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Friday, July 22, 2011


Chris said, "The good news is that we sold the fucking book."

"We sold the fucking book," I agreed. I was speaking of the Sten series, whose bizarre sales scenario I described in the previous MisAdventure. (Sten: The Fast Turnaround Caper )  

Chris said, "The bad news is that books pay like shit."

No disagreement there. In those days first time writers got a standard $5,000 advance. (Pretty much the same today.) Typically paid out at the rate of $2,500 on signing; $1,225 on delivery; and $1,225 on publication. Figure, it takes six months to a year to write a book. Another year to get it published. The money split between two guys, in our case.

And voila:

"We're fucked," Chris said, summing it up quite succinctly, thank you.

I sighed. "All my life I figured that all I had to do was publish my first book, and everything would be gravy from then on."

"My boot camp sergeant shit better gravy than that," Chris said.

"Let's face it," I said. "Until we start making bigger advances - a lot bigger advances - we're going to have to labor in the trenches of television land."

"That's the other thing," Chris said. "Nobody's called with another gig."

"Let's hit the phones again," I said. "See what kind of trouble we can stir up."

Chris grunted agreement and flipped open our new rolodex of Hollywood contacts. This was in the very early days of our careers and the contact list was mighty slim. He plucked some cards out, divided them up - and we hit the phones.

The first person I put a call into was Peter Thompson - the guy who had given us our start, in return for grabbing a third of the story credit for our Quincy script, and two grand of the payout. (See, Episode #5 - What's The Story, Boys.)  

Don't get me wrong. Chris and I liked Peter. A charming rogue, is how we thought of him. More importantly, he was now head of production for MCA-Universal Studios, the biggest movie and television studio in - well, the Universe. 

He had fancy offices on the very top floor of the Black Tower, where the fanciest offices reside, filled with rare works of art, furnishings and carpets that went at eleventy-million a square centimeter. Watched over by the smartest, most beautiful and sophisticated secretaries and "production assistants" in all of Creation.

Peter was out. His secretary said she'd tell him we called. I could almost imagine her full lips speaking those words of empty promise in plummy, British upper class tones and felt my heart beat just a little faster. I hung up, figuring I'd been burned, but happy about it.

Before long, we'd made all the calls we could, then got to work on some freelance magazine assignments we'd scored through Chris' many contacts in that field. Wasn't enough to pay the bills, but it kept us busy doing something involving positive cash flow.  


Writing for a living really isn't different than any other small business. All the rules of business apply, including keeping regular hours, if you know what's good for you. And you'd best show up to work (even if it is a short stroll from the living room to your home office) washed, shaved and dressed to meet with the Suits, if any should call. For Hollywood writers like us, this meant jeans with only a few holes in them, fancy cowboy boots, and a clean shirt of some sort.

 Chris and I adopted a 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule, five days a week - weekends, holidays and birthdays off. Unpaid overtime required when deadlines loomed. We couldn't offer our employees (ourselves) vacation pay or health benefits - although, we learned soon enough that if you reached a certain sales quota Writers Guild Insurance cuts in - a Tiffany policy if there ever was one. Besides the usual, it also offered generous payment on all forms of psychological and substance abuse treatment - pretty much a necessity for writers in general and Hollywood writers in particular.

Over the years our production rate was pretty steady - about ten pages each a day. Which, if you are a writer yourself, you'll know is pretty respectable. That's finished pages, mind you. Everything Chris wrote, I rewrote from top to bottom and vice versa - blending our styles into a third bunchandcolecoleandbunch voice. (I've been writing these MisAdventures pretty much in that Voice, which some of you might have noticed.)

That was for books and articles. Screenplays were a whole different animal. For screenplays one of us sat at the keyboard - usually Chris, since he could type at a blinding speed - while the other paced, tossing out dialogue and descriptions. The important thing was the dialogue. Since it was spoken aloud, we could be pretty sure an actor could say them without going all mushy mouth or tripping over his/her tongue. Plus, you could hear for yourself if the dialogue tracked.  

Must have worked, because we became known for our dialogue chops.


The phone did not ring that morning. Or, during lunch. Or, in the several hours that followed lunch. Things were feeling bleak out. And then - Ta-Da:

The son of a bitch rang.

"Finally," Chris said. But he hesitated to pick up. "You go," he said. "I'm not feeling very lucky today."

I picked up and a familiar voice said, "Hey, boys. What're you up to?"

