Even This I Get to Experience
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My mother was a world-class narcissist. But my sister and I, as we were growing up, didn’t realize that. “Your mother is a saint,” our father often said, and we believed him. She certainly played that role to the hilt in their kitchen quarrels. We knew that she had had a serious operation as a child that involved a goiter, whatever that was – we never did find out – followed by other illnesses and procedures. Mom was a poster child for “Fragile,” with a need to talk long and often about her doctors and their prescriptions. That’s what we knew. It didn’t occur to us that a mother might take an interest in her children. She was more concerned with the neighbors – they mattered far more than we did. My father couldn’t have cared less, but any time he raised his voice, it was, “Herman, the neighbors. . .” She lived to the age of ninety-one, and to the end she was always her favorite subject, to a fair degree her only subject.
In 1987, I was a sixty-five-year-old man whose mother was coming to California for a visit. I sent a car to pick her up at her apartment in Bridgeport and bring her to the American Airlines terminal at JFK, where I met her with a wheelchair and an attendant. She said she was happy to see me, but before I could reach her cheek to kiss her she began to talk about Dr. Golden, her wonderful new eye doctor, and how could I not remember him, she’d told me about him on the phone a week or so ago.
Before her luggage was out of the car and checked at curbside, she had fished out of her purse the new miracle eye drops that Dr. Golden, “God bless him,” had prescribed for her. All the way up to the gate and onto the plane she talked about how “that scratchy feeling” in her eye was gone; how Dr. Leventhal, Golden’s predecessor, had never helped her; how now she was eating better and enjoying life more with her mind off her eye problem; and did she tell me how when she called my sister to rave about her new eye doctor, “It was like she didn’t hear a word I said.”
We were in the air about an hour, I at the window deep into some reading and she on the aisle, when I noticed her going into her purse again. At the same time a young man was walking up the aisle and my mother pulled at his sleeve.
“Sir, I wonder if you could help me.”
“Certainly,” he replied.
As I, her quite grown-up, proven stable son looked on, Mother continued, “My new eye doctor gave me this prescription. I have to put three drops, not two, not four, he said, just three drops in each eye every four hours. Would you be good enough…?”
“Of course,” he responded, taking the eye dropper firmly between thumb and forefinger, and as I sat there in a state between mind-bending wonder and apoplexy, he squeezed off three drops exactly – not two, not four – into each eye. A moment later he was gone and Mother was putting her drops away, unaware, or so it seemed, that I was staring at her.
In the field of comedy, what she did next would be called a “take.” A long, slow take. Very subtly my mother started reacting to something on her left – her son, still staring.
“What?” she said finally. “What??”
“Mother,” I said. “You asked a complete stranger for help when I’m sitting right here?!”
“I didn’t want to bother you,” she answered.
“I’m here, Mother,” I said through clenched teeth. “The son who takes care of you all year. You think I couldn’t have –?”
“Dr. Golden said you have to be very careful.”
I was ready to explode. “And did he tell you to ask a total stranger, when your son is sitting right next to –?”
“Patient?” I erupted. “Since when can’t I be patient?”
She had only to look at me. “Some patience!” she said.
“CHASING FRANK SINATRA”
Bud and I had been shopping a film of the play Come Blow Your Horn that Neil Simon sent me. From the day we read it the only actor we could see in the lead was Frank Sinatra, and Paramount agreed to finance and distribute the film if we could get him. Getting Frank to read my script over the next year was equal to the wildest, craziest chase scene I could imagine. Howard Koch was Frank’s producer. He liked the script, thought Frank would be perfect in the leading role, and did all he could on his end to call Frank’s attention to it. Nothing worked. I went on a mad campaign.
Come Blow Your Horn concerned an older brother, a bit of a rogue and a lothario played by Sinatra, who is tutoring a shy, introverted younger brother awakening to the ways of the world, especially the ladies. And so we changed the title to Cock-a-Doodle-Do to reflect that awakening more directly. Over many months, script in hand, I hunted down Mr. Sinatra all over town – at restaurants, hotel bars, a few recording studios, a men’s shop, and once when I wormed my way into a secured sound stage where he was rehearsing with Judy Garland for a special they were doing.
