EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
I raised my hand to stop him from his appointed wounds. “You want to tell me that after all my service to the man, after reading five thousand scripts and helping to produce as many movies as he had mourners, along with six television series that lasted into syndication and beyond, after I found so much gold in his slush pile, for all I earned in generous salary, I am to receive no share of what he couldn’t take with him?”
“Not at all Martin; he, we, want to recognize the contribution you made, if overstate,” said Redoubtable. “You’re getting a piece of Death Squad.”
A piece of America’s favorite television show, I know what you’re thinking, you think, “Martin’s getting riiiich,” but you’re not asking the salient question that I put to the lawyer. “Am I getting a piece of the whole franchise or one of the spin-offs? If I can pick, I’ll take three of his points in Death Squad: Miami.”
He rested an appalling paw on my shoulder, and if condescension were an Olympic sport… well, it’s not, of course. But were it a sport, he’d have the gold until he lost it because of the steroids.
“Martin, Martin, smile, you’re getting one and a half gross points, JBT’s best definition, in Death Squad: Albany.”
“But that’s only in its second season, and the ratings are shaky. Until Death Squad: Albany lasts for seven years, you know the back end is smoke.”
“The bequest is in the old man’s will, but maybe we can find a way to make you if not whole, at least happy, er, happier,” said Redoubtable, taking from the table a chocolate fudge ball the size of a cat eye marble, and slipping it into his maw, to end his sentence with a dot, like so. To make me happier in his view was to settle some more cash on me at the cost of the points. Yeah, sure, three million, that’s my guess, not dreadful, no complaint, but still, I complain. He stared at me while chewing too slowly on the ball that should have melted by now if his body temperature wasn’t Celsius zero. He walked away. I could have raised my voice, but as JBT always reminded me, “Never pick a fight at a dead man’s funeral.” When he first proposed the admonition not to quarrel among the grieving, it became, at least for me, a mystical paradox. Since nothing JBT offered as a principle of deducible wisdom was ever quite right, I searched for a reason why a funeral might in the right context be in fact the absolutely no better place to pick a fight. Redoutable’s funerary business negotiation beside all of that bundled sugar and butter made clear to me what crafty reversal JBT intended. By picking the fight, Redoubtable made it awkward for me to fight back. God’s own “Death Squad: Hollywood” had taken my boss into Franchise: Heaven and since to be dead is a nullity, my career was the only true corpse at the cemetery. Hollywood Forever, indeed.
Thirty-five years is a short time when it’s all you know, so when the job ended, the time spent at it collapsed into a few trains of memory, and the first day connected to the final day and I left my office without cleaning it out because by JBT’s example I kept nothing personal on the shelves and nothing to embarrass me in the cabinets, except for a collection of baseball caps, crew gift swag from the last seven of our movies. I don’t wear baseball hats. They presume less hair and I have plenty. Rogaine, pass me by.
After the funeral I went home, to my condominium in one of the new towers on Sunset near Vine. I’ll be no more specific than that, since the building does a good job of blocking Hancock Park’s view of the Hollywood sign and the dull hills, and this absent presence makes enemies for me. Yes, I’m the one in the way, and I don’t care, frankly, and if you lived here with my views, you’d get used to overcoming a bad eco-conscience. Fuck the little people. From the 9 white letters I draw comfort or punishment depending on my mood. And I don’t have to look at them. I can also turn around and watch the city, all those lights down Western, down Vermont, to the terra bunda. I have the penthouse, a full floor and a balcony. The place is paid for, baby. I made good money.
I should have made more.
Illustration by John Donald Carlucci
I took to my favorite chair and turning my back on the Sign, watched the day withdraw from the city as my own self-confidence ebbed. I admit this. I was scared. It was about the money and also other things. Redoutable’s offer to make me happier meant that they would prefer to settle the account now and assume that whatever it cost to buy my few points in the show, it would be less than what they’d try not to pay me when the show lasted through syndication. Damn it, I said to myself, if the universe is just and our enemies are the best teachers and ye reap what ye sow, what else could I have done during my time with JBT to glom onto a better deal?
I chewed my bile over this well after midnight until I heard my phone’s silence. Let me explain what I mean. In the week since JBT’s passing, no one had called to ask after me, no one had called to see how I was feeling now that the man for whom I worked so hard was gone. The life that I had filled up with service to his cause was over, and all the men and women in that life were part of that world only, the shared world of work. There were some intimacies, familiarities, alliances, allegiances, some I trusted, some would betray every confidence, but without the job, I was just this guy they knew from work, this guy you almost never met without some other guy also being in the room, usually a higher on the ladder guy. No one thought to ring me because if the protocols of commiseration obliged a service call, it would have been to the other guy in the room, whichever other guy they happened to know.
The longer my phone went without ringing, the louder the silence, until nothing remained in my living room except silence and a little nubbin of me.
The magic wand doesn’t make the frog a prince; the magic wand only shows you that all along, the prince was already there. The wand clears the dust from your own eyes, or in my case, cleared if not dust, then the wax from my ears. So the magic wand touched me. You may wonder why it took this petit miracle to make my next move obvious, but in the weeks since the old man’s final Texas yodel, I had thought only about the empty place in my life that for so long had been filled with fear of getting fired. And now here I was, fired by God, you might say.
I turned around and crossed the living room to look at the sign, which was now a Sign. “This won’t be easy, will it?” I asked.
Now it’s one sort of thing to look for a job for the first time in thirty-five years and it’s another thing to actually get one.
Redoubtable set up a series of meetings. You’re surprised he helps? Don’t be. I went back to him because he was the one most eager to get me away from the remains of JBT Productions as the executors butchered the ex-wives out of the will’s intentions. I knew what the executors were up to, and what so stingingly hurt was that I wished I had known what kind of man I needed to have been so they would have included me in their dark project, wiping their fingerprints off revised codicils.
