By the time Paul Brock finishes his first novel, he has already lived half his life: He has a wife, kids, and a career writing movie scripts. So to fulfill his dreams of becoming a Novelist with a capital N, he has to go big, and that means turning to his star-maker friend, Mel Steiner. Soon Brock has a team of trainers, a stage show, a signature look, and even a movie deal. Self-respect, however, remains elusive. The Big Hype is a rapier-sharp takedown of the book industry, and a brilliantly funny premonition of how authorship and celebrity culture have become dangerously intertwined. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Avery Corman, including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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The Big Hype
By Avery Corman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Avery Corman
All rights reserved.
At times I felt like the bear in the penny arcade game who scurried back and forth and spun around when you hit the target. I was a semibicoastal bear going back and forth between the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills and the Russian Tea Room in New York.
I worked as a television scriptwriter and had written about forty scripts for television dramas. It was an unending struggle to find interesting projects to work on, so I was constantly in meetings with people, pitching ideas I wanted to write, listening to their proposals. I had won four Emmys and each of those movies for television went on to another life in videocassettes. Several producers referred to me as their "quality guy" and without embarrassment actually used that expression in conversation. I was "doing well" in my work, but like many scriptwriters, I was writing The Novel on the side. I also had written some short stories that were published. A two-month period when I was able to concentrate on the book was coming to an end; I needed a television assignment for money again, so it was time to put on my bear outfit and scuttle for work.
My immediate hope was Tod Martin, a producer in from the West Coast. These California producers were so tan and healthy-looking that as a New Yorker sitting opposite them, I thought I looked like a character in a black and white movie who had been colorized imperfectly and turned out faintly green.
I had worked with Tod Martin before on a worthwhile project about the Wright Brothers. He had called, eager to offer me an assignment so important, he said, that he had to present it to me face to face. We met for lunch in the Russian Tea Room, the tanned one and the green one. Martin was a rangy man in his late thirties, six feet two, in a pink cashmere sweater and white slacks, shirt open at the neck.
"Paul, I'm offering you my best," he said. "A movie-of-the-week. I have a go from ABC."
"It's scary, but quality. You ready for this? Lyme disease! "
He leaned back, self-satisfied, allowing me to savor the beauty of his suggestion.
"Tod, I appreciate the thought, but I don't do diseases-of-the-week."
"We're going first class on this one. That's why I called my quality guy. We do it as a medical mystery. You know, like it's transmitted to somebody from the family dog and somebody's sick but they don't know how or why."
"Lyme disease. You're making me itch."
"That's what we're looking for, that kind of audience involvement. People sitting in front of their sets, scratching, looking at their dogs funny."
"Let me rise to the occasion. The closing shot is like that last image from Viva Zapata where the white horse lives on in the hills. The last thing you see is the family dog, a cocker spaniel, roaming the grounds of a house rendered vacant by the disease."
"That's goddamn poetic."
"No, I didn't mean it. It's a lousy illness to get and I don't want to do this kind of work."
"I pass. The hives that await me if I did it—the dermatologist's bills alone wouldn't make it worth my while."
I made several counterproposals to him. Tod Martin declined, having been in a one-project, one-disease frame of mind. Over the next couple of days I made several calls to producers and couldn't extract a commitment over the phone from anyone. I was going to have to pitch my ideas in person and make another trip to the West Coast. In the meantime, in the remaining hours I had available for it, I worked on the novel. I was unsure about a chapter I was writing and took a lunch break. I made a sandwich at home and walked over to Central Park, where I sat on a bench.
As I was sitting there, Mario Puzo and Robert Ludlum came walking along.
"Hey, fellas, how are you?" I said to them.
They nodded coolly.
"I'm a writer, too. Ever get stuck where you have to just walk around the block, take a break?"
"I take breaks," Robert Ludlum said. "But I never get stuck."
"What kind of writer are you?" Mario Puzo said.
"TV mainly, but I've had three short stories published in Esquire and now I'm trying to break out and write a novel."
"What kind of novel?" Robert Ludlum asked.
"About the way we live, about values."
They both looked incredulous.
"What do you mean, values?" Mario Puzo said. "Like what's on sale at the supermarket?"
"No. Values in the culture, cultural values."
"A cultural values novel?" Mario Puzo said. "What do you think that would be?" he said to Robert Ludlum.
"Hey, what are you eating?" Mario Puzo asked me.
"Peanut butter on whole wheat."
"What are you, a fruit?" he said.
"I just took what was in the refrigerator."
"You're never going to write a book with balls if you eat peanut butter on whole wheat."
"Mario is right," Robert Ludlum said. "If you want to write with gusto, masculinity has to be part of you."
"I'll buy a trenchcoat," I responded.
"A trenchcoat is a start," Robert Ludlum said.
"You almost finished with your book?" Mario Puzo asked. "How many more values do you need?"
"I'm about halfway there. I have about a hundred fifty type-written pages. I figure I need another hundred and fifty or so more."