My gut told me that my actions had triggered something in Sinatra and he was getting a kick out of what he was putting me through. Not because he was a sadist, but maybe because he picked up on the hint of fun I was having and wanted to see how far I would take it. If so, he had to enjoy the cage of roosters we delivered to his home one morning along with another copy of Cock-a-Doodle-Do, and the box of toy trumpets we had at his front door on another morning after we changed the title back to Come Blow Your Horn.
I was close to losing hope of nailing Sinatra when I came up with an idea that I thought irresistible. No way could he deny me a look at the script after this. I would send him a reading nook, the corner of a room perfect for sitting down with our script. The “Reading Kit” consisted of a rug, an easy chair and ottoman, an end table, an ash tray and a pipe, a smoking jacket, a floor model reading lamp, a record player with an album of Jackie Gleason’s Music to Read By, and, of course, another copy of the script.
The Paramount prop department set up our Reading Kit in the back of a truck, where it looked ideal, the corner of a lush den waiting for the lucky reader. Howard Koch had assured us that the house was empty. Frank was flying in from New York that night with his valet and it was the other help’s day off. Perfect. I made sure there was a long cord on the lamp and record player, and told the driver, since no one was home, to set up the delivery on the lawn, and be sure the light was on and the music was playing when he drove away.
It delighted me to imagine the look on Frank’s face when he drove up his driveway that night and saw a lit lamp in the distance, heard music as he drew closer, and came upon this cozy reading alcove on the lawn near his front door. But it didn’t work quite that way. Koch was wrong about there being no help on hand for Mr. Sinatra’s arrival late that night. They showed up after the delivery of our Reading Kit, but before their boss’s arrival. Joke killers and tidy housekeepers that they were, they put the delivery away. All Sinatra knew about any of this for several days was that he had a smoking jacket in his closet that he couldn’t recall buying. I, on the other hand, certain that Frank had found our delivery and, alas, did not appreciate it, was furious and wrote him off. His agent was informed that Frank wouldn’t be troubled by me again. The agent, who hadn’t heard about the latest stunt, called me and laughed when I described it. There was no way, he said, that Frank could have seen this and not reacted to it big-time. He simply did not know.
“Well, too late now,” I said. A few days later I found myself joyously eating my words. Frank learned about the Reading Kit, loved the energy and creativity that went into it – and this is the important part – had as good a time reading the script. I knew that for sure when he phoned me and, tongue in cheek, bawled the shit out of me for not getting it to him sooner.
“SHIT IN THE HEAD”
When I started on the screenplay for Divorce American Style – ultimately and ironically nominated for an Academy Award – I was suffering from a giant writer’s block. “Shit in the head,” as I’ve termed it. I sat at the typewriter for weeks picking at my head and never getting past the first page. I’d cancel evenings when we were supposed to go out to dinner. I’d miss weekend time with my kids. I remember a gala Frances attended without me, coming home after midnight with some friends wearing party hats and carrying favors, intending but failing to cheer me up and cheer me on. I just sat there staring. And picking. There was nothing on the page, but I did have a couple of scars on my head. One day Frances came into my study and threw a little white boating hat on my head to keep me from picking. It worked, and that is how my nearly fifty-year love affair with that white hat began.
Another thing that worked was something a therapist said to me that has stayed with me forever. I went to him specifically seeking help for this problem, and he asked me to imagine myself in a small room with some fifty or so people. Suddenly there is some smoke, someone yells “Fire!” and there is a rush to the single door in the room. Some get out and some, jammed in the doorway, do not.
“Your thoughts are no different from those people who rushed to the door and are crushed there. Let the people out one or two at a time and everyone gets out. If you want them assorted by height or weight or hair color, plenty of time to do that when they are all out and safe. Same thing with your thoughts, Norman.”
The first heavyweight writing that came easier for me as a result of adopting that metaphor was my Divorce American Style screenplay. The next day I bought a tape recorder and started dictating the entire story, writing some scenes two or more ways, changing my mind and taking unexpected twists and turns, but pushing on to the final scene and the words “FADE OUT” before I had a word transcribed. It was much too long when I finished – more than two hundred pages – but every thought, scene, and sequence was on the page ready to be sorted for the rewrite. I was in heaven at high speed.
