A nation loses its virginity with `James at 15′

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It began in the fall of 1976 with a phone call to my Boston townhouse. The hot young executive du jour of Twentieth Century Fox Television said he liked my novel “Going All the Way” and asked: “Would you like to write a television script?” I joked to friends it was like a call from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio saying, “If you can answer this question, you get a lifetime of free tango lessons.”
The next thing I knew I was rocketing over the twists and turns of the road from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the San Fernando Valley in the Fox man’s sports car to pitch our story to NBC. The problem was, we had no story, just the vague line of “a boy growing up in America.” All I knew was the boy’s name and age-James was 15. The Fox man told the NBC execs it was a fresh, innovative concept, so unique we could only reveal the title: “James at 15.” They loved it but asked: What would we call it if the show went to a second season? Fox-man leaned forward and spoke as if revealing the secret of the universe. “We’ll call it,” he said, “James at 16.” They gasped; they bought it.
The two-hour pilot aired the night of Labor Day in 1977 and was No. 1 for the week. To make the glory more golden, I was proud of the show, working with a cast and crew I loved, headed by executive producers Martin Manulis, a former producer of the legendary “Playhouse 90” (and recent head of the American Film Institute), and Joe Hardy, a classy Broadway director of hits like “Charlie Brown.”
Success seemed assured when NBC Programming told us to tailor the show for Sunday night at 8 against “The Six Million Dollar Man,” whose parts by then were rusting. We were shocked to read in Variety later that we were slated to run at 9 p.m. on Thursday against the popular “Barney Miller” and the long-running “Hawaii Five-O.” No explanation was given. Even more surprising was that our show was always being pre-empted. Our network bosses later explained that the reason we never had more than three episodes aired in a row was because of a brilliant new strategy called “stunting” designed to pump life in their ratings by pre-empting weekly series with one-shot “specials” like magic shows and musicals.
Though our ratings weren’t bad in spite of these pre-emptions and a time slot when many of our potential viewers had to be in bed, our fan mail and reviews were nearly all raves. But a new set of network programmers never liked the show or its closely knit team of creators. Manulis, Hardy and I were accused of being “East Coast intellectuals” who didn’t know what “the real people think.” When our 11 commissioned episodes were up, we were renewed for another nine to make a full season, but Manulis and Hardy were fired, thus ripping the heart out of “James.”
Enter the brilliant VP inventor of “stunting” to order the content of the next three episodes: (1) James will lose his virginity when his uncle gives him a hooker for his 16th birthday present; (2) James gets his driver’s license; (3) James fears he has contracted a venereal disease. Our Fox man persuaded the stunting veep to drop the uncle and the hooker, letting James lose his cherry through less tawdry circumstances: He falls in love with a Swedish exchange student, thus avoiding prostitution as his “coming of age” initiation. This ploy was also designed to spare any All-American girl from sullying her reputation with premarital sex. (As Johnny would have said, “I kid you not!”)
I wrote the script of that episode with the assurance of the NBC Programming Department that James, as a bright kid and a role model to millions of young viewers, would make clear his awareness of birth control and be responsible for not getting the girl pregnant. The NBC Board of Standards and Practices (known to the layperson as “censors”) had cut out a scene from the pilot in which a friend of James revealed that he carried a condom-though of course without using the word “condom,” which in 1977 was a TV taboo. James’ reference to it as that thing his friend carried in his wallet but never used was thought to be too risque by NBC censors.
Knowing I couldn’t use the word “condom,” I wrote a scene using dialogue I thought not even the censors could fault. Before going to bed with the girl, James asks her if she’s “responsible,” or did he have to be “responsible”? In “notes” that even Orwell would have found hard to believe, the NBC censors said those speeches had to be cut. I quit.
My decision was further enforced when I was told that if James had sex before marriage at age 16 (an idea ordered by the NBC Programming veep), he would have to “suffer and be punished as a result.” That was a message I had grown up with but refused to pass on to another generation.
Linden Chiles, the fine actor who played the father of James, gave me a piece of fatherly advice. “Dan,” he said, “go back to Boston.” Finally, I did.
The show was aired with James losing his virginity and turning 16, enabling the network to call the series “James at 15/16.” The censors’ “morality” was satisfied when in the next episode he suffered the anguish of fearing he’d got VD. (If only he had used a condom!) Despite excellent scripts by Ron Rubin, the veteran from our staff (Ron and I had been the entire writing staff) and discovery of new talent (actress Debra Winger and writer April Smith), the whole enterprise seemed to have lost its steam. The rest of the 11 commissioned shows were aired, but there weren’t even rumors of renewal. R.I.P. “James at 15,” a kid whose next birthday was hurried up in the vain hope of goosing the ratings.
Dan Wakefield was nominated for a National Book Award for the novel “Going All the Way.” He also wrote the screenplay for the 1997 movie version, starring Ben Affleck.
Footnote: In the spring of 1978, a few months after James lost his virginity on TV, CBS aired a TV version of Judy Blume’s novel “Forever,” in which a high school girl goes to a birth control clinic before making love to her boyfriend and gets a diaphragm, speaking the actual word on the screen. The world went on, and “the real people” did not revolt, nor seem to be shocked. “Forever” was praised, as “James at 15” had been, by the parents’ group Action for Children’s Television, as well as by the critics.