--Charles F. Dickens, UK Theatre Professor & My Mentor—
Remember when Tom Hanks thanked his drama teacher as he accepted his Oscar for PHILADELPHIA? It was a moment I enjoyed, because when I’ve delivered my fantasy Oscar/Tony/Emmy speech in my head (and let’s be honest, any of us in this business…and probably a great many who aren’t…have composed that imaginary speech at one time or another), I always thank the unsung heroes…the folks who gave me a push up the ladder when I was also unsung.
Despite the profusion of no doubt deserving family, actors, directors, producers, and agents one needs to dole out gratitude to, the people usually overlooked in this “I owe you so much” exercise are…well, you can’t really call them “the little people”, because they weren’t!
They were maybe the biggest people in your life…the ones who may not have exerted the greatest influence on you or had the most significant impact on your career, but were a part of …perhaps the inspiration for…those little defining moments when veils lifted for you, connective tissue was provided, or decisions were made that altered your mindset or offered opportunity. The stepping stones or rungs of the ladder that allowed you to ascend to another level, see a greater vision, breathe a rarer air.
Once you’ve reached a certain height, gained a certain reputation, built a credible resume, it’s not that great a risk for the other guy to throw his lot in with you. But what about those who saw you when you were invisible? Who took a chance on you when you no one else would…those mentors who took their time to encourage and nurture your desire and fledging talent when it was still unproven?
My imaginary award speech acknowledges my high school teachers, Sara Hamel and Norman Yonce, who helped broaden my creativity.
Certainly, college theatre professors Charles Dickens, Mary Stephenson, Wally Briggs, and Ray Smith would be included. Julieanne and I were fortunate to pay back the great debt we both owed to Charles Dickens, by being able to dedicate the UK Theatre Movement Studio to him.
(below: Me, as Claudio; Julieanne, as Isabella in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, directed by Charles Dickens at UK's Guignol Theatre).
Professionally, directors like Charles David McCally, Richard Vath, and Paul Giovanni boldly took a chance on my acting talent and hired me. Charles and Richard repeatedly hired me and kept me gainfully employed.
(Below: Me with Marianne Hammock in COMEDY OF ERRORS, directed by Charles David McCally, at the Globe of the Great Southwest. Marianne was the Courtesan; I played the gyspyish master of ceremonies/leader of a Comedia Dell' arte Troupe presenting the play. Egged on by McCally, I wrote the part myself; how's that for sheer brass...competing with Shakespeare with the some of the silliest doggrel this side of the Southbank? SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY referred to my role as: "The illusion was initiated by the introduction of an unctuous presenter who huckstered the audience in rhymed couplets.")
(Above: The Cast of MOVE OVER, MRS. MARKHAM, directed by Richard Vath for Country Dinner Playhouse in Dallas. That's me in the curly wig.)
Paul took me aside at a callback from an Ahmanson Theatre open call for a play he had written, THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD. He told me, “Of the 300 people you see at an open call and of the eighty you call back, maybe only a couple a dozen have real talent. I want you to know, you’re one of those. But what even the talented people who come out here with their battered suitcases full of dreams don’t understand is: nobody cares. You have to make them care. I want you to know you made me care and I’m going to do all I can to get you in this show.” He got me into it. I and one another actor were told we were the first two ever hired from an open Equity call at the Ahmanson (Below: Me on the floor, between Charlton Heston & Jeremy Brett).
Jeremy Brett, who starred in the play with Charlton Heston, was another one who “cared”. One of the few true gentlemen I’ve met in the business. I remember once, at a cast party, he suddenly smiled and wagged a knowing his finger at me, “ You have this wonderful imagination that conjures knights and faery castles and dragons and marvelous dreams and you think no one sees it, but…they do!” That great kindness meant a lot to me and was never forgotten. It was just one of many encouraging generosities he showed me during the run of the show and after.
I would also mention Clive Trenchard and Janet Greek, through whose auspices, my writing was seen by my first agent, Melinda Jason, who also took a chance on me. And Melinda introduced me to Sy Weintraub. I couldn’t forget Sy.
I say Melinda introduced me to Sy. Actually, she sent me to meet him. For even though we had never met before, I had been introduced to him some time ago.
Sy, a producer, had just acquired the rights to Sherlock Holmes and was planning to do a series of two-hour films for network TV. I was excited. I had read the stories as a boy and had seen the Basil Rathbone films so many times that the phrase “Hello, what’s this?” was a permanent part of my repertoire.
