Ageism in Hollywood has had so much media attention focused on it that you would think everything that could be said about it has been said. That was how this award-winning TV writer felt until he hit 50, and it got personal. Until then, ageism was just a word bandied about by statisticians and tongue-clucking sociologists. Suddenly, Burt Prelutsky woke up to find himself one of Hollywood’s new breed of zombies — another writer at that awkward age, too old to be hired, too young to be buried.
By this time, I suspect you’ve all heard and read far more than you care to about ageism in Hollywood. As one of the first TV writers to have come forward on the subject, I know that I’ve spoken and written more about it than I care to admit. For a while, I took to identifying myself as the Poster Boy for the Chronically Unemployed. I felt that was classier than whining and less embarrassing than crying.
This, then, is about the pain of ageism and how the evil practice nearly led me to take my own life.
Until I hit age 50, I had enjoyed a fairly successful TV writing career. I had earned decent money and I had won my share of awards. It began in the late ’60s, when Jack Webb, who introduced himself as a fan of my L.A. Times humor column, and Leonard Stern, who introduced himself as a fan of my Los Angeles Magazine movie reviews, invited me to try my hand writing a Dragnet and a Governor & J.J., respectively.
Although there were occasional dips and detours in my career over the next 20 years, I managed to earn a comfortable living writing episodes of McMillan & Wife, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, M*A*S*H, Bob Newhart and Family Ties, along with a number of TV movies that starred the likes of Jean Stapleton, Martin Balsam, Ed Asner, Jean Simmons, David Soul, Barnard Hughes, Sharon Gless, Richard Thomas, Jack Warden, Keith Carradine, Dennis Weaver and Mare Winningham.
I’d had at least a couple of opportunities to work on staff, especially during the ’70s, but I had a young son at home and decided I’d rather spend time with him than with John Astin or Alan Alda.
It wasn’t that I lacked the greed gene, but between the MOWs, the episodes and the occasional pilot, I figured I was doing fine. Furthermore, inasmuch as I wrote comedy as well as drama, and wrote both quickly, I assumed I’d always be in demand. To top things off, I not only met all my deadlines, but I didn’t turn in 200-page scripts and insist they were carved in stone, I didn’t bare my teeth at network meetings and I also worked well and often with women.
It never occurred to me that the day would come that the only writers my age who were working were those who had taken the staff jobs and wound up being what came to be known as showrunners. How was I to know that running rotten shows would come to count for more than writing good ones?
Suddenly it was 1990, and it was as if the tom-toms announced that I was turning 50. Not only couldn’t I get a job, I couldn’t get an agent. Although I had earned good money for two decades, a divorce you wouldn’t wish on Donald Trump and a four-year custody battle in which the same judge who’d poleaxed me in the divorce settlement decided I should pay both sets of attorneys, had left me stone broke in my early 40s. I had saved some, but clearly not enough, as I was soon to discover.
By the time I was 54, my wife Yvonne and I had cashed out my life insurance policy, my IRA and sold our Santa Monica condo. It was then I realized that once you’re entrenched in the middle class, becoming poor turns into a full-time job.
Fortunately, MasterCard and Visa never gave up hope. They had faith in me, even if agents idn’t. All they required was a minimum monthly payment. I was happy to oblige, as we slid deeper and deeper into debt.
In the meantime, I tried to find work I was qualified to do. It turned out there wasn’t much. I tried to get back my old gig as a humor columnist for the L.A. Times, but they didn’t want me. I suppose they decided that their editorials were funny enough on their own.
It turned out they weren’t alone, though. I wrote to every paper and magazine I could think of and got nixed by one and all.
I wrote some spec screenplays, but they were either too good or too bad, and didn’t sell.
Then I decided to do a book of interviews devoted to America’s billionaires. The one thing that all of them — from Ted Turner to Bill Gates to Sam Walton’s brood — had in common was that none of them wanted to talk to me. Perhaps they sensed that I was going to hit them up for a loan, or maybe they just worried that my poverty was contagious.
