"If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." (Robert Blake in Baretta - 1975-1978.)
Chris braked hard to avoid T-Boning a produce truck that had jumped the light. "Fuckin' Robert Blake," he growled.
You couldn't blame Chris for his mood. It was one of those hot LA days, where smog and road grime seem to reach right through the car's AC vents to claw at your eyes and throat. Even so, I was puzzled.
"I don't get it," I said. "Was Blake driving that truck, or something?"
"Might as fucking well be," Chris said. "It's his fucking fault we're stuck somewhere in the middle of East LA on the hottest fucking day of the year."
I had to admit he had a point. Our agent had originally set up a pitch meeting with Blake at a perfectly reasonable time, at a perfectly reasonable place, but Blake's assistant had called back at the last minute to reschedule.
"Blake thought it would make better use of his time if you met him on location," the agent told us. "You can make the pitch in his trailer when he's taking a break."
What could we say? The meeting was to pitch a two hour episode for the new PI series, "Joe Dancer," starring the above mentioned Robert Blake - or, "that little fucking Mickey Gubitosi," as he was known and loathed by more than a few.
Big bucks were at stake, and so it was that we found ourselves a few days later edging Chris' prized BMW through the traffic in a rough, gang infested area of East LA. The signs were all in Spanish, which is okay if you've lived in LA any sort of time, because you soon develop a kind of Spanglish understanding of the language. On a positive note, mixed in the cavalcade of vehicles, were a few really cool-looking low riders and one absolutely dynamite vintage truck painted a lacquer white with huge red fighting cocks decorating the sides.
Chris cheered up a little when he saw the rooster illustrations. "What the fuck," he said. "How bad can it be?"
We got to the location with nary a scratch on Chris' pride and joy. A narrow street lined with a few small businesses and the alley that serviced them had been barricaded for the shoot. Gang members with jail tattoos manned the barriers. In bad neighborhoods, it's common practice for location managers to grease the palms of local thugs to act as "security."
The film permit would have included an LAPD officer, or two, but to guarantee peace the location guys paid off warring gangs not to war, plus promised them bit parts. Even the nastiest felon is turned into a purring pussycat when he hears the siren call of, "Wanna be in the picture, kid?"
A guy with a couple of blue teardrops tattooed under one eye grunted at us when we told him we were the writers here to see Mr. Blake. He pulled the barrier aside and waved Chris into a makeshift lot, where Teamster drivers hung about the vehicles in their charge, smoking cigarettes, swatting flies, and cursing the smoggy heat.
Got out, locked the car, then headed to a group of people who were milling about a battered shop with a "Mercado" sign overhead. There were lights, and sound booms and camera equipment, so we figured that's where the action was. We asked where we might Blake, or the director, but all we got was shrugs. Finally we came upon an art director fussing over prop fruit and vegetables stands. Pointing at the mouth of an alley, he said Blake was in his trailer.
As we started away, he said, "Are you the writers?" We said were. He gave us a sympathetic look. "Well, be careful dears, She's in a terrible state."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
The art director gave a snort of exasperation. "Everything is wrong, according to Little Miss Greta Grumpy. The location is wrong. The sets are wrong. The props are wrong." Another snort. "The only thing that's really wrong is that She didn't learn Her lines."
As we walked away, Chris said, "Is Blake gay?"
"If you mean his sexual orientation," I said, "Beats the hell out of me. If you mean his mood, apparently it is anything but gay."
"Shit!" Chris said.
We had one thing going for us, though - NBC. As a series of two-hour movies, they were taking a huge financial risk with Dancer. Not trusting Blake's story sense, they'd given him a short list of "approved" writers, such as our old buddy from Quincy, Robert Crais, a name many of you will recognize as the author of the hard-boiled Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike novels.
Also on that list were the names of our personal favorite writing team - Bunch & Cole. In other words, if he passed on our pitch, he'd have some explaining to do to the Guys With The Big Telephones at the Network.
We got to the trailer - actually a large RV - and knocked. Somebody shouted "Come in," so we opened the door. The blast of cold AC air that greeted us was not welcome. It bore the odor of a men's locker room so thick and gamy our stomachs clenched. A producer friend had warned us that Blake's sanitary habits were right out of the Middle Ages. But as a producer we knew him to be typically prone to exaggeration, so we were still unprepared.
