As a writer Garry knew the truth is always where to go for story – and this never rang so true and raw as when he invited Gilda Radner on his show during her battle with ovarian cancer. Together they wrote the deeply honest joke that involved Gilda saying she hadn’t been on TV in a while, Garry asking her why, Gilda saying she had cancer and then smiling up at him and asking, “What did you have?”
In this Emmy Legend oral history clip, Shandling spoke about working with her on that episode and how they both knew the subject had to be faced — and somehow made funny. It turned out to be the SNL star’s last appearance on television.
This weekend Antenna TV airs “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” written by Treva Silverman. One of several staff writers for The Monkees who went on to win Emmy Awards for her later work in television (Her Emmy came from The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Treva was the only woman writer on the The Monkees.
If you’re interested in learning more about Treva’s post Monkees work, the blog “…by Ken Levine” did a nice coverage of her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, complete with some script pages and a whole page of biography noting that Valerie Harper (Rhoda) called Treva the “Feminist conscience of the show”. In my book, I write that Treva brought that same feminist conscience to The Monkees where viewers can note that none of the young women the Monkees dated were ever ditzy – they were always women of substance – serious about their schoolwork or with careers already in place or otherwise involved in the world. Not bad for a show about four band members. I believe that attitude came to The Monkees from Treva – the only female writer on staff.
In her coverage of a day at the set of The Monkees, Gloria Malerba was able to show her (largely teen) readers how much hard work goes into filming a television show – and how many people are employed by such a hit show.
I particularly like the photo on the lower left of Davy Jones in costume taking “a last minute look at the script’ – a nice reminder that as often as we hear the show as ‘all ad-libbed’ – it was not. Writers conceived the characters and conflicts and then wrote dialogue for each of the regular stars.
Of course, Cheever was also writing to Harriet Weaver but the editors left her name off the title, so it’s also a good look at how the Weaver marriage operated (in the same way The Letters of S.J. Perlemnan became a look at the marriage of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell since he wrote so often to them).
What I enjoyed most was the inside look Cheever gave of coming to Hollywood when a studio adapted his story The Swimmer into a film – Weaver had much more experience living in Los Angeles as a writer of local histories so he helped Cheever navigate La-La-Land.
If you don’t know either of these writers, a selection of Cheever’s short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (not too shabby) and John D. Weaver’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times tells you how important he was: “Weaver wrote two novels and eight nonfiction books, including one that helped change history: “The Brownsville Raid,” a 1970 book that led to the exoneration of 167 black soldiers who had been discharged without honor 64 years earlier.”
Both are well worth reading – as is Glad Tidings. Check them out.
His more full time writing was on the variety show The Hollywood Palace which showcased Hollywood talent such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He later produced Sanford and Son. In our interview I asked Mr. Orenstein if he was part of the youth culture and he said with a laugh, “My wife accuses me of missing the sixties entirely, and I’m afraid she’s right. I avoided the ‘emerging counter-culture scene’ mostly because I didn’t know there was one going on.” He has taught in the MFA program for Writing and Producing Television at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Today we thank Shonda Rhimes for bringing color blind casting to television when she casts a diverse array of ethnicities in lead roles on her shows. But she didn’t invent the idea. On our visit to the Autry Museum of the American West I was reminded of a show I used to watch on television but that disappeared too quickly (I didn’t then know why) and didn’t reappear in reruns as much as the more successful, longer-running program also created by the same writer (Bonanza).
The show I only vaguely remembered was The High Chaparral – the story of a Mexican woman married to a man of European descent (then controversially considered an inter-racial marriage) who owned a rancho in the West post the Civil War. I remembered it for its diverse cast and honest portrayal of the discrimination played out against minorities in the West.
Special Projects Archivist Mallory Furnier wrote the blog post, “Casting Actors as People” highlighting the archives of The High Chaparral in the David Dortort Archive, where she noted:
“Though The High Chaparral faced untimely cancellation, its four seasons embodied a step away from tired, inaccurate stereotypes and a movement toward greater respect for actors and characters, regardless of race. As a June 16, 1970 NBC memo instructed, “let’s cast actors to play people and, in so doing, give the ‘minorities’ a break.”