In any case, I decided to change the focus from sheer wealth to fame and achievement. I had far better luck approaching the likes of Billy Wilder, Gerald Ford, Norman Lear, Judith Krantz, Jerry Herman, Jack Lemmon, George Carlin, Paul Williams, Bea Arthur, Randy Newman, Steve Allen, Father John Catoir and Jo Stafford. However, even though I eventually had about 70 subjects, including final interviews with Gene Kelly, Sammy Cahn, Ginger Rogers, G. David Schine and Dinah Shore, I couldn’t find a publisher. Finally, a friend steered me to Dove Publishing, which accepted my proposal. A month before publication, Dove’s board of directors ousted publisher Michael Viner. For good measure, they killed all of his projects in the pipeline.
My next venture into publishing came about when my old friend Leonard Stern suggested I was just the fellow to write a funny little book about angels. By this time, Price Stern Sloan had been bought out by Putnam, but they retained their autonomy. That is, they retained it right up to the day I was scheduled to turn in my final draft. It seems that with the exquisite timing I tend to bring out in people, Putnam had just pulled the plug on Price Stern Sloan, having decided they didn’t want to be in the funny book business after all.
By this time, I could no longer make even the minimum monthly payments requested by the credit card companies. As a sign of good faith, I would send checks for four or five dollars. I wanted to assure them that I hadn’t forgotten my obligation and that I hadn’t disappeared into the Federal Witness Protection Program. But they didn’t want to deal with my piddling little checks. Instead, they preferred calling me several times a day to find out if my luck had changed in the past few hours. I confess that I seriously began to contemplate suicide. I didn’t oppose the practice on moral or religious grounds. I can’t even say that the thought of being dead frightened me. As I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I can only point to two reasons why I didn’t do myself in: 1) it didn’t seem fair to leave my wife to deal with poverty and my death; and 2) now that MasterCard and Visa had decided to shun my little checks, I felt entitled to invest a few dollars a week in the state lottery. When well-meaning friends would point out how slim my chances were, I’d reply that, realistically, I had a far better chance of winning the lottery than I had of ever again working in TV.
Some people may be aghast that I considered killing myself just because of money woes, and frankly, I don’t blame them. But unless you’ve gone to sleep for years worrying about money and reached a point where nine out of ten phone calls is a call dunning you for money, you don’t have any idea how grim and gray and pointless life can become.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is the kinder, gentler IRS. You see, when you cash in an IRA prematurely, you’re hit with enormous penalties. If at tax time you can’t come up with Uncle Sam’s ante, they set up a payment program the Mafia would envy.
We finally caved in. In 1997 we filed for bankruptcy. But we continued to owe the tax collector, who put a lien on all our belongings. Even so, it was a relief to have the phone stop ringing every 15 minutes
Because I was one of the only members of the Writers Guild who was willing to admit he was a has-been in his 50s, I received a great deal of media attention (Primetime Live, 60 Minutes, the L. A. Times, the trades). One day the phone rang. It was an old friend, a reporter. She told me that a Washington, D.C., attorney named Daniel Wolf was investigating the possibility of bringing a class-action suit against the networks and the studios. Would I be interested in speaking with him? Sure. God knows I had nothing to lose.
After chatting with him, though, I didn’t see where I had a case. It wasn’t as if I’d been fired from a job. All they had to do in their own defense was to lie and claim there were thousands of better writers in the WGA, and all of them younger than I.
Besides, nobody at a studio or a network had ever told me I was too old to work. It was always one agency head or another who gave me the good news. The code used was, “I’m a big fan of yours, but I ran your name past the staff, and they all want to be career-makers.”
It was always agents who had insisted I shave my beard, buy a toupee and lop credits like M*A*S*H off my resume.
I told Wolf I’d be the first to sign on if they decided to go after the agents. After all, without representation, you can’t get a pitch meeting or even submit a spec script in this town.
Wolf said he’d have to research California law. Months later, he got back to me. Very excited. They were going to include agents, because if people collude in an illegal practice (i.e., ageism), they are guilty of breaking the law.
I signed on.
The one bright spot during this decade of calamity was Emmy magazine. When Dove deep-sixed my book, I decided I would try to get the individual interviews published in a magazine on a regular basis, hoping that after awhile I’d be approached by a book publisher. Hank Rieger, then editor-publisher, accepted three of my subjects: Sid Caesar, Ed Asner and Jackie Cooper. But along the way, he and editor Gail Polevoi also assigned me interviews with the likes of Michele Lee, David Kelley, Beth Sullivan, Chris Carter and, finally and most fortuitously, David (The Sopranos) Chase.