"I can take it if you can," Chris muttered.
It was a gloomy atmosphere. The curtains had been drawn over the windows, and besides an overhead reading light above a small dining alcove, the only other source of illumination was a small, flickering TV squatting on the table, sound off. Blake sat beside it, turned out to face the aisle. There were some implements on the table, whose purpose was not immediately apparent. He was wearing jeans and a dirty muscle shirt, with an adequate display, but certainly no threat to Sly or Arnie.
Blake waved us over, saying, "Bunch and Cole?"
I said, "Guilty."
Blake sighed as if we were presenting an additional burden to an already weary day and motioned for us to sit in the little foldout bench opposite him. He called out to somebody and pretty soon a dogsbody of indeterminate gender scurried out and placed a white plastic tub of steamy water on the floor in front of Blake.
"Got some stories for me?" he said.
"We do," Chris said.
He waved, "Well, get to them then."
Apparently there wasn't going to be any foreplay, much less a hello, or heard all about you. We got out our steno pads and leafed through our notes. But both of us stopped as we observed Blake doing the strangest thing. He kicked off his shoes and peeled - and I mean PEELED - his socks off of a pair of really dirty feet.
It was a good thing we were sitting, because the smell would have knocked us down. He stuck his feet in the tub, swirled them about a bit, slopping soapy water on the carpet. Then he put a towel on his lap, lifted one foot out and placed it on a knee. He reached into the array of implements pulled out a set of nail clippers, and started clipping his toe nails.
He looked up at us, impatient. "Go ahead," he said.
Chris and I looked at each other. He flipped his notebook closed. I did the same. Blake stopped clipping long enough to scratch his head, puzzled.
"What's the problem?"
Chris and I eyed his feet. He looked down. Then up again.
"What, this bother you or something?"
"Or, something," Chris said.
Blake glared at him.
Chris glared back. There are few people who could give glare as well as Chris Bunch.
Bobby folded. "Touchy," he said.
He got up and padded into the back and disappeared into a room. A minute later the dogsbody reappeared, stuck the shoes and offensive socks under an arm, grabbed the tub and scurried out.
Beat, Beat, and Bobby returned.
Stopped in front of us. Motioned to his feet. He was wearing a pair of old black ballet-type slippers, a toe sticking out of one of them.
"Better?" he said.
"It'll do," Chris said.
Blake nodded and sat. And we began our pitch.
An hour later we were pushing our way back through the East LA traffic, a sale under our belts. Chris said, "Old Freddy told us that if Blake tried to get a leg over, to tell him to fuck off."
I said, "Well, you certainly did that, partner mine."
Freddy's cure (see Bad Boy Bobby Blake #1) worked a treat. We wrote that episode, then sold and wrote another without further unpleasantness. Even so, we watched Blake make other people's lives miserable, thus undermining his own success. Pretty soon the show was cancelled, but we were already off to nicer people and better things.
DISSOLVE TO: FOUR YEARS LATER
Kathryn and I had just come home late from dinner at Madam Wu's(See The Ugliest Dog In Hawaii) when the phone rang. It was the producer buddy mentioned in the previous episode of these journals.
He said, "Quick, turn on Johnny Carson."
I said, "Jesus, man, it's almost midnight."
He said, "Johnny Carson wouldn't be on if it wasn't. Now, go turn it on." He hung up.
I went to the TV and turned it on. And who should I see sitting in the guest seat next to Carson, but none other than Robert (I got that Old Son Of A Bitch Feeling Coming On) Blake.
He was doing his old act, whining and moaning about how he had been an abused child actor (Our Gang Comedy, Red Rider), who had been ripped off by his parents and had fallen into drink and drugs and through no fault of his own had become an intolerable human being. Now, he had seen the light, found solace in dance therapy and green tea enemas, or whatever, and was ready to take up his career anew with kindness and charity in his heart for one and all.
"Hot damn," I told Kathryn, "I think we might be in for another job."
She laughed. "From that little rat?" she said, pointing at the tube.
