Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dreaming is Free

                                                 Photo by Lee Johnson

Forty years is time enough for a young man to grow old, for him to accomplish a few goals along the way even as so many others melted into the ether, and for a vague dream to morph into a hard reality he could never have comprehended when this long strange trip first began. In other words, it's life -- a rough and tumble journey we all experience in our own ways while riding a roller coaster of ups and downs that inevitably leads us all to the same grim fade-to-black.

But that will be then, and this is now, so Death can just go to the back of the line and wait its turn.

A lot was burned into my brain over that span, with an intensity I'll never forget, so it seemed a bit odd that I didn't have any work dreams during my first eight months of retirement -- not a single one. Granted, I've been busy, leaving little time to ruminate on the past, but I'm not sure if that explains it. All I really know is that in the ninth month, the work-dreams commenced, and night after night, they just keep coming.

This isn't a bad thing. In most of these dreams, I'm on set doing my job with a familiar cast of characters -- the crews I worked with over those final years leading up to my exit stage left. These aren't the anxiety dreams of my younger years, wherein I inexplicably showed up at work an hour late, found myself at the wrong location, or suddenly realized I was standing in the midst of a crowded set wondering why I'd neglected to put any pants on before driving to work. Instead, these dreams are pleasant meanders down memory lane. There's usually a bit of confusion, of course, but a certain degree of confusion comes with every day of working on set. Still, the lamps and cable aren't heavy in Dreamland, the ladders are easy to climb, my back doesn't hurt, the producers are competent, and the directors know what they're doing -- unlike certain legend-in-their-own-mind hacks so many of us have had to endure.

In these dreams, I get what my post-work life has yet to offer: a comfortable sense of shared purpose, of belonging, while working with a group of people I like in a place -- on set -- that feels like home. Sometimes I wonder if it's the only place I will ever truly feel at home, which is a rather disquieting thought. Retirement has turned out to be a much more solitary journey, where the endless toil required to keep this small shack in the woods warm and dry leaves little time for much else. Perhaps it's the internal monologue looping endlessly through my brain while wielding a chain saw, axe, and wood-splitter that spark these work dreams -- I don't know, and suppose it really doesn't matter.

Thirty years of benign neglect and deferred maintence comes at a cost, and I'm now making up for all that, but at some point (I hope...) the work load will diminish, and maybe then I'll begin to find out what the next chapter is all about. Meanwhile, my non-waking hours remain a trip into reality-based fantasy land -- the stuff dreams are made of -- and as the stunningly beautiful Debbie Harry reminds us from the golden, gauzy past, dreaming is free.

"I sit by and watch the river flow, I sit by and watch the traffic go. Imagine something of your very own, something you can have and hold.  I'd build a road of gold just to have some dreaming."

I worked three days in January this year, and that was it. Although I was offered more, it was time to go, plain and simple. Professional athletes often speak of "knowing when it's time" to hang it up, and if the comparatively mundane careers of those who work below-the-line are considerably longer than the average athlete enjoys, it all comes down to the same equation in the end. You just know -- and nothing that's happened since I left Hollywood has changed that. The year that subsequently unfolded was good for the film and television industry, generating lots of employment for industry work-bots all over the country, and hopefully that will continue on into the New Year.

On every other front, though, 2017 was a true annus horribilis.  If 2018 follows suit -- and there's every reason to believe it could be even worse -- dreaming may be as good as it gets for most of us in the year to come.

Let's hope not... and on that admittedly sour (if realistic) note,  I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 46

                               Old juicers never die, they just fade away...*

No, this is not a photo of me up here on the cold, damp, windy ridge, staring into a half-empty bottle while remembering the good old days in Hollywood. For one thing, I never wear bow ties, and seldom don a sport jacket -- and nobody would ever mistake me for Humphrey Bogart. Not that I didn't do my share of staring into bottles in the wake of romantic disasters back in my younger days, mind you... but I just like the photo -- and love the movie from which it came, which is why I bought this book.

As silly as it might sound, it was movies like this that sparked my initial interest in film as a young man, and eventually led to me to Hollywood. In my youthful naivete, I assumed that the classics of Hollywood's Golden Age must have been blessed right from the start, each with a great script, director, producer, actors, and crew all pulling in the same direction, secure in the knowledge that together they were crafting a cinematic masterpiece.

It wasn't like that at all, of course. Like so many movies, Casablanca was beset by the ego battles, personality conflicts, and logistics that plague most productions -- but out of that boiling cinematic cauldron emerged an enduring classic.

A much darker tale unfolds here, a story of careers and lives upended by the Black List and those who enabled it in an era of maximum paranoia -- a time that holds disturbing parallels to our current socio-political mess.

This book is a fascinating read that takes you deep into a very troubled time, and demonstrates how  --  because of and in spite of the Black List -- a truly ground-breaking classic can materialize from paranoia and chaos.  The movie  High Noon serves as a warning of the dangers that arise when a culture becomes so fearful that it looks inward, then begins to eat itself alive.  The book explains how that all came about.

Both of these books offer another object lesson -- that in Hollywood, those who deserve the credit for a job well done don't always get it, a lesson we seem to re-learn with every generation. Both are good reads, so put them on your wish list to Santa.


I really didn't want to wade into the tsunami of rage that has inundated Hollywood and beyond amid the ongoing, metastasizing revelations of Extremely Bad Behavior on the part of men towards women. That Harvey Weinstein turned out to be a ruthlessly self-serving pig was hardly a surprise, but I was taken aback to learn that Kevin Spacey -- an actor I've always admired -- has also been drunk with the power of celebrity, and pretty much out of control for so many years. After that, the big rock of Hollywood was turned over, and all kinds of dark, nasty things came wriggling out into the light. That men like Bret Ratner and James Toback would abuse their power didn't shock me. Big time Hollywood players usually get what they want, and they tend to want a lot, but the extent of their abuse -- the sheer numbers of women they've preyed upon -- was jaw-dropping.

Do these guys have any conscience at all?  Apparently not.

At that point, I began to wonder if it might be easier to point out those few who haven't commited such egregious sins in Holllywood rather than those who have... but I really wasn't prepared to hear that Louis C.K. was among the disgraced elite of this business, having forced his onanisic transgressions on women who wanted only to meet a man they'd admired so much.

What a miserable day those each of those women must have had, through no fault of their own. There's no excuse for such blatantly aberrant, abusive, bullying behavior -- I can't even understand it, much less try to explain why any man would want to do such a thing. It's unfathomable.

That said -- and this is where the fire arrows of rage may rain upon me -- I don't think FX was right to kick Louis C.K. off the air altogether, ending his participation in the four shows he's been involved with. Suspend him for a season, fine.  Give him a long time-out to ponder the many profound consequences of his actions, absolutely.  Make him understand in no uncertain terms that any repeat of this bizarre behavior will result in a permanent severing of network ties... but don't nail him to the cross of banishment forever.

I don't say this simply because -- as any long-time readers of this blog know -- I've long been a fan of Louie and his shows, which are among the smartest, most aware, and painfully honest comedic dramas on television. But if we are ever to rise above and beyond the tawdry behavior currently being unearthed all across the cultural and societal spectrum, we'll need the smart, aware, and (hopefully) chagrined voices of people like Louis C.K. to help lead us out of the swamp -- people who have been there, have witnessed the damage done, and are determined to do their best in making things right.

I'm assuming, of course, that Louis C.K. would in fact choose that path, and put his shoulder to the wheel by using his considerable creative skills to explore and expose the true dimensions and impact of this issue, which has blighted and blunted the lives and careers of so many women for so long.

I could be dead wrong about this -- maybe a leopard really can't change his spots -- but if anybody can, I'm betting it's Louis C.K. If so, we'll all be better off by his participation in the cultural conversation. If not, he'll wind up in exile on his own little Elba, a lonely prisoner on an island of his own making.

Rob Long poses a salient question on the subject of old Hollywood men and attractive young women in a recent Martini Shot commentary, but neither his nor my thoughts on harrassment can be as relevant as those of a fellow juicer who happens to be female. She's been there, and knows how it feels in ways I'll never be able to fully grasp.


Enough with the heavy stuff -- here's a fascinating interview with Pamela Adlon, whose brilliant Better Things truly is one of the best shows on television these days. Adlon directed every episode of this season, and her work has a raw, sensitive, oh-so-human touch that reminds me a bit of the best French cinema. I haven't seen anything else like it on TV, other than (ahem...) the five seasons of Louis C.K., where Pam Adlon played a prominent role. Without Louis, she'd never have landed a deal with FX in the first place -- which just goes to reinforce the point I tried to make in the item above.

At any rate, Season Two of Better Things just finished it's run on FX, and I'm already looking forward to Season Three.  The first season is availabe on Hulu, and I'm not sure where or when this second season will again be available for viewing -- but check it out when and where you can.


I recently stumbled across a new (to me) industry blog by a smart young production assistant on his way to much bigger and better things. Sean Baran's Film Tool Kit offers an informative primer on many film industry basics that will prove useful for newbies and anybody else curious about the realities of working on set. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes (or for you sticklers out there, praemonitus, praemunitus, according to the ancient Romans), because it really does help to have some idea what to expect when you go into a new situation -- and walking on set for the first time is very new and different experience. Sean is a good writer, with a casually breezy style that belies the hard work he's put into this blog, so check it out. You'll find a permanent link over on the Industry Blogroll.


From the "now it can finally be told" file...

As any veteran of the TV wars will attest, landing a show that sticks for more than half a season isn't easy. Many try, but few succeed, which makes it all the more galling when a show that did well enough in that first half to have all the signs pointing towards a pick-up of ten more episodes is instead abruptly cancelled with no explanation.

That hurts -- and is exactly what happened here.

At the time, none of us who worked on Ruby and the Rockits understood what went wrong. Granted, it was a low-budget cable show, but that meant it was relatively cheap to make, so the viewership didn't have to be huge for the network to make a profit -- and our numbers were decent. Rather than wrap the sets and stage, then return all the lights and cable after the scheduled ten episodes were in the can, we were told to do a "fold and hold," meaning the stage doors were locked and we walked away to await the networks final decision. All the sets and lighting equipement remained in place, ready to resume filming whenever the decision came down.

A thirty day fold-and-hold doesn't happen unless the network is serious about ordering more episodes,  so I was pretty sure we had another three or four month's work coming. After all, our only big-name star had turned to us on set one day with a big smile, then declared: "We're looking at a five year run, boys." Since his brother was the line producer, and another brother was a core member of the cast (with yet another brother working in the art department), I figured this was a done-deal.

But when the phone finally rang, the news was bad: our show had been cancelled. We had three days to wrap the stage.

At the time, I chalked it up to the perfidious nature of the Gods of Hollywood, who possess a decidedly cruel sense of humor... but later learned the truth, or what I have to assume is the truth. After we'd shot the last episode, that big-name walked into the network office to demand a huge pay raise for himself and his brother, then insisted that their mother be added as a core member of the cast for the second half of the season -- an act of astonishing arrogance untethered to the actual reality of the situation. He acted as if the show was a monster hit pulling in twelve million viewers a week, thus giving him serious clout, but our numbers were considerably more modest: maybe a million per week, which isn't nearly enough to make a network executive fall to his knees and open his wallet.

And that's how David Cassidy overplayed his hand in a very big way, and in the process, cost a hundred and fifty people their jobs -- including me.

So much for our "five year run."

I'm not bitter about it. Sure, I was pissed at the time, but that's how it goes in Hollywood, where big egos drive off the cliff to crash and burn with some regularity.  We bounced back to land another pilot the next year, which was picked up for an initial run of ten episodes, then twenty more were added in the second half. By the time Melissa & Joey finished it's run,  we'd shot over a hundred episodes -- so in the end, we got that five year run after all.

David Cassidy didn't. Instead, he dropped out of sight, his face appearing in the news only when he was nailed for another DUI as his life descended into chaos. He rode the roller coaster of a classic boom-and-bust, penthouse-to-outhouse Hollywood life, one that ended last month at age 67.

The wise men tell us not to speak ill of the dead, and I won't. The David Cassidy I saw in action wasn't a bad guy -- he had some talent, and certainly didn't lack for confidence -- but that kind of confidence doesn't always come with common sense, and for that he paid a heavy price.

RIP, David.  I hope you're now in a better place.


Some of you long-time readers (assuming any are still around) might recall this long-ago post about Evel Knievel, who I watched perform two live motorcycle jumps many years before I headed to Hollywood -- where I finally met the man himself while working on a commercial in which he starred. Although Evel managed to safely complete most of his jumps (including the two I witnessed), his image was seared into the public mind by two infamous failures -- being tossed about like a rag-doll when he landed short and lost control after jumping the fountains of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and for drifting down out of the blue Idaho sky in a steam-powered rocket called the "Sky Cycle," which didn't make it across the Snake River Canyon thanks to the early deployment of a parachute.

When I first saw him in 1968, he was already promising to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon, which sounds as ridiculous now as it did back then. I don't doubt that he'd have tried if the U.S. Government had bestowed their blessing, but it didn't -- so he found another canyon to jump.

It didn't work out, although Evel survived, and I figured that was that --  surely nobody would be crazy enough to try that again.

Wrong. Maybe I should have remembered the words of recently departed Charles Manson, who said "You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody's crazy." And so it was that in 2016, a stuntman named Eddie Braun built his own steam powered rocket that successfully and safely carried him across the same Snake River Canyon.

We'll never know if Evel would have made it, absent his parachute malfunction -- although the two test flights of the Sky Cycle did not end well -- but Eddie Braun showed it could be done... so maybe Evel wasn't so crazy after all.

That's it for this month.  I wish you all the best of the holiday season.

* With apologies to the long dead General Douglas MacArther...