"It's a novella?" Robert Ludlum said.
"No, a novel."
"Three hundred typewritten pages?" Mario Puzo said, doing the arithmetic. "I've been thinking of trying the short form myself."
"Well, good luck with your book," Robert Ludlum said. "You should be finished working on it by the weekend."
"You should work on your diet next. Eat sissy, write sissy," Mario Puzo said as they started off.
"I'm going to get some Genoa salami and keep it in the house!" I shouted out to them.
"That's better," Mario Puzo said, and then, under his breath to Robert Ludlum he added, "He'll probably put cucumbers on it."
On the trip to Los Angeles my first couple of meetings with producers were unsuccessful. I don't know how these trends originated, but one of them also wanted to do a movie-of-the-week on Lyme disease. To clear my head I took a walk along Rodeo Drive and looked in the windows of the clothing stores. I was wearing a tweed jacket and slacks, which I had bought in New York. Somehow I never managed to buy any clothing when I was on the West Coast. I had these opportunities to "go a little California," but I couldn't bear the prices or the milieu of Rodeo Drive.
I set out after a while for Melrose Avenue, which had several good antique shops. As a result of my trips to the West Coast my children had a truly outstanding collection of Disney memorabilia, great Mickey Mouse watches, Donald Duck dishes; vintage items. Maybe one day they'll appreciate them as much as their father. My wife, a free-lance illustrator, didn't discourage me in this, and we kept the collection in a breakfront in the apartment. This time I found a good Mickey Mouse clock.
Returning to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where I was staying, I ran into Joe Staples in the lobby, another New York scriptwriter out to line up work. Joe was in his forties, a tall, spindly man who wore bush jackets, dark shirts, and dungarees in New York, but as soon as he came to L.A. he worked in costume. He switched to pastel colors, sneakers, and a Dodgers baseball cap as a tailoring accent. I never seemed to get out of my tweeds. And it always felt cold to me out there except in the summer, Angelenos continually apologizing for the weather, "It really isn't like this all the time. Only when you're here, Paul."
Joe and I shook hands. He had a pinkish tone to his face and I knew the man had toasted himself under the sunlamps in New York to prepare for his trip.
"Whaddaya got out here?" he asked me.
Not an innocent question. In terms of competitiveness, Staples was the Tommy Lasorda of scriptwriters.
"Just fishing around," I said.
"I got a possible series. A TV movie for sure, signed and delivered, on Joe DiMaggio. Serious interest in a sitcom—I'd also produce on that. And a long shot on a miniseries." He came close and whispered in my ear. "On Greta Garbo."
"This is generous of you, Joe, to just say it out loud, sort of."
"They're talking to a lot of writers. I give that one to you."
"I'm out here for a few days. I don't have anything so specific."
"Who you seeing?"
"What's left? Cineflex. Ronnie Hill."
He took a small pad out of his pocket and made note of that in front of me.
"What else you got?"
"Joe, I got a Mickey Mouse clock is what I got."
"I gave you the Greta Garbo."
"Lyme disease is going around. Tod Martin and Bill Maxon are both dealing in it."
"Martin already loves my closing shot. The dog who passes the disease on to the family, roaming the grounds of the empty house."
"I'm going to get right on it! I owe you one, Paul." He set out for the phones then stopped and called out to me. "The closing shot, you think the dog should look straight at the camera as we freeze-frame?"
I was involved in Great Moments in the Arts here.
"Whatever you want to express, Joe."
I spoke to my wife and children in New York, ordered room service, read the newspapers, and made some notes for my next day's meetings. Before I went to sleep I watched part of the old "Thief of Bagdad," starring Sabu, on television. Overly identifying with the character, I saw myself surmounting perils, but not for a magnificent diamond. Sabu didn't know about perils; he should have tried a few years of free-lance life. My goal was a quiet room with the bills paid in advance so I could finish my novel. It would have made for quite a story conference if I pitched a remake along the lines of my fantasy: Okay, the genie is a producer. The Sabu part is a writer. The diamond is an amnesty from American Express.
The following morning I had a meeting with the head of Cineflex Productions, Whelan Briggs. He was a fitness maniac and we were scheduled for a jogging meeting. So successful was Briggs in television that he had inspired the very concept of the jogging meeting. Other producers were now out there running along with writers and agents. Since he had several shows on the air and always had a multitude of projects in development, a common sight in Beverly Hills was some unfortunate writer out from New York trudging along trying to sell Briggs on a project between gasps. I presumed the California writers accustomed to a more outdoorsy life could keep up with him. Once I let it slip that I ran around the reservoir in Central Park a couple of times about twice a week, and Briggs had me down as one of his jogging companions. He ran eight miles each day. I didn't mind doing some exercise when I was out there but my deal with him was that I ran only the last three miles.
Briggs was in his fifties, six feet three, broad-shouldered with a full head of wavy brown hair. I am forty-seven, five feet nine with light-brown hair and eyes, and of medium build—except perhaps to California fitness maniacs, to whom I am probably chubby.