After that I dictated the first draft of everything I wrote. It saved my life. My habit was to dictate at home, call an office number connected to a dictating machine, and play my new tape into it. That process might be concluded at, say, two a.m. My secretary would come in early to do the transcription, and the typed manuscript would be ready for me by the time I arrived, at which point I added to it, subtracted from it, or rearranged the content until I had a first draft. As I said, it proved a lifesaver. Over the years, I’ve passed that advice on to a lot of writers suffering from S.I.T.H., and I’ve been royally blessed many times for helping to drain it.
What became Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman had been percolating in me for several years. A late-night soap had never been done before, so no network executive was willing to take a chance on such an untested idea without numbers in which to take refuge. Also, it was my intention to satirically comment on the impact on an American family of commercial-driven all-day-and-all-night television, especially on the housewife who was more inclined in those years to be at home with the TV on. By the time I started interviewing writers, I had a few pages of notes that contained all the elements I wanted to see in the pilot episode.
I wanted the mass murder of a family of five, along with their two goats and eight chickens, to take place just down the street from Mary Hartman’s home. Inured to such wholesale violence by the unrelenting media, we see it command less of our housewife’s attention than the promise of quality on the label of a product she’s using, as advertised on the kitchen TV that is never off.
I must have interviewed a dozen highly talented writers, many of whom asked, “Norman, how can we expect laughs after the slaughter of an entire family?” “Plus their goats and chickens,” I reminded them. I didn’t expect ha-ha laughs, I explained, but there was humor in the deleterious lunacy of our escalating consumer culture, as illustrated here by Mary, so enthralled by the merchandising of a floor-waxing product as to be numb to the most extreme violence in her very own neighborhood. They didn’t see it that way. The writer who did, Ann Marcus, eventually came up with this reaction for our title character.
When her next-door neighbor rushes in with news of the killings, Mary, concerned with a “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor, says: “My, who would want to kill two goats and eight chickens?” (Another moment of distraction.) “And the people,” she adds, never taking her eyes off the label of the product in her hand. “Of course, the people.”
The casting of Louise Lasser, like that of Carroll O’Connor, took less than a minute. I had sent the script to Charlie Joffe, who called after reading it and said there was only one actress for this part – the former Mrs. Woody Allen. Ms. Lasser refused the role at first, but finally agreed to come in and meet with me. She was more than a touch of Mary Hartman already. Actually, I supplied the character, but Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset. When she read a bit of the script for me, I all but cried for joy. That reaction won her over completely.
In addition to the syndication of Mary Hartman being profitable, it established a first-run syndication market that had never existed before. Those independent stations that carried it, for the most part at eleven p.m., became known as affiliates of the Mary Hartman Network.
In Cleveland, which was a top-ten Nielsen market, the show was on a CBS affiliate, which made the show very important in that area from the start. A new station manager, Bill Flynn, who’d been brought in from Boston, decided to program Mary Hartman at seven-thirty p.m. It was programmed even earlier in a few places, but Cleveland was, and I assume still is, the home of a very important archdiocese and the Catholic bishop there went up the wall and organized twelve-hour-a-day picketing. The city council voted unanimously to condemn the station and its manager for making the move. Bill Flynn, heroically to my mind, preempted an hour of prime time on his station and bought an hour on Telstar, a communications satellite, to have me face the head of the PTA, a critic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a particularly vicious councilman and one Episcopalian minister who had flown in from Evanston, Illinois, and was a great Mary Hartman fan. The councilman, representing the thirty-one out of thirty-three members of the council who condemned the time change, said that the council just didn’t want it on the air at seven thirty “harming innocent minds.”
I reminded the panel that the local news was run at five p.m. on two stations in Cleveland, and on the other two in this four-station market at six p.m. Since the average local TV news show starts with any homicide in the vicinity, any rape, any kidnapping, and every kind of violence, weren’t they concerned, I asked, about that “harming the innocent minds” of children? The answer given by the woman representing the PTA was stunning. “Yes,” she said, “but that’s not as real as Mary Hartman.”
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