Thursday, February 21, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Four

When I first went to Hollywood, I had three jobs waiting for me. I’m not sure I would have gone if I didn’t have any. Wait, there's no "I'm not sure" about it. I wouldn't have. That’s not me. ‘Me’ needs at least a measure of security. Like three jobs waiting for me.

These were the three jobs:

Job #1

The aforementioned Lily Tomlin “special.” That’s who was flying me to Los Angeles. The "Lily" job was a four-week assignment, the result of an invitation by the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, whom I had worked for in Canada.

Job #2

While working as a writer-performer on a Canadian-American co-production, the Executive Producer came up to me one day and said, “I’m doing a summer replacement series starring "Mama" Cass. I want you to play her boyfriend on the show.” I said,


Then, "Momma" Cass choked on a ham sandwich and died. A few days later, the Executive Producer came up and said, “I’m doing a summer replacement series starring Bobbie Gentry. I want you to play her boyfriend on the show.” I said,


Too bad about "Momma" Cass. But the show must go on.

The four-week summer series was scheduled to start production shortly after the Lily Tomlin job ended. As long as Bobbie Gentry didn’t choke on anything. Or get thrown off the Tallahachie bridge.

Job #3

A year or so earlier, when I was still in Toronto, a writer I knew asked me if I’d like to collaborate on a "spec" script - an audition script you write for free - for Sanford and Son, which was then a popular show on NBC. I said,


I was easy in those days. I had nothing.

We wrote together for about a week. Then, half way through the second act (of a two-act script), my partner announced that the collaboration wasn’t working for him and he wanted to end our writing activities. I said,

Flash Forward:

One Year.

This part is amazing from a timing standpoint. On the very day I’m getting ready to fly to California to start the Lily Tomlin job, I get a call my failed Sanford and Son collaborationist, who tells me this:

He finished the script himself, put both of our names on it, and got it submitted to the show. The Sanford and Son producers just called, they want to produce the script. But they need a rewrite of the second half of the second act; that part, they weren’t crazy about. The writer asked if I’d be willing to fly to Los Angeles and collaborate on the revisions. I said,


Why not? I was already going.

I flew down two days early and we finished the script.

That’s how I went to Los Angeles with three jobs.

The Lily Tomlin job was great, although I was sure I was going to be fired every day. Especially at the beginning, when Lily, in a welcoming gesture, gave each of the writers their own plant for their office, and mine died within twenty-four hours. I was certain my bad vibes had led to its demise, and that Lily wouldn’t want me around, fearing my negative aura could kill more than just plants. Somehow, she let me stay.

I rewrote the “Clown movie” that I’d written for Lorne Michaels in Canada, tailoring it to Lily. I got to collaborate on a song for the film with Christopher Guest. We also collaborated on the opening number for the show.

The situation was this:

As Lily's delivering her opening monologue, three serious-looking men come onstage and surprise Lily with an award, honoring her for her lifelong support of her hometown, Detroit. After receiving the award, Lily’s “Thank you” speech evolves into a full-out Motown number, the serious-looking businessmen transforming into an flamboyantly choreographed back-up group.

To prepare for the assignment, I bought a couple of Temptations albums, then wrote similar-feeling lyrics for the Detroit song. Chris wrote the music. I remember the song’s chorus. It went:

Detroit City, when I’m alone I cry.
Detroit City, I’ll love you till I die.

The “Boom-chaka-laka” section became

Ford, General Motors, Chrysler
Ford, General Motors, Chrylser
Ford, General Motors, Chrylser

then the guy with the really low voice went,


By the time the "special" was completed, I had as much material included in the show as anyone.

And every day, I was certain I was going to be fired. (That feeling never goes away, by the way.)

I enjoyed working with Lily Tomlin. When she’s immersed in a character, Lily’s one of the most perceptive comedians I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, when she was just being Lily, I couldn't always connect with her. It's like she wasn't quite present. She’s "in there", but she’s hiding under the bed. Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, same kind of thing.

It seems to come with the “brilliant comedians who play characters” territory. I remember Sid Caesar, magnficent in character, but, as himself, at the end of Your Show of Shows, he had the hardest time simply saying, "Good night." He'd either stammer...


or he'd contrive a cough and wave "Good night."

You can't have everything, I guess. (As Steven Wright says, "Where would you put it?)

The Bobbie Gentry experience was less interesting, beyond the fact that one guest on the show, Wayne Newton, had a bodyguard who looked exactly like Wayne Newton, and that, at one point, I was forced to punch Robert Goulet in the shoulder. The memory that really sticks with me is this:

We were rehearsing at a studio on Hollywood Boulevard, and we “broke” for lunch. I walked over to Hollywood and Vine, and had lunch at some diner. Later, when I was heading back to rehearsal, I spotted Jack Klugman and Tony Randall shooting some outdoor footage for The Odd Couple. I stood with a gathered crowd and watched the filming, totally enthralled.

I got back late to the rehearsal. I couldn’t help it, I explained. They were shooting a television show right down the street. Then someone reminded me, “You’re on a television show.”

I hadn’t gotten the concept. It wasn't quite real to me.

I was actually in show business.

As the years roll by - all too quickly - I've never lost that feeling.


Next in Story of a Writer: My move to Hollywood becomes permanant.


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Willy B. Good said...

This is turning into one funny memoir Earl, keep it up. Cheers.

ps- I hope Mama didn't choke when she found out you were her boyfriend.

Max Clarke said...

Glad you had a decent time working with Lily Tomlin. She was quite good in one of my favorite comedy films, All Of Me. She also did a good job bothering Scott Glenn in the Robert Altman movie, The Player.

Anonymous said...

Did the Sanford & Son script fly? Did the "partner" ever amount to anything?

Loving your blog.