"It's Blake's MO," I said. "It's like Country Western stars. C&W guys make a public confession on Grand Old Opry and find Jesus. In Hollywood, you go on The Tonight Show and find Green Tea enemas."
Sure enough, a couple of days later Chris and I were busy working on Sten #4 - Fleet Of The Damned - when our agent called. I don't remember who it was, probably The Weasel. (See We Save Flipper From A Tuna Can) In fact, I'm sure it was The Weasel because I distinctly remember Chris cringing as the guy's squeaky voice came across the speaker phone.
He said, "Listen, fellas, I've got a job lined up for you. I've been working real hard on it, and I didn't want to say anything too soon, but it finally all came together and I'm not bragging if I tell you-"
I broke in before Chris reached through the phone and strangled the little shit. He couldn't stand the guy.
I said, "Let me guess, it's Robert Blake, right?"
A long pause, then. "Well, yeah, Allan. As it happens it was Bobby's office that called, but I've been trying to-"
Again I broke in. This time to prevent Me from murderilizing him. The Weasel was one of those agents who claimed credit whether it was due, or not. If you've been in the business more than six months, you know the breed. We had brought the Blake contact to The Weasel, not the other way around.
I said, "What's the show?"
Another pause of surprise, then he said, "It's called Hell Town and Bobby plays a priest, and it's really a very unique premise and - "
Chris could stand no more. He cut in. "It can't be VERY unique, God Damnit! Unique is as fucking unique as unique can get."
"Whaaat?" came the squeaky voice of confusion.
"Never mind," I told the agent. "Just set up the meet and we'll be there."
"Tell them no fucking meetings on location," Chris growled. "And no washing of stinking feet!"
Another confused cry of, "Whaaat?"
I said never mind and give us a call about the meeting. After hanging up, I looked up the number of the producer buddy to find out what this Hell Town series was about. While I was calling, Chris got out the glasses and ice for Scotch and water, easy on the water, because we were about to once again enter the weird, grubby world of little Mickey Gubitosi, King Of The SOB's.
Long story short, we met with him and his story exec - a guy named E. Nick Alexander, who couldn't put two words together without making three, because he had to put a "fuck" or a "fucking" or some other version of the "F" word in between. I won't repeat the conversation, because it offends even me.
Blake's office was in a newish building in an industrial area near MGM. It was two stories, with an underground parking area, one side partitioned off for a garage. Blake had the suites on the ground floor, and a new action-adventure series called "240 Robert" had the top floor. They shared the parking area and the garage, where Teamster mechanics worked on vehicles used by both shows. (Tip: When producers land a new gig, they immediately get the mechanics to totally overhaul their cars, up to and including new engines, upholstery, tires, paint, etc., then bill it to the show. Any under the table money to doubly grease the mechanics' palms goes onto the Location Scout's cash budget.)
We knew the Show Runner on 240 Robert, so after we made the Hell Town sale, we wandered upstairs, shot the bull, then sold a script there as well. With two deals to our credit, Chris and I were happy writer-guys as we drove the short distance home to Venice Beach.
Later, when they were shooting that episode of Hell Town, we were called out to the location to make on-the-spot script changes. I forget what they were, but it's usually because necessary time cuts will affect dialogue, plot, or both - jobs, only a writer is authorized to handle.
Whatever the reason, it's always fun. We expected no different with Hell Town. The location was the Standing Set they'd built on the ass end of LA. Two old buildings had been converted into a small church exterior, with an attached orphanage.
Blake played the Catholic priest who oversaw both. He was supposed to be a rough and ready type priest, up from the streets. In the tag of every episode he'd be sitting out on the steps of the church at night, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, talking to "the man upstairs." If that image makes you all hypoglycemic, blame Blake, not me.
Anyway, the set was pretty impressive. While we were waiting for Blake - in his trailer grooming his feet, no doubt - the production boss showed us around. The dorms in the little orphanage were perfect, but he was particularly proud of the communal kitchen.
A smiling set man greeted us when we entered. And it was something right out of a Norman Rockwell image of an American Big Family Kitchen. Long wooden table with benches for the kids and the nuns to sit around. Battered pots and pans hanging from the walls. A fabulous old butcher's block. And a huge, old-fashioned cooking range, with a cast iron grill.
