second and looked at the empty bandstand, with its family-friendly seating.
"Right out of a Stepford village, don't you think?" I said.
"That'd be a guess," Chris replied in the same tone as the driver.
We turned to walk on, but Chris came to an abrupt halt. "Holy shit, Cole!" he said.
"What?" I said, looking around. "What?"
Chris pointed ahead. "Would you look at fucking that?!?"
I looked. Gaped would be a better word. For there before us was the newly-completed entrance to the Team Disney Building. Whole barrels of ink had been poured into the Trades describing the magnificence of the building, said to be designed by Mister Michael(Not The Walt) Eisner, himself, representing the future of Disney as he saw it.
They had dubbed it "whimsical," and "colorful." Eisner's brainchild was said to "pay homage to Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs." Here, let me quote from The Hollywood Reporter: "... The front facade is a Post-Modern interpretation of the Parthenon, with dwarfs nearly 6 meters (18 feet) in height, holding up pediment and facing the pedestrian plaza and reflecting pool..."
Got all that? Especially the part about the eighteen-foot dwarfs? All seven of the sons of bitches: Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, and even, By-God Grumpy.
Now, imagine them all standing there. Now, imagine that it's raining. And the water is channeled perfectly from the roof, flowing over the dwarfs, spurting out waist high in seven perfectly formed streams.
And they are grinning out at you (except for Grumpy), looking exactly like they are all - heigh ho, heigh ho - taking a joyful Group Piss.
"Michael Fucking Eisner," breathed Chris reverently, "and the Seven Pissing Dwarfs!" Shook his head. "And here I fucking thought I'd seen it all."
We laughed our heads off. Laughed and laughed until a couple of Security guys popped out to look us over. We just waved them away, held our sides and kept laughing.
Eventually, we recovered. Sort of. With occasional snorts of laughter, we made our way through the dwarf piss storm into the building. Got checked by the Security guys, who were looking worried about us. Soon a secretary fetched us to the offices of Mark Ovitz, Boy Wonder.
The secretary caught us snickering and grinned. She whispered, "Saw the piddling dwarfs, did you?"
"We did, we did," Chris said and we nearly lost it again.
She held a warning finger to her lips. "Mr. Eisner's on the warpath about it," she said. "He's terrorizing all the guys in the Gong Show just now."
"Yeah, yeah," Chris said. "We'll be good." More uncontrollable snorts of laughter.
Just then Mark Ovitz came rushing in, out of breath. "Sorry to keep you, guys," he said, then escorted us into his office.
"How was the gong show?" Chris asked.
Mark jumped. Then: "Aw, geesh, you know about that, huh?"
The whole Town knew about it. Every day the young production execs filed into Esiner's office, then one by one, got up and pitched a project. You had to do it in three minutes flat. Sitting on Eisner's desk was big brass gong that he'd had especially made. If he didn't like the project, or if you ran over the allotted time, he'd conk the gong with a wooden hammer and the gong was of such high quality that everybody on the entire executive floor heard your humiliation loud and clear. There was even an employee Gong Pool, betting on who was going get it this time.
Chris said, "You get gonged today?"
"Nobody got gonged," Mark said. "We had to deal with a big crisis."
"You mean the pissing dwarfs?" Chris guessed.
Mark sighed. "You noticed that, I suppose?"
"Hard to miss," I said. "Especially if you don't have an umbrella."
Mark looked frustrated. Said, "I don't know what the heck it has to do with us. He's..."
The rest trailed off. Mark looked nervously about, perhaps wondering if the place was bugged. From what we'd heard about Michael (Not The Walt) Eisner, it might very well have been. Then he shook it off... almost literally... like a puppy climbing out of the water.
He said, "Never mind, that's somebody else's problem." He shuffled through some papers, trying to get back on track. "Anyway, I'm glad you guys could make it. Especially, in the rain and all."
Chris and I exchanged looks. Nodded agreement. It was my turn in the barrel.
"It's like this, Mark," I said. "We're really not all that hot on doing this project. Disney... you know... Kid shit... It's not our style."
"That's exactly why I asked for you," Mark said. "I told your agent that the last thing I want is some sort of Flubber, deal. Or, Herbie, The Love Bug baloney. I want this thing to have some... you know... balls."
He shifted, uncomfortable using the word in connection with a Disney project. Mark seemed like a nice enough guy, in a wimpy sort of way - no fire-breather like his older brother, Mike Ovitz.
"But without using that sort of language, right?" I said.
Mark grinned. "Yeah, General Audiences all the way," he said. "But with some... you know... heart!" He gave his chest a manful thump by way of illustration.
I looked at Chris. Another nod.
