"Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most important and fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine, where untold victims of many homicides will reach from the grave and point a finger accusingly at their assailant." (Jack Klugman as Quincy M.E.)
* * *
"Don't point that finger at me unless you intend to use it."(Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple.)
* * *
We were pounding away on sample chapters for Sten, when the phone rang. It was Larry Grossman, our brand new agent. (I'll tell you how that happened down the line.)
Chris hit the speaker button in time for me to hear: "Guys, I've been thinking about our problem, and I may have come up with an avenue to explore."
The "Problem" was a series of no sales for movie scripts we were churning out. It wasn’t that the scripts weren’t any good. On the contrary, they got us noticed all over town. They not only landed us Larry as an agent, but opened the doors to more than a few producers' offices where the scripts were being optioned on a fairly regular basis.
But after that - Nada. And there they languished in Option Hell, waiting for somebody to say, "Let's shoot that sucker!"
Chris said, "Sure as shit hope so, Larry. This keeps up and the IRS will declare our work area a fucking Hobby Zone."
"Two words," Larry said. "Television."
I automatically blurted, "That's one word, Larry."
Chris rolled his eyes at me - Cole, the stickler for detail.
Larry said, "In this Town it's two words: Fucking Television. But the 'Fucking' part is understood."
Chris said, "What're you suggesting."
"Just that," Larry said. "Write for television."
"What about our movie scripts?" I said - a little stunned. Television? What the hell?
Larry sighed. "Guys, don't get me wrong. They're all wonderful scripts. But, you have to be realistic about this. The odds against actually selling a movie script without a track record are enormous. And even after you sell it, the chances that it will ever be made into a movie are even greater. And after that, even the scripts by recognized pros the average time between a script sale and a movie being made is ten years. Sometimes more."
Chris was getting hot. I wasn't far behind. He said, "What're you suggesting, Larry? That we pack it the fuck in?"
"No, no, not all," Larry hastened to say. "All I'm saying is that if you guys want to make a living at this, that you ought to consider working in television."
"Here's my two words," Cris said. "I hate fucking Fucking Television." He glared at me, quashing any urge to correct him.
"Everybody does," Larry agreed. "But that's where most of the employed people in this Town work. Also, the employment - although seasonal - is fairly steady."
"What about our movie scripts?" I demanded.
Larry said, "At this moment in time, they are your best chance of getting a job in television. Any producer who reads them is going to know right off that you have the talent and the dedication." He paused. "But you're going to need to do something more than just show them a good movie script."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Write a spec script for their show," Larry said.
"You mean write for fucking free?" Chris asked, outraged.
Larry sighed, "You're already writing for free, Chris. All those movies. And what about your book? Colt? Or Derringer? Or, whatever it is called."
"Sten," I said. "Which is also a gun. A machine gun, actually - which happens to be the name of our hero."
"Right… Sten," Larry said. "You're writing that for free, true? All in the real hopes of a sale down the road."
PAUSE SCENE FOR SHORT BACKSTORY
As usual, Larry was right on the money. Or lack of same. We'd talked him into letting us use his letterhead when we blanketed all the science fiction houses in New York with a query letter pitching the Sten Series - which we saw as twelve novels back then, instead of the eight it turned out to be.
Last episode I told you about the format we used for query letters. Three graphs. No more than one page. And the last graph said: "May we send sample chapters and an outline of our novel series."
But, using Larry's letterhead we could change that to read: "May we have our agent send sample chapters and an outline of our series." A big damned difference - even though Larry wasn't a book agent - which we'd have to get later on - he was a legit agent, with a sterling reputation.
Anyway, that query letter had drawn maybe eight or nine positive replies. One thing: There were no sample chapters, much less an outline. We hadn't written them yet. Now we had to deliver, and deliver fast. Thank the Gods Of Ink-Stained Wretches And Other Fools that we were fast writers. Because we had to get the chapters and outline in the mail PDQ before they forgot all about us. Even in normal circumstances the length of an editor's attention span is less than that of the half-life of a sub, sub-atomic particle.