Sy achieved huge success with Tarzan, doing films in the fifties and sixties and the television show with Ron Ely (Sy certainly knew which literary characters to exploit). This also worked in my favour; for when I had been devouring Doyle, I had also been plowing through Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I was intimately familiar with Sy’s cinematic efforts on the ape-man’s behalf…hence our earlier introduction, unbeknownst to him. But he was impressed by this and seemed eager to take a chance on me, an untried writer with no credits, only a couple of sample scripts and some plays (unproduced ones).
(Below: Me, with Gordon Scott, who was Sy's first cinematic Tarzan. I was signing PRINCESS OF MARS scripts and DRAGONHEART books for the Burroughs' Bibliophiles...of which I'm a proud member...at their annual Dum-Dum in LA.)
But the clincher was Timmy.
In one of Dr. Watson’s accounts of his friend Sherlock Holmes, the great detective exhorts the good doctor to remember “the curious incident of the dog.” It was my own curious incident with the dog that helped me out with Sy --Timmy.
Timmy had played the Bionic Dog in the TV series THE BIONIC WOMAN. A German Shepherd the size of a small Volkswagon, Timmy, now retired from acting, earned his Purina as Sy’s guard dog. And he knew his job. I mean, if left alone in the room with this critter, you made no sudden moves.
Sy considered Timmy an excellent judge of character and had been advised by the trainer never do business with anybody the dog didn’t cotton to. What can I tell ya? The big brute loved me. All over me…licking, nuzzling, sniffing my crotch. Couldn’t shake him: followed me everywhere. I’d definitely made an impression.
And my subsequent work fortunately did not sour the impression. Sy tried me out on a Frankenstein script he had going into production in a few weeks which needed a rewrite – a page-one rewrite. Ten days later, I gave him one. He and I spent another week on it, pumping more action into it without sacrificing what Sy called its “literary” tone.
Alas, the film ultimately fell through, but Sy was impressed enough with my writing that he brought me on to his proposed Sherlock Holmes series. Sy had been having trouble getting scripts that satisfied him, complaining that the American writers gave him recycled “Rockford Files” in gaslight and the British writers gave him “austere” MASTERPIECE THEATRE productions. Somehow, with my adaptation of Doyle’s THE SIGN OF FOUR, I managed to find the requisite blend of action and authentic Holmesian nuance.
(Above: Me, Dame Jean Conan Doyle...A.C. Doyle's last surviving daughter..., actress Cheri Lunghi, Sy Weintraub, and Dame Jean's husband...Sir Jeffrey Something or other on the set of SIGN OF FOUR. She was a very nice lady who quite liked my adaptations.)
If before I had been an aficionado of Holmes, I now became an expert. I re-read the entire canon (the annotated one) and when Sy called me from London to tell me the other script he had been counting on to start the series was dreadful and what could I do, I replied: “I can give you HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in two weeks.” He had it in twelve days (Oh, I was energetic and hungry back then).
(Above: Ian Richardson as Holmes; Donald Churchill as Watson in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES)
Two months later, I was in London, the only city in the world I ever wanted to visit, abroad for the first time in my life, the only other American connected to the project besides Sy. He put me up in a flat from where I could watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, gave me a generous per diem, bought me breakfast (and introduced me to the Scotch Egg, the most delectable breakfast food item known to man) and lunch everyday at Shepperton Studios where for the next three months I watched some of England’s finest actors, led by Ian Richardson as Holmes, speak my lines.
Sy didn’t make me rich but he gave me something much more valuable to a writer. Respect and Power. On my first jet-lagged day at the studio, I was going into a meeting with the director of SIGN, who had a few “inspirations” about script changes. Sy told me right before the meeting: “These scripts are where you and I want them and I don’t want to change anything, unless you think it’s right, so listen to the director, but commit to nothing.” What a wonderful cachet to be given going into a creative meeting. The director didn’t get his changes.
On set, actors would come ask me if they could change a line. Sy let everyone on the production know I was the in-house expert on Holmes and any questions should be relayed to me. I was in on every creative meeting. I was in on casting. Sy insisted I grab a pad and pencil and get my butt to rushes every day and take notes. He wanted me in the editing-room. When I protested I knew nothing about editing, he said: “It’s common sense. You’ll learn.” Of the six editing suggestions I made, they used five. Sy expressed his philosophy about producing to me once: “I learn everything I can about every aspect of the business. Then when someone comes up to me and tells me they can’t do something, I say, ‘Oh, yes, you can and here’s how…’ even telling them what lens to use, if I have to.”
