For 12 years, fledgling screenwriting partners Fredric Lebow and Daniel G. Sullivan doggedly pushed their scripts around town, all the while working odd jobs that belied their talents.
Indeed, Sullivan and Lebow--who are now basking in the success of their first picture, the hit romantic comedy "While You Were Sleeping"--were just about ready to call it quits when they sold their screenplay about a woman mistakenly assumed to be the fiance of a comatose man.
The Hollywood Pictures/Caravan Pictures film starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman has performed impressively at the box office, taking in about $58 million since its April 21 release.
Sullivan, 37--who has an undergraduate film degree from New York University--worked for 16 years on and off as a fry cook at his parents' drive-in restaurant in Hampden, Mass. He also was a print shop machine operator, an elevator operator and an information booth attendant.
Meanwhile, Lebow, 38--who has a master's in film from NYU--washed dishes, answered phones, collected garbage (mostly computer paper), manned the desk at the Pritikin Center (where he unsuccessfully slipped script treatments into Rodney Dangerfield's mail slot) and stacked men's underwear in Reseda.
He also lasted less than a day as a waiter at a steakhouse where he had to dress up as a pilgrim.
For some six years, the two brainstormed long-distance while Sullivan was a cook back East and Lebow was out West.
"Fred would always call in the middle of the lunch rush to ask me a question. The waitress would be yelling, 'They didn't want mayonnaise on that,' and Fred would be asking me, 'What are we gonna do in the third act?' No wonder it took us two years to write 'Snowflakes,' " Sullivan adds, referring to their first script.
"I'd call while Danny was on the grill flipping hamburgers," Lebow laughingly concedes. "He used to hang up on me."
Sometimes, their dual lives were nearly discovered. "One time, we had a pitch meeting at Paramount in the morning, and that evening, I saw the same executive at the Beverly Center while I was working in the information booth," Sullivan says. "I ducked."
"The worst part about those jobs is that you're invisible. Some of that is in Lucy too," Sullivan says, referring to Bullock's character, a tollbooth collector on Chicago's El line.
The pair also endured countless nightmarish meetings with development executives.
"The most humiliating was when I pitched something that was obviously overly sentimental, and the two executives just burst into hysterics," Lebow recalls. "They could not stop laughing for about 20 minutes. They were spitting out their Evian."
Another time, a big studio known for comedies turned them down, saying: "We don't do comedies," Sullivan says wryly.
"We've heard every reason for passing on a script," Lebow adds.
No longer do development executives fall asleep in meetings or dash out mid-pitch to catch a Dodgers game. No longer do Hollywood people complain that their scripts are too old-fashioned or Capra-esque. Given "Sleeping's" success, Sullivan and Lebow are now hot Hollywood scribes, with four major movie deals--two with Caravan, one with Savoy Pictures and one with Bruce Willis' company, Flying Heart.
"Sleeping" began in 1989, on a day when the screenwriters were arguing, as usual.
Lebow was depressed, as he often was. "I told Fred, 'You need to get a date,' " Sullivan recalls.
'I told Danny, 'Even if I wanted to, I couldn't get a date with a woman who was brain-dead,' " Lebow remembers.
Sullivan and Lebow--now both happily married--concur that this incident marked the genesis for "Coma Girl," later renamed "Coma Guy," and then "While You Were Sleeping."
For six years, they shopped around various incarnations of "Coma Guy" to nearly every studio. They finally approached Arthur Sarkissian. The producer--for whom Lebow had once worked as an assistant--had financed their first project, "Snowflakes," now at Flying Heart.
So enchanted was Sarkissian with the new idea that he paid them $10,000 to write the screenplay. "It was so heartwarming and unpretentious," Sarkissian says of the script, which he submitted to his agents, Jim Crabbe and Dave Phillips at William Morris.
A bidding war ensued. On Jan. 13, 1994, Hollywood Pictures bought "Coma Guy" for a fee reportedly in the high six-figures. Sarkissian became executive producer.
It was a time of profound emotions. Sullivan was thrilled because his wife, Patti, had given birth that day to their first child, 9-pound, 5-ounce Tom.
Lebow was anguished because his two sisters were hospitalized for serious illnesses and his father had just passed away. "He died two days before seeing me make it," he says.
Last June, just when Sullivan and Lebow finally thought they would get a movie made, TriStar sued them, along with the Walt Disney Co., Caravan Pictures and Hollywood Pictures. TriStar claimed that "Coma Guy" "appropriated key elements" from the 1948 Cornell Woolrich novel "I Married a Dead Man" and the 1950 Paramount film "No Man of Her Own," upon which TriStar is basing its upcoming film "Mrs. Winterbourne."
Caravan Pictures president Roger Birnbaum, who produced the film with Joe Roth, says: "There was a very small out-of-court settlement. These poor kids were stunned by this." TriStar declines to comment.
"This was unbelievable," Lebow says. "We never even saw the movie. We never read the book."
"These two movies are more dissimilar than they are similar," says Richard Benjamin, director of "Mrs. Winterbourne," about a destitute pregnant woman erroneously believed to be the widow of a wealthy man. "The main resemblance between our movies is mistaken identity, as in Cinderella. Many, many wonderful comedies rely on mistaken identity."
"Sleeping" was filmed in Chicago last fall. Director Jon Turteltaub ("Cool Runnings") says he opted to maintain an "invisible" presence and "let the characters, story, humor and romance shine [instead]. Fred's and Dan's mixture of naivete and quirky comic edge is what shows up on the screen."