A Tale of TV and the Denizens Who Lurk There

Author's Note: You microwave yourself a bowl of popcorn and sit down to watch the tube. It's a "must-see-TV" night on one of the networks, featuring a show or a lineup of shows you don't want to miss. Some of those shows are followed so diligently by you and your neighbors that they become national events, writing themselves into our country's cultural history, influencing the way we think, dress and feel. For one brief, shining moment, "Father Joey" held such a place in America's esteem. In case you were hit on the head by a toppling construction crane and spent the last few years in a coma, the show featured heartthrob actor Tony Paris as the Rev. Joey O'Dell, head of the Dream Come True Foundation, which grants the terminally ill their fondest wishes. Thanks to the charismatic Paris and the show's creators, writer-producer Bill Ziff and producer Ralph White, "Father Joey" quickly became a blazing hit--but just as quickly blazed out. America wanted to know why. We're offered some insight in the following chronicle--which shows how what you watch may be merely a two-dimensional screen obscuring real-life battles for creative control and displays of vulgarity, greed, power-grabbing and even adultery. As Ziff reflects here, recounting a moment when filming had suddenly stopped on "Father Joey," all of that was in the air during this climactic showdown for control of America's biggest hit.

*

I sped past the studio gate and onto the lot and skidded to a stop outside our sound stage, Number 6. As I jumped out of the car, I could see stagehands lolling around, reading newspapers. Yes, we were at a dead stop. At $50,000-plus a day. And yes, the car belonging to Ralph, the show's producer, was missing from its reserved parking space.

The stage's 25-foot-high door was as immense as the concrete blast shield to a bomb bunker. It had been rolled open. Beyond lay the inert blackness of our place of work.

I entered. I felt the crew's eyes following me, the way those who've been driven to the sidelines fasten onto the arrival of one consigned to right a failing situation. Looks of expectancy. Some with taut smiles that offered support. Some faces smeared with doltish excitement at what they perceived to be an imminent, entertaining free-for-all. It was that look--the call to a spectacle--that set my heart pounding harder. I sensed I was walking into the aftermath of some violent revolt.

From farther on, by the set where we were shooting, I heard loud music pulsating. Some strain of gaiety inappropriate for the hushed filmmaking that was supposed to be taking place.

Before I could get to it, though, Victor Tosky, the director, stormed up to me in a funnel cloud of outrage.

"You know what your star is doing in there?" He pointed toward the set, from which the music issued. "He's auditioning backup singers for his musical group! I don't believe it! On your goddamn time! Not to mention mine!"

Victor was supposed to be directing a special two-part episode for us. This was the one wherein the Rev. O'Dell finds a homeless man dying on his doorstep. The bum's request is to have one final meeting with his long-lost son, who's been told that his father is a rich diplomat. In case you've spent the past three years hiking around Tibet looking for Yeti scat and never saw the show, you might want to rent it at the video store. This was the episode that was interrupted in Rhode Island by the announcement that the governor had been hospitalized and needed blood donations, resulting in so many angry viewers that he nearly hemorrhaged to death.

"What has happened to Tony Paris?" Victor thundered.

"Success, Victor," was all I could say. "Where's Ralph?"

"Ralph and Tony had a big fight. I don't know where Ralph is. I think he left."

Victor waved some rolled-up script pages in fury.

"You've got to control this guy. This is up to you. This is the moment of truth. I'm telling you. Right now. Either you run this show or he runs this show."

I patted his shoulder and then stepped away toward where the music was coming from.

We'd built an "alley" set where the homeless man supposedly lived. I rounded a wall and saw Tony and four women in the alley. There was a boombox on the floor. What was yowling from it was, I quickly realized, a song from Tony's soon-to-be-released Bopulator Brothers debut album, titled "Bop Til You Drop."

Tony was in his O'Dell wardrobe, black trousers and clerical collar. He and the quartet of beautiful women behind him were practicing dance steps under the eye of a female choreographer. A dozen or so of the crew watched.

Tony had taken control of the stage.

Using a rolled-up script as an imaginary mike, he took a step left and crouched over and howled, looking sort of like one of those hunched, furious godlike figures in a William Blake engraving. They pranced and twirled behind him as he sang:

"You walk out the do' just leave the ring on the flo'...Got-ta got-ta got-ta got-ta got-ta ooooooowaaaaaaa..."

They hunched and stomped and Tony did a couple of knee drops.

Fifty thousand a day! The crew was just sitting around!

Tony saw me and nodded, and after another small nod from Tony, the choreographer turned off the music.

"I hear we're having some problems," I said, master of the conciliatory understatement as I approached. The show at a standstill. The star in rebellion. The producer gone. The director ready to quit. Yes, it was fair to say we had some problems.

Tony was perspiring from his exertions. He was loose, angry, unpent. He was cruising. His eyeballs glowered.

"I don't remember writing this scene in the script," I said, trying for a little levity.

