You must remember this, but many agents could not

Dec 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

My 15 minutes of fame occurred 20 years ago this month, and I’m only reminded about it because the Trio cable network has included a mostly forgotten TV sitcom, “The Famous Teddy Z,” in its current “Brilliant but Cancelled Television” series.
One of the episodes of that short-lived CBS sitcom about Teddy Zakalokis, Hollywood talent agent, was based upon those 15 minutes of mine, though series creator Hugh Wilson never bothered to tell me he had “borrowed” my story and filmed it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Growing up in Los Angeles during the late ’50s and early ’60s, I became, not surprisingly, a movie buff. But just as much as going to the theater and seeing such films as “The Magnificent Seven,” “Queen of Outer Space” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” it was watching movies on the small screen that made me love the big screen.
Movies were a staple of TV back then, and between the nightly “Million Dollar Movie” on RKO’s KHJ-TV and the weekly “Fabulous 52” on CBS’s KNXT-TV, I got quite an education.
I quickly became of fan of all the big stars of the ’40s, from Rita Hayworth to John Garfield to Bette Davis. I liked no stars more than Bogart and Bergman, and seeing “Casablanca” for the first time-on TV, of course-was revelatory.
If there had been a better, more enjoyable movie ever made, I hadn’t seen it-and still haven’t.
Would agents recognize it?
Evidently a lot of people agree with me. In 1977 TV Guide conducted a poll and up to that time “Casablanca” was the most popular, most frequently shown film on TV. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1943, and its accolades are far too numerous to list here.
So back in 1982 I decided to try a little experiment. Would the people who start the ball rolling on movie projects-agents-recognize this classic if it stared them in the face?
I decided to find out. I typed up the Academy Award-winning screenplay of “Casablanca,” one of the most famous, recognizable scripts ever written, and sent it around to all 217 agencies then on the agency list of the Writers Guild of America.
Ninety of the agencies declined to read the unsolicited script, which I submitted under the title “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”-the name of the unproduced play the film was based upon. I made only one alteration in the script, mainly to amuse myself as I was typing it up: Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.
Here’s the fun part: Of the 85 agencies that claimed to have read the script, 41 rejected it outright, eight more rejected it and thought it resembled “Casablanca,” three wanted to represent it, and one wanted to turn it into a novel. Only 33 recognized the classic screenplay.
The comments made by the agents, both those who recognized the script and those who didn’t, were priceless.
“Have some excellent ideas on casting this wonderful script, but most of the actors are dead,” wrote one agent who saw through the ruse. Wrote another: “Unfortunately, I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.”
From some of the agents who were clueless: “Interesting script, but because it is done on location we feel it would be a difficult sell.” Or this gem: “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script. Try for a script that has audience identification and one that can be filmed in the U.S.”
I guess they would have turned down “Star Wars” because, according to this logic, it had to be filmed in outer space.
My favorite response was from one agent who sent me the following letter: “We tried to call you, but your phone is not listed. We like your script and submitted it to a studio.”
I immediately called the agent who signed the letter.
ME: Which studio did you submit it to?
SHE: I really don’t tell.
ME: Don’t you have to have my permission to do that?
SHE: Oh no. You don’t pay us-we are a special kind of agency. You don’t have to pay us anything until we sell something for you. Then there will be a contract with the studio, a lawyer and you.
ME: You do this without contacting me first?
SHE: Yes. There is a 90-day period when we don’t make any contracts with any writers or talents while we see if the studio likes the material. … You have a good storyline. You have interesting characters. Rick is the most interesting character in it. And the couple-he is a Czechoslovakian? His name is Laszlo. Are you Hungarian?
ME: No.
SHE: Because Laszlo is a Hungarian name. I am Hungarian. And I know you made Laszlo Czechoslovakian, but there are a lot of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia.
After a number of months I got the script back from her, though she never told me what studios she had supposedly submitted it to.
Well anyway, as you might imagine, the article I wrote about the experiment, which was published in the December 1982 Film Comment magazine, got lots of media play, and I was interviewed by a number of print, radio and TV outlets.
Hugh Wilson comes calling
Flash forward seven years. I’m at my desk at the San Francisco Chronicle, where I’m the TV writer. I get a call from John Carman, the paper’s TV critic, who is attending the July TV Critic’s Association conference in the L.A. area.
He tells me that he has just attended a session about an upcoming CBS series, “The Famous Teddy Z,” and showrunner Hugh Wilson is regaling the critics about the experiment I had done with “Casablanca,” telling them that one of the episodes of the series was based on this incident.
“Did he mention my name?”
“No,” Carman said. “He didn’t say who did it. But he said they’ve already shot a show with that as the premise.”
A few hours later I was speaking to Wilson on the phone. I had interviewed him before, about other shows he had created, such as “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I told him to tell me about this upcoming episode of the new fall series “The Famous Teddy Z.” Oh, yes, he said, it’s quite something, all based on this true story about someone who submitted the script of `Casablanca’ to a number of agents and lots of them didn’t recognize it.
Er, Hugh, I said, you’re talking to the guy who did that.
Oh really, he replied. Well congratulations-I loved that.
I’m glad, Hugh, but don’t you need my permission to base an episode of your new TV series on an article I wrote?
Hmm, you think? Really? Gee, I never thought of that. I’ll have someone from my staff call you. And then he quickly hung up.
A few hours later, I received a call from a woman telling me that Hugh had asked her to call to give me some money. Then her voice turned very professional as she offered me something like a buck fifty, saying she really didn’t have to offer me anything.
Hmm, I said, and what do you do for Hugh?
Well, actually, I don’t work for Hugh, she said. I’m head of legal affairs for Columbia Tri-Star TV.
I see. Lemme call you back.
At that point I called a lawyer friend of mine who handled the entire negotiation. I ended up with a few more bucks than their initial offer, plus I insisted on getting a screen credit reading “Story by” during the show’s opening credits. The episode, known as both “Teddy Gets Fired” and “Mr. Zakalokis Goes to Washington,” aired on Oct. 30, 1989. It was written by Bob Wilcox, a man I don’t know and have never met.
It was strange watching the episode. Though based on my experiment, it really bore no resemblance, in the details, to what I had done. Of course the teleplay had been done without my input or even my knowledge.
Here’s a synopsis of the show that I found on the Internet the other day: “Teddy’s boss gives him a script to read. Unknown to both, it is a slightly modified version of `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ which a client is passing to all the top agents for an article he is writing on Hollywood agents. Teddy takes the script to a studio to try to get it made. …”
Why Wilson had changed the name of the well-known script in question to “Mr. Smith” I never found out. Maybe even he felt it strained credibility t
o think that Hollywood agents wouldn’t recognize “Casablanca.”
Well, so much for my one and only screen credit. And thank you, Trio, for bringing back “The Famous Teddy Z” and “Action” and “The Ernie Kovacs Show” and “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” for these holiday encores.
P.S. “Teddy Gets Fired” can be seen on Trio this coming Sunday, Dec. 22, at 11 a.m. (ET). My original article about my experiment can be found on emonline.com.
P.P.S. I firmly believe that if I were to repeat my experiment today, using “Casablanca” or some other well-known film, the results would be similar to those I got 20 years ago.