Behind the Lines with DR: Creating a TV Show While Managing Actors’ Egos, Part 2

With the Friday delivery date looming, I wrapped up the pilot draft on Thursday and prepared to distribute the script to my producing partners at Scott Free along with our star and his business partner.

Again, the phone rang. It was David Zucker.

“Bad news,” said David. “He attached himself to the other pilot.” Of course, he was referring to our star and co-producer who I called Johnny Brylcreem in Part 1.

photo credit frankpicturesgallery.com

photo credit frankpicturesgallery.com

“Brylcreem promised to wait until tomorrow,” I reminded David.

“Made the same promise to me,” said David. “All I can figure is that he caved to pressure from his management group to be part of a package deal.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the moment I cursed up a blue streak. David, God bless him, kept his usual calm and pragmatic poise.

“He’s not the only actor on the planet. We’ll just move ahead without him.”

“So he won’t be part of the producing group?” I asked.

“Well,” said David. “I’ve gotten word that he still expects to be a producer on the show.”

“Over my dead body.”

“No need to get bent over this. Ridley has a pretty firm opinion on non-producing partners. When the time comes, let’s let him deal with it.”

Wise words. And after the last few days, I was more than happy to let our resident eight-hundred pound British gorilla do our fighting. Although I did fantasize about being a bug on the phone when the moment came for Ridley to inform the backstabbing skin-puppet that he wouldn’t be welcome anywhere in the neighborhood of our TV show.

Friday came and I delivered the pilot to both the studio and the network. All that was left to do was wait out the weekend. Monday came and the response was so overwhelmingly positive that in a matter of hours nearly every negative echo involving our former leading man was all but erased.

What followed was three weeks of notes and studio/network conference calls and quick revisions. And here’s the part where I say with all candor, in my long and dubious career, I have never had a better or more constructive or more harmonious development process. From concept to final draft of the pilot, it was pure and cohesive.

We had but one more obstacle to overcome before we could get our go-ahead to shoot the pilot. And that was a green light from the head of all honchos, the president and C.E.O. of the broadcast network.

While the Christmas holiday proved to be a more than welcome distraction, I couldn’t help but make the writer’s error of counting the days until we cleared the last development hurdle. But why worry? Every pass of the pilot’s script had been met with resounding praise.

Then just days after ringing in the new year, I was met with news that added even more helium to my confidence bubble. The network had decided to shoot either our ground-breaking event show or some procedural snoozer. Of course, the boss would choose mine. Since Johnny Brylcreem jumped ship we’d been riding a tidal wave of affection.

I know. You’re way ahead of me. So lemme jump to the twist of irony.

“Just heard from the network,” said David Zucker over the phone. I could already tell from the inflection radiating from the back of his throat that the news wasn’t so good. “Though he loved the script, (the network president) decided it was too expensive.”

Too expensive? Seriously? After months of outlines, meetings, calls, and development, the reason we couldn’t cross the finish line came down to the exact concern David and I had shared only moments after I’d concocted the damned show. And hadn’t I said as much when that comely TV studio exec had called me in Ireland?

After a few moments of lamenting our network fate, I asked this:

“So what’s next?”

“Nothing’s next,” said David. “We’re done.”

“I know we’re done with the network. But there’s three other broadcast buyers.”

“TV’s not like the movie business,” said David. “Rarely does a dead pilot get a resurrection.”

I’d spent a career in features where no screenplay is ever “deceased.” I presently have screenplays older than my teenage son that are still in play.

“Not to say it doesn’t happen,” continued David. “But hardly ever. When a pilot’s dead it usually stays dead. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

Never had I experienced such mourning over one of my invented progeny. Sure, many had already passed away. But they were slow deaths, usually fading from my memory before the actual expiration date. Here was a circumstance in which I found myself staring at my dead pilot, the victim of a summary execution, a wisp of smoke spiraling from the bullet hole at the back of its head.

But I’m a pro, right? So while the brutal death of my pilot lingered like nitrogen bubbles beneath my skin, I moved back to my work in film.

Months later, while attending a small party in a Laker game luxury suite, I bumped into an acquaintance who is a production executive at the network. He showed mild curiosity over my feature biz, then asked if I’d ever considered working in television. So I told him the sad tale about my most recent experience at his place of business. Before I could get to punch line, he interrupted:

“I know that script,” said the exec. “I told (the boss) it was waaaaaay too expensive and that he should kill it before it killed us.”

“Oh, so it was you,” I said. “You’re the one who murdered my pilot.”

“Well, it wasn’t me who made the final decision,” he stammered.  “I just—“

“It’s okay,” I said, letting the executive off the hook. After all. It was a party. “All you did was confirm what concerned me from the very start. Wish I woulda listened to me.”

If I recall correctly, the Lakers also lost that night. Oh, well.

For those of you wondering what ever happened to the unscrupulous Johnny Brylcreem, check this out. The packaged pilot script he betrayed us for was actually picked up by the network. No doubt because the network president still believed Johnny B. could be the next Kiefer Sutherland. But when searching for a director to take the reins, Johnny Brylcreem showed his big brass balls—or in my opinion, utter and complete stupidity—by actually phoning Ridley Scott to see if either he or his brother would want to direct.

I’m told dear Ridley nearly laughed himself out of his desk chair.

Eventually, some TV journeyman got the job. Though I never saw the finished product, I’m told the pilot sucked so bad that it wiped the luster from the star, finally turning the network president cold on Johnny Brylcreem.

In the past few years, I’ve nearly bumped into Johnny on a few occasions. Once in a restaurant where I was grateful he didn’t seem to recognize me. And again at my neighborhood cigar shop. (My guess is between the hovering smoke and the deep tint of his sunglasses, Johnny Brylcreem couldn’t see me seated ten feet to his left.) Both times worked out in my favor, considering I had no kind words for the Judas bastard.

Then came the day I was waiting for my car at the Sony Studios valet stand. That’s when I heard Johnny Brylcreem’s distinctive voice coming up from behind me. My back was to the man so I didn’t feel the impulse to turn around. Maybe that third post-pilot run-in would be equally charmed.

No such luck.

“Hey,” said Johnny Brylcreem. “Is that Doug?”

I turned around and was instantly hit with that million-watt smile framed by Johnny’s Proctor and Gamble dimples.

“Hey, man,” I said, reluctantly prepared to shake the actor’s hand. Instead, before I could recoil, he wrapped me up in a bro-hug.

“How ya been, dude?” Johnny asked, as if bygones were bygones. Or maybe he’d just plain forgotten how he screwed me and his other “partner,” David Zucker. “Workin’ on any good TV stuff?”

“Always,” I said, forcing a warm smile.

“We should get together then,” he said. “Come up with something killer cool like that last thing.”

My car arrived not a moment too soon. I tipped the valet then reminded Johnny that he still had my number, fully expecting never to hear from him.

And I was right.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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