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The nostalgic 'Small Time' is anything but for creator Joel Surnow

Joel Surnow began writing "Small Time," a sweetly nostalgic comedy-drama about a divorced used-car salesman and his teenage son, in 1976 when he was 21.

A recent graduate of UCLA film school, Surnow worked during the day that summer at the snack bar of the L.A. Country Club  and wrote "Small Time" at night with his college friend, Randy Wallace.

Though they completed the script, tragedy struck when Wallace, who had a congenital heart defect, died that year during surgery.

Surnow went on to a stellar career as a TV producer and writer, working on such shows as "Miami Vice," "La Femme Nikita," The Commish" and most notably Fox's long-running "24," for which he received Emmys in drama and dramatic writing. But every so often he revisited "Small Time." Then three years ago Surnow decided it was time to make the movie, so he took the script out of the drawer once again.

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"I sat down and spent nine months redoing the whole script," said Surnow, 59, who also directed the film and was an executive producer along with his wife, Colleen. It opens Friday in limited release and will be available on VOD and iTunes.

"Small Time," which is set in the San Fernando Valley in the recent past, stars Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Surviving Jack") as the charming, divorced father Al Klein, who operates an independent used-car lot with his good friend, the free-wheeling Ash Martini ("Breaking Bad's" Dean Norris).

Al is thrilled when his son Freddy (Devon Bostick) decides to forgo college after graduating from high school to live and work with his father. But Al soon realizes that the life of a used-car salesman isn't a good fit for his impressionable son.

Surnow is very familiar with the world of salesmen — his father was a carpet and drape salesman in Los Angeles.

"We lived in a one bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills," said Surnow, during a recent interview at Paty's in Toluca Lake.  "They wanted me to be in the school district. I had this very funny life growing up with friends whose fathers were CEOs of major companies and film directors. I would come home to a little one bedroom apartment with a fold-out bed."

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His father Max, explained Surnow, was a boiler room salesman, à la "Glengarry Glen Ross." Instead of a showroom, one man would call perspective customers. "He would say 'we will be in your neighborhood this week and we are giving free estimates on carpet and drapes.'"

And then his father would arrive with samples, estimates and hopefully close the deal.

"He did that his whole life," he said. "I worked with him from 20 to 26. I got to the point I was pretty good at it. I was helping my dad become solvent and our little two-man salesmen gig was doing really well, really well like $40,000 a year as opposed to $15,000."

But Surnow finally left the business when he began writing for TV. "My dad was heartbroken," said Surnow.

Surnow transformed the characters from carpet salesmen to car dealers because it would be more cost effective to shoot. "I put it in a used-car lot because carpet salesmen required so many different locations," he said. "The original story was about two guys going broke. I thought that since I had worked for my dad, I was going to make it a father and son story — something that has got real emotion."

A vintage out-of-business car dealership in Covina, "which really looks like old L.A," became Al and Ash's rundown used-car lot. A vintage Eichler home in Chatsworth was transformed into Al's lived-in bachelor pad. And the 66-year-old Billy's Deli in Glendale served as the eatery where the salesmen met for lunch.

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Surnow "pulled favors" from everyone including his composer and the editor to make the film, which was shot in 20 days. "They are all people I worked with on 'La Femme Nikita' and '24.' Everybody deferred salaries."

After binge-watching "Law & Order," Surnow thought Meloni would be a perfect Al. "I thought this guy had a kind of great leading man charisma," said Surnow.

"One of the charms of the movie is it is about a son growing up to be a man," said Meloni. But it's also about Al's coming of age.

"Al lives his life with the mantra 'I am comfortable with my life,' but then he realizes there are so many unanswered questions pertaining to all the relationships he's juggling," he said.

Surnow has written another "small personal film" he currently has out to actors. And he has no plans to return to the small screen any time soon.

"I have done my penance in episodic TV," Surnow said with a sigh of relief.

susan.king@latimes.com

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