RETURN TO SCENE
... Where Larry's words were sinking in. Way, Way In. To get through the gates of one of the studios, we were going to have to hold our noses and-
"Wait a minute," Chris said. "I don't even watch fucking Fucking Television. Shit, my folks didn't get one until I was twenty years old and in the Army."
I confirmed this. "He's right, Larry. And the only reason they bought the set is because I sold it to them for twenty five bucks. Chris was home on leave and we had spent all our money on - you know - and his dad felt sorry for us."
"Damned thing was half dead," Chris said. "My dad said he'd buy the sucker if it worked, so Cole stuck the antennae in his mouth and bingo, the picture came in clear as… well. Anyway, there was a picture." He chuckled at the memory. "Next day it died for good, but now my old man was determined to show he hadn't been taken so he bought fifty, sixty bucks worth of tubes and fixed it."
"He still barely speaks to me," I said.
"And then only when he's in his cups," Chris added.
Larry was only half-listening. He said, "What about you, Allan? What are your favorite shows?"
"I'm not so far off from Chris on the TV-watching front," I said. "I grew up overseas in places where you could only get radio. And half the time the Russians were jamming it." (See Lucky In Cyprus.)
Larry's voice took on an insistent tone. "However you do it, guys, my very best advice is to watch a few programs. Really study them. Then write a couple of spec scripts. If you really want to work in This Town, that's the price you'll have to pay."
After some moaning and groaning, we grudgingly agreed we'd try, then got off the phone. We dragged the morning newspaper out of the trash, found the TV guide and picked a couple of shows. Chris would watch one, I'd watch the other, and we'd discuss them the following afternoon.
I should mention that we at least both owned TV sets: Chris because his Ex-Wife liked to watch television and didn't take it with her when she left, and me because I needed one for when my kids came over for the weekend. (They came up once a month by train from San Diego, where my own Ex had moved.)
That night, after Kathryn and I had dinner, I dutifully switched on my fugitive from a pawn shop - staying well back during the warm up stage, since it tended to shoot sparks. When things steadied out, I turned to the assigned show and started to watch.
An hour or so later Kathryn shook me awake and I sat bolt upright on the couch. Other than the Fade In and the first commercial, I'd slept through the entire program.
"I tried to wake you, Allan Dear," Kathryn said. "But you just kept saying, 'In a minute, in a minute,' but the minute never came."
The problem was that I had to get up at three every morning to make my job as Wire Editor of the Santa Monica Outlook. It was a tough shift - 4 a.m. to noon - but it gave me from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. to work with Chris. We banged away Tuesday through Friday. I got a break on Saturday - I only had to work at the newspaper, not with Chris. I had Sunday and Monday off from the newspaper. Slept Sunday. Worked a full eight hours with Chris on Monday. So, that's 40 hours at the newspaper and 32 hours with Chris.
Well, never mind. I get tired just thinking about it. Bottom line: I was always on the edge of complete exhaustion and would fall asleep - suddenly, and deeply - at the slightest pause in the action of living. If there was a wall to lean against, I'd learned the trick every Swabie and Grunt the world over knows, and catch a nap standing up. Fortunately, my sole transportation was a motorcycle, or I might have nodded off while driving.
Shamefaced, I reported my failure to Chris the following day. But, he was no better off. He'd been reading, he said - had even set an alarm so he'd know when to stop and switch on the TV. Unfortunately, the book was so interesting that when the time came - and the alarm buzzed - Chris had absently shut it off.
Several days passed - all without success. And then Chris put his finger on another problem:
"We really ought to be watching this shit together," he said. "But I'll be damned if I'll drive to your place just to watch TV. And if you were that stupid to do the same, I'd take back my introduction to you."
"What we need," I said, "is one of those video recorders. We could record the programs at night, then speed through them together at work the next day."
Chris sighed. "Yeah, but I'm so broke the Eagle on my Last Quarter is flying on one wing."
He'd just had to pay out a bundle to his Ex, who had demanded a half share of everything he'd written - or any notion he'd put on paper - since they got married. In the end, our very clever attorney - Marshall Caskey - negotiated a buyout settlement. Even so, it would be a while before Chris had any spare money in his jeans. (More about The Amazing Possum-Eating Caskey down the road.)