"Gained a little weight have you, Paul?" he said to me without stopping, and we set out, Briggs in a jogging suit, I in a sweatshirt and shorts. "You should move out here. Have you trim in no time. And you'd be richer than Croesus, all the work you'd get."
"It's the nature of the work that counts, isn't it?"
"You're difficult, Paul. Do you know that? It's the word on you. Hard to get."
"Sounds good to me. If you were a writer, would you want the word on you to be that you were compromising?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be a writer."
"I want you to come aboard for a sitcom. This could be a good change for you. It's about a teenager who wins the lottery. What happens in her family and her life. Write me some scripts. Be my story editor. If it goes, you'll live out here, get a house in Malibu. It'll be like winning the lottery yourself."
"I know it sounds too much in character, Whelan. But I don't want to do that kind of work."
"Three, four years, that's all you have to give it. Maybe five. You'll be in clover, and I bet you'll be up to eight miles a day, easy. Marathons. You'll be running goddamn marathons when you're through."
"I'm ready for a corn muffin."
"No is my answer, Whelan. Sorry."
"Well, then I've got a rewrite for you. Won't be available for a few weeks. This you'll like—on Joe DiMaggio."
I stopped in my tracks.
"Don't stop. You can't stop. You stop and you'll tighten up," he said, still running in place.
"You're offering me the Joe DiMaggio script to rewrite? You just hired Joe Staples! How can you be firing a writer off a project and bringing in somebody else before he's even delivered his script?"
"Just looking ahead. You can come in later and quality it up."
"Quality it up? Is that English?"
"I'm covering myself on an important project," he said—as if that explained it.
"I'm walking on this. Literally."
I walked away from him. These people were Machiavellis in sweat suits. The man was already talking to the next writer on a project when he had just hired the first. I headed back to the hotel. I had only run a few blocks but I felt I had earned my corn muffin.
The incident prompted a phone call from my agent, Peter Raskin. He was one of the most successful agents in New York for television writers, a high-strung, diminutive man in his early forties whose principal emotional state was hysteria. Whelan Briggs had called Raskin's West Coast associate, who had called Raskin. Briggs was asking for a clarification. He did not want to give a major agent and a major writer the impression that he was double-dealing. He merely had anticipated a rewrite on Staples's script and thought I might be interested. According to Briggs, our meeting came to such an abrupt end that he never had the opportunity to present his full proposal to me. Would I meet Briggs for lunch that day? He was canceling his scheduled appointment to do so.
"Paul, he wants to make nice. Mend the fence," Raskin said.
"Who cares about this guy?"
"He's important. And he's important to me. Have lunch with him. Just take the meeting."
"Where am I going to take it? Are we supposed to eat running?"
"Do it for me, will you?"
"What is he proposing?"
A long pause from my agent followed.
"Peter, what aren't you telling me?"
"Just go and listen and tell him you're not interested and the circle is complete and everyone played out their parts and nobody's angry."
"What is the project he wants to discuss?"
"He'd like you to write a two-hour movie, The Secret Loves of Benito Mussolini."
"He went to Italy and loved it and wants to do something Italian."
"Then let him take a cooking course."
"Paul, I implore you. I need a smooth working relationship with this guy."
Finally I relented as a favor to my agent. I was to meet Briggs at a trendy new Italian restaurant. We worked our way through on small talk, exchanging opinions on movies and television shows we had seen. At the end of the meal Briggs said:
"Mussolini is a fascinating character."
"You don't hear his name that often."
"History has passed him by a little, I'll grant that. But the substance is there for a memorable show. I can see it eventually on videocassettes, that kind of quality. Your kind of quality."
"It's just not my cup of espresso, Whelan."
"We'll send you to Italy for research."
"But then I still have to write it. And what I'd be writing is The Secret Loves of Benito Mussolini."
"Well, I tried to get you aboard," he said, playing out his part.
"I appreciate your taking the trouble. And so does my agent."
We shook hands, and as we were parting I said facetiously, "If it doesn't work out with anybody, you might try The Secret Loves of Woodrow Wilson."
"We'll stick with what we have," he said, taking my remark literally.
My last meeting in L.A. was with Ronnie Hill. Ronnie and I had worked together on several projects, including a movie about an unemployed auto worker, for which I was given one of the Emmys. She was thirty-four, slender with long black hair, an aquiline face, hazel eyes. She was striking enough to have been an actress on one of the programs she produced. Ronnie had been in charge of daytime programming at NBC, then established her own production company and was column-item successful. At the moment, as reported in the columns, she was going with a real-estate man with holdings in California that were reputed to be about the size of New Jersey.
We met in her office, a large space with a huge black marble desk, the decor so elaborately electronic with television sets, sound equipment and exercise apparatus that it looked like a Sharper Image showroom.
"How's Sandy, the kids?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Big Hype by Avery Corman. Copyright © 1992 Avery Corman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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