With tensions climaxing, the filmmakers wonder if they can convince the famous actor to quit. 1,649 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Operation Death moved through the studio slowly but surely. Casting proceeded apace. Costume fittings were routine for a contemporary picture. Naturally, Forsyth would be contractually permitted to keep his clothes. Sets went up on schedule and, as expected, Dr. Doherty’s home, seen in only one quick sequence, was decked out with expensive dark brown shag carpeting.
Director-screenwriter Allan Spanner was Overseeing storyboards for the screenplay when his agent ordered him to find some place private to take the call. He chose the men’s room off the office.
“Are you sitting down?” the rep asked. “I just got a call from Pete Trimble, the newspaper columnist for one of the Chicago papers. He said he was letting you know that, under Writers Guild rules, a writer who is hired to write behind another writer has to inform the first writer.”
“What are you getting at?” Spanner asked.
“Pete Trimble is a friend of Brendan Forsyth. It looks like your old buddy has hired his old buddy to rewrite your script.”
“You mean the one we’re starting to shoot on Monday.”
“Do something about it.”
“I’m working on it,” the agent said. “I’ve got a call in to both producers, Greene and Hoffman. Maybe you should head over to their office.”
“Pay no attention to Trimble,” Hoffman assured. “You’re directing your script.”
“You’re missing the point,” Spanner said. “Forsyth doesn’t have to put knives in our backs to prove he can go behind us.”
“Maybe Trimble’s changes are worth considering,” Green chimed in.
“I’ll take suggestions from anybody. I encourage it. The best line in my last picture was a wisecrack one of the electricians made,” Spanner insisted. “But this has nothing to do with the good of the picture. It has everything to do with the good of Brendan Forsyth who’s scared to expand his screen image. He wants to turn a dramatic medical thriller into one of his forgettable action movies. He never should have taken the role if he wanted to do that.”
Spanner ran his fingers through his thinning hair and turned toward the producers’ second floor window. Their view from the executive building showed everybody entering or leaving the main gate. Years ago, the mogul who’d founded the studio watched the stars leaving after a hard day and lamented to a reporter, “This is the only industry where the business assets go home every night.”
“Look,” Spanner said, breaking his reverie, “I think I’d better have another one-on-one with Forsyth. Either he’s trying to get rid of me or he’s just doing it for sport. But it can’t go on.”
The two men met at a hot new place on Sunset. Forsyth was uncomfortable because he wasn’t known there, which is why Spanner insisted on it. Neutral territory. Both men ordered drinks which neither of them touched.
“I’m glad you wanted to get together,” Forsyth began. “I assume you know about Pete Trimble.”
“I do,” Spanner said calmly. “He felt compelled to call me under the rules of the Writers Guild. I would have preferred you call me under the rules of friendship.”
“Don’t be so thin-skinned,” Forsyth said a little coldly, or so Spanner thought. “We’ve come a long way since summer stock. I need to protect my assets.”
“I don’t know what that means. What assets?”
“A ‘Brendan Forsyth Picture’,” the actor said. “People expect it.”
“I always figured that a ‘Brendan Forsyth Picture’ is any picture you’re in,” Spanner countered. “Let me just ask you flat-out: are you afraid to stretch as an actor?”
“Stretch, no,” Forsyth said. “Snap and break, yes. Remember that FBI picture I made three years ago? Undercover Thug?” He’d portrayed a brave FBI agent who infiltrated a skinhead organization and brought the leaders to justice. “Wouldn’t you call that a stretch? The critics did.”
“Sure,” said Spanner. “Only you were still playing it safe.You played the only skinhead in the world who had long perfectly styled hair while everybody else in the room was shaved bald.”
“Because I was the goddamn star of the goddamn movie!” Forsyth yelled.
“You know what that said to me? You weren’t prepared to go the distance for the sake of your art. I was hoping you would go the distance for me, but perhaps not.”
“Funny about people,” Forsyth hit back. “I came here hoping to persuade you to compromise, and you start off attacking me for wanting to make a better picture. That’s why I brought Pete in. He’s working on the car chase.”
Spanner froze. “What car chase? What car chase?” Spanner repeated.
“Act three. I can’t believe you missed it.”
