‘SELLING OUT’: SQUEEZING SUCCESS FROM SOUR TIME
Novelist Dan Wakefield wrote a magazine article recently recalling his futile attempts to forget Hollywood after a bitter TV experience in the late 1970s.
He stayed in town and tried to write but couldn’t concentrate.
“I worked in a studio by the side of the swimming pool, and the guys from the service who came to clean it were unemployed actors discussing casting calls. The plumber who came to fix the toilet noticed that I was writing a script. He then put his wrench down on the table and tried to pitch me an idea for a pilot about a jewel thief who gains access to rich people’s homes by working as a plumber.”
Wakefield couldn’t even keep his mind on the sports page during breakfast at a shabby luncheonette because a man was trying to pick up the young woman sitting on the next stool.
“Not for a date but as a partner in a ‘development’ option he had on a human-interest story about a crippled antique dealer in Bakersfield. I paid my check and fled.”
Ultimately, Wakefield fled all the way to Boston, the city he had left several years earlier to create and help write the short-lived NBC series “James at 15.”
Author of best sellers “Starting Over” and “Going All the Way,” the 53-year-old Wakefield had disgustedly departed “the land of deals and palms” expecting never to return.
Duty and dollars beckoned, however. So he was back last week promoting his new book, “Selling Out,” an acidly funny “approximation” of his demeaning experiences as a successful New England novelist adrift in TV.
Back he had come to the town that he said had humbled and corrupted him, back to the show biz-chic Polo Lounge in the pink-stucco Beverly Hills Hotel where 20th Century Fox had briefly housed him in 1976, making him feel like a big shot.
Status heads the menu at the Polo Lounge where patrons are seated according to their rank in the entertainment hierarchy.
“This is the test,” said a grinning Wakefield, looking like an appliance salesman from Des Moines as the black-coated maitre d’ led the way back into the restaurant. Past the “A” tables. Past the “B” tables. Past the “C” tables to a “D” table against a wall apparently reserved for UFOs.
Some of America’s greatest literary figures have drawn paychecks in Hollywood. What advice would Wakefield give academics or serious writers offered an opportunity to earn riches working in TV?
“I’d advise them to read my book. It’s a how-not-to-do-it book. The hero makes all the mistakes, and is even more naive than I was, but only slightly more. I am careful to also show good guys in the business and to show that the hero is his own worst enemy.”
The hero is a Vermont college professor, Perry Moss, who is lured to Hollywood and quickly awed by the entertainment community’s wealth and glitter.
That was Wakefield’s story, too.
Fox recruited Wakefield to write the script for an unnamed and unspecified pilot for a 1977-78 series about teen-agers that the studio wanted to pitch to NBC. Wakefield recalls having his first discussion about details of the unspecified story in a car en route with Fox executive David Sontag to their first “pitch” meeting with NBC.
Sontag: Have you thought of a name for the boy?
Sontag: Have you thought of an age?
Sontag: Good. We’ll call it “James at 15.”
Wakefield said that Sontag fast-talked his way through the NBC meeting, glossing over the details of the concept (which didn’t exist) and assuring the network executives that the title would be no problem if the show survived past one year because, “We’ll call it, ‘James at 16.’ ”
“NBC loved it,” Wakefield said.
And so a ratings flop was born.
Wakefield was euphoric when the pilot drew a whopping 42% audience share and went to series. Soon, though, the ratings fell and everything soured.
“All of life became centered around whether we would get renewed,” Wakefield said. The series got an eight-episode reprieve, but an angry Wakefield made headlines by walking out after NBC scotched his reference to birth-control pills in a script he had written about James losing his virginity.
Wakefield didn’t walk out on Hollywood, though. He had a house. He had a pool. He had a big mortgage. He had to stay.
“It’s so seductive,” he said. “It doesn’t take that long to write a TV script, and it takes two to three years to write a novel. There’s also nothing like knowing that 20 million people are watching something that you’ve written.”
The money wasn’t bad either.
Wakefield said he received $40,000 to write the “James at 15" pilot, $10,000 a week as story consultant for the series and an additional $8,000 for each of four episodes he wrote. Extended over a year, that would amount to almost triple the $120,000 he received in 1970 for the successful “Going All the Way.”
So he stayed in town.
“Any intelligent person would have left Hollywood,” he said. “But I thought I could make it happen again.”
He needed to make it happen again.
“The first mistake I made was selling my house in Boston. The second mistake I made was buying another house in Hollywood. The year I made the most money I ever made I was broke. I felt I had to make more money just to keep up and keep running in place.”
Wakefield knocked on doors, his success as a novelist having become irrelevant in Hollywood.
“All you do is take meetings. When you write a novel, you don’t have to meet even the publisher. But when you sell an idea out here, you have to sell yourself. It’s agonizing. I freeze and my voice goes an octave lower.”
Finally, he’d had enough. He packed his wardrobe of epaulet shirts and fled to Boston after a young network executive rejected his teleplay about a retarded girl who was to have been played by Sally Struthers.
“This woman at the network, who was in her late 20s and had gone to Berkeley, said it was too soft,” Wakefield said. “She said, ‘I don’t know where these people are coming from.’ I picked up the telephone and and asked for the first flight back to Boston.”
And hello again.
A funny thing happened to Wakefield on the way to the Polo Lounge last week. He took a meeting. He sold “Selling Out,” signing with Taft Entertainment to write a two-hour TV novelization. He had previously signed with Disney to write a TV version of his 1982 book “Under the Apple Tree.”
Both contracts allow the teleplays to be written in Boston. “That’s my protection,” said Wakefield like a boozer worried that he’ll tank out on Hollywood again if he stays too long.
And if he does?
Get ready for “Selling Out II.”