He was an old-fashioned producer who refused to abandon either his passion or his power to the encroaching fashion of “the auteur” or “the package”. He was always the boss. He knew the difference between collaboration and capitulation, and he knew, despite the hype of “director’s vision”, that the “vision” came from and belonged to the script and that everyone who signed onto the project was there to serve that vision.
Sy was grooming me to be his point-man in England and write every episode of the series, if I wanted. But there was no series. The Networks just couldn’t wrap sweeps week around deductive reasoning and deerstalker hats. So the films ran rampantly on cable, won some European festivals, were embraced by the disciples of Doyle, and gave me more satisfaction as a writer than I’ve ever had since in this business.
The result is I got two films that actually resemble what I wrote. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES has been called, “The best version of the Doyle classic to date…This deserved theatrical release but didn’t get it.” It remains my favourite of all my films. And it’s the only one that I still pull out from time-to-time and watch with unqualified joy, never having to flinch at mistakes and lament what might have been (Below: Ron Lacey as Inspector Lestrade in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES).
Sy used to joke that he’d made me famous and now he couldn’t afford me. But the truth is all he had to do was ask; I’d have found a way to make it work.
Whenever I drove by Sy’s house, I always slowed the car to admire the massive sculpture in his back yard. It was a larger-than-life knight on a massive charger fashioned from some sort of shiny silver metal. One day, I drove by and noticed the knight was gone. I called Sy to find out he had moved, the knight had been sold, and Sy was now exploring the world of internet entertainment. That was Sy…always moving forward, on to the next thing, always ahead of the game.
Then, six months after that phone call, I woke one morning to read his obituary in the paper. He had died of pancreatic cancer in April of 2000.
After that, driving by Sy’s old house, I missed seeing that towering knight shimmering in the sun. It always reminded me of Sy’s chivalrous mentoring when I was just an aspiring talent looking for a chance to prove myself.
Thanks, Sy, for giving me that chance. Thanks for giving me one of the happiest times of my life. Thanks for respecting my talent and the work and spoiling me for every other experience I’ve ever had in the business. Thanks for never lying to me and keeping every promise you ever made to me. When I get beaten down in the development process or a production is going awry or the writer is getting screwed yet again, I remember my time with you and all your kindnesses to me and how collaboration is supposed to work and the memory is sweet.
The ideal you showed me and the example you set gives me the strength to climb back in the trenches each time and fight for what should be rather than what is.
POGUE’S WEEKLY MEDIA CHECK
YOU NEVER CAN TELL. From the BBC Boxed George Bernard Shaw DVD Set. Shaw’s is a tremendously witty writer who makes me guffaw. The play is quite wonderful. With Robert Powell and Patrick Magee.
THE FURIES. With Babara Stanwyck and Walter Huston. The title, The Furies, is apt because this strange western is very Greek, also very noir.
POGUE’S LISTENING TO:
THE HAPPY TIME. Original Cast recording of the Kander/Ebb show.
SPOTLIGHT ON…VIC DAMONE. Sinatra said Damone had “the best pipes in the business.” I’m inclined to agree. Very smooth…and great song selection.
A COLLECTION OF HOWARD BARKER PLAYS. Notably VICTORY, THE CASTLE, and SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION. The last I saw in a terrific production years ago at the Ahmanson in LA with the magnificent Frank Langella and Juliet Stevenson. Barker is a fascinating writer who apparently is much more celebrated elsewhere than in his own home country of Britain. My colleagues at AGL, Artistic Director Rick St. Peter, and Associate Director, Eric Seale, would love this guy…Eric for his anarchistic qualities, Rick for his Brechtian aspects and his language. It is the language certainly that attracts me, which is poetry even when he utilizes what some might consider crude and offensive language. I also love his attraction for what seem to me, “epic themes”. He has an interesting theory of Theatre of Castastrophe..it’s first principle being art is not digestible, “but an irritant in the consciousness, like a grain of sand in an oyster’s gut…” A theatre company was formed…The Wrestling School…primarily to perform his work.
WRITTEN BY MAGAZINE, the magazine of the Writers Guild, which has a terrific interview and article on the brilliant Larry Gelbart, who I’ve been fortunate to meet on several occasions, and other interesting articles about writers of my age and older and how we deal with the “second and third acts” of our lives and careers.
Any weekly media recommendations of your own to make?
SCENE & BE SEEN