Sunday, September 14, 2008

Just The Facts, Ma’am (classic)

by Burt Prelutsky

Next to being asked how I came by my dashing good looks, the question most often posed to me is how I managed to break into the business. To the first query, the answer is self-evident; great genes, an exemplary lifestyle, and God’s own beneficence. In short, you can envy me to your heart’s content, but emulation is out of the question.

The second query, as a rule, is proffered by young people anxious to be handed the key to the magic kingdom. Once again they are plain out of luck. What worked for me is not a blueprint that would work for anyone else. Lest you think I am behaving like the legendary dog in the manger, read on.

To set the scene, as it were, by the time opportunity knocked, or in my case, phoned, I was in my late 20s, the century was in its late ’60s. I had been writing a weekly humor column for the L.A. Times for a year or two. Thanks to a friend’s intervention, I had an agent, Jerry. But, like most of his breed, Jerry’s primary role was to skim off 10 per cent of the money if I or any of his other clients managed to score a TV gig. Toward that end, I was constantly writing sketches for variety shows and spec scripts for my favorite sitcoms and mailing them to unsuspecting, unresponsive producers.

The sad fact is that I never heard back from anyone and had finally concluded that my future relationship with the tube would be strictly that of a disgruntled viewer.

Then, one morning, I got a call. Because it woke me up from a sound sleep, when the voice introduced itself as belonging to Jack Webb, I hung up. My assumption was that the caller was my old UCLA crony Harry Shearer, who should have known better than to phone me before 10. I quickly dropped back to sleep, only to have the phone ring again. Once again the voice said, “This is Jack Webb,” adding “I guess we got disconnected.” That woke me up in a hurry. After all, I reasoned, if it had been Harry, the second time around, besides bellyaching about the cost of making phone calls, he’d have been “doing” his old standby, Radioland’s Paul “G-Day” Harvey.

I rubbed the sand out of my eyes while Webb explained he was a fan of my humor column and wanted to know if Id be interested in writing a Dragnet episode. I hadn’t been watching its reincarnation. Webb assured me that wasn’t a problem. He suggested I drive over to his bungalow on the Universal lot, pick up a few sample scripts, and discuss the particular show he had in mind.

Sergeant Joe Friday
Meeting Jack Webb was a strange experience. He looked and sounded just the way I’d remembered Sgt. Friday from a decade or so earlier. What was eerie about it was that over the years, his voice and that distinctive delivery had become the gist for every impressionist in America. As a result, Jack Webb would up sounding like every other guy impersonating Jack Webb, even in the flesh, with the same voice, the same crewcut, the same Dumboesque ears.

The episode he wanted me to write was one in which Friday and his partner, Gannon (a pre-M*A*S*H Harry Morgan) would go on a TV panel show and debate the hell out of a couple of cop-baiting smarty pants. No problem. I wrote the script in a few days, and, happily, Jack loved it. Before I knew it, I was up to my eyeballs in “Dragnet.” The system Jack employed was to have L.A. cops write up a page or two about a case they had worked. They’d submit their pages to Lt. Dan Cook, who was then head of Public Relations for the L.A.P.D. He’d sift through the submissions and send along 40 or 50 of the likeliest candidates to Webb. Jack would then select his favorites and pass the pages out to his writers. We were free to contact the cops on the case to find out if there was anything else usable that hadn’t made it to the page. After that, our first chore, oddly enough, was to disguise the actual facts of the case sufficiently to ward off possible invasion of privacy suits being filed by either the victims or the perps.

For me, the hardest part of writing the show was the page length. After that initial episode, all the others typically dealt with crimes. But as the show was written in the form of a police report) “9:03, arrived at Parker Center. Got the call at 9:14. See the man...”), nothing could be shown that Friday and Gannon didn’t see with their own eyes. It was a crime show in which you never got to dramatize the planning or commission of the crime. As a result, I would turn in 25-page scripts and tell Jack that there was no more material. We would then sit down and add a lot of boring stuff and finally get the darn thing up to a workmanlike 30.

I once asked Jack why he’d approached me, a humorist, in the first place. “Writing is writing,” he explained. “I figured if you could write one thing well, you just might be able to write something else equally well. Besides it was low risk. If your first script had stunk, I would have cut you off at first draft and we wouldn’t be out much money.” (True. In those days, the going rate for a half-hour script was $2,500.) “And I had good luck in the past with newspaper guys. Dick Breen, who wrote most of the scripts when Dragnet was on radio, came out of the newspaper racket.”

After I’d written four or five episodes, I paid a call to my agent, pleading with him to get me a shot with a sitcom. I shall never forget his telling me — me with my humor column with the Times, that, with my track record, that at best he might be able to land me a “Felony Squad.” I pointed out to Jerry that “Felony Squad” wasn’t even as good as “Dragnet.” And besides, I added, “Jack lets me come in on Friday and drink with him and the cops.”

After Hours
Drinking with Jack was definitely a perk of the job and was something for which I didn’t have to tithe my agent. Although there were Saturday mornings when I would gladly have given the goniff 10 per cent of my hangover.

As a rule, late Friday afternoon, the day’s shooting over, Jack would open the door to his office, and whichever police officers were working that week as tech advisors would start regaling us with cop stories. After a few hours, those of us who were still around and awake would adjourn for dinner at either Monty’s in Encino or the China Trader, a restaurant Jack owned in Toluca Lake, where Bobby Troup, the husband of the former Mrs. Webb, Julie London, played piano.

Life could have gone on that way, if not indefinitely, at least for another season or two, but Webb and I reached a rather bizarre impasse. By this time, I had written seven or eight episodes in slightly more than a year. In fact, I had already finished up one Dragnet for the new season and had started discussing yet another case when I received an ominous call. Jack wanted to share some thoughts about my latest script. It wasn’t like him to interrupt the flow of the assembly line, but as I drove over the Universal, mulling over possible problem areas, I confess I never even came close to guessing the truth.

In the script, the perp had a fondness for bowling. For him, it was a pastime that approached a compulsion. The way I had it, he committed a couple of crimes involving bowling alleys, was arrested while trying to pick up a 7-10 spare, and in between there was a lot of Friday-Gannon banter that revolved around bowling.

Suddenly, I found myself seated across the desk from Webb and he’s telling me he wants to change the man’s passion from bowling to — butterflies! Whereas in the past, I hadn’t been able to believe Jack’s ears, this time I couldn’t believe my own. Surely, I recall telling myself, the man was simply making a misguided foray into the land of whimsy. I simply couldn’t accept Jack Webb, Sgt. Joe Friday, seriously suggesting we feature butterflies in one of his shows. Patiently, he explained that in his grandmother’s boarding house, where he’d grown up, one of the boarders had an extensive butterfly collection and had taught young Jack all about them, including the chemical compounds employed in their preservation. “Plus,” he said in concluding his pitch, putting as much enthusiasm into his usual monotone as he could muster, “in color, we’ll get some really beautiful shots.”

I granted the aesthetic appeal of butterflies over bowling balls but wondered why, after approving the earlier drafts he was suddenly requesting major revisions.

After a good deal of harrumphing around, Jack confessed that he didn’t want to go off the Universal lot for a half-day’s shooting at some North Hollywood bowling alley.

Now that I understood the real problem, I was ready with a solution. Through the use of sound effects and a glass counter full of bowling shoes and some score sheets, I advised, we could easily indicate the venue in the earlier scenes. And instead of arresting the perp on the lanes, Friday and Gannon could cuff him at the Coke machine.

But when he furrowed his brow and got that faraway look in his eyes, that wasn’t all he was mulling. It seems he was also envisioning a future that, as Sam Goldwyn might have put it, included Prelutsky out. For in Jack Webb’s world, I had committed the unpardonable sin. The problem wasn’t that I’d come up with the solution to his problem. It was that just prior to solving it, I had told him that I’d done all the work on the script that I was contracted to do, work that he’d already accepted and approved of, and that if he insisted on having my turn our villain into a butterfly collector, it would entail a Page One rewrite. In other words, I would expect to be paid to write that brand-new script he had in mind.

And so concluded my apprenticeship. It also served to set the tone for a TV writing career in which I have gotten the Writers Guild to demand and collect penalty payments from Disney, Universal, and Viacom, when those companies tried to get away with financial shenanigans.

Fortunately, a few months later, I received a phone call one morning. This time I was actually awake. It was Leonard Stern, West Coast head of Talent Associates. He explained that he and his brother-in-law, Budd Schulberg, who rarely agreed about anything, discovered that they both based their movie attendance on my Los Angeles Magazine film reviews. He invited me to have lunch and then, just before signing off, asked if I’d be interested in writing an episode of his Dan Dailey-Julie Sommars sitcom, “The Governor and J.J.”

As diplomatically as I could, I explained that I’d never watched his show.

But that’s another story.