"Wait'll you see this," the set man said, pulling us over to the range. "There hasn't been gas service in this place for years," he continued. "But, see, this thing even works." He turned dials and flames leaped up from the burners. "We got a kitchen scene coming up later today and we can actually cook on this thing when they shoot it."
He showed us how he and his team had constructed a pantry where propane tanks were cunningly hidden. Just to prove his point, he slapped a frying pan on one of the burners, got some bacon out of the prop fridge (there was an ice chest inside), and soon had it sizzling.
But apparently there was more. Much more. "That's nothing," he said. "Easy shit for my guys."
He took us through doors that led into a by-god kitchen garden. Bean vines twined up poles. Tomatoes heavy with fruit were staked in the corners. And the rest of the garden was taken up by row after row of towering corn plants, with ripe ears hanging from stalks. As we exited, one member of his team was busy wiring ears of corn to the plants.
The set man explained, "Mr. Blake wanted everything as real as possible." He indicated the beans and the tomatoes. "Of course, you can't just grow this shit overnight. But, it was easy to get the plants from a hot house and set them up here."
He turned to the corn. "Now, that was the really hard part. It's the middle of winter, so where the hell are you gonna get corn growing on stalks? And Mr. Blake was just dead set on making it not just look real, but feel real. He says it makes it better for him to find his... whatchacallit - motivation."
The production boss rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said.
The set man was too proud to notice. He said, "So, I stayed up two nights making those stalks. Then I went out before dawn to the Central Market and bought fresh corn. Now we just have to wire them on, and there you go."
It really was impressive and we said so. The guy looked like a little kid, he was so proud. This is one of those key elements that can make or break a project. I don't mean just the craftsmanship, but the attitude of the film crew. If they feel this is just as much their movie, or TV episode, as the actors and the directors and the writers, then something magic can happen.
Came a familiar voice: "What's this shit?"
The set man jumped. It was Blake. He came storming on the scene, dressed in his priest get up, including the collar. He was flanked by two big stuntmen, one in a Gold's Gym muscle shirt, the other - a little older, just as big, but with graying sideburns - wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. It was touting some stunt driving school - maybe Stuntman Mike's, but maybe not.
I'm not sure, but one of them might have been the boyo who testified years later that Blake tried to involve a couple of stuntmen in his wife's murder. Eventually the testimony was recanted and Blake was acquitted of the murder. However, like O.J. Simpson, a jury in a civil suit, believed otherwise. They awarded the children of the dead wife $30 million, later reduced by a judge to $15 million.
Anyway, here was Blake, with two big stunt men hovering at his side, spitting fury at the poor set guy. He batted at one of the corn stalks, knocking it down.
"I cannot believe this shit?" he shouted. "I wanted real fucking corn! On real fucking corn plants! This is fucking wired!"
The set man shrank under Blake's abuse and the threatening glares of the stuntmen, who moved in to loom on him. "But, Bobby," he said. "It's winter."
"I know it's fucking winter," Blake shouted. "I got a calendar. I watch the news. So what? Send somebody down to Mexico, or something. Use your fucking imagination. Or, is that too much to ask'
"No, Bobby, right away, Bobby," the guy babbled.
Then Blake and the stuntmen trooped into the orphanage kitchen, the set man and production boss in tow. Chris and I idled along, taking mental notes. You never know when might need a good scene about an asshole.
Now, Blake was screaming at the guy about the kitchen range. He'd flicked it on and he was shaking his finger at the flame. "This is shit!" he said. "It doesn't look real! There's hardly any fucking fire!"
"But, Bobby," the set man protested, "we just tried it out. We even cooked some bacon on it, see?" He indicated the frying pan holding several rashers of nicely browned bacon.
Blake swept the pan off the range onto the floor, spattering pork products and grease everywhere. "Don't fucking tell me about bacon," he said. He thumped his chest. "I know all about goddamned bacon."
What this meant I haven't the foggiest, but it maybe it meant something to the set man, because he bobbed his head, babbling, "Sure, Bobby. Sure. We'll fix it. Don't worry."
"I'm not fucking worried," Blake said, jabbing his finger at the guy. "You're the one who should be worrying!"
