Monday, February 10, 2014

"This Close"

You sit in eateries in Los Angeles.  And if you keep your ears open, you will invariably pick up fragments of anecdotes in which the speaker is “this close” to a life-altering show business opportunity.  If followed up on, it would be revealed that the vast majority of these arrangements ultimately end in soul-crushing disappointment, the deal inevitably falling through.  The following is a story that did.  And then didn’t. 

Intrigued?  I am.  And I know what it is.

To protect his identity, I shall call the man Ted.  Though his real name is Frank.  Wait, did I just… Oops, sorry.  I have little experience with pseudonyms, though even a novice should probably not done that!  I’m going to stick with “Ted” here, hoping if I say it enough, you will forget that I said Frank.

Oh, Man!


Ted, who was maybe twenty years my senior, had with his partner John – who I am only mentioning once so to heck with the pseudonyms – had built a respectable career, both creatively and commercially – though not with the same vehicles; they won awards for their classy work, and made millions off the shlock.  Ted, himself and expatriate Canadian, was tall, talented, charming, but not Jewish.  You can’t have everything.

Earlier that year, Ted and John had given me a job writing and performing on a syndicated talk/variety series they were making in Toronto.  Off that performance, I was invited to participate in a CBS summer replacement series they would shortly produce in Los Angeles.  As it turned out, I was already scheduled for my West Coast debut, writing on an upcoming Lily Tomlin special.  The summer series job meant I’d be “winging to the Coast” with two jobs securely in the bag.

I am glossing over a lot of this, because I have talked about it before, and because I want to hew assiduously to the message of today’s narrative.  Which begins with this.

While working on the summer series, knowing I was alone in a strange town, Ted magnanimously took me under his wing.  Divorced and living by himself, Ted would regularly have me over to his house, where he’d personally fix me hamburgers on the stove.  Once, he hosted a visiting friend and me to a weekend at his luxury condominium in Palm Springs.

One night, the doorbell rang in his house, and in came two semi-attractive women who had apparently, and without my knowledge, been contracted for the evening.

As with virtually all of my stories of this nature, this one too ends with “Nothing happened.”  Why?  Because the first words out of the mouth of the particular “party girl” assigned to me were,

“Are you a Jew?”

Historically, my personal moral compass may not be entirely unwavering.  But I draw the line at anti-Semitic prostitutes.

Moving on…

With my assignment on the summer series winding down, Ted called me aside, and catching me entirely off-guard, related this news:

CBS wants to pay me ten thousand dollars to write a half-hour comedy pilot.  How would you like to write it with me, and we will split the money fifty-fifty?”

I immediately said yes.  It was precisely what I wanted to hear.  With this offer, an accredited practitioner was telling me I was capable of playing regularly in the “Major Leagues”, my abilities deemed worthy enough to allow me an even split of the scriptwriting money. 

I was on my way.  My next job in Hollywood was waiting for me.  I would not have to go back to Toronto.  And forage, a certifiable failure at my chosen field, for a “consolation prize” line of employment.

The single buzzing fly in the ointment was this.  Ted had a manager named Bernie, whose name I shall not bother to disguise, because there are a lot of “Bernies” in show business, the man is blameless, bordering on – by show business standards – virtuous in this narrative; plus, he’s dead.  Ted is now dead too, but as you will see from the forthcoming turn of events, he is less meritorious of scrupulous anonymity.

When Bernie got wind of Ted’s proposal, he took me aside and told me, point blank,

“Do not believe anything Ted says to you.  The man is admittedly charming.  But he is also an inveterate and notorious liar.”

And there I was.  I had heard what I wanted to hear from Ted, and then heard what I didn’t want to hear from Bernie. 

What was I going to do?

I decided to ignore Bernie.  Though the sampling was admittedly small, Ted had never lied to me before.  He had promised me a job on the CBS summer series, and I’d had a job on the CBS summer series. 

The guy seemed to genuinely care about me.  Heck, he had gotten me a Jew-hating hooker!

Having made my decision, I flew back to Toronto, gave up my Canadian apartment, arranged with a company to have my Mazda driven out to L.A., and I returned to Hollywood, waiting for Ted to call me with the details of our first day of collaboration.

He never called me.

I called his office.  Several times.  He never called back.  Why not?  How should I know?  He never called back!

It turned out Bernie had been right.  Ted was a pathological liar.  And because I believed him, I had pulled up stakes in Toronto, and was now living in Los Angeles, with no job.

That’s how ninety percent of the stories down here end. 

“I was ‘this close’ to my show business ‘Big Break.’” 

And they never got closer.      

For me, however, after six weeks in the “wilderness”, Lorne Michaels called, offering work on another Lily Tomlin special.  The show won an Emmy for “Best Writing”, and I never looked back.

My story, fortunately for me, is the exception. 

But I am eternally aware that it could have, breathtakingly easily, gone the other way.

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