Bobby Lubin, our camp’s swimming instructor, was physically perfect for the role of “Sky Masterson” in the season-ending, Counselor’s Show production of Guys and Dolls.
The problem was he could not sing.
My brother Hart who directed the production came up with a simple but ingenious solution.
Just as “Sky” was about to roll the dice, accompanied by the iconic but difficult to pull off “Luck, Be A Lady”, he sidled over to, coincidentally, the assistant swimming instructor – keeping things at least on the waterfront – who had a spectacular voice and confided, “My luck’s been real bad lately. Roll for me, will ya?”
The swimming instructor then handed the dice to the assistant swimming instructor, who proceeded to knock ‘em dead with “Luck, Be A Lady”, as Bobby Lubin, who should have been singing it, stood on the periphery, snapping his fingers jazzily to the beat, because he had to do something.
I do not know how Bobby Lubin felt at that moment. But I know how I felt when, years later, in a similar context, I did precisely the same thing.
Some of my memories – which unfortunately include this one – are like disintegrating film stock. I shall reconstruct the remaining fragments as best as I can. (Wondering why some memories remain fully intact in our minds while others decay and eventually entirely disappear.)
It’s 1981. ABC has ordered a pilot script for my first series idea, Best of the West, whose general concept I had pitched and had approved by their executives. (Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey of future billionaire-producer fame.)
After the ABC “go-ahead”, I began developing the pilot’s storyline with a fellow writer and good friend named Michael, who would be consulting on the series. After the outline was nailed down, I would then go off, writing the pilot script on my own.
A short way into the meeting, however, we both suddenly arrived at a frightening reality:
The show I had pitched and gotten approved by the network?
It was an unworkable idea for a comedy.
The problem was simple, although like many problems, it was invisible to me until it wasn’t.
What did I pitch the network?
A long-time marshal, returns home from the Civil War and, finding the place he’d departed now in lawless chaos, proceeds to restore order and decency to the town.
What was the problem with that idea?
It was dramatic.
But not funny.
What idea would be considerably funnier?
The one we proposed to replace it with:
A lifelong Easterner, steeped in the mythology of the West, brings out his son against his will because, as Seth McFarlane explained, although not successfully, there are a million ways to die in the West, along with his new bride, a Southern aristocrat whom he met while burning her plantation to the ground. The dreamy “tenderfoot” gradually comes face-to-face with the realities of the West, and accidentally becomes town marshal.
You see the difference? “Fish in water – drama.” “Fish out of water” – comedy.
That’s the idea I should have pitched.
I pitched the unfunny version instead.
So now what?
The obvious first order of business was to call the executives at ABC and explain.
“Hey, you know that concept for Best of the West that I pitched to you and you loved and happily approved? It turns out it’s unworkable, and I want to come at it from an entirely different direction. I just thought I’d let you know about the change, so you won’t be taken by surprise when something diametrically different from you expected arrives on your desk.”
For some reason, I felt a certain reluctance about picking up the phone.
Imagining the network’s reaction, the “Worst Case Scenario” interpretation because that’s my personal specialty.
Vituperation on the telephone?
“Are you kidding me? No way! We believe in the original concept, and if you can’t pull it off, we are cancelling the project, stopping payment on the money, and telling everyone in Hollywood how useless, deceitful and incompetent you are. How dare you pitch us a pilot you can’t write. You’ll never work in this town again!”
Not surprisingly, my co-worker Michael was able to read the crippling hesitation on my face. Understandable, as the show of my dreams was now crumbling before my eyes.
The screaming silence was finally interrupted by his question:
“Do you want me to call them?”
I looked up. I knew this was a crossroads, a “turning-point” moment in my career. My response to Michael’s offer would define me, in my own mind, which ultimately matters the most. I took a beat, befitting the seriousness of the situation, and then uttered the words that, at that critical juncture, I most desperately wanted to hear.
“Would you?” I inquired meekly.
He would, and he did. And the network said, “Fine.” I cannot relate the specifics of the conversation, as I was standing on the periphery, watching a call I should have been making successfully executed by somebody else.
It would be kind to think, “Well, it’s his first time running a show. He’ll grow into the job with continued experience.”
But you’d be less than totally correct.
Though it would be unreasonable to suggest or wrongly remember that I always found ways to avoid ever “singing the lead”, when the opportunity afforded itself,
I “Bobby Lubined” my way through show biz as often as I could.