Just a Bunch of Wiseguys in Search of a Plot : It's 'crunch time' for the writers of TV's audacious 'Wiseguy'

Leland Masters was taking shape as a most odious person. He operates inside the White House and has infinite political and military influence and a picture of himself as an incredible American patriot. Now he has a new moral fervor--the economic destruction of Japan.

In the tight little sixth-floor office on Hollywood Boulevard near La Brea, the air is thick with plot. Four huddled men are trying to figure this Masters.

Maybe he came to government from a powerful American business, like so many men before him. One of the men suggests, "He could have been a high-ranking officer during World War II. Could have been in Pearl Harbor."

Much as Dr. Frankenstein put together his monster, piece by piece, these four men decide that Masters is a military man with "an invasion mentality," "a four-star icon" who was on the Bataan Death March, entered Berlin with the First Army and smoked cigars with Churchill.

And best of all, he hates Vinnie Terranova. A piece of work, the general.

Now, as composed by the four writers-producers of the series, he joins the pantheon of "Wiseguy" antagonists for the next four episodes (CBS, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.).

The network, proud of the 2-year-old series and its audacious plots, agreed with the producers to let The Times watch some of the plotting process by opening the inner sanctum where the writers do their conniving. This "arc"--a story that covers multiple episodes--was set in Washington, D.C., and promised a lot of nifty political intrigue for Vinnie (Ken Wahl), who slips undercover into whatever collusions threaten society.

The writers--who also are the show's principal producers, charged with the day-by-day anguishes in the care and feeding of all the other episodes being prepared--knew last summer that they wanted a Washington story with some giant character to collide with Vinnie. Someone who would contrive to undermine Japan through economic war. It would be timely and terrifying.

That's all they had figured, but it was enough for CBS. In its enthusiasm to try to stir better ratings for the series, the network even offered to pick up the extra cost of a "major casting" to play Gen. Masters. Gregory Peck would be perfect.

The four writers began sketching out details for Episode 1 in September--and didn't finish their first draft until Oct. 10, 10 days ahead of shooting.

They kept running headlong into deadlines. On Wednesday, as this article was going to press, shooting was beginning in Vancouver on Episode 4. But on Monday and Tuesday, with nice white copies of the first draft of the script, they had second and third thoughts and closeted themselves for major reconstructive surgery.

It was a state of siege.

The writers--David Burke, Steve Kronish, Alfonse Ruggiero and Clifton Campbell--are in their early 30s to early 40s, married, working 14 to 15 hours a day for $300,000 to $600,000 a year (sources estimate), with the checks signatured by mega-mogul Stephen J. Cannell, who owns the building as well as a studio in Vancouver he's just had built. He is likewise "Wiseguy's" co-creator.

("Wiseguy" episodes cost $1.2 million to $1.3 million and CBS pays a "license fee" of $1.1 million plus, sources compute.)

His writers come from varied directions. Burke is the son of Alan Burke, who had the first acerbic talk show in New York in the '60s--"a better-educated version of Joe Pyne," or Morton Downey Jr. in today's terms.

The younger Burke once worked as a nervous flunkie for the maniacal Otto Preminger--until he came back late from lunch one day and the director called him a small profanity. To which Burke said that if he was lucky, he'd grow up to be a big profanity just like Preminger. Preminger threw him bodily out of his office. Burke said it was his proudest moment.

Burke went on to TV news and political media in New York and finally connected with producer Michael Mann and wrote the pilot for "Crime Story" in 1986.

Campbell, the baby at 32, supported himself at an ad agency while writing plays in Chicago--one was running while Burke's "Crime Story" pilot was being filmed. Campbell ended up writing three episodes. Later, newly moved to L.A., he worked on "21 Jump Street."

Ruggiero came from Buffalo, N.Y., lumberjacked, worked on a fishing boat, taught boxing, ran a rock club in Chicago and operated a Ford Foundation-supported business that hired ex-convicts.

A best buddy was an undercover cop in Miami, and Ruggiero collaborated with Anthony Yerkovich on a movie idea about him--which eventuated into "Miami Vice." He worked on the series and later on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Private Eye" before landing "Wiseguy": "How many times do you get to write about somebody like yourself when you're growing up?"

He brings a lot to the show from his old Italian neighborhood in Buffalo and the old neighborhood loves it: "They watch it in all the bars when it comes on. Everybody's gotta shut up and watch 'Wiseguy.' "

Kronish has had a checkered resume--failed actor, insurance salesman, assistant golf pro, gag writer for Zsa Zsa Gabor (his first paid writing; it was for a charity show), finally jobs on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "MacGyver."

He keeps the cruelest schedule, 5 and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and midnight, much of the additional effort spent on a pilot script for a police commissioner-at-home drama being written with boss Cannell. He also has a Butch-and-Sundance-type Western film going at Tri-Star Pictures.

