Friday, April 27, 2012

THE BOLD RASCAL COMES INTO HIS OWN


TOM'S NIGHTTIME SERIES


The WORKING GIRL cast and crew


Getting a series in LA is a definitive moment in an actor's life. In those days, it could be the ticket to fabulous wealth and fame everlasting. We are a little excited. Yeah. Every time we drive across Beverly Glen Boulevard from the Valley to the middle of Beverly Hills, we pick out multi-million dollar little mansions that we would like to live in. Tom's favorite is a sprawling New England style house very like the Connecticut country home in BRINGING UP BABY.

Yes, he's the 'bold rascal', now and living it up. He picked that moniker out for himself many years later for his Youtube channel. But even at this time, we called him that. It's a quote from the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD, a movie we loved and quoted often. We also called friends 'saucy fellow' and said things like 'Hay for my horses and drinks for my thirsty companions', and 'To the tables everyone and stuff yourselves.' All quotes from that wonderful movie.

So they call Tom back that fall to shoot a NEW pilot with a new Tess, the Working Girl. This time it's the unknown actress, Sandra Bullock. So now everyone in the cast is an unknown. The network suits are probably chewing their nails down to the cuticle. They'd signed on for a pilot of a successful movie, with successful TV writers and known TV star. And now!!! Horrors! Although all the actors are experienced, they are, alas, all unknowns.

Edye Byrde, and Judy Prescott, two of Tom's favorite funny ladies.
From my first days modeling in magazine ads and TV commercials, it was evident that the people who wore suits were NEVER comfortable deviating from their set plan. If it was a layout, the photographer had to at least give them one picture that was an exact replica of their layout drawing. This was often carried to ludicrous extremes. One perfect example of this mentality was a shoot I was on wearing an ankle length, straight denim skirt, seated, as per the layout, in a rattan butterfly chair. Both skirt and chair were very popular in those days. They kept having me stand up while the stylist knelt and pulled down on the hem to minimize the wrinkles at the hip as I lowered myself into the chair. Now, any normal person knows that if you sit down in a straight skirt, there will be a fold where the legs and hips meet. But one of the suits wasn't having any of that. We tried and tried. Finally, in frustration, he pointed to the layout, exclaiming, 'but there are no wrinkles in the picture!' Which of course was because the artist hadn't drawn any wrinkles. What can you say to that? I'm sure they eventually retouched the wrinkle out. But really. 

And I will digress for one more story. This you've probably heard. It's about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. When they went to shoot their "I LOVE LUCY" show, Desi wanted to try something new using three cameras to pick up all the action as it happened. He knew that Lucy was at her best if you just let her go with the moment. Also, with three cameras, the actors could all feed off the audience's spontaneous response, something impossible to duplicate. The networks wouldn't go for it, didn't want the extra expense of three cameras. So Desi, that shrewd Bobaloo, said okay, I'll pay for it….but then I'll own the shows. Snicker Snicker went the suits and said 'Sure, sucker.' A few years later Lucy and Desi famously bought RKO and became the biggest thing in Hollywood from "Lucy" reruns, which, snicker snicker, they owned.


Sandra Bullock and Tom on the WORKING GIRL set.
Back to Tom. His part isn't as big in this NEW pilot because the WORKING GIRL now has parents on Staten Island who have to be introduced into the plot. It's going to be a class comedy about a working girl from blue collar parents making it in the white collar world of business. They've opened up the plot to give the stories more scope.

So everything starts again with the new girl. And with a great sigh of relief, Tom comes home announces that she meets and exceeds everyone's expectations. Everyone is sorry Nancy McKeon is gone, but Sandra Bullock is more than competent. Tom thinks she's going to be great.

AJ Trask, Captain of Industry
Every day Tom comes home with stories about the show and how it went and the people he's working with. He's a total worried wreck when he gets home, but on stage he knows exactly what he's doing and he's loving it. He loves the character of Trask, the power guy with a sense of humor.

Finally there is a taping of the show that I am able to attend. I have never attended a live taping in LA before. But, Tom has done tons of live tapings for many, many episodic shows since we've moved here, so he's quite familiar with the process. We hire the baby sitter and at the appropriate hour, I head over the hill to the studio to join the audience. I have my studio parking pass to get in and feel very grand.


