Okay, so there’s me, and there’s Sam Fuller.
If you don’t know who Sam Fuller is, I will tell you in a minute. I select him as contrast in regards to a single, though fundamental, show biz-related issue, an issue, as it turns out, in which I – uncharacteristically in this venue – come out ahead. Usually, in these parts, the “near misses” seriously outnumber the “Bingos!” But they are my near misses, so I view them with affection. (Along, of course, with regret.)
It’s the early eighties. We are producing Best of the West. Since this is my first series as a show runner – except for an abbreviated stint on Phyllis, I had never even worked on a series staff – the network requires me to have experienced overseers to make sure I don’t mess up. Those overseers were Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, two talented writers and show runners who had given me my sitcom “break” at the Mary Tyler Moore Company.
We are making episodes and I am having a ball. I was so excited, I would literally run to rehearsals. I’d walk onto the soundstage, and there were actors I had selected, standing in front of sets I had approved, performing dialogue I had written or signed off on, and making me laugh.
How was I feeling?
Might be the most accurate descriptive.
(Another positive element in this idyllic arrangement was that none of the shows we were making had as yet been aired, leaving us unaffected at that juncture by ratings and reviews, both of which, if they went the wrong way, could easily dampen a sensitive person’s morale.
It was noticed that I was happy. (Because, very often, I appeared otherwise, looking as if I feared that “Immigration” had found an irregularity in my paperwork, resulting in my being immediately transported back to Canada, or, if there were not enough Canuck miscreants to merit a bus North, to Mexico.)
It was Ed. who first publicly noted my ebullient mood.
“Look at him!” he announced, in words close to these. “This is the luckiest man in show business. They are making exactly the show that he wanted to make!”
He was right. At a breakfast meeting arranged of my agent, Elliot Webb, an ABC executive named Tom Werner, who, with his partner Marcy Carsey, went on to amass billions on The Cosby Show, Rosanne, That 70’s Show, among others, had turned to me and asked,
“If you had your choice, what show would you be most passionate to do?”
To which I instantly replied,
“A comedy western.”
And there I was, doing precisely that show! With gunfighters and Bad Men, one episode featured a trained bear, and, every “Show Night”, ambling past the saloon windows as “atmosphere” – real horses. To this day, I have not seen a sitcom where there are horses in the background. (I believe there’s a horse on Two Broke Girls, but he only works sporadically. Our horses appeared every week!)
So there’s that – a magnificent time, when I saw what I’d imagined in my head wish-fulfillingly actualized on “Stage 23” at Paramount Studios.
Which brings me to Sam Fuller. Though it doesn’t have to be him. It could, from what I know, just as easily be Sam Peckinpah, or virtually anyone else in show business, whether they’re named Sam, or not.
Sam Fuller was an American filmmaker, the bulk of whose heyday – if you can call it that, because he never really had one – took place during the 1950’s and early 60’s. I am not an expert on Sam Fuller. I may have seen one of the more than twenty movies he directed all the way through, and part of another one. (Cable allows you to watch parts of movies, and when you lose interest, move on.)
Sam Fuller was a cantankerous, cigar-chomping World War II veteran who made gritty low budget pictures, offering pulpy storylines involving unglamorous characters and locales. Shock Corridor was set in a psychiatric hospital. The Naked Kiss chronicles a prostitute trying to reform. These subjects would be controversial even today. Imagine them in the era of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best.
As a result of the questionably commercial arenas for his movies and his characters’ often amoral behavior, Fuller was constantly at war with his risk-averse bosses. His movies were re-edited by the studios, one movie was prepared for production but never filmed, another, filmed but never released. Many others, though released, received perfunctory bookings at less desirable venues, and a minimum of marketing support. (Sam Peckinpah received similar treatment.)
Agents will repeat, “It’s the business!” as a rationalization for their clients’ accepting the lacerating treatment they endure toiling in an industry that too often inhibits them from doing their best work. But despite the conscious understanding that, unless you’re enormously powerful, you cannot always get what you want, when they lower to boom on your project, it is always going to hurt. And hurt bad.
You don’t have to imagine how the volatile Sam Fuller felt about it. Just listen to his words:
“Shelving the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever…”
Each of us bears the scars from similar “horror stories”, ideas you love that were never produced, or were produced, but compromised to death along the way. It is with this awareness that I look back with genuine appreciation at my fortuitous experience on Best of the West.
For one brief, shining moment – as they say in Camelot – I was The Lucky One.