One of the people I needed to talk to was obviously Stephen J. Cannell, who’d been Chase’s boss and mentor at Rockford Files. I had left a message at Cannell’s office, and the next day he called back from his limo. After supplying me with several quotable anecdotes about the young Chase, he asked me what I was doing these days. I said, “I’m doing this — the occasional piece for Emmy.”
There was a long pause. Then he said, “You’re too good a writer not to be working steady.”
Now to put all this in proper context, you have to understand that he and I were not old chums. I never even wrote for Cannell back in the days when he was ruling the TV roost, before metamorphosing into a best-selling novelist. True, I was once supposed to write a Rockford Files, but an overeager, overgreedy agent cost me the opportunity.
In the intervening years, we had met briefly on one occasion and, back in 1988, had agreed during a phone conversation to disagree about WGA politics. That was the whole of our relationship.
Suddenly I hear him say, “I’m taking my family to Hawaii tomorrow, but I’ll call you when I get back to set up a lunch.” True to his word, the following week we had lunch. I filled him in on my nine bleak years. He said that he knew a lot of people who were running shows and that the following day, back at his office, he’d go through his Rolodex.
The next day he called. He began by saying he didn’t know anyone at a sitcom and that, unfortunately, most of those he did know seemed to be working on cable sci-fi shows. However, he thought he might be able to help me at Pensacola, JAG, Touched by an Angel and Diagnosis: Murder.
A few days later, Cannell gave me a name at Pensacola. I called and wound up writing two episodes.
A while after that, Cannell phoned again. I still remember how moved I was by his words: “I didn’t want you to think you’d fallen between the cracks. I have a call in to Ms. Chris Abbott at Diagnosis: Murder, but she’s out of town until next week. I just wanted you to know I hadn’t forgotten about you.”
The next time he phoned it was to tell me Abbott had returned and I should call. I did. It seems one of her colleagues on the show, Steve Brown, and I had co-written an unproduced pilot 10 years earlier, and he had salvaged our story as a possible Christmas episode for Diagnosis. Steve got on the phone and said, CBS likes it, but it’s only July, and Dick Van Dyke could walk in one of these days with a Christmas story he’d rather do. But assuming he doesn’t, you’ll hear from us in a few months."
In October I got the call. Together, Steve and I wrote Santa Claude. Chris was so pleased with the result, she offered me a job as executive story consultant. And thus it was that two months shy of my 60th birthday, I came to be the oldest TV writer to get his very first staff position.
Originally I was to work on the final 11 episodes, but CBS ordered two additional hours. Then I was rehired for the first 13 episodes of the 2000-01 season, but CBS went on to order 22 one hours and two two-hour episodes. So it was that the original 11 hours of programming expanded into 39 hours, of which I got to write all or part of nine scripts.
Money aside, I enjoyed the experience. I met and worked with some of the nicest people I’ve ever known. It felt like a family, and not just because — aside from his co-starring son, Barry — Dick Van Dyke had eight relatives on the show at one time or another.
On top of everything else, it was a learning experience. Having freelanced all my life, my most astonishing discovery was that lines don’t get changed and scenes cut simply because the writing staff is determined to sabotage one’s wonderful work. In fact, many were the occasions when I was the first to ask that one of my favorite moments be eliminated because the director had screwed up or the tone-deaf actor had botched the job.
If there was a downside, it was that thanks to my 18 months of steady employment, I could no longer be involved in the class-action suit. Breaking the news to my wife, I said, “When I’d been hired, I had assumed it was because I was cute and talented. Only now do I realize that it was the industry’s sneaky way of neutralizing me right out of court.”
As for Stephen J. Cannell, writer/producer/guardian angel, I wrote him a thank-you letter when I was hired, when I was signed for a second season, and again when the show was canceled. Along the way, I sent him Christmas cards, birthday wishes and even lunch invitations. To this day, I have never heard back from him.
But then, the Lone Ranger never hung around to be thanked either.
Reprinted with permission from Emmy® magazine.