Tom as AJ Trask
I arrive early, of course, meet Tom outside the studio and also get a chance to meet Sandra Bullock as she crosses to the dressing rooms. She is incredibly slim, very pretty, smiling and very composed, a real pro, even at the start of her career.

Then I enter the humongous studio taping area. The place is cavernous, as big as an airplane hangar and about as warm and friendly. The sets are arranged sort of boxcar style in a line in front of the raised bleacher type seats. Although I think we did have individual seats. The bleachers are about ten rows deep up a basketball style incline. There are cameras moving silently around the floor below the bleachers so they don't block our view of the action, but they do create a wide gulf between the audience and the show.

Tom has directed me to sit at the far end where the office set is and where he will play most of his scenes. But for a New York theater person, this set up is jarring. I've been to a lot of different kinds of theaters: theater in the round, Shakespeare in the park, street theater, etc. But this set up seems at best disdainful of the audience.

There is a modest crowd in the bleachers as I look around. But, it's a new show with no big names, so I'm not surprised that there's no crush of eager fans lining up for the show. Then, just before taping, a bus load of people files in to fill up the empty spaces. As I watch these people, I get a sinking feeling. Most are slowly shuffling to their seats. These are not old people on medication, so they must be a busload of people who are either cognitively disabled or drugged or both. It's hard to imagine any of them understanding, let alone appreciating the show. I guess the objective is to get bodies in the seats, but this hardly seems an ideal audience. (But see the piece about Palm Beach, with an equally difficult, impossible to please audience for comparison). Is an audience ever ideal? Who knows? Perhaps the disabled audience will be even more appreciative than the average audience member. Not for the first time that evening, I wish myself the wife of a garbage man, never to have been born, or cracking coconuts on a south sea island beach.


"One of the cast members with the most potential appears to be Tom O'Rourke
as a powerhouse Donald Trump-like character who gets to deliver some of
the funniest lines. (When O'Rourke is told that an angry Merv Griffin is waiting
in his office, he grumbles that Griffin is probably trying to "unload those
casinos again.")


I am, of course, a total nervous wreck. I do think it's much harder to watch your significant other on stage or screen that to be the one doing it. Although, I know it is terrifying to be up there and be the pro who has to deliver. Still, sitting there, helplessly witnessing and feeling all the feelings of terror, but with nothing to do to distract yourself is excruciating.

The warm up comedian comes out and does very funny things with some sort of hand puppet to get the audience in a laughing mood. I'm appalled. As a New York theatergoer, the idea of a hand puppet guy warming up the audience is…well, I hardly know what to think or do. I laugh, others laugh, everyone is laughing. He is a fairly good stand up guy. The return of Vaudeville?

Then the taping begins. They do the first scene, get some big laughs, which they can use as guidelines when they sweeten the show with canned laughter. Then they start doing pick up shots. It's ten minutes or more before they do the second scene. Same deal. We get a quick taste, then they stop and do close-ups and retakes. Fix props that didn't work right, get lines right. Get people in focus who missed their marks. Then they stop to move to another set. Then the actors have to change costumes. Stop, start, stop start. It's infuriating. After about two hours of this for less than a half an hour of show, I'm ready to jump over the bleachers and sock somebody in the nose. As someone whose husband is in the hot seat, well, I could weep with frustration. The rest of the audience is still laughing here and there, as they have throughout the taping. But, the essence of comedy is TIMING and the subtle chemistry that happens between the actors and the audience. On stage, every performance is always different, because every audience is different.

By the time they're done, I'm convinced there ARE NO LAUGHS at all in the show and that we are doomed. I no longer see myself living in Beverly Glen. I see us raising our son in a trailer in the high desert. I wonder if Ralphs is hiring check out girls. I am numb, catatonic with despair. This is it, the end.


Ken Kaufman, Tom Patchett, Jaimie Jaffe
Finally, the torture is over. Tom is off getting out of make-up and into street clothes. I wait with a hundred pound barbell on my chest in the bleachers wondering how to break it to him that it's hopeless. I'm approached by a tall, lanky, intellectual looking man with an impish grin who introduces himself as Tom Patchett. He has guessed who I am. Thank god he doesn't notice the deer in headlights look in my eyes. He doesn't ask what I thought. Good, because I am totally tongue tied. I can't even tell him that Bob Newhart, a man he worked closely with for many years, is one of my favorite comedians.