“If I missed it, it’s because it shouldn’t be there. In act three, you’re being driven to the hospital by a Secret Service. To save the President’s life, you need to operate. But no one knows you’re drunk. Who could be chasing you?”
“We could drive in separate cars and chase each other.”
“That’s asinine. But you also have to sneak a snort from your hidden flask so you can drink yourself sober before you get to the O.R. If you drive yourself alone, that’s no challenge.”
“Get rid of the flask and have me pull off the road, do a fast pop in a bar, and get back in the car.”
“Brendan, you’re running amok. If you don’t want to do the picture, just pull out now and we’ll deal with it.”
Forsyth replied through clenched teeth. “I want to do the film. I want to work with you. I want this to be not a new direction for me as an artist, but a direction on top of my current direction. I want to be multi-directional.”
“Then let’s just do the script the way I wrote it, the way you and the studio approved it, and the way everybody who read the book is expecting it. I promise to protect every dimension of you.”
Both men fell silent. Finally, Forsyth extended his hand.
“You’re right. I panicked. I always do before a big film, and this one’s really important for me.”
“Thank you,” Spanner said. “Now let’s get something to eat.”
Forsyth opened his menu. “There is one small change I’d like you to make as a favor to me. Do I have to be a drunk?”
“How do you fire Brendan Forsyth?” Greene asked.
“You don’t,” Hoffman said, looking over the star’s contract. “He has a pay or play deal. The studio wanted him so badly, they signed this in the dark.”
“Plus the only reason we got fast-track approval is that he said yes,” Spanner added. “How do you fire a guy who was the reason for making the picture?”
“What if all of us quit instead,” Hoffman suggested. The others fell silent. “Okay, I apologize. I had a sudden attack of principles. I promise it won’t happen again.”
Spanner perked up. “What if we get Forsyth to quit? Then are we obligated to pay him?”
“Not if he’s the one who abrogates,” Greene said. “I had this happen on one of my first pictures. The star got a better deal and bolted. We found someone else and the company even sued the first star to cover the second one’s salary.”
“What would make Forsyth leave the picture?” Hoffman asked.
“Apparently the script,” Spanner answered. “You can’t make a picture about an alcoholic who doesn’t fall off the wagon. That’s like making a musical where nobody sings.”
“How can we make him pull his own plug?” Hoffman asked.
“Ratchet up the stakes,” Spanner suggested. “Let’s see how far he’ll go, and then we go further. Make Dr. Doherty sexually impotent from drinking. Make him steal prescription drugs. Make him molest his dead daughter. Brendan will quit.”
Unsurprisingly, the first shot was fired not by Forsyth but his agent. “You had to be a hard-ass, didn’t you?” Don Masaroff brayed at Greene. “You and your artsy-fartsy movie. This is all your fault. He wouldn’t star in it now if you gave him two Porsches and carpeted his entire house.”
“Sorry to lose him,” Greene lied. “We still want him to do the picture. This is his decision, not ours.”
“I’ll just move him into any of ten other projects,” Masaroff warned. “But you guys are losing a sweet payday. I wouldn’t be surprised if they canceled the picture.”
“On the contrary,” Greene noted. “We’re going forward with a new star who likes the script the way it is. The studio is fully behind him.” Then the producer on the phone smiled, which the agent sensed. “The execs have worked with him before.”
As it happened, Allan Spanner didn’t direct Operation Death nor did Hoffman and Greene use his script. They signed another director and commissioned a new screenplay that was so sharp and clean that Spanner didn’t bother filing for Writers Guild arbitration. He was paid but, as a courtesy to the producers, he declined his pay-or-play director’s fee.
Operation Death was a smash and led to a multipicture deal for Greene and Hoffman. Spanner had no regrets. “I learned a long time ago to never do a project that you’re not totally committed to because, in the end, you will have worked for three years and achieved nothing for it but heartache.” The new actor playing Dr. Doherty won an Oscar nomination and made an effortless transition from romantic leads to character roles, extending his career by a decade.
On occasion, Spanner would run into Forsyth, both seasoned showbiz vets who knew every trick in the book to one-up the other. They’d reminisce about working together at the Springfield Melody Tent and lie about working together again in the future. It occurred to Spanner that what they were nostalgic for at such times was not summer stock — but their youth and frienship and innocence.