And son Matthew was born one day during the writing of the Washington arc, necessitating a day off. "They (Matthew and sister Rachel, 17 months) have got this tag team thing worked out. He gets up at 2, 4 and 6 and she gets up at 1, 3 and 5," he says wearily.

This sort of writing isn't like Dickens sitting down with paper and pencil and scribbling a great book.

Team Wiseguy wears casual clothes, no ties, no Hollywood gold. There are great gaps of silence while thinking goes on. They rub eyes and yawn. They bend paper clips into odd shapes. On a typical day, Burke--it's his office--sits behind the desk, legs stretched onto the computer table and the keyboard on his lap. Ruggiero and Campbell stretch out almost symmetrically on the ends of the sofa, legs sprawled across the coffee table. Kronish usually sits off to the side rocked back on a chair and balances that way through the day.

Burke usually keeps forcing the story forward. He does the typing into the computer, the "beats," the plot points. After all the beats are done on an episode, the four debate who should then write which of the four acts. They get a quadruple writing credit.

Because "Wiseguy" plots are bolder than most, the holes can be bigger. The writers seem to set a high priority on plugging even the tiniest plot holes and clarifying and polishing.

Something may read well but not "play." "Character" means characteristics that humanize. They need good "closers" for the "act breaks." A scene "writes itself"--a recurring joke about how scenes are so easy that you don't really need a writer hohoho.

Campbell slips out and back in with a refilled cup of coffee.

"How many is that?," Ruggiero wonders.

Campbell counts. "Only five." He fuels all day long.

One morning Burke has a wisdom tooth extracted and sorely emerges from a Tylenol-3 haze to learn that Madonna won't do "the reunion show." (It ran recently. The part was a high school pal, now an NYPD detective on the racket squad who doesn't know Vinnie's undercover. Cathy Moriarity got the role.) Madonna's agent sniffed that his star doesn't do "episodic," meaning series TV, as if the very word were a foul thing. Burke emits an expletive.

His secretary and protector, Linnie Murphy, brings in small plate of red grapes and reminds him of an appointment. And Kenny is calling from Vancouver.

Publicist Maryann Ridini needs Kronish right away to approve a color slide for TV Guide.

The writer-producers go downstairs to watch "dailies." They sit in on auditions. They meet the film editors and pick through "rough cuts" to get the best readings of lines, the best angles and snip scenes to cut down the time.

Ruggiero thinks ahead: "Shouldn't we order some food?" They do. Chinese.

Kronish thinks the murder scene in the script they're working on takes up too much time: "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre didn't take this long."

They need another collated script from Christina Kovino, secretary for Kronish and Sheldon. She hates collating. She displays her paper cuts.

Another producer happens in and asks if one actor should be booked for three episodes with a one-show option, which would cover the company for the arc. Since the writers don't know where the arc is headed, let alone a specific role, Kronish doesn't have an answer.

"Then what about two shows with option for two?"

Kronish finally decides, "Let's do one show with option for three."

It's mid-September and they're well into details of Episode 1 but need to polish. In a party scene, the principals of the episode are introduced, including Adm. Strichen. In a previous arc, he had schemed to undermine the Caribbean Basin country called Isle Pavot and install an American puppet regime. Vinnie destroyed the plot and Strichen has never forgotten it (nor has Gen. Masters, as we will find out). Vinnie hates Strichen and here he is at the party, "Alive and in color."

Vinnie also meets an economist, who then will drift away from the party and stop off at the way home at a convenience store for some Ding Dongs or Ring Dings (they joke) and get killed (no joke).

(We discover later that the economist may have proven an important lead to the conspirators and had to be eliminated.)

The writers envision the economist as having a sort of rumpled mid-age look like Bart Giamatti, the late baseball commissioner and former Yale president. Ruggiero is glad that they make an Italian a victim for a change.

Campbell explains, "Al makes them doctors and lawyers in the episodes he writes."

Burke: "In the ones we write, they're all indicted."

Burke is suddenly struck by a thought that always nags writers on an intricate plot: "Will the audience understand what's going on?"

Campbell searches for logic in the script and comes up with existential truth: "Not knowing what's going on is not necessarily a bad thing."

Most TV breeds familiarity. On "Wiseguy," plots sometimes overwhelm logic and credibility, and Vinnie will speak out often with boyish piety, but you seldom can predict the next twist of plot.

Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey) was a slick, innately vicious mobster who turned out a funny, generous, gregarious buddy.

The drugged-up and generally paranoid arms dealer and worldwide schemer Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey), who had a very gnarled relationship with sister Susan (Joan Severance), was witty and winning. He wanted to be a major-league pitcher. Can a boy who loves baseball be all rotten?

Cannell explains that an hour show usually has three or four scenes with the adversary, not enough to "motivate criminal emotions."