It was Jeff Freilich, whom we'd met when he and his partner - Chris Trumbo - were story editors at Quincy. They'd since left and we hadn't know where'd they'd landed.

I gave Chris a thumbs up and he grabbed the phone while I admitted, "We're doing shit, Jeff. A couple of magazine pieces, but that's it."

Jeff said, "Well, maybe we've got something for you. Me and Chris (Trumbo) are over on the new Kate Columbo show. We're already way behind and under the gun. Can you guys come in and see us?"

"Far fucking out," Chris said.

I said, "When?"

Freilich said, "How about right now?"

Boy, was that agreeable to us. Hung up. Splashed our faces and headed out over the hill to the land of silk and money. (Not forgetting the smog.)

As I mentioned in Episode # 6 - How To Steal A Million Dollars - Freilich was a medical school dropout who got his start working with the legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman. Trumbo, was the son of the super legendary Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. (He co-wrote the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman starring movie, Papillon, with his dad, who was ailing.)  

We found our boys on the far reaches of the Universal Lot in a trailer village where the studio housed the rowdy writer community. The trailers, mostly double-wides, were lined up along the cemented in LA River - just across from the Bob Hope Golf Course. Later, Chris and I would share many a MisAdventure on those cement-covered banks, which I'll tell you about down the road.

We hesitated before the trailer door - was this the place? Then we saw a hand-scrawled sign that read: Kate Columbo.  

I knocked. A petite redhead in a Wow! sundress answered, flashed a starlet-quality smile when we gave our names, then ushered us into the offices of Freilich and Trumbo. The guys were eased back behind their desks, and as we entered they toasted us with bottles of beer.

The redhead said, "Let me guess. Two more for you guys. And two for Bunch and Cole, am I right?"

We all agreed that this would be a genuine act of mercy on her part - it being the dead of summer and all. And we watched with pleasure as she ankled out of the office, slim hips twitching under the sundress.  

Chris said, "Can she type?"

Frelich laughed. "Boy, can she."

Trumbo, always the more serious and socially conscious of the two, said, "She's also probably smarter than all of us put together. English major, with a Poli-Si minor. Former legal secretary. Was going to law school, but had to drop out." He shrugged. "Some kind of family thing."  

We got our beers, then settled in to learn about the show - Kate Columbo (also known as Kate Loves A Mystery, and Mrs. Columbo)  was a spinoff of the popular Columbo series, starring Peter Falk. The new show would feature the formerly never seen - but much discussed - wife of Lt. Columbo. She would be a reporter for a small newspaper who ends up involved in all sorts of exciting mysteries.

"Sounds like a shitty idea," Chris said diplomatically.

"We've got Kate Mulgrew to play Mrs. Columbo," Jeff said. "And you can't get much better than that." (Ms Mulgrew, who would win a Golden Globe for playing Mrs. Columbo, would go on to stake out a remarkable career and would achieve everlasting Trekkie fame playing Capt. Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.)

"The problem is not just the lousy premise," Trumbo put in, "but the guys running the show are complete hacks." Trumbo tended to see things as they truly are, and obviously agreed with Chris.  

Jeff looked over at me. He said, "With your newspaper background, we thought maybe you could help us out here. Rise above the fray, so to speak."

I nodded. While they were all talking, I'd thought of an idea. I'd only quit my newspaper job a month or so before and that world was still fresh to me.

I said, "How about a real locked door mystery? A trendy couple - who own a nightclub - are found murdered in their mansion. The whole place is like a fortress. Alarms, iron gates, barred windows. The whole thing. And there they are on the kitchen floor, both shot twice in the head with a .22. Obviously a pro hit. Not just a tap - but a double tap."

"Shit," Jeff said, a little stunned.  

My partner gave me a grin - knew you could do it, Cole.

Trumbo said, "Did this really happen?"

I said it had. The murders occurred back when I was City Editor of the Outlook in Santa Monica. My reporters covered the whole thing. Just before I left the paper, some of the suspects were coming to trial.

"But, these aren't the murder suspects," I said. "Nobody knows who pulled the actual trigger. A pro probably flew into LA. Did the hit. Flew out."

"So, the guys on trial are the ones who ordered the hit?" Trumbo guessed.

I nodded. "Yeah, that's where it gets really good. The whole thing tracks back to a bunch of illegal gambling clubs here in the Valley. The nightclub owners had a whole Casino-type thing going on above the club. Then got into a turf war with some other types."

Jeff laughed. "Shit, go write it," he said. "And on your way out, tell our favorite redhead to call your agent."

