In 1987 I set out by car from Washington, D.C., for a new career in Hollywood, a place I knew very little about. I had a job waiting there as a staff writer on "Hill Street Blues," and what I didn't know I was sure I could find out. I had heard that the rules were different in Hollywood, where, as the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, "nobody knows anything." In 20 years as a newspaper reporter my experience had been pretty much the opposite: Everybody knows something, and often somebody knows everything. I concluded that I was entering the creative realm, where things become clear in sudden flashes.
I had resisted moving to Los Angeles. Hadn't my first two "Hill Street" scripts traveled successfully by mail? But the executive producers, Jeff Lewis and David Milch, argued that the purity of my creative vision would survive the journey and that TV writers traditionally come to the office every day. Jeff added that the job paid $3,200.
I already was making that much each month.
"A week," he said.
Embarking in a flash, I had five days of car time to make myself worthy of such ransom. Uninterrupted by cellphones (which hadn't yet taken over civilization), I filled legal pads perched on the steering wheel with stories of Renko and Hill, growling Sgt. Belker, Capt. Furillo and the sleek, taunting counselor Joyce Davenport.
By Denver I felt prepared, and by San Bernardino I fully inhabited the show.
Arriving at the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, I went directly to the Jacuzzi, where two women sunbathers next to me simultaneously pulled off their tops. I saw in a flash a story for Lt. Howard Hunter, the "Hill Street" SWAT commando: He would arrest them for immorality, be charged with sexual harassment, then confess revealingly to the lust in his heart. I took a cold shower and called Paul Schwartzman, my new agent.
Paul was glad to hear from me, but would have been gladder if I had called twice a day from the road, as I was supposed to. The "Hill Street" job was off. I was to start Monday on "Mr. President," a new sitcom. Dumbfounded, I asked why. "Five thousand a week," he said.
"Mr. President," starring George C. Scott, was being developed on the Paramount lot by Gene Reynolds and Ed. Weinberger, legends of situation comedy. Although I had never watched a sitcom all the way through, I now sat down to write one. I turned in my script on Friday, wondering if it was funny.
On Monday, Paul called to say that a crisis had developed at "Hill Street Blues" and the seven-year hit show, which had just won another People's Choice Award, could not live one more minute without my help. Really? As an agent, he could not be more specific, but urged me to make haste.
So I hurriedly cleaned out my desk at "Mr. President" and, consulting a Thomas Guide, rushed to Studio City with my story ideas. "Thirtysomething" was filming in my assigned parking place. I blundered into "St. Elsewhere," where the writing staff pointed helpfully in different directions. "Hill Street" was up a broad flight of stairs.
As I climbed them, a rejected script fluttered by, hurled from an upstairs window. Step by step I ascended into a scene of mayhem and laughter, writers reading aloud from their pages, actresses adrift, and a line of large men getting in character to compete for a nonspeaking role called Giant Menacing Pimp. I knew I was home.
Weeks later, after stewing about it, I asked Paul if I had been fired from "Mr. President."
"Who said that?" he asked.
Well, nobody, but I turned in my script on Friday and was gone Monday. I had never been fired before, and it was a matter of grave concern to me, so new to Hollywood that I still read the autographed pictures at the dry cleaner. I asked him to find out exactly what had happened.
"Why?" Paul asked in some alarm.
"For peace of mind," I said. "And personal improvement, I guess."
He looked at me a long time, this recent arrival, and then delivered my first rule of Hollywood. "Never find out," Paul said.
That's why nobody knows anything. It works better that way.
Christian Williams, a contributing writer to West, has worked on "Hill Street Blues" and "Six Feet Under," among other shows.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times