Cannell never wanted "the standard Mafia heavy who says, 'Put him in a hole with 10 pounds of lime and cover him over.'

"In the initial arc, I was writing a character that I knew was an underworld figure," Cannell says. "And if you met him personally, he was one of the most entertaining and charming people. You had to keep reminding yourself what he did for a living.

"Which is exactly what I wanted to do with Sonny Steelgrave, make him more seductive and actually have him have a sense of believable logic about his emotional point of view for what he does."

There is, of course, the basic flaw: "The weak point was what Vinnie's mother says: 'What good is a man who loves his own children and kills others?' "

In very late September, an emergency conference call is set up in the office of Les Sheldon, an executive producer who frequently directs episodes, to work out a quickie two-day shoot in Washington with stars Wahl and Jonathan Banks. They need scenes to scatter through the arc so that viewers will get a sense that this is taking place in the city. (The rest of it will be shot in Vancouver.)

Sheldon asks about shooting at the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building. The location manager in D.C. says no luck, "They have an 'attitude' on Stephen (Cannell). Not even to let you walk out of a door."

The FBI doesn't like the way it came off on Cannell's short-lived "Unsub" series (for "unknown subject"). And "Wiseguy" isn't any better.

The location manager is told to go back again to the FBI. A staff producer jokes that he can offer them some free "Wiseguy" hats and T-shirts as incentives.

Kronish: "We've got balloons, too."

(As it turns out, the FBI is adamantly uncooperative.)

Sheldon, smoking Camels to the nubbins, is trying to anticipate what he'll shoot--walk-ins, walk-bys and drive-bys at some famous restaurants, prominent hotels.

All he knows is that there will be one "chunk" of outdoor dialogue needed between Vinnie and McPike--which the actors get the night before the shoot. The scene has a lot of fervor about how the Washington vipers can't beat our democracy, sort of generic patriotic sentiment--since the plot is still aworking. The scene takes place over the top of their car as they pull up and look around the city admiringly, with the Washington Monument in Vinnie's background and the Capitol in McPike's background.

About 10 days later, at the dailies, Burke is happy: "You had fun, Les?"

Sheldon: "It was my first trip to D.C. My heart was pumping. What you guys wrote in that scene was incredible."

Up comes the White House.

Ruggiero recognizes it: "Isn't that Aaron Spelling's new house?"

The idea of star casting came out of a meeting with CBS program chief Kim LeMasters, the prime loyalist of the show.

(Kronish had told LeMasters early on that Leland Masters would be the sound-alike name of their bad guy. He relates to the other writers that "Kim was in a blue funk and it brightened his day, so I think we ought to stick with that.")

In a pre-season planning meeting with the network in which the Washington arc had been mentioned, LeMasters recalls, "I said, 'You know, gosh, we have a real opportunity here to upcast this thing.' And we started talking about Gregory Peck."

But because work on the script didn't begin until September, Peck isn't contacted until the first week of October. Even then, they don't have much script to show him, and the writers admittedly don't know very specifically what's going to happen to Gen. Masters as the arc goes on. On Oct. 11, Peck asks if he can decide after the weekend.

That is, he would tell them Monday, Oct. 16--with shooting to start in Vancouver Thursday.

Throats close. Hearts pound.

Dare they ask Peck to hurry?

It's Oct. 13 and there's a rare occurrence--a director meeting with the writers. Usually it's done by panic calls from Vancouver. In this case, actor-director Mario Van Peebles (he starred in Cannell's brief but raucous "Sonny Spoon" series) is assigned to this first episode of the arc. Burke and Kronish read the script aloud to him.

Early on at the party in Georgetown, Vinnie meets a power-eyed young lobbyist, Kay Gallagher (played by Kim Greist), and something certainly is hot afoot here. She asks him how he feels about spontaneous sex; they ease into an elevator and combust.

("I adore private elevators," Kay says. "No alarm unless you need one." The doors close and she hurtles into Vinnie's arms and lifts her dress. . . .)

How "hot?," Van Peebles asks. As a reference point for passion, the writers refer to the Faye Dunaway character in "Network."

Burke: "We were beaten up pretty badly by the network in the first show of the season (a torrid set-to with Vinnie and Amber, as played by Patty D'Arbanville) and CBS is watching like hawks. My mother won't speak to me."

But that wasn't gratuitous, he adds, "because it came out of all this death and horror (Amber's husband died and Vinnie consoled her). It affirmed life at a physical level and that's what fused them together. So it wasn't love making, it was consuming life."

(Kim LeMasters later acknowledges that the passion was "over the line.")

Ruggiero: "But this scene with Kay, it's like Vinnie has always had relationships with everybody he's had sex with on the show. He's not a one-nighter. It's almost Kay overpowered him like she was overpowering a bill in her own way. I mean, her sex is so, well, it's a force of its own."

