Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-C"

ABC approved my script. Best of the West would be produced as a pilot.

I was excited and terrified. I’d never produced a pilot – or anything – before, so there was no evidence that I could. There was no evidence that I couldn’t either, but such thoughts are alien to me.

Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels agreed to supervise the project, so I wasn’t alone. Later, I learned that without that agreement, the show would not have gone forward. Nobody trusted me alone.

Including me.

I would also have the support of Dr. M. Not “You can do it” support, her personal participation. When Dr. M was just M, she had received a Master’s Degree in Film and Television. M would serve as my assistant during the early stages of the pilot-making process, and later, would assist the Associate Producer in post-production, where the final product would be put together. It was invaluable to have M around. Not just for her creative input, but also to remind me to calm down.

The first step was casting. Actors were required to play the parts I’d been playing for so long in my head. When you’re a writer, you are all the characters in the show. At least at the beginning. Well, always, but later, nobody cares.

In the casting process, you replace yourself – one character at a time – with strangers. Hopefully, strangers who are as good as you are in your head, or, if you’re lucky, better.

Casting can be a very frustrating process. First of all, during “Pilot Season”, dozens of pilots compete for the same talent pool at the same time. You may desperately want an actor but they’ve been snapped up by another pilot. You may want an actor your budget can’t afford. You may want an actor, but they won’t audition, because their agent’s persuaded them they’re too big to do that, so unless you’re absolutely certain they’re “the one”, you can’t take the risk.

But the hardest thing is that the vast majority of the actors they bring in aren’t giving you what you want. You’ve lived with these characters for months, you have a precise image of how they’re supposed to be. For me, it’s mostly a rhythm thing; they need to “get” the rhythm of their roles. For the most part, the actors the casting director brings in aren’t doing it.

It’s discouraging. After actor after actor fails to make the material “sing”, you can’t help wondering whether it’s the actor or the material.

It’s interesting that in the paragraphs directly above, I neglected to mention the importance of how the actor looks. There’s a reason for that. I almost never looked at them. Trying to “pick up” the actor’s rhythm, I’d turn my head and I’d listen. This strategy is arguably a mistake when you’re working in a visual medium like television.

Since the casting process was new to me, when actors coming to read told me how much they loved my script, I actually believed them, entering into a discussion with them about which parts they liked the most. Later, it was suggested that the actors might merely be buttering me up. Somehow, that surprised me. I knew the script was good. I just thought they’d noticed.

As a talent selector, you’re always looking for something special, something you may not be able to put into words, which is not a lot of help to the casting director. One actress reading for Elvira, the lead female role, came in and the first thing out of her mouth was, “I get a lot of scripts during “Pilot Season.” Every time, what I do is, I read the script, and then, I decide whether or not to wash my hair. I read this, and I washed my hair.”

I guess that was a compliment. More importantly, it was an original mind at work. That woman eventually got the part.

Every once in a while, we’d take a break and go down to the stage, where they were in the process of building the sets. My eyes were dancing as I looked around. The script said “Saloon”, they built a saloon. The script said, “Cabin”, they constructed a cabin. The script said, “General Store”, and there it was, with a counter and everything.

You know what they told me? During the filming, they were going to have horses riding by the windows, just for atmosphere. Horses. Riding by. Phyllis never had horses.

Everything they were building looked “cowboy.” Maybe not authentically “cowboy”, but authentically fake cowboy.

I couldn’t get it into my mind that I was the boss. I’d make decisions, and people listened! Should there be a moose head hanging in the saloon? I said no. And they didn’t put one there!

My show was coming to life before my eyes. I was a happy Jewish fellow.

Jim Burrows would be the director. This was before Cheers, but I knew from Taxi that he was the best. I was a little concerned when he pointed to the middle of Page Two in the script and said, “There’s your first joke.” It troubled me. I didn’t do jokes. Maybe that was just the way he talked. But if he meant “laughs” rather than “jokes”, I knew there were some big ones long before the middle of Page Two.

In the end, however, Jim brought the material excitingly alive. There are substantial laughs in the finished product that were nowhere in the script. They were pure Burrows invention.

There was a gunfighter guest character in the script called “The Calico Kid.” Chris Lloyd, “Reverend Jim” from Taxi, would be playing the Kid. Chris Lloyd was perfect for the part. Not only was he a talented actor, he also possessed that “screw loose” comic insanity that I treasure. You just need to remember,

“What does a Yellow Light mean?”

We finally got the show cast, with skilful actors in every role. Our first script reading was at Ed.’s house. It went very well. I sang the self-penned Best of the West Theme Song. Everybody laughed. I didn’t remember the Theme Song being particularly funny. But as long as they were happy.