"Okay, but we have to be up front with you," I said. "We've got a gig right now."
Mark nodded. "Your agent said it was a Joe Piscopo movie, right?"
"That's right," I said. "The gentleman's agreement we have with the producers is that we have to get the first draft in before the strike. So that pretty much lets out any other project until later."
Mark said, "We can live with that. We want it good, not fast." He chuckled. "Besides, I'm sure you guys won't be turning your minds off during the strike. You'll be at least thinking about this project, right?"
"Could be," I said. "Thinking isn't against Union Regulations."
Chris came in - "Tell him about the other deal, Cole," he said.
Mark looked at me quizzically. I said, "We have another offer. From Gerald McRaney's company."
"But we're offering ten grand more," Mark pointed out.(Obviously our agent had filled him in more than usual. Something that we reflected on later.)
I nodded. "So, what's this project all about?" I asked. "All we were told was that it was some super hero thing. Two hour movie, back door pilot for a TV series."
Mark told us the deal. I really don't recall what the hell the thing was about. It was a father/son super hero thing. I-Man? H-Man? XYZ-Man? Who knows? It's not that my memory is shot. Although it may very well be. It's mainly because of what happened afterward.
However, I got some verbal guarantees about the script. Such as:
"Okay, one thing Chris and I have noticed," I said, "is that Disney has a habit of sticking a fucking dog into everything."
"Or a fucking monkey," Chris said.
I fixed Mark with a glare. "No fucking dogs, right?"
He nodded. "Okay."
Chris jumped in. "Say it, Mark. No fucking dogs."
Mark glanced around for bugs again, took a deep breath and got it out: "No... fucking... dogs."
"Swear it," Chris insisted. Grinning, but Mark could tell he was serious.
Mark giggled and raised a hand. "I, Mark Ovitz, swear no fucking dogs will be required in this script."
"Don't forget the fucking monkeys," Chris demanded.
Mark was getting into the spirit. Raised his right hand higher still. "I, Mark Ovitz, swear that no fucking dogs - or fucking monkeys - will ever be required in this script."
We shook on it. Agreeing that Chris and I would pass on the McRaney deal to take up the Disney super hero project. And that it was understood that we wouldn't be starting the script until after the writer's strike.
"Not a problem," Mark emphasized. "Not a problem."
The rain had stopped and the dwarfs were no longer pissing when we left. Went home. Spent the next few days getting ready for a location scouting trip and bonding session with Joe Piscopo and his brother, Rich, in New Jersey. Returned from Jersey. Wrote the Piscopo script - titled: Jersey Exit - and got it in just time, because a couple of days later the WGA blew the strike whistle and the walkout commenced.
The Great WGA Strike Of 1988 proved to be the longest in Guild history. Five months and seven days. That's a week longer that the previous record-holder, the strike of 1960, and seven weeks longer than the most recent strike in 2008.
Fortunately, Chris and I not only had enough dough banked to survive, but Sten was starting to pay off decently, the paperback of Reckoning was doing well, plus we spent those months working up a massive book project that we called The Shannon Trilogy. But, more about the Shannons later.
The longer the strike went on, the more the pressure intensified. The Studio Bosses brought incredible pressure to bear, spurning any attempts at compromise. Nothing but reruns on television. Movie projects cancelled left and right. The Studios put the word out that they'd pay top dollar to any writer who crossed the line and defied the Guild. Never mind, if you got caught, you'd be banned from the Guild for life. Or, if you were a writer trying to break in, working as a scab would guarantee that the Guild would never allow you to become a member. Meaning, no jobs ever.
"And rightfully so," Chris said, when we got the word. "I hate fucking scabs."
Rumors were rife that writers and producers were meeting in parking lots at night, where paper bags full of money were being exchanged for scripts. I don't know about midnight parking lot meetings, but Chris and I turned down a great deal of cash from a certain producer to do scab work. So that part of the rumor was true.
Then the Studios started invoking the force majeure clauses in their contracts, cancelling projects that had been agreed upon prior to the strike. It was a stupid move. When the strike ended they'd have to start from ground zero to get things on the air, or on screen. But the Guys With The Big Telephones are well known for cutting off their noses, just to show you how tough they are.
We weren't too concerned about our Disney deal, because we'd shaken hands with Mark Ovitz, brother of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He'd assured us that the whole idea was to get us on board so we could go right to work on his project when the strike ended.
The first sign of trouble came when Chris looked up from his keyboard one day and said, "You know, Cole, we never got our start up money from Disney."
He was right. We'd signed the contract several days before the strike and were owed seven or eight grand for on-signing money. We'd gotten the Piscopo story money and first draft money, but nary a sign of a check from fucking Disney.