Van Peebles: "What's so interesting here is because a lot of women in the power situations with men will downplay their sex. . . . She seems like she's not afraid to use whatever it is to do whatever it is."

Then they talk about the design of the elevator.

In the evolution of the script, Van Peebles was seeing a rough draft of a rough draft--and the sex is later extricated.

As Campbell explains, "We didn't pull it because of allergic reactions.

"The idea of her enjoying this sort of accelerated sexual relationship with Vinnie was in her mind," he says. "That's how she perceived power in Washington. Sex was power. . . . She got more complicated and became more of a victim as the whole arc came along. I think a little mystery was necessary, too, as they were sniffing each other out. And to consummate it in spontaneous sex, it was no longer appropriate for the story."

Before the weekend, Gregory Peck's agent calls to say, as Sheldon relates, "that with 'Old Gringo' (his movie with Jane Fonda) coming up, he wanted to explore some of the feature offers coming in and he didn't want to screw us up."

"We started too late," LeMasters says. "Peck said, 'I'm not against doing episodic television.' . . . He liked 'Wiseguy' and he wanted to see some material. By the time we got down to the short strokes of it all, and Mr. Peck passed, we were in a full scramble."

As late as the Tuesday before the Thursday that shooting begins, "Wiseguy" calls were in hot pursuit of Martin Landau. He, however, was busy doing interviews on behalf of his role in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors." The producers consider and/or offer the part to Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, Fred Gwynne and others. They even think about Jimmy Stewart, a retired general himself who had, not unlike Vinnie in his roaring innocence, gone to Washington on an earlier mission (as in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"). The role finally goes to Norman Lloyd, a veteran of the television wars. He's the familiar face of the saintly, almost godly Dr. Auschlander from "St. Elsewhere." But he can do mean too.

The first words on his performance to drift back from Vancouver were "brilliant stuff." While short of marquee value and the imposing presence of a Peck, he brings intellectual power and a steely resolve to his Leland Masters.

Sighs of relief rumble through the Cannell Building. Kronish asserts, "We lucked out again."

No other arc has been so devasting. By the fourth week in October, Episode 1 is shooting happily in Vancouver and the script for Episode 2 is being polished and preparing to shoot.

But as the dailies drift in, the producers realize that the party scene in Episode 1 is too confusing and the characters too many. It needs total rewriting and reshooting.

That duty done, basic plotting resumes on Episode 3. It's an unusually draggy Thursday afternoon and the creative energies are diminished.

Burke suddenly rises at his desk: "Let's call it a day. Let's go bowling."

Kronish: "We're gonna diddle away this week, you realize that."

Burke: "We'll get a good night's sleep. We'll nail this sucker."

Burke: "We need to do this. We'll go bowling."

Ruggiero: "We're like a group of cattle, with the doors suddenly open in our corral."

Kronish: "I haven't bowled for 15 years."

Campbell: "I hate bowling."

At the Sports Center Bowl in the Valley, they order mighty plastic tubs of beer and hurl balls down the lanes.

Burke starts off well. Good style. But one time in a feat of imbalance, making his approach, he slips on the lane and falls over.

Ruggiero's thumb sticks in the ball and he has to unplug.

Burke is paged for a phone call, and the others hoot that it's pretty tacky to get yourself paged in a bowling alley. It was Kenny on the phone from British Columbia, puzzled why his boys are bowling while he's waiting for lines to say.

Burke takes an early lead but Campbell catches him on the 10th frame with a strike and a spare. They tie for victory at 125, just short of making the pro bowling tour.

Exults Campbell: "I like this! Who's idea was it anyway?"

Next time, Ruggiero wants to skeet shoot.

On Monday, the fresh script to Episode 4 in hand, the writers have a massive rethink. Says secretary Murphy, who never saw such pressure, "It's crunch time."

Tuesday is fierce, take-no-prisoners rewriting and the apocalyptic changes are sent to Vancouver in the late afternoon.

A just-dozed-off director Les Sheldon awakes in his hotel room about 11 p.m. to a caller wondering how things are going: "I'll get up early and finish," he says, awaiting his 5 o'clock call. But he remains ebullient: "I'm fascinated by the script. It doesn't matter how late it is, they did a great job. We'll rock and roll tomorrow."

On Wednesday, as this article goes to press, the writers have scattered (Burke to see his mother in North Carolina), except for Kronish, who is overseeing the first almost-done "answer print" on Episode 1. Episode 2 is "locked in" pending scoring and effects and he is awaiting the first "cut" of Episode 3.

In Vancouver, Vinnie is getting arrested to launch Episode 4.

Canada had its Thanksgiving last month. For Thursday, the caterer was whipping up turkey and fixings. Lunch was half an hour, as usual.

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