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.



1 comment: