Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Your Absence Is Lamented"

It seems like it’s important to tell both sides of the story. 

Not long ago, I published a post about being invited to the wedding of a woman whom I had cast as a regular on Major Dad twenty-five years earlier, during which I discovered that my presence in that (now woman’s but then eleven year-old girl’s) life had been somehow meaningful.  I had not at that time, nor ever after for that matter, had been aware of my… “influence” may be too strong a word, let’s just say, my effect.  And it was heartwarming to (eventually) hear about it.

Okay, so that’s a story where my being somewhere made an ameliorating difference.  Balancing the books – as I am never entirely happy being entirely happy – I was subsequently reminded of two situations wherein it was my absence that had triggered the effect, and it was not one that heaped praise and adulation upon my doorstep.

I can feel myself balancing already.

Both examples of the detrimental effect of my absence are Major Dad-related, the common denominator being that at the time they occurred, I was entirely unaware of either of them, suggesting that, for a writer, I am really not paying sufficient attention.  (And if these, now, three occurrences happened during one narrow extemsion of time, I am led to wonder how many other unknown “influencings” there have been during the considerably longer rest of my life that I have never found out about?  Holy cow!  Am I just a frickin’ sleep-walker?)

I had left Major Dad after its first season, serving briefly as a consultant, after which I was eased out entirely by my successor (whom I had personally appointed.)  I was vaguely conscious that during the show’s second season (and before my successor had enough power to effectuate it), all of the first year’s writers were no longer working on the staff.

It was only a couple of years ago – which means there were twenty-plus intervening years of the-opposite-of-curiosity – that I asked a former Major Dad writer whom I was still in contact with – a wonderful writer who went on to later success running The Cosby Show, Boston Legal and consults currently on Mad Men – why all the writers left after the first season.  Her eye-opening response was: 

“Because you did.”

I had absolutely no idea.  

My leaving had sent others scrambling to find (not at all easy to find) employment.

The second issue in question was more familiar to me – and what couldn’t be “more familiar” after “I had absolutely no idea”?

After the same twenty-five intervening years, I reconnected with the actress who played the Mother on Major Dad, who was also attending her “TV series daughter’s” nuptials.  Her name is Shanna.  (I am no fan of revealing people’s names, as I have received no permission to do so.  But it’s easier than saying “the actress who played the mother on Major Dad” again and again, so this time I will.)

To repeat – for the non-Major Dad aficionados – the series premise was a hardcore (hard corps?) bachelor Marine meets and almost instantly marries a widowed left-leaning reporter with three daughters. 

The “engine of conflict” was cultural.  And it worked magnificently in the pilot.  (Whose enthusiastic reception was critical to selling the series, as – as I explained to Shanna when I temporarily changed seats to sit next to her – the CBS network president at the time did not like the show, and, specifically, did not like Shanna.  I referred to him as “an idiot.”  Generously, Shanna rejected that descriptive.  I’d had admittedly drunk considerable wine at the wedding, but I had also called him an idiot when I was sober, so I cannot blame the wine.  I think he was simply an idiot.)

After I departed, the essential balance on the show changed, Shanna’s character and perspective becoming noticeably subservient to the Major’s (played by Gerald McRaney, an Executive Producer on the show, who unquestionably intimidated my successor.  Had he intimidated me as well?  Yes.  But it never affected the writing.)

I recall a meeting after I had left Major Dad but was still a consultant, arranged for Shanna to voice her concerns about, in her own words at the time,

“What happened to my character?”

I do not recall any course-correcting adjustments coming emerging from that meeting.  Having left the show, my influence on ongoing events was distinctly peripheral.  (I hear a deafening “Copout!” alarm clanging J’accusingly in my head.)  For the rest of its run, the Major remained dominant and in charge, both on the show, and in the show.    

Talking to Shanna at the wedding, I found out that she remained stung by her character’s loss of equality more than a quarter of a century after the fact, and knew instantly that my departure from the show had inescapably led to it. 

“I’m sorry,” I confessed, better late than never.  And returned silently to my seat.

Once I was there, and it made a good difference; twice I was gone, and it didn’t.  Which makes it sound like my existence has an outsized significance.  You’ll have to take my word that that is not why I wrote this.

I just thought it was worth mentioning how surprisingly little I – and perhaps others as well –

Actually notice.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Your absence is also noticed every weekend.

But you raise an important point about long-running shows, which is that in the seemingly inevitable process of changes in the writing staff the characters one falls in love with at the beginning morph into something completely else. Sometimes, the original characters are completely betrayed (eg Robin on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) or the whole show changes (SEX AND THE CITY started as relatively cold-hearted observation, ended up as a ghastly piece of sentimental dreck). It must be so much worse for the actors - though at least they're getting paid.


Canda said...

An actor who accepts a job on a show, where the other actor is the Executive Producer, should always, always know (and should be told by her/his agent) that the other actor will have the power in the show ultimately to change things creatively.

That is show biz.