In a second blog post, “Finding Aids and Places”, Furnier discussed her trip to the Old Tuscon Studios in Arizona, site of some of the exterior filming of the show.
As always, I found it fascinating to wander around in the papers (old, handwritten first drafts of scripts, typed rewrites ready for production meetings, cast lists, shooting schedules, etc) and see the inside ideas of a show I had only seen from the outside all those years ago.
One of the papers was even a 1971 letter to Dortort from then U.N. Representative George H. W. Bush saying he sympathized with the producer over the cancellation of such a quality show and would do what he could to communicate that to those who had made that decision. Fascinating.
What are your favorite screenwriting History books? It’s a trick question because few film history books focus on screenwriting. They mostly focus on business moguls, directors and actors. But because this is an MFA in Screenwriting, the program Director, Ken Lazebnik, and I decided the writers who come through the program ought to have a deep understanding of the screenwriters who came before them.
In this modern world, if you want to help Peg and I (and all the students who can benefit from learning about all these wonderful women who helped shape American culture) consider passing a copy of the attached flyer out to your local public or university librarians (in print and/or via email) and ask if they will order a set for their branch.
Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has moved swiftly to make changes helping to create a more diverse membership, my thoughts on this year’s hashtag – #Oscarsowhite – are beside the point. But my thoughts on why the movie Concussion lost out in this race are relevant in that I want to encourage people to see the film, though it will fast be gone from movie theatres thanks to its pathetic publicity campaign (as I understand it the production company did not even send out screeners to voters, thereby tanking chances for nominations in any categories).
I saw Concussion when it was screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago — because who can turn down a film starring Will Smith — and because I sensed it had the social justice angle I enjoyed in Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. Those films received nominations – and won Oscars – so after seeing it – and after the Oscar nominations were announced – I wondered why didn’t Concussion earn anything? The themes of the film are well worth delving into — so are many other aspects of Concussion including how it speaks to women and people of color and what it teaches writers about honing a story and polishing dialogue.
Concussion deals with how a huge corporation – the NFL – disregarded – and continues to disregard – the life and health of its most visible employees – the team players. Concussion deals with how the NFL’s need to make mega-bucks made them bury the truth of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the disease Dr. Bennett Omalu discovered while peforming autopsies on retired players, beginning with Mike Webster, a legendary player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That meant that the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of such players were denied the chance to understand and to help the beloved men in their lives all for the sake of a game. It is a film writers should see — and should have nominated – because of the nuance of the dialogue. The most telling line in the film is when a representative of the NFL says “If 10-percent of mothers in America decide football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that’s it. It is the end of football.” Of course, the representative utters that line as if the end of football is the end of the world – but I guess it would be the end of HIS world and that’s, sadly, the only world he cares about. Writer Peter Landesman keeps the focus on what matters when he has the doctor respond, “Deny my work, the world will deny it. But men will continue to die. And families will go on being destroyed.”
In his portrayal of Dr. Omalu, Will Smith, who is normally such a powerful presence, earned an Oscar nomination for the way he tranformed into the much more nuanced, humble character of the Nigerian immigrant doctor with medical degrees from more international universities than I could count. Playing a character like that it would be easy to ‘get cocky’ but Smith kept the low key, reality up front in his performance. Now that the Oscar nominations have been made, I feel that Will Smith was robbed. Smith embodied the gentle, spiritual qualities of the real man so deeply, he deserved at least a nomination. Any actor with 2 nominations to his name already (for Pursuit of Happiness and for Ali) would have easily received a nomination for this deeply mature drama.
I know this because after the screening the film festival sponsored a panel with Smith, Landesman and a surprise guest – Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered that American football practices where destroying the brains of the men who played. During the interplay between Smith and Dr. Omalu, Smith kept going in and out of the accent and persona he had studied and captured while sitting right beside that real life inspiration. That was a lesson in acting all by itself.