"Yeah, well, the producer tells me to get lost, then takes a walk, I figure I might as well put the time to good use for myself." This he tossed off in a glib, challenging way.

"That doesn't sound like Ralph."

"Yeah, well, that's the message I'm gettin,' man. Loud and clear."

He was in a vile mood. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, unsettled and impatient.

"From who? I'm not giving you that message."

"I refuse to be treated that way, man. I won't have it. You can take this show and shove it! I got better things to do."

He'd grabbed a towel and was running it over his face as he paced. The crew heard every word.

"Why don't we go back to your trailer and talk about this, OK? This is not the place."

He didn't respond to that, didn't look at me. He simply wheeled and began marching off the stage and out bellowing: "You ask me to do this junk and I do it. Every single day. Every scene. Every goddamn day. One episode after the next. And I do it. OK? 'Cause I'm a pro. And then you turn around when I ask for anything and it's a goddamn problem. Well, I can't work like this, man! I hate this! I'm tired of this show! This is jive, man! I wish this show was canceled!"

He stalked off toward the door and the sunlight, spewing this disheartening poison. I rushed after him past the stony-faced, hushed crew. I was conscious of adopting the role of pacifier. Which to me smelled of supplicant. I was following the beat of his tantrum. But there was no time to care about that.

He'd already slammed the door shut on his trailer when I reached it. I barged right in. My own anger was mushrooming not only at his unconscionable tirade and slap at the crew, but at being upbraided publicly and having to chase after him. A dim voice inside me urged restraint over the violent anger I felt. I wanted to uproot a tree and drive him into the ground with it like a peg.

To my surprise, his agent Lloyd Wells hopped up from the sofa cushion as I entered. He scraped a napkin across his mouth, which was in the midst of chewing a greasy deli sandwich, and held out his hand. Sitting beside him was the movie director Sky Van Dyke. And between them lay an open script. Thick. A film script.

"Hi, Bill, you know Sky . . . ," Wells said. A hook of rye bread and slivers of meat tumbled around behind his teeth like clothes in a washing machine.

I nodded. I looked at the script long enough that Lloyd would note me noting it. The verb I use in stage directions when describing a character suddenly getting angry is "flared."

I flared.

"You part of the problem or part of the solution here, Lloyd?" I demanded.

I realized as soon as I said it that I was shaking with anger. I stared at Sky. He read my face. He'd seen Tony storm in and could hear the star's hoarse ravings as he banged the walls in the bedroom at the other end of the trailer. Sky Van Dyke was quickly on his feet.

"We can finish talking about this later, I think, at a better time," he said to Lloyd.

"Sure, Sky."

"Nice to see you; big fan of the show," Sky said as he passed me and ducked out the door.

Lloyd stood there a moment. He smiled sympathetically, trying to tease understanding from me.

"It's all comin' down on him," he said, pointing toward the back of the motor home. "The release date of the album, the tour, this new feature Sky wants him for. It's getting to him a little, that's what I think."

"Forget that," I said.

Tony stormed out from the bedroom, vigorously rubbing a towel over his hair and torso. He'd taken off his shirt. Thick black hair matted his shoulders.

"We asked Ralph one little favor, that's what this is all about," Lloyd said. "This show is Tony's home. So is it so wrong to maybe work in a spot for the Bopulators? It was just a question."

"So that's what you wanted from Ralph?"

"Yeah. That's all. A notion was had."

"By whom?"

"A notion. Anybody can have a notion," Lloyd said.

"This is a great showcase for my music," Tony said.

"You got 20, 30 million people a week watching," Lloyd said. "Thanks to everybody. To you, to Ralph, to everybody. But thanks to Tony, too. A lotta thanks to Tony. So I simply thought, hey, I'm no writer, you're a great writer, you're the executive producer, maybe there's a way those fans get to see Tony's new thing, see their star in a new light for an hour."

"You want to put the Bopulator Brothers on 'Father Joey' for an hour!"

My brain had difficulty even entertaining the notion. It was so farfetched.

"All right, it doesn't have to be the whole show. Make it half and half."

"It doesn't even have to be that," Tony said scornfully from the sofa he'd pounced on. He yanked off the top of a sandwich on the table and dropped some turkey into his mouth. He'd thrown one leg over the other and was pumping it restlessly. "I know exactly how it could be done. I could make it work in my sleep. I have the whole story line written out."

He glanced up at me.

"Just a couple of scenes. You can take a look at it. Do whatever you want with it. But I know how to make it work. I can play both parts."

"The Bopulator Brothers and Joey O'Dell?"

I was no more articulate than that. As if by representing the notion I could make some sense out of something so hopelessly foolish. Something so hideously self-serving. The manufacture for this overblown ego of such a hollow tour de force, to insult the meaning of the phrase. A homunculus of showmanship.

"The network loves the idea," Lloyd said.

"You already asked the network about it!"

This was astonishing! This fired up my booster rocket.

Lloyd shrugged ever so nonchalantly.