Rehearsals started smoothly. Leonard Frey, cast as the Bad Guy character, Parker Tillman, brought an ironic flourish to the role I had never imagined. Leonard had come in during a casting session in New York. When he read, he was extremely funny, but not with the material. He was funny around the material, which I didn’t much care for. It seemed like he was saying, “This script isn’t funny; I’d better add something.”

That night, M and I saw him in a Kurt Weill revue, and he was meticulously disciplined. M suggested that we bring him back in. We did. This time he did what was written. He was sensational.

The filming of the pilot was scheduled for Friday. On Wednesday night, we arranged a dress rehearsal before a live studio audience, but without the cameras rolling. We needed to see what we had.

What we had was pure gold. Everything worked. The audience loved it. And these were strangers. No one with a vested interest.

That Wednesday performance sticks in my mind. It vindicated many of my guesses. What I thought was funny was funny. I wasn’t talking through my hat. I actually knew something.

And then came Thursday.

Thursday was the day scheduled for the camera rehearsal. Masking tape “marks” were laid down on the floor so, like at a bad dancing school, the choreographed cameras would know precisely where to move. Forward – two, three. Left – two, three. Back – two, three. Side – two, three.

The crew let me sit it the cameraman’s chair and look through the lens. They let me ask stupid questions. I was the boss. The boss can do that.

At the end of the camera rehearsal, we had our final run-through of the entire show.

It was terrible.

Whatever magic had been there the day before had totally disappeared. The energy was gone. The timing was off. As delirious as we’d been on Wednesday, that’s how depressed we became on Thursday. Experts everywhere, and we had no idea what had happened.

And then it was Showtime.

The comedy was back. Not “Wednesday level”, but ninety per cent. The audience clearly enjoyed what they were seeing. Even the quarter of the audience that had been bused in from the Inner City, teenagers whose experience and interests were unlikely to include westerns. Audience finders sometimes make bizarre selections. But when you’re dealing with a new show that nobody’s heard of, you may not have much choice.

During the performance, there was one spectacular moment, a moment my script had accommodated for but had not put into words. Leonard Frey improvised it during the show. And the roof came off.

The story was building to the gunfight. As I mentioned yesterday, the “funny part” was that the guns didn’t work. The gunfighters aimed at their adversaries, and the bullets went everywhere else. Obliterating lights, smashing bottles, shattering mirrors. Twelve shots were fired, and to their surprise and confusion, neither shooter had a scratch on them

Bad Guy Parker Tillman was observing the shootout from an upstairs landing. Tillman had hired the best gunfighter around, the Calico Kid, to gun down newcomer Best, who was making trouble by refusing to pay the “protection” money. What Tillman had witnessed – six shots fired by the Kid, and Sam Best totally unhurt – filled him with annoyance.

Tillman could not believe what he had just witnessed. The shooting was over and nobody was dead. Or wounded even. The now-empty guns had brought a lull to the proceedings. And into that lull, Tillman expressed his disgust and dismay with these three words:

“Well…I mean…”

The audience went nuts.

Later, I asked Frey how he had chosen precisely the right moment to utter those words, words, I repeat, that were not in the script. Leonard Frey, a delightful comic actor, who would be an early casualty of AIDS, replied,

“I was looking for a hole.”

The filming ended. Everybody seemed happy. The ABC executives proclaimed, “The only question we have is, ‘Which night should we schedule it on?’” I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I tried not to think about “the Wednesday that got away”, and be happy too.

We had made a very good pilot.

As the audience filed out, I went over and thanked them for coming. I was feeling good, maybe a little full of myself. I casually asked a passing young audience member what he’d thought of the show. I’ll never forget his answer.

“It’s better than we can do.”

A brief holiday in the air, and back down to earth.

Tomorrow: Doing the show.


Anonymous said...

Great story. Entertaining as always. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, bravo!

Anonymous said...

My favorite part of the day now is reading your blog. Many thanks for the stories.

Anonymous said...

Even now one of the lines I recall best from the series is "Well... I mean...". And when I would remember it, I would always wonder how such a moment gets scripted, how you can know such ordinary words will come to life like that in performance. And now, against all probability, I know how it happened! Thank you for this.

I've also passed this entry along to a friend who was a good friend of Leonard Frey's, and will be pleased to read about him. Thanks for that too.

(My other best-remembered line? "Want some churned whey?")

Rusty James said...

I watched Evil Roy Slade last week - and had a lot of fun - will search for Best of the West next.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! I'm sure a lot of people would love reading the pilot script. Can you post it? Or perhaps a YouTube clip form the show, if it exists. From reading your blog, I know this is probably beyond your level of expertise, but maybe you could get one of your smart friends to help.

Daniel said...

Love the "Story of a Writer" series! I'm pleased to report: 20 episodes of Best of the West, including the pilot, are now available on YouTube!

Here's a playlist: