When the Gravy Train Leaves the Studio, Hop Off
In the early 1970s, having written some 200 sitcom episodes and 16 motion pictures, I got a call from my agent with some exciting news: Stu Erwin Jr., an old high school buddy of mine and an executive at Universal Studios, had selected me to become the studio’s director of comedy development, a job that would pay me $1,500 a week. In those days, that was a ton of money.
I met with Stu in his office in the famed Big Black Tower, as the main Universal building was known, and he laid down the ground rules for my new job: “I have given you a spacious office in the back of the lot. Couches, chairs, a refrigerator, a patio, a secretary, the works. I want you to start collecting potential properties to be developed as comedy television pilots or feature films. Take all the time you need, and when you feel you have a goodly supply of viable ideas, bring them up to my office and we’ll pick and choose the projects with which to proceed.”
He concluded: “I don’t want to see your face or hear your voice until you’re ready.”
We shook hands and I repaired to my office, introduced myself to my secretary, and began my task with genuine enthusiasm. I was determined to find properties that could be developed into hits, thus ensuring my financial future as well as making a few bucks for Stu and Universal. I called every comedy writer and agent I knew and asked them to send me material, and within a few weeks I had scripts and treatments and proposals all over my desk, my couch, my refrigerator and the floor. After about six weeks I had winnowed the material down to a manageable pile.
I marched up to Stu’s office, cradling the package of material in my arms like a baby, and smiled broadly at his secretary. “Hi,” I said. “I’ve come to deliver this package to Mr. Erwin.”
“Hmmm,” she said. “That might be a problem since Mr. Erwin is no longer with us.”
I almost dropped the baby on its head.
She told me that he had left the week before for another job. That’ll teach me not to read the trades, I thought. “So what should I do with my package?”
She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I only work here.”
Baffled, I carried my package down the hall to the office of another top exec (who, for reasons you will soon understand, shall remain nameless), explained the problem and asked him what I should do.
“Laddie,” he whispered, “if I were you I’d take that stuff back to my office and lie low until somebody calls.”
“You mean just keep taking the checks and doing nothing?” I asked.
“Shhh,” said the exec, “you didn’t hear that from me.”
So that’s what I did. For weeks I hid in my office, hearing from no one except the paymaster with his $1,500 every week. I spent my days waving at the tour trams that passed my patio every half hour or so, reading like crazy and drinking sodas.
At some point I stopped coming in altogether, checking with my secretary four or five times a day from the golf course or the race track just to see if anybody had called. Nobody had. It was a scene out of old Hollywood, an urban legend I’d heard before but always deemed to be apocryphal.
Finally, after several months of such duplicity, my conscience got the best of me. I told my secretary, who was beginning to run out of reading material and getting bored, that I’d be resigning and thanked her for all her help.
So the next day I called the paymaster’s office, told them I was leaving, took my package of comedy ideas and departed the studio.
Meantime, if anybody wants the package, I’m sure I still have it somewhere. I just hope the statute of limitations has run out and Universal won’t ask for its money back.