"Tom, I don't like it - you're starting to protect your own character.
Ass soon as you realize how funny you are, you won't need me. "
Signed "Tom" From Tom Patchett
But a miracle happens. This new Tom starts in praising my Tom. I am all AGOG with wonder. The man is full of confidence and thrilled. He tells me with delight that my Tom is one of those rare comedy actors who get laughs that the writers didn't know were there. The immensity of this compliment coming from a veteran comedy writer strikes me forcibly. I have witnessed how quickly they fire people who don't get the laughs. I have read countless show biz biographies about writers brainstorming, smoking, drinking, up all night, trying to load a script with the maximum number of laughs possible. I have read about how hard Kaufman and Hart slaved to create humor. I know that Crouse and Lindsay worked every day for three years writing "Life with Father". So an actor who can get a laugh that the writers didn't know was there is a comedy writer's version of playing on a Stradivarius. I am floored. And this compliment comes from a writer whose work is famously successful in Hollywood and has been for years. I'm completely verklempt. It is a moment and a compliment that I treasure and will treasure till I die. Yes, I think, I always knew that about my Tom….well….that is until five minutes ago, when I was going to tell him to quit show biz.








Saturday, March 3, 2012

LIFE AMONG THE ELOI


The Time Machine with Rod Taylor



It is high summer in LA. All the hills are brown and covered in dry, fire prone chaparral primed for wildfire by the hot, incessant Santa Ana winds.

The WORKING GIRL pilot has been shot and is in the can, ready for the big Fall TV schedule when the network rolls out its best bets for ratings hits. And we have a highly coveted time spot on that fall schedule. Things are looking up. Tom and I are eagerly awaiting the call to start shooting the next episodes.

We've been invited to a party by one of the assistant producers on the show. The address is Beverly Hills and the mansion does not disappoint. It is truly palatial, perched in lordly fashion atop the brown canyons, with the endless, flat suburb city of LA splayed out in wrap around views from every room and terrace.

We wander out onto the terrace carrying our gigantic wine bowls made of crystal far more delicate than egg shells and sipping wine more fascinatingly palate pleasing than the proverbial ambrosia. Tom surveys the LA basin and makes his standard observation: 'LA is the end of Western Civilization'. And as proof, he cites the movie "The Time Machine" with Rod Taylor. We're here with the Eloi, he says. It's perfect. They're all blonde with perfect bodies, nobody looks more than 27 years old, they live on fruit, they don't work, they're totally indifferent to anyone's suffering, like when Wena almost drowns, they don't read or write, their books have turned to dust, and they spend their idle days cavorting in the sun. H.G. Wells described LA perfectly.

We go back inside. He's right. There are beautiful people everywhere. We do our best not to be conspicuous Morlocks in non designer clothing. This is a big moment for both of us, but especially for me, because these days I'm Moming it at home with a three year old as full time cook and bottle washer. So I've heard about all the excitement and glamour second hand from Tom. This is my night to mingle with the big shots.

Tom knows a couple of people, cast members, production people, and they converse; I listen attentively. Big excitement of the night is: a real mountain stream runs through the middle of the house, have we seen it? We see it later, replete with rose petals drifting by. WOW. This house belongs to one of the producers who redoes homes and resells them. He's just sold this one to a Japanese couple for nine million. Cash. WOW. AND DOUBLE WOW. This is the nineties, when Japan seems to be rolling in cash. MGM has also just been sold to Sony for some amazing sum. And we're told not to miss the upstairs bathroom with floor to ceiling views of LA from the throne. We visit it and are suitably blown away. Do people really live like this? It's just staggering. WOW. WOW. WOW. It may be the end of Western Civilization, but the Eloi have it very good indeed. 

We circulate and notice that Nancy McKeon, our star, has not arrived yet. Maybe she's skipping this party. After all, she's a pretty big TV star already. Circulating to the bar to get free drinks, Tom reconnects with me. Someone has just told him that Nancy McKeon has left the show and that WORKING GIRL is no longer on the fall lineup. We switch our drink orders from wine to vodka. We are shattered. I'm hardly able to stand. We hear people around the bar, producers, writers, etc. discussing the change. Everyone says it will be fine. The new girl tested just fine with the studio audiences. We look at each other. We've been gut punched. Our big chance. Now what? No nine million dollar houses in our future. The rest of the evening is a blur.