We did. And she did. And by the following morning we were working on the script.

And hot damn, just before lunch, the phone rang again. This time it was our agent, calling to set up an appointment for a new series starring the fabulous James Earl Jones.

"Fuckin' A," Chris said. "I'd pay them to write for Mr. Jones."

And it was over the hill again, but this time to a different address. A nice little white bungalow, set among whole neighborhoods of similar bungalows from Hollywood's days of yore. A scene right out of Nathaniel West's Day Of The Locust. Complete with garden forecourts and blooming Bougainvillea. But instead of civilians, production company spillovers from the Studios ended up there. Also, there's a whole section where most of the XXX-rated movie industry is housed.  

There, we sold yet another newspaper-themed story - also based on fact. This one was about an investigative reporter who uncovers a very nasty - and dangerous - conspiracy. It takes all of the James Earl Jones character's consider skills to keep him alive, and bust the bad guys. (Interestingly enough the showrunner for Paris was an as yet unknown producer, Steve Bochco who went on to create hit shows like Hillstreet Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue.)

Next day.  

Now, we're juggling two scripts: Mrs. Columbo and Paris. And guess what?

The phone rang.

Picked up to hear that sexy British voice purr, "Hello, Allan, love. I have Peter on the phone."

Yep. Good old Peter Thompson was actually calling back.

When he got on, he said, "Allan! I understand you lads are doing great things. Great things."

I said we'd both quit our jobs and were working full time as freelance writers. Peter made nice noises about that - I told you he was charming, didn't I?  

Then he said, "Allan, it happens that my old mate Bruce Lansbury has taken over the duties of executive producer at Buck Rogers." I asked if Bruce was related to Angela Lansbury. "Her brother, dear boy. Her brother."

Then he went on to tell us that the new show - Buck Rogers In The 25th Century - was yet another Glen Larson creation. (Much more about Larson later.)  

"When Bruce called me about needing some writers," Peter said, "I immediately thought of you two. I'd just learned, you see, that you and Chris sold a science fiction novel series. Is that true?"

I pleaded guilty.

"Well, in that case, you could be big help to me, dear boy," Peter said. "It's science fiction expertise, that Bruce wants. Give him a jingle and go in and see him, would you? As a favor to me. Hmm?"

Naturally, I said we would. Got off the phone, filled Chris in. Called and made an appointment with Lansbury. Then we pushed everything else aside and start working on Buck Rogers stories. When the head of production of Universal Studios calls and says he wants a favor, you do your damndest to comply.  

The stories took a couple of days. We didn't neglect the Mrs. Columbo and Paris scripts, but we skipped lunches and worked late to get it all done. Finally, we had several Buck Rogers stories ready, with one we thought would be a sure thing. (A genius idea from my genius partner.) To be on the safe side, we called our new, self-appointed, producer/mentor Al Godfrey and set up a practice pitch session.

We ran down our pitches - leading with our best story. The sure fire one. When we were done, Al correctly identified the one we thought was a sale.  

"Pitch that to Bruce last," he advised.

"What the fuck for?" Chris asked for both of us.

"Because nobody ever really listens to the first pitch," Godfrey said. "You've got your mind on other things - hangovers; am I going to get laid tonight; is my wife/girlfriend/mistress wise to me. That kind of thing.

"So you'll reject the first pitch right off, because you're too embarrassed to admit your mind was wandering. You'll also more than likely toss the second pitch on general principles. Show that you were really paying attention all the fuck along.  

"Then, for the next pitch - and you're never gonna get more than three shots, boys - the guy gets serious. I mean, shit he really needs to buy something or he would have had his girl call and cancel the fucking meeting because his hangover is so bad."

"But what if it doesn't work that way?" I asked. "What if he buys one of the others? Do we then say, "Wait a minute! We've got a better one?"

Godfrey gave that weary sigh he had, when addressing rookies. "Not only no, but fuck no," he advised. "If you do that, you'll get no sale at all. He'll change his mind about the one you just sold, then shoot down the other story because right about now his hangover has caught up with him and he's starting to hate your fucking guts for making him think."

I don't believe Bruce was hungover when we met with him. (Although we'd learn later that he did enjoy his dry martinis. Lansbury's recipe: Two shots of gin in a shaker of shaved ice. Whisper vermouth over it. Shake and pour into a chilled cocktail glass.) Bruce was warm and friendly, putting us quickly at ease. (Later, when we met his sister, we'd learn firsthand that niceness runs in the family.)  