But writer Peter Landesman was robbed as well. All through my time sitting in the darkened theatre, engulfed by the story, I had to decide if it was the real story that was powerful or if it was the writing of the film – and the answer was both. The lesson in writing came from watching Dr. Omalu speak. I wondered about the process of distilling this man’s life into a film – how did Landesman chose which pithy phrases to include in the film and did Landesman make any up that echoed what Dr. Omalu might say? Luckily, I had the chance to ask that question during the Q&A session and after thinking for a moment Landesman picked the saddest line Dr. Omalu had told him in their interviews – “I wish I had never met Mike Webster”. What a perfect line to summarize the sadness that came to Dr. Omalu’s career when he went up against the NFL and the fact that he had to regret a discovery that should have made his career – one that he knew could help children across the United States, his adopted home.
The line Landesman said was invented for the film – was one he happily shared credit with actor and writer Albert Brooks, who played Dr. Omalu’s supervisor and supporter. In a nice look at how well film collaboration works when everyone wants what is best for the story (and not merely what’s best for themselves) there is a line Brooks added to what Landesman began with on the page. In trying to demonstrate the importance of American football to the Nigerian immigrant who had never seen a game, Landesman had Brooks’ character say “The NFL owns a day of the week!” That is a great line. But Landesman originally followed it up with the weaker “They’re very big!” While working on the scene, Brooks improvised a better follow up line: “The same day the church used to own.” THAT’s a line that says something specific – much stronger than “They’re very big.” Nice writing lesson I’d say. That’s why the script deserved an Oscar nomination as well. And that’s why even without nominatinos everyone should see this movie.
I have friends who saw Concussion back to back with Spotlight – which tells the story of the reporters who broke the priest abuse scandal. What my friends’ came away with was shock that the NFL was more powerful than the Catholic church. Imgine. Both films are structurally the same – a small set of characters discover important information that a profitable corporation wants to hide – and in each film the characters are discredited. For Concussion it’s important for audiences to see how much more easily an immigrant of color could be discredited – Dr. Omalu is called a voodoo doctor by some and anti-American by others – even though by publishing his findings he is trying to save the lives of Americans — and not just rich, football players who one could say accepted the risk in exchange for money but the hoards of little boys who want to play tackle football as preteens.
Usually films about true American heroes – ones who fight against great odds to save others – are not only nominated for Oscars, but they win them handily. Remember Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. For Brokovitch, Julia Roberts won the Academy Award and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. For Norma Rae, Sally Field won the Academy Awards for Best Actress and the film won for Best Original Song while also being nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
Those facts started me wondering… why all these plaudits for women bucking big business and none for the man of color who did so? I’m bemused, bothered and bewildered. And just plain mad.
When my son played Little League the coaches referred to baseball as either the Gentleman’s sport or the thinking man’s sport – even comparing baseball to chess in the way players needed to always know where the other players were and what moves were possible. I understood that idea. I’ve never understood anyone’s fascination with American football — though the film Concussion did a good job of offering both sides by showing the many, many fans – males and females alike –
who consider the moves the players make to be balletic. Frankly, I prefer to pay to see Misty Copeland do actual ballet. And if all those folks who call American football ‘balletic’ paid to see an ACTUAL ballet every now and then the arts in America wouldn’t be in such financial difficulties.
So the final question is how to respond to the lack of Oscars for this very worthy film – and to the NFL for not responding fast enough to this deep danger to their players. Since both Hollywood and the NFL are major corporations I suggest our money is the best weapon to wield. So far the film has made less than any other Will Smith film – can we change that? I hope so. Frankly, I think anyone who watches the Superbowl owes it to their gridiron heroes to watch Concussion – THAT would make it financially successful even if it’s too late for it to be critically acclaimed.
Sarah asked all the best questions which allowed me to discuss all the things I love studying about the show – its take on feminism, its handling of ethnic characters, what I like to call its cultural collateral – and of course why it deserves a place in critical studies in television courses because of its innovation – you do know it won an Emmy for Best Comedy in its debut year, don’t you? That ranks it right up there with classic quality comedies.
The whole show is fun to listen to as they discuss Micky’s solo show and some news about future concerts, (but if you want to start with my interview first that starts at 29:15 and ends at 1:23:00)
You might want to download the file (or subscribe to the podcast) rather than listening online as sometimes I’ve found their server gets overloaded and the audio falls out. I download the mp3 and then play it from my iTunes program.