He looked around the room, sneering at what he saw. Then he must have realized that Chris and I were standing there, because he finally turned to greet us. But, now he had a completely different look on his face. Like Jekyll and Hyde, he transformed from a raging Robert Blake to a sort of friendly Bobby Blake.
"Hey, guys," he said, shaking our hands in turn. "Thanks for coming by." We said sure, no problem. He started away, motioning for us to follow. "I got notes for the changes in my trailer."
He shot Chris an amused look. "Not to worry," he joked."Already cut my toe nails."
Okay, so we got our notes - no trouble, no outbursts. Everything gentleman like. We made the changes on the spot, using a typewriter in Blake's trailer. We went home.
A week or so later Blake called us in to do a "special" two-hour episode of Hell Town. "I want it to be a movie," he said. "We need something to goose the ratings."
Did that job. Then bingo, he wanted yet a third script. A regular one-hour episode, but with a touch of comedy. I think it was called, "Willie The Goat," or some such.
We were just finishing the Goat Script when The Weasel called. This time, he kept it short. "Hey, guys," he said, "just got your check in from Blake. You know, for the two hour movie?"
"Yeah?" I said, suddenly wary. "What about it?"
"It's five thousand dollars short, is what about it," he said. "I called his business manager to alert him to the error, but he said it wasn't an error. He said that Bobby had decided to split the movie into two, one hour episodes. You know, show the first part one week, then put "To be continued" at the end, and then put the final part on the air the following week."
I said, "So, you're saying he's paying us for two one hour episodes, instead of a fucking two-hour movie, which is what he ordered and what we wrote?"
A long pause. Then, "That's about the size of it Allan." Another pause. "What do you want to do? Send the check back? Then you could call the Writer's Guild and complain?"
I looked at Chris, who had been listening in. I shook my head. He agreed.
It wasn't like we had a signed contract to back our act. Television moves so fast that the show is written and shot and you are on to other projects before the contract ever catches up to you many weeks later. This pretty much works - until you run into an SOB like Robert Blake.
"That'll take two small forevers," I told The Weasel. "And the most that can happen is that the Guild eventually makes him pay, then maybe fines him one percent for being tardy. Big deal. We'll have gray beards down to our ankles by then."
"My inclination would be to cash the check," The Weasel said, quite sensibly. "And argue about the shortfall later."
"I have a better idea," I said. I looked at Chris, who nodded. He knew how my mind worked. "Cash the check, yeah. But then call Blake's people and tell them we are sitting on another script that Bobby specifically asked for. And that if they want the script, they'd better messenger a check for five thousand dollars to my house or they can go fuck themselves."
Chris broke in. "One other thing," he told the speaker phone. "I don't trust the son of a bitch. We want the five grand, plus the full price for the pages we're holding. Then, and only fucking then, does he get the script."
The Weasel said, "Jesus, guys. You sure?"
We said we were, hung up, got a couple of pops of Scotch, then wrote Fade Out on the Willie The Goat script.
A day passed. We were working with a guy on another project when the phone rang. It was Bobby Blake. I figured we'd get the Robert Blake raging inferno guy, but instead he was all little Mickey Gubitosi, whining on the phone and sounding a lot like the character he played on the Little Rascals.
"Gee whiz, fellas," he said, "I really need that script. I told the Network the story. And they just loved it."
I said, "We know. They called us about it. And we told them we've got the script right here, ready to go."
"They called you?" Blake said, sounding alarmed.
It was true, so I didn't have to lie when I said, "Yeah, Bobby. They called."
A pause, then he said, "So, shall I send somebody to pick it up?'
"Fine with us," I said. "But make sure they bring along payment in full for this script, plus the five grand you owe us for the movie."
"It wasn't a movie," Blake whined. "It was two one-hour episodes. Sure, it started out as a two-hour movie, but things changed, you know."
"I'm not going to argue with you, Bobby," I said. "You owe us five thousand bucks. Period. Plus twenty for the script we're holding. Cash, or check, makes no never mind to us."
"This is blackmail," Blake said, heated.
Chris broke in. "No, it's fucking extortion," he said. "Send a guy around with the dough, and we'll give him the script."
"How do I know it's any good?" Blake tried.