Buying a VCR was no quick trip to Walmart in those days. The cheapest model - made by the Singer Sewing machine company, or something ridiculous like that - went for $300. (About $1,336 in 2011 dollars.)
Fortunately, I'd just done a Yamaha trail bike manual for Peterson Publications and for a change had a few bucks to spare.
I sprang for the VCR.
Every night I'd set the timer, tape a likely show, and the next day Chris and I would zip through it at high speed, noting premises, regular characters, and the type of stories they used.
Even so, it was wearisome.
Chris would sigh and say, "I’m getting warts."
And I’d reply, "Big deal. My warts are getting warts."
And he’d say, "Tell me about the yachts, Cole."
And I’d say, "If we can crack this nut, Bunch, we’ll be farting through silk."
And he’d look insulted and say, "I was talking yachts. Why’d you go all scatological on me."
And I’d end the gripe session, saying, "This is the last one. When we finish, I’ll pour us a Scotch." (We hadn’t invented Stregg yet.)
That would be on a Monday. On a Tuesday, the positions would be reversed and I'd do the griping and he’d pour Scotch on troubled waters.
Finally, one show in particular caught our attention - Quincy, M.D. - starring Jack Klugman, a great character actor who had blown us both away years before in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. There were many more great roles after that, including a couple of Twilight Zone episodes even Chris and I had caught, as well the TV version of the Odd Couple, with Klugman and Tony Randall.
Quincy, was unusual at that time because in those pre-CSI and Bones days it was a show about a coroner - a pretty gritty subject for the Networks back then. The other unusual thing is that Klugman not only insisted on total accuracy, but he loved stories that were "About Something." An injustice, revealed. A wrong, righted. Corrective legislation urged.
I called Larry the next day to report that we wanted to take a crack at Klugman's show.
Larry said, "What a coincidence, Allan. Have you seen today's Variety."
We hadn't. The mail came late in our neighborhood.
"Well, there's a story there about Jack Klugman and Quincy," Larry said. "The gist of it is that Jack is lashing out at Universal Studios and NBC again. He says they're sending him nothing but tired old hacks to write for his show and he wants fresh ideas - Fresh Blood."
"Does he mean it?" I asked. I might have been a Hollywood newbie, but I'd been a newsman for fourteen years and had waded through bullshit my entire career.
"Not only does he mean it," Larry said, "but he's put the word out to all the agencies that he'll consider any new young writer for his show - the less of a track record, the better."
Well, that was us all over. Although, at 35, we didn't consider ourselves young anymore. (Looking back, I can see now what red ass kids we really were.)
I reported all this to Chris, who was - if not delighted, encouraged. All objections to TV were momentarily edged aside. We sat down and really put our heads to coming up with a good story for a spec Quincy script.
In the end, we decided on a tale about a boxer. (For reasons that will be clear in the next episode of this MisAdventure.) We stumbled upon an old news story about a boxer who suddenly became violent in the hours after a bout - and then died. A nasty twist: another man was held briefly as a murder suspect. But it turned out that the boxer's death - and violent behavior - had been triggered by an aneurysm in his brain's frontal lobe.
In the Bunch & Cole version of the story, an old time boxer loses a crucial match to a young contender. Quincy, a boxing fan, is at the match. (We'd soon learn how right we were on that score.) Later, the winner is at a club celebrating with his girl and entourage. The loser enters. Gets a drink. Goes over to the winner - as if to congratulate him - but then suddenly attacks him. The kid blocks the punch, pushes the guy away, but before anything else happens the loser suddenly keels over - dead.
The boxer is arrested for murder. Enter Quincy. Add more complications - the kid's shady background, some Wise Guys, etc. And there you go.
Sent the script to Larry, who sent it over to Klugman's office at Universal Studios.
A week later the great man himself got on the phone to our agent.
"I like your boys' style," Jack Klugman said. "Have them come on in and meet my people."
The meeting was set for the following week, but already we could see ourselves on our bikes, thundering up to the Gates Of Universal Studios – the Infamous Black Tower looming overhead - ready to take on the world.