Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Choice"

Note: Because of the technical mess-up, I am posting "The Choice" again, just in case you hadn't read it. Sorry for the possible redundancy. And to the reader who complimented my on my patience, there was no patience involved. I was out of town at the time, and I had no idea what was going on. I posted ahead, so you'd have something to read while I was away. But thanks for the compliment anyway. I will "bank" it, and use it when appropriate.

There’s something you may not know about the television pilot production process, the culmination of which is reflected in the recent announcements of the networks’ upcoming schedules.

A little background.

But first,

A caveat:

Television hot shots have a faster track to getting their shows on the schedule. The following tracks the trajectory of the foot soldiers, which, for a substantial portion of my career, meant me.

Okay. Here we go.

You pitch your series idea to the network – in late summer, early fall. If they like it, they “Green Light” a pilot script, meaning, they pay you to write a pilot script. You write – October, November, December – you get network notes, you make changes, you hand it in before New Year’s.

January, February – the networks decide which of their pilot scripts they want to “Green Light” for production. If you get the go-ahead, you make the pilot – March, April, early May. Mid-May, the networks announce their schedules, which include returning shows, plus the new pilots that made the grade.

Going back for a second. The expense of “Green Lighting” the writing of a script is relatively small. The expense of “Green Lighting” a pilot for production is, conservatively, twenty times higher. Therefore, networks are considerably more cautious about taking this financially burdensome step.

Understandably, the networks try to hedge their bets. They do this by encouraging the pilots’ producers to cast actors that the audience is already familiar with, and likes. This explains why the former cast members of Seinfeld and Friends were all cast in pilots. They were known – and audience-preapproved – quantities.

Another way of protecting their investments is for networks to lobby for the casting of famous people who had never done television before, leading to phone calls from network executives to producers in which the words, “Find out if Sandra Bullock is ready to do television” are uttered.

So. It’s actors from successful shows, movie stars ready to “take the leap into television”, actors the networks already have under contract in what that call “holding deals”, and anybody a network might call “an intriguing option.”

Now we get to the part about the pilot production process that you may not have known.

If for some reason – you can’t agree on the right actor, or you can, but they’re tied up with another project – the casting of your pilot does not meet with (obligatory) network approval, the entire project is

Thrown away.

That’s right. Even though the network liked your idea enough to order a script, and even though they liked your script enough to order a produced pilot, they do not hold this project they have acknowledged they like over to the following pilot season, or any future pilot season.

They just dump it, and it’s gone.

Which means,

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get that pilot cast and network approved


That’s where “The Choice” comes in. And it’s a real doozy.


I write a pilot script for a comedy called Family Man, a series loosely based on my own – and my family’s – personal life. My script earns me the “Green Light” to produce the pilot…

And I can’t find the guy.

The actor who will play ”me” in the series.

And, as recently mentioned, if I don’t find that guy,

Family Man is dead.

After an extensive investigation of the L.A. prospects, my boss at Universal calls me up and says,

“The network is very interested in Sam Waterston for the role. We’re flying you to New York, to get him to say ‘Yes’.”

And there you have it. The network will be highly encouraged to “Green Light” production, if Sam Waterston plays me. And it has fallen to me to get him to do so. Whether I want him to or not.

Which is the problem. I have seen Sam Waterston play many roles, and never once seen him be funny.

And this worries me.

I do some research. I ask a highly respected comedy producer who has worked with Sam Waterston, “Is Sam Waterston funny?” The producer tells me he can be. His response reassures me. I had once seen a feature film – Eagle’s Wing (1979) – on cable, in which Sam Waterston played an Indian. So apparently Sam Waterston can do anything.

In my heart, I didn’t believe Sam Waterston was right for the part. And therein lay “The Choice.” I can tell my bosses “No”, that in my professional opinion, Sam Waterston for this part was a terrible idea. The thing is, the survival of my project was on the line. It we didn’t cast the part, it was “Bye-bye, Family Man.

The medicine was highly unpalatable. But it was life or death. So I took it.

I flew to New York on the “Red Eye” – you fly all night, and you land there– red-eyed – in the morning. I went out to the Astoria Studios in Queens, where Waterston was filming a Woody Allen movie – September (1987.) I invited him to lunch, during which I tried my best to charm, flatter, tickle and cajole him into doing the show.

(Waterston had read and enjoyed my pilot script, and he had previously agreed to the meeting. It’s not like I’d kidnapped him, or anything. I probably couldn’t have pulled that off.)

Waterston was interested, but remained on the fence. We parted with his agreeing to give the proposition some serious thought.

As it turned out, it was the Passover Season. So after meeting with Waterston, I flew up to Toronto, to rejoin Dr. M and our kids, who’d flown in from L.A., and “Seder down” with the Pomerantz’s.

At our reunion, Rachel excited ran up to me to find out how things went. I told her that the guy said he would think about it. Rachel immediately raced back to her mother, and screamed,

“Mom! Sam what’s-his-name said ‘Maybe’!”

Owing to a last-minute suggestion from our director (David Steinberg) Family Man was ultimately produced starring a considerably more suitable actor (Richard Libertini.) Sam Waterston went on to Law & Order, where he played Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy for sixteen seasons. I have watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order.

Sam Waterston never made me laugh once.

But he was my only hope at the time. And if he’d have said yes – and it was my on shot at keeping the project alive – after a token show of resistance, I’d have happily swallowed the medicine.


joe said...

Love David Steinberg, love Richard Libertini.

Sam Waterston? Not so much, as he was particularly unkind to my then-6 year old autistic son on a flight from Miami to L.A.

That he is unsuited to play "you" is a great compliment.

Mac said...

Man, that's rough. It's just good luck that you got the guy you wanted.
I've been in that position, the lead they wanted was funny and right for the role, but he was also a cocaine-raddled alcoholic whose hobby was tormenting writers until they cracked. So it wasn't such a tough choice for me to walk away.
The pilot didn't get picked up, so I didn't have to watch it go to series, and I got to keep what's left of my sanity.
BTW What was the Peter Sellers story the agent in London told you?