Three weeks of meetings at the networks and the studios, and all I learned was what I already knew, the business really had changed in my thirty-five years and I may have pushed those changes along but there was nothing for me, anywhere.
I made a mistake at… well, I won’t tell you where but it was stupid of me. I said this much to the head of the division I thought could use my talents, the fellow was, yes, thirty-five. “Thirty-five years old,” I said. “I got here the year you were born. 1980. Thirty-five years subtracted from 1980 is 1945. There wasn’t a single producer or creative executive working in 1980 who had been here since 1945 except, possibly, a few teamsters. Dick Zanuck, may he rest in peace, qualifies, but he was fathered in.”
The young executive looked at me like I was, well, like I was too old. A strange slip of the tongue, he said, “Thank you for your service,” like we were at the airport and I was a Marine in uniform and he was picking up the tab for my Frappuccino.
Redoubtable called me as I was getting into my car. “I’ve run out of all my do-me-a-favors, Martin. You had a good run. I don’t know what else to say.”
“It can’t be over. There has to be someplace that can make me useful.”
“Do you watch much reality television?”
“I kind of got hooked on House Hunters International, does that qualify?”
“It’ll do. There’s a reality network that wants to shift to scripted, and maybe I can bullshit your way in, if you can avoid telling them how old you are, even though it’s on the public record.”
And that is how I came to my first meeting with Fisher Krawl, head of reality-based fiction at STD-TV, the Sickness Network, as the slogan puts it, “STD-TV: It’s Infectious!”
Krawl: “They don’t make them like JBT anymore.”
Me: “They didn’t before him, either.”
Krawl: “And how long were you there?”
Me: “Oh God. Years. Thirty-five years.”
He asked, I had to answer.
Krawl: “Wow, you got your job with JBT four years before I was even born. Think of that, swing a pivot on how long you’ve been here and thirty-five years before you started, it was the Second World War.”
What a delight, we share banalities.
Me: “And William Bendix was a star.”
Krawl: “Who?” Of course the card castle had to fall.
Me: A pointless lecture on film history. Yes, it was true, and thirty-five years before William Bendix, Birth Of A Nation had not been filmed. I was too old again.
I stood and left the room, whistling Happy Trails.
And again, the phone as I get into my car, again, attorney Redoubtable.
“Who the fuck is William Bendix?”
What could I say? “William Bendix never failed me. He was my real father.”
“I met your father at JBT’s office once. That was William Bendix?”
“That was my biological father, not the man who taught me to be comfortable in my own bulky body. My biological father never played Babe Ruth or Reilly.”
There was silence while Redoubtable checked his phone to see a picture of William Bendix. I heard a YouTube clip of Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story.
“That’s him,” I said.
“Nothing special,” said Redoubtable, “Why does he look like the world is always surprising him? He mugs for the camera.”
“I am too old, I have been here too long, my shirts don’t stay neatly in my pants, I breathe heavily, like an old fat dog on a rug, and I talk too often about movies and stars from my childhood.”
“Then forget all of that.”
Everyone was young and if they weren’t young, they had to hire young, and if they didn’t have to hire young, if they could hire anyone they wanted, they still didn’t want to hire me.
I said, “This isn’t working. You’re aiming too high for me. The companies you have sent me to are well run by talented men and women who make assiduous decisions based on a deep empathy for what the audience still wants to see but is denied. They are specialists in the niche, they are brilliant. They have a cultural context that I…” and I stopped. A blinding while light circled around me and before entering the base of my spine, turned golden yellow and then circled each vertebra before rising through the top of my skull and pushing my eyeballs out of my socket, and this was no exaggeration, poor attorney Redoubtable almost threw up watching this distension.
If everyone I met was around forty, and I am what I am, I had to become like them. I recalled Fisher Krawl, the STD-TV executive who was ignorant of William Bendix. “Babe Ruth,” he called me, picking up the phone. I was about to say, “Like the candy bar,” but I wasn’t sure if the Babe Ruth candy bar was still for sale.
“Give me that job,” I said. And then a little too quickly, skipping the chat, I asked him, “What year were you born?”
I was impressed that he answered without resistance. I answered honestly. “I want to know more about what you know, not what you don’t know. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure. After the meeting I looked you up. You made some cool movies.”
“So what I’ve done is part of your cultural framework?”
“I guess. Sure. Look, I’ll be honest with you. We’re not just the network for sick people anymore. Research shows a demographic for people who want to identify as sick but don’t want to be targeted as identifiers. They want to be targeted as sick.”
“Any particular kind of sick?”
"Well, that’s the problem: you favor one, you insult the other. We need help. Can’t pay much, but if you can help, we need it. Can you help?”
My life already encompassed theirs, but I knew too much from before they were born. My great metaphysical challenge was this, of course I recognized Urkel, but in Urkel I also saw all the annoying TV neighbors, and it was those antecedents I had to erase. I had to be fresh to Urkel. I had to be fresh to Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. I had to be fresh to Alf. I had to offset at least thirty years of cultural referents. I had to invent for myself a lazy babysitter who let me stay up and watch Quantum Leap while she suckled her boyfriend. I had to forget Walter Cronkite. I had to forget My Favorite Martian and Father Knows Best and Jimmy Dodd and Spring Byington and Arthur Godfrey, I had to do something active, it’s hard to erase but I could override. I had to fill in the time the faded icons robbed from me in all the years that I watched them.
But Fisher Krawl, he knew he was tomorrow’s toast without my JBT baked wisdom.
There would be gold in disease if I could marry his Zeit with my Geist.
So to work.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season