We pitched the first story, and although he was gentle about rejecting it, I could see that his mind really wasn't on the pitch. Just like Godfrey had predicted. The second was also a no go.

After rejecting it, for reasons I can't recall... just as I can't recall the story... he leaned forward, elbows on the desk, a frown of concentration on his face.

"What else do you have?" he wanted to know.

I gave Chris the high sign. Go, boy, go.

Chris said, matter-of-factly, "Oh, we want to clone Buck Rogers three times and put him in aerial combat against himself." A slight pause, then - "We call it Buck Times Three."

"Bloody hell," blurted Lansbury - momentarily losing his British cool.  

Then he said the four magic words: "Who's your agent, boys?"

On the way home, Chris said, "Talk about fucking Fat City. We're working on three scripts at one time. Man, my landlord is gonna love me."

We got right down to it, churning out Kate Columbo and Paris, then jumping on the Buck Rogers episode. As it turned out, everybody was so impressed with the story, that it underwent a major change, including the title. "Buck Times Three" became, "Ardala Returns."  

The character of Ardala was played by Pamela Hensley,  as talented as she was beautiful. She'd co-starred in the pilot and was lured back to do our episode with promises of lots of money and a great script.  

The idea of the story was that Ardala, who always had a sweet spot for the hunky Buck (played by Gil Gerard) planned to capture Rogers, then clone him and create an invincible armada of fighter pilots. She'd also have an endless supply of willing lovers in Rogers' clones.

We decided on an amusing trap - a mysterious antique ship, seemingly shot forward in time - just like the Rogers character. It was a ghost ship, the only cargo, a treasure-trove of 20th Century junk food. Rogers, slavering at the sight of all those burgers and fries, Twinkies and Ding Dongs, can't help but visit the craft. And wham! The trap would slam down and Ardala would have him in her clutches.

Lansbury called us into his office for our second draft notes. As we sat down, both of realized that he did not appear to be a supremely happy man. My stomach did flip flops, thinking that maybe our script had fallen from favor and was doomed. That we'd be thrown out and told never to darken Mr. Lansbury's door again. And then maybe he'd call some other guys - like Peter Thompson - and tell them never to hire two guys named Bunch and Cole.

Bruce said, "Lads, I fear I am the bearer of ill tidings."  

Chris and I nodded. I also gulped - Chris probably did the same.  

Lansbury slid a small glossy magazine across his desk. It was TV Guide. We looked at the cover and saw a picture of Gil Gerard, dressed up in his tight-fitting Buck Rogers costume.

We puzzled at it. "OKaaayyyyy?" I said.

"It you look to the article inside," Lansbury went on, "you'll see that the essayist - a writer well known for his insensitivity - said our Gil looked like an overstuffed sausage in his costume."

Chris and I both examined the cover again. We sort of agreed with the writer's description, although we didn't say so. (To show you that it really was a problem in the making, a supremely pudged-out Gerard underwent gastric bypass surgery not long ago.)

I looked at Bruce. "What does that have to do with our script?"

Lansbury sighed, saying: "The word has come down from Gil. We are to never mention food on the show for the duration of the series. As for your script, obviously you'll have to come up with something other than the junk food trap. And Gil said to lose all the food jokes."

Chris and I were relieved. Screw a bunch of food jokes. "So, we still have a job?" I asked Bruce.

"Absolutely, he said. "You've turned in a marvelous script - food references and all. In fact, boys, when you are done with this one, I'd like to have you do another."

The next one was called, "Space Rockers."

And with those four back to back to back to back sales, our careers were launched.  

Erin Gray

Postscript: Here's where you can view both episodes for yourselves: Ardala Returns. Space Rockers.

And by popular request - after this MisAdventure was posted - here is a picture of Buck's beautiful sidekick, Erin Gray. A lot of guys remember her from their youth.  



The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 110,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!


Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.    


Relive the fabulous four-day Stregg-laced celebration.  Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. New recipes from the Eternal Emperor's kitchen. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. Sten's thrill-packed exploits at the Emp's castle. How to make your own Stregg. And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?


  1. As a huge Columbo fan, Mrs. Columbo never fails to give me a certain type of headache.

  2. Couldn't have said it better, Barry. It was an awful show. I'm sure the reason Ms Mulgrew got the Golden Globes award was that everybody genuinely liked her. She was also a favorite of people in the Biz and a delight to work with, even on something so bad.