"You know," Chris said.
Finally, Bobby said he'd send somebody over and hung up. We got back to work with our friend, who was laughing about the whole conversation.
About an hour later, just as we were wrapping up, the doorbell rang. This was the house in Venice with the glass window in the door that I mentioned in the episode about the FBI. (See The FBI Only Rings Once.)
Large as that window was, it was completely filled by a red T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. I opened the door to find the stuntman we'd seen with Blake, plus his buddy, he of the Gold's Gym muscle shirt.
They rippled their musculature and glowered at me. "Mr. Blake sent us for the script," Red Shirt said.
"Sure," I said. "Come on in."
I led them into living room where Chris and our friend sat. The stuntmen glared at them, but to little effect.
Red Shirt addressed me. "Where's the script?"
I said, "Where's the check?"
He said, "First, the script."
I said, "No, first the check."
The two men loomed on me. And a very impressive job of looming they did. Chris and our friend laughed, which pissed the stuntmen off.
Red Shirt shifted his glare to our friend. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Chris came in before the guy could answer. He told them the guy's name, which I won't repeat because he might not appreciate it. Then he added, "He's the former president of the LA Chapter of the Hell's Angels."
Our HA friend raised an admonitory hand. It was covered with tats of all sorts of wicked things. "Not former president," he corrected Chris. "Retired. There's a difference."
Chris said, "You guys will get a kick out of this. We're doing a pilot for a comedy series about a motorcycle gang family."
Our HA friend further explained, "It's sort of like the Munsters, but with bikers instead of Frankenstein types. Instead of bolts through the neck, we've got tats on the neck."
All of this was true and the stuntmen looked like they either believed it, or weren't so rude as to question the word of the recently retired president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Hell's Angels. And every scarred and tattooed inch of him looked the part. Sure, they were big. But you need more than big going for you if you piss off the Angeles.
Red Shirt said, "Yeah, I saw that Harley chopper outside. Nice tank. Peanut, huh?"
Our friend said that his Hog did, indeed, sport a peanut gas tank.
Red Shirt turned back to me. "Maybe I'd better talk to Mr. Blake," he said.
"Maybe you'd better," Chris said.
He lifted the speaker phone's receiver, punched a memory button, and there were dialing sounds. Somebody answered, and that somebody passed the call on to somebody else, until finally we heard Blake speak. "Yeah?"
Red Shirt addressed the speaker phone, "Little problem, here, boss," he said. "On that script pickup? They want me to give them the check first, or they won't hand over the script."
Blake said, "That's fucking ridiculous."
Chris came in, saying, "That's how it is, Bobby. No checkee, no scriptee."
"Fuck," Blake said. Then, to Red Shirt, "Give it to them. But make fucking sure you get the script." And he hung up.
Chris passed me the script and I turned and offered it to Red Shirt, sticking out my other hand for the check. He got it out of his pocket and showed it to me, but didn't hand it over. I looked. It was for the correct amount, including the five thousand dollars.
Then he pushed the check forward and got a hand on the script. So we were both standing there, me holding one end of the check, him holding the other end of the script. He tugged at the script. I held firm and tugged on the check. A couple of tugs went back and forth. It was actually pretty funny.
Finally, he said, "Aw, shit." And let go of the check. Only then did I loosen my grip on the script.
Without further ado, the stuntmen lumbered for the door and then let themselves out. Shoulders hunched as our laughter followed them into the night.
After the laughter died, our HA friend said, "Guess that asshole Blake won't be calling you again anytime soon."
I said, "In Hollywood, you never say never."
And proof of that came, when:
DISSOLVE TO: SEVERAL YEARS LATER
Chris and I are hard at work. Phone rings. Chris picks up. Soon as he hears the secretary say who's calling, he slaps on the speaker phone.
I hear a familiar voice. It's chirpy.
"Hey, fellas, it's me, Bobby. Bobby Blake. How ya doin'?"
Chris says we're doing just fine.
Bobby says, "Look, I got this notion I need a writer for. And I thought of you two right away."
Chris says, "Bobby?'
Blake says, "What?"
Chris says, "Fuck off."
And hangs up.
NEXT: A HOLLYWOOD CHRISTMAS