So how did this all get started? The day after his birthday, Tom has an audition for Peg Halligan, reading for the part of Mr. Trask, the boss of the WORKING GIRL, based on the movie of the same name. He reads for Peg, Nancy McKeon, Tom Patchett and Ken Kaufman, of PKE productions. Tom Patchett is the co-creator of the recent, successful TV series ALF, starring an irascible, alien puppet who invades a family. Ken Kaufman has worked in TV and movies for many years, too.

Tom comes home elated. He feels he's given a great reading and that everyone likes him. He adds that he's sure Nancy McKeon has recognized him from playing Justin on the Guiding Light because she sort of mentioned something to that effect.

I don't remember the day we heard he got the part; probably because we both had been in Hollywood long enough to know that getting a series was only the first step in a long and treacherous slog. One the true stories that all our friends have heard is of another soap opera actor who'd been in Hollywood forever and finally got a part in a series. In jubilation, he took all his friends out to a fabulous dinner to celebrate, only to find out later that his part had been cut from the show.

So. Once the show is cast, it's wait again till the pilot scripts are ready and approved by the network. And then wait again for a shooting date. Once the shooting date is set, scripts began arriving by messenger every day with new pages and rewrites. The new pages are always pink or green to distinguish them from the original script. And every time one of those new scripts arrives, we open them in abject terror that Tom's lines and scenes will be cut. But he has a substantial part in the original pilot that remains so for the first show.

The first reading is a form of Hollywood Hell. Everyone is there with their scripts. Everyone includes all of the cast of incredibly petrified actors who've finally landed a series, a steady job, if only they can hold on to it, some of the producers, writers, and a couple of network executives. They all sit around a large table loaded with donuts, bagels, cream cheese, which, of course, no one can even think of tasting because they're all suffering from nervous cotton mouth.

In this incredibly tense atmosphere, everyone feigns casualness, as they ready themselves to hear the words of the script spoken for the first time aloud. Someone, probably a network executive, tries to be reassuring and announces that this is just a reading, use your script and don't worry about getting laughs. HAH HAH!

The very exclusive invitation to the Taping because industry
people do tend to sit on their hands.


Fortunately, Tom has worked in the theater and witnessed up close and personal writer and producer backstage angst and panic. He'd once been visiting a writer whose show has just closed and was afraid to leave the man alone on a high floor of the hotel. He's already committed his part to memory, holds the script simply as a prop, and plays his part full out for every laugh he can get.

One of the other actors, who Tom liked very much and thought was very talented, doesn't pick up the hint and simply reads his script.

Everything seems to go well, until the next morning when the phone rings. It's the WORKING GIRL production office for Tom. I remember that moment so clearly. I remember where I was standing. I remember my feet were rooted to the floor as I handed the phone to Tom. I don't even think my heart was beating. Tom, who somehow managed to speak normally, took the brief call.

They were calling to tell him that the young actor he'd liked, who hadn't gone for the laughs, was being replaced and would not be there today. 

We knew then that, as Bette Davis says in 'ALL ABOUT EVE', we had better fasten our seatbelts because it was gonna be a bumpy ride.

Rehearsal begins. Tom is there every day. He likes most of the people. Thinks Nancy McKeon is terrific. Likes Tom Patchett and way he writes. Comes home after a few days with horrible chest pains on his left side, convinced he's having a heart attack. Only to realize the next day that during every rehearsal, he's got the script clenched so firmly in his left hand that he's given himself a muscle cramp.

Tom as Mr. Trask

So the pilot of the first show is filmed and all goes well. It's in the can and we're on tap for a plum spot on the network schedule. Till we get to the Beverly Hills mansion. Then we hear we're reshooting the pilot in September as a mid season replacement with a brand new WORKING GIRL. Our new leading actress is Sandra Bullock, who at that time, no one has ever heard of.