"Maybe call Pariser," I suggested. Marc Pariser was the guy who'd brought us on board at CAA.
Chris called. "Yo, Pariser," I heard him say, "where's our fucking Disney money?"
Chris frowned. Whatever Pariser was saying couldn't have been good news. "Well, Jesus Christ, Marc," he said, "strike or no strike they should have sent the money. It was due on signing. And we fucking signed."
A long sigh. "Okay, okay. Give 'em a call."
Chris hung up. "Shit," he said.
"I take it there's going to be a delay," I said.
"Eisner's the main guy whipping the other Bosses on," he said. "Plus he's laying people off right and fucking left to make an example. Pariser says give a shout in the Business Affairs office and all you hear is a loud fucking echo."
"Let me guess," I said. "He's blaming the layoffs on the writers. Get everybody pissed at us, because we don't want to take a cut in pay."
"You got that right," Chris said.
Another long sigh. Then we both said fuck it, and went back to work.
A week or so later, the phone rang. Normally, it rang a lot, but during a strike the phone becomes frighteningly silent.
"Probably a picket duty call," Chris said.
But, we both must have had a sense of foreboding, because neither of us picked up.
I blinked first. Got the phone. "Bunch and Cole... Allan Cole speaking..."
A woman with a refined voice said, "Mr. Cole? I'm calling from Michael Eisner's office?"
My eyebrows must have climbed to the ceiling, because Chris immediately sat up straight, sensing that some shit was about to hit our personal fan.
I said, "If this is about the project we have with Disney, ma'am, we're not allowed to talk about it. Guild rules are very clear on that."
The woman said, "Oh, it's nothing like that." Which meant, it certainly was. "Mr. Eisner just wants to invite a few prominent writers to visit his office tomorrow afternoon for a little chat."
I said, "I think I just told you that chatting is not allowed."
The woman ignored this and went on. "It's just an informal get together. Mr. Eisner wants you to hear first hand his side of the argument in the current dispute."
I said, "We have a committee of writers who are officially representing us, Ma'am. Plus a professional union negotiator. He should speak to them."
"Well, Mr. Eisner would like a more informal talk," she went on. "Just you and... um.. Mr. Bunch, and five or six others. Then, if you choose, you can pass on what Mr. Eisner has to say to your colleagues."
I said, "By chance, would any of these other writers you are inviting have new contracts with Disney?"
"Ma'am?" I pressed.
I heard her clear her throat. Then she said, "I believe that's the case, Mr. Cole."
I said, "Okay, well, please tell Mr. Eisner thank you very much for the invitation, but we definitely won't be able to make the meeting."
More silence. More throat clearing. Then, "I'll tell Mr. Eisner. Thank you, Mr. Cole and goodbye."
She hung up. I stared at the phone a minute, then replaced the receiver.
Chris said, "What's up?"
I told him. Chris shook his head. "Run, Bambi, it's Eisner," he said.
I was so ticked off I couldn't even work up a laugh. I said, "I'd better call the Guild."
Which I did. Chris listened to my end, then when I hung up he said, "Better call Pariser and fill him in."
I did this too. Pariser sounded weird on the phone. Hesitant. Very unhelpful and definitely uncommunicative. Later, we learned that CAA, which was supposed to be totally on the side of their clients, looked more fondly on Eisner and his boyos than was good for us writers. This proved out down the road when the big boss, Mike Ovitz, left the agency for a zillion dollar deal with Disney, thanks to his old buddy, Michael(Not The Walt)Eisner.
After the call to our Fearless (ha!) Agent, there was nothing to do but get back to writing books.
Dissolve To: A week later. I hear mail being pushed through the front door slot. I wander out, scoop it up, debone the pile, separating bills and ads, then come up short when I see an envelope with the Disney logo on the left hand side.
I take it back to the office. Chris can tell something is up. I sit down, slice the envelope open, and pull out a single sheet of Disney stationary. There's only two or three sentences on it. Short sentences.
Bottom line: Payback courtesy Michael(Not The Walt)Eisner.
Basically, the letter said that the company was exercising its force majeure - do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to jail - rights and was cancelling our contract.
At the bottom of the page was a drawing of Mickey Mouse in his Fantasia Wizard's Cap, waving out at me (Hi!) with a big grin on his face.
Beneath that were the words: Just Another Bit Of Magic, From The Magic Kingdom.
Chris said, "What's up, Cole?"
I couldn't help it. I started laughing.
"Jesus Christ, Bunch," I managed. "We've just been fucked by The Mouse."
NEXT: JOE PISCOPO AND THE BEACH POLICE