"I happened to be having lunch with Carlin, and the subject happened to come up," he downplayed. "I can tell you this--he thought that Tony writing and playing and directing an episode like that was fabulous."

The air was crackling. My chest felt tight. I was enraged and kept telling myself not to lose control.

"Let me get this straight. You didn't come to me, to the executive producer of the show, with this idea. Instead you went to the president of the network?"

"It's just a notion," Lloyd said. "I said see what's to get so upset about."

"You don't, huh? You had the temerity to go over my head--"

"Wait just a second, Bill," Lloyd sputtered.

"Yeah, because I'm not being listened to here, man!" Tony erupted. He jumped from the sofa. Lloyd's right arm went out involuntarily as if to keep us apart.

"My needs are not being respected!" He stalked off toward the bathroom.

"He's not wrong, Billy," Lloyd said to me.

"Bull," I said.

I hustled down the passageway in pursuit.

"Your goddamn needs are being met!" I screamed. "Your needs on this show are good scripts and good directors and an executive producer who is an open-minded collaborator and a friend. Those are your needs on this show, and don't tell me they're not being met, goddamnit!"

Tony roughly slid open an accordion-like door.

"You keep saying that and saying that, and all I can tell you is how I feel. And I feel screwed over from upstairs in the office there," he barked. "For starters, you gotta choose. Me or Ralph. He's gotta go."

He abruptly cut off his breath and performed a bodily function.

"Ralph is a workhorse on this show," I said, turning away.

"Ralph is history, period."

"Why am I standing here having to remind everybody that this is my show? I created it. And you have a contract."

"Fellas, decency, please, let's not debase an intelligent discussion with 'you signed a piece of paper.' " Lloyd had come up to join me watching Tony outside the bathroom. "The point is the working relationship. Making sure things run smoothly for the show. We all want the same thing. We're all in the same boat. And if Ralph is rowing in the wrong direction, you need to find a way to honor Tony's creative input and his vision. And I don't think this is working with him taking orders from Ralph. I think Tony's grown immensely, as we all have here. And if it were me, making Tony happy, giving Tony a producer credit, involving Tony more, giving him an episode to direct maybe, is something I'd do in a heartbeat. . .

"All I'm saying," Lloyd went on, "is that if you went to the network and told them there were a few changes you wanted to make at the top here, I think Carlin would listen. He thinks the world of you."

"I can't believe you want Ralph off the show," I said to Tony. "It's a big mistake. And I'm not going to stand here and tell you that I'm prepared to do that."

Tony went into his bedroom and plucked up a hairbrush.

"Then just think about what we're saying for now, Bill," Lloyd said as we drifted in after Tony.

"Yeah, think about it," Tony said, preening in front of a mirror and not really meaning I was to think about it at all.

"You go behind my back and pitch an episode promoting the record album. You meet with movie directors while you should be out there on that stage shooting with Victor--"

"Victor," Tony harrumphed.

"--and then you want me to fire the producer and bump you up in his place--"

"And I wouldn't mind hearing about the story lines and directors you're discussing either," Tony said, parting his hair neatly, not missing a beat.

"Uh-huh," I said.

The trailer fell silent for a moment. I watched Tony comb his hair.

"Shame on you, man," I said.

He turned around and plunked the hairbrush down on a bureau.

"I'll be out in a minute," he said. "I gotta put on my stupid monkey suit first. Go tell Victor DeMille."

I walked away. Lloyd followed me to the trailer door.

"All we're talking about is Tony should have some input," he said. "He should have what any star has. I want you two to kiss and make up later. This was good, cleared the air a little. This needed to happen. So there's no bad blood. Two American Television Watchers nominations for you bozos, eh? Heal a lotta wounds."

But I didn't want to hear any more. I couldn't. I had to get out of there. It had turned into a hellhole for me.

I closed the trailer door behind me and stood on the metal steps and breathed some fresh air. I squinted into the bright sunshine. Jim Boone, the assistant director, was right there.

"OK?" He looked up at me.

I couldn't manage any words. I simply nodded, which sent him hustling off to tell everyone to get ready to shoot.

But it wasn't OK. Not at all. Literally lightheaded, I stood on the step of the trailer afraid to move. I tried to steady myself.

All the authority, all the say-so, all the benignly wielded might success had brought me had suddenly been challenged and as good as usurped. All that I had created by creating Tony Paris/Joey O'Dell had suddenly been shattered.

I hated Tony Paris.

I looked down at Tony's chum Beans, crouched as usual over his master's Mercedes, silently, ceaseless polishing and buffing the finish to a mirrorlike sheen.

And then I noticed a piece of decoration on the pink rag he was taking to the shiny hood. I looked closer.

A scalloped curve. A squashed, dirtied pink rosebud on a collar. The snaking strand of something like a snapped shoulder strap trailed the swabbing clump of cloth. And there, in small block letters squished together beneath his rubbing hand, slid the crimped word: TUFTS.

There was no doubt what Beans was waxing Tony's car with. He was using my wife's undershirt.

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