Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"As Promised...What It Was Like Working On 'Phyllis'"

After writing a generally admired episode for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“Mary’s Father”), I was rewarded with a regular staff job on the upcoming series, Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman, based on her recurring character on Mary.

Cloris’s IMDB credits go back to 1948 and stretch ahead to the preproduction of two movies in 2014.  I recently saw her in a rerun of a Gunsmoke episode from the late 50’s, and, as usual, she was a standout.  There is no question that Cloris Leachman is talented.

But she’s also something else.
Pre-production on a series is relatively stress-free.  The writing staff is developing and writing scripts, hoping to amass a half a dozen or so before the craziness begins and you’re preparing new scripts and producing the already written ones at the same time.  My head spins in torturous recollection.  I have no idea how we did it.  (Or how anybody does it.)

In the seventies, the writing staffs were a fraction of the size they would subsequently become.  On Phyllis, along with the show’s creator/Executive Producers, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, the entire complement of writing staff members was two, the Producer, Michael Leeson – younger but more experienced than I was, who had also won a series staff job after writing a well-received episode of Mary (“You Try To Be A Nice Guy”), and the Story Editor, who was me.  (The credits relate more to pay structure than actual contribution.  In practice, the boundaries were behaviorally less precise.)

In pre-production, our objective was to crank out scripts.  Which was relatively painless.  You had a meeting.  You wrote an outline.  You had a meeting on the outline, you wrote a First Draft.  You had a meeting on the First Draft, you wrote a Second Draft.  You met as a group to polish the script for mimeo (copying for distribution), and every day, you went home at five. 

It was the calm before the storm, the storm beginning with the first table reading of the first script.  Which, for me, came accompanied by a stomachache which would not go away. 

I do not want to unfairly malign an actress with inaccurate remembering, but it seems to me, for the number of weeks that I was on the Phyllis writing staff, Cloris Leachman was never on time for a table reading once, the most egregious lateness spanning two-and-a-half hours.  I know we’re supposed to be tolerant of the idiosyncrasies of others, but that’s wrong, isn’t it?

They were reading a script I had written.  It did not go well.  The laughs were sparse and the mood was worrisome.  At the end of the table reading, I heard Cloris remark, not quietly,

“This one needs a lot of work!

It was an arrow to the heart.  Although this was only the second half-hour script I had ever written, I was hoping the reception would be otherwise. 

The Executive Producers assured Cloris “We’ll fix it.”  I lurked ogreously in the background.  Michael – always braver than me; he actually talked to actors – confided to Cloris that her unhelpful remarks had damaged my delicate sensibilities, to which, I was informed later, she remarked,

“Where is he?  I’ll rub his back for him.”

Understandably, I think you’ll agree, I did not enjoy table readings.

And things hardly improved when things improved.

Two weeks later, another script I had written went to that table.  You can imagine how I felt entering the room.  It was like I had committed a heinous crime, and had been sentenced to the Electric Chair.  Numerous times.

This reading, however, went beautifully.  (It wasn’t that I had improved in two weeks; it was a funnier idea for an episode.)  Later, an extremely pleased Ms. Leachman asked, “Who wrote this?”  When she was informed it was me, her surprised reaction was, “Did he have help?”

Sometimes, you lose, even when you win.

To me, table readings felt like a minefield.  Sometimes, they blew up in your face, and sometimes they didn’t.  You never knew if you would survive intact. 

And for some reason, that bothered me.

At this point, the story takes a tragic and unexpected turn, reality intruding on the trivial Toy Factory that is Show Business.  Shortly after the third Phyllis episode had been filmed, Barbara Colby, a featured actress on the show, and a wonderful performer, was murdered, gunned down along with a friend in a not unfamiliar to Los Angeles “drive-by” shooting.  I had never heard of such a thing in Toronto.  In Toronto, you died normal.

Between the perceived “life and death” of the table readings, and the actual horrendousness of the shooting of someone I had known and said “Hi” to, I was understandably badly shaken up. 

That’s when I quit being a staff member on Phyllis. 

(Historical Footnote:  My replacements at Story Editor were Glen and Les Charles, who went on the create Cheers.)

Instead of being on staff, as I have mentioned elsewhere, for three seasons, I wrote eight episodes a year for the various Mary Tyler Moore Company series (they had half a dozen of them on the air at the time), including Phyllis.

And I never attended a table reading again. 

Until Best of the West, four years later.

And only because I had to.

When you’re the Executive Producer, they require you to go to the table readings.

(A Weird Observation, And I’m Not Entirely Certain It’s Correct:  Throughout my career, I never saw myself as working for anyone.  I always felt I was contributing my talents to certain projects, like an independent contractor supplying a specialized service.  I wonder if I actually felt that way back then, or if I am simply cosmetically altering my Memory Bank.)


Steve from Toronto said...

YOUNG WRITER: “Who’s that?”

PRODUCER: “That’s Cloris. And that spells trouble.”

YOUNG WRITER: ”And it’s pronounced ‘Cloris’?”

Nope, now that I look at it on the screen, it doesn't work quite as well as Johnny Trombone.

Mac said...

Cloris sounds like a gem. i saw her on a roast acting like a total b****. So now I know she wasn't acting...

Bernie Miller said...

Was going to ask a while back if you have watched Raising Hope and what reaction you have to Cloris' performance. I liked her in her MTM role, never saw the show Phyllis, and thought she was very good in The Last Picture Show. As an old somewhat demented woman on Hope, she seems almost a natural. But it's one of those shows that you probably love or hate, no middle ground.