We get the new script. It's completely different. Tom's scenes in this pilot are not as long as in the previous pilot. The focus of the show has shifted from solely a woman's challenges in the workplace to more emphasis on the WORKING GIRL's working class background on Staten Island. It has become more of a class comedy.



The story is that when Nancy McKeon heard she'd have to play lots of scenes with parents again, she quit. She'd just come off about 8 years on THE FACTS OF LIFE, where she literally grew up on television, complete with stage parents. At least, that was the story we were told. I know the higher ups seemed a bit nervous to lose Nancy because she was a known commodity to audiences with a very high TVQ, a measurement of recognition and likeability.

And if the Bad Ratings Wombats don't steal Uncle Tom Pachett's apples, I'll be back in a couple of weeks with more stories about the incredible WORKING GIRL hot air balloon ride.



Thursday, January 19, 2012

COLOSSAL NETWORK BLUNDER




ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A NETWORK EXECUTIVE?


Can you spot the future big star and Oscar winner?
Yes? Then you're smarter than a Network Executive


If the Patriots had taken a pass on quarterback Tom Brady cause they didn't see any potential; if Amazon had decided to stop selling books; if McDonalds had left the special sauce off the two beef patties; if Tabasco had dumped the hot peppers for a sweet ketchup; if Cartier decided not to sell diamonds; if Coke changed its formula….Yeah, that dumb.

So what was this colossal blunder?

Biggest network mistake EVER was cancelling the nighttime TV series that co-starred handsome, talented, funny, witty actor, none other than Tom O'Rourke. Okay, that's my opinion, and I'm entitled to it, and that and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. Besides, anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm more than a little partial to Mr. Tom O'Rourke. So I have no proof that I'm right, because Tom never got another chance to show his comedic, leading man chops.

However, the cancelled series was Working Girl, based on the smash hit movie, and the star of that TV series was a young, talented actress just starting out named Sandra Bullock. You might have heard of her, she's been successful in both comedy and drama, and the Oscar winning star of, among many other memorable and immensely popular films, The Blind Side. She is an actress who has abundantly proved she is one of the greats of her generation, with talent, intelligence, sense of humor, force of drama, self awareness, poise, and did I mention she's drop dead gorgeous? When her name is on movie marquee, the audience shows up in record numbers. That Sandra Bullock.



So, yeah, the Network had this wonderful new actress's name on the dotted line in a TV series based on a smash hit movie, and they cancelled the show after 13 short weeks. Somehow, nobody at the network picked up on what a huge talent this young woman was. Nobody saw anything even worthy of another thirteen weeks. Sure the ratings were only good, not breakout. But most TV shows take awhile to find an audience. How do you let a Sandra Bullock slip through your fingers? How do you miss a super nova? How does a network so benighted make enough money to keep the lights on? Beats me. But I certainly think it qualifies as one of the Networks biggest screw-ups.

And Tom, my Tom, had the "and also starring Tom O'Rourke" billing. We coulda been somebody.

How big was this mistake? Let's see, we get network TV for free. And even for free, conveniently right in your living room, network TV is struggling to keep an audience. Whereas, people have to get in their cars, drive to a movie theater and plunk down big bucks to see Sandra Bullock these days. And they line up for the chance to do just that, movie after movie. She's that good. And they totally missed it. Guess Sandra taught Hollywood a thing or two about what constitutes genuine entertainment.

Sure, I know hindsight is 20/20, but these guys get big paychecks to provide something remotely resembling entertainment. It's like astronomers missing Haley's Comet, for Pete's sake.

Soooo, when the TV Network Executives start crying and BLAME THE AUDIENCE for the low quality of their programs, claiming they have to use violence, bad language and nudity to get an audience because that's what the public really wants, remember, they have to aim low because they are too Dumb and Dumber to spot real talent when it's right there in front of them. Creating something that draws an audience and doesn't involve violence, nudity and bad language is mostly beyond their pay grade, high as that pay grade is.

Or, when they BWAWAWAH about how TECHNOLOGY is to blame for their lack of profits, remember, it's not the technology, it's the people running the show who don't seem to know squat about entertainment that's killing the profits.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Getting Working Girl was our Nantucket Sleigh Ride; one of the most exciting things that ever happened to Tom. And it's a story with a few twists and turns that I think will amuse you. The next post will start at the beginning of our Nightime TV epic.