With the Jewish High Holidays fast approaching, a time when Jews acknowledge their sins in hopes of forgiveness, I thought I would beat the rush and get one in early. (Either that, or there are so many of them, I need to deliver my transgressions in manageable chunks.)
Show business is a relatively simple arrangement. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a matter of “piece work”, a quid pro quo articulated most concisely by an agent for major talent (including Cloris Leachman) who once told me,
“Write me a script, and I’ll write you a check.”
The exchange mechanism is that transparent – you do what you do, and they give you some dough. (I have thoughts of writing another a post explaining why show business is the most honest profession. A preview of the thesis: Unlike, say, politics, show biz never for a moment pretends that it’s real.)
(NOTE: The following is my experience. I am aware it is not everyone’s.)
In the show biz arena, “moral dilemmas” are rarely on the menu, at least not serious ones, the kind where life and death, or anything close to it, are on the line. There is no “You built substandard war planes, and the pilots blew up.” Show biz deceptions are more along the lines of,
“My contract says I get a forty-foot trailer and I measured and it’s thirty-two!”
Of course, show business is not entirely immune to questionable maneuvers, a “crisis point” where one is challenged in the area of “moral flexibility.”
Which brings me to a time when I myself was morally challenged.
And I ignominiously failed the test.
(WARNING: Be alert to some weaseling out of my responsibility. I’m going to try not to, but weaseling out is the “go-to” response when the alternative staring you in the face is, “My behavior was considerably less than honorable.” Who wants to admit to that? Without a modicum of mitigating weaseling.)
It was relatively early in my eventual climb to the middle; I was inexperienced, and had little or no power. At that juncture, the “muscle” of disappointed higher-ups – at least there was that definite, if unspoken, understanding – could prematurely terminate a career.
So there’s that. Not exonerating. But a lighter sentence perhaps?
Best of the West, my first series, was on the air and in “full steam” production. As the series’ writer/creator, I am ostensibly the “Top Man”, but, in reality, I’m not. My bosses, who along with the studio co-own the show, a reward for shepherding my maiden effort onto the schedule, were effectively at the helm.
One day, my bosses’ boss – the man who originally hired them, making him arguably “Power Squared” – surprised me by appearing at my office door, the “surprise”, the product of his having nothing to do with Best of the West.
“Could I talk to you a moment? I want to ask you a favor.”
I am, by nature, of a relatively anxious temperament. A “Powerhouse” at my door is the opposite of a calmative.
The guy comes in, and gets right to the point. His wife (or his girlfriend who ultimately became his wife, I can no longer recall which) was interested in getting into hairstyling work on TV shows and movies. But to get into the union, she needed to have a professional credit. He wondered if I’d be okay with having her name added to the Best of the West credits, even though she was not, in reality, doing hairstyling on the show. Or anything else for that matter. She most likely didn’t even watch it.
I don’t know what my face said (though I can guess), but my mouth mumbled, “I guess so.”
And with that, a “seed of shame” was planted in my soul.
Once the (mis)deed was officially accomplished, the “Big Man”, passing me in the hall, thanked me for the “credit” favor. What I wanted to say was, “Don’t thank me. Thank the people who actually earned the credit.” Instead, I mumbled, “That’s okay.”
Though my repetitive mumbling reflected that it wasn’t.
This was a definite low point in the category of “moral courage.” This capitulation to “wrong”, however, turned out to be the exception, my career-spanning record in that regard, rising considerably beyond “respectable.”
Did I gradually develop some backbone?
That’s does not appear to be the explanation.
I was simply never tested in that manner again.
It is not always apparent to me why I write something. In this case, I could just be I’m hedging my bets. Perhaps, as it is possible bordering on likely there is nobody “Up There” to confess to, my need for expiation directs me to the next best option:
Confessing to strangers.