A screenwriter turned TV scripter gets a shocking assignment from his old studio boss. 2,996 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Dave Peterson was racing against a deadline. The F.B.I. teleplay was due in the morning and he planned to pull an all-nighter to finish it. Glancing up from his typewriter, he stared directly at a bottle of booze and sighed. Not tonight, buddy. But I’ll take a rain check. He was alone. Tiki, his Greek-born ex-wife, had run off with her boss, a fruit wholesaler from Woodland Hills. Didn’t even ask for alimony. Had even joked that, if he tried to divorce her for adultery, she would sue him for alienation of affection and name Jack Daniels and Smith Corona as correspondents.
He was jolted by the telephone. He checked his watch. No one called at this hour except for his buddy Joel Rodgers when he needed a loan or a ride for poker night, and that wasn’t until Friday.
“David. It’s Doreen, Jules Azenberg’s assistant.”
“Doreen?” he replied, surprised. No, not surprised. Flabbergasted.
“You must be thinking, ‘How long has it been?’” she said with a brittle chuckle.
“Yes,” he replied, trying to recover.
“You sound busy,” she continued.
“Actually, I was in the middle of…”
“So let me get right to it. Mr. Azenberg would like you to come in for a meeting tomorrow.”
“A meeting? Dave asked. “With me?”
Of all the people Dave never expected to hear from again, Jules Azenberg was at the top of the list. Azenberg was one of the few remaining vestiges of Hollywood’s golden era. Back in the early 1950s, he’d signed Dave to his first contract shortly after the vet landed in Los Angeles fresh from a two-year stint in Korea where he’d helped edit the Army newspaper. Just as with the other writers on whom Jules had lavished attention like a doting father and proffered paternal advice at the studio, Dave realized he would sooner or later incur the boss’s displeasure. But Dave was a roll-with-the-punches kind of guy with no stomach for confrontation. So, when his contract at the studio was not renewed with no official explanation, he just packed his things and left. No fuss, no recrimination. It had ended as unexpectedly as it had begun.
As far as Dave knew, he was still on Azenberg’s brown-list. (“That’s brown, as in the color of shit,” as the studio titan used to say). The brown list was for all those who had committed equally unpardonable and surprisingly opaque offenses. Unlike his peers, Azenberg never let business stand in the way of a personal grudge. He Azenberg treated his family the same way. Both of Jules’ sons had been killed in World War II after volunteering for active duty against their father’s wishes and refusing to let him to exert his influence to secure them cushy office positions. Philip never come back from a battle to take over a Pacific island that served no strategic purpose. Jules Jr.’s plane went down over France a few days before the end of the war. Their photos hung behind Jules’ desk – face to the wall.
Jules was the first to admit he was not a forgiving man. “It takes a lot to make me angry. So if I’m mad at you, it means I have a good reason to be.’’
A fellow grunt who worked as an assistant editor had helped arrange an interview for Dave with the head of personnel at Argot Pictures. The studio was looking for someone to consult on a couple of war-themed projects in development. “I think you’re just the guy Jules is looking for,” the executive said as he perused Dave’s clippings, and hired him on the spot.
“But don’t I need to meet Mr. Azenberg first?” Dave asked.
“Oh, you’ll meet him. He’s going to be in your hair from this day forward.”
A luncheon was arranged and cancelled several times. When Dave finally broke bread with his new boss in the studio commissary, Azenberg didn’t say much. He spent the time studying Dave closely. Finally, the mogul nodded to the writer, “You’ll do just fine. Welcome aboard. And a word of warning. Keep away from the Commies. Want to split a dessert?”
Dave proved to have a knack for storytelling and Jules was so pleased by the vet’s input on the war scripts, a contract was offered. So Dave became a member of Jules’ writers club, a hand-picked group of men over whom the boss rode herd.
In the beginning, Jules took Dave under his wing. They spoke at least once a week and lunched together on the third Thursday of every month where Jules gave him voluminous script notes. By the 1950s, after thirty years in the business and hundreds of films, Jules had a keen sense of story. Through trial and error, he’d learned where all the emotional buttons were and just how and when to push them. Many of the contract writers resented Jules’ critiques – all written in the margins in large swirling calligraphy with his Mont Blanc fountain pen. But Dave welcomed the boss’s input. Except for his experiences in the Army and a half-finished play he’d used as a writing sample, Dave was a greenhorn, a Nebraska farm boy who’d only completed two years of college before being drafted. Many of Jules’ hand-picked writers were from similarly humble backgrounds. They even kind of looked alike – tall, on the thin side, with simple American Gothic features.
During Dave’s last year in the feature department however, the script notes grew increasingly vague and one word constantly surfaced: soft. “Dave, the writing here is a little soft’’ or “Dave, the action sequences have something soft about them.’’ It was inevitable, Dave thought, that sooner or later someone would bring to Jules’ attention that the writer was soft on Communism.
Though resolutely apolitical, during his stay at Argot, Dave had befriended several directors and writers who’d been winnowed out of Hollywood jobs for past left-leaning affiliations. But Dave saw no reason to sever ties. None of them were zealots: simply idealistic and at times naïve, particularly when it came to Stalin, though most had already abandoned the party by the time the Soviet leader’s atrocities came to light. Didn’t matter. Dave was tarred with guilt by association.
Jules stopped inviting Dave to lunch. As a result, they never spoke. After he was moved over to television, Dave often ran into the boss in the parking lot and saw that Jules looked in another direction. Then, one day, Dave learned that his contract wasn’t being renewed. He couldn’t even remember who told him. When he stopped by to say goodbye to Jules and thank him for the experience, Doreen said that Mr. A was on his way to New York to a board meeting. It wasn’t true, but at least an excuse had been made; Dave wasn’t slapped-off the way some of his former co-workers had been. Over the years, several had rebelled against Jules’ domination or simply outgrown him and, as term contracts became increasingly rare, moved on to prosperous freelance careers at competing studios. But once they stopped working for Argot, especially if they’d originally been one of Jules’ chosen few, they were no longer welcome on the lot, even to visit a friend. Jules demanded loyalty at all costs and little escaped his notice.
After Dave careened down the Cahuenga Pass toward Hollywood and reached the front gate of the Argot Pictures lot in his yellow Mustang convertible, he waited for the guard to call Azenberg’s office. The writer drove slowly to visitor parking and noticed how much had changed. There was no longer a wardrobe department or a make-up building. The bread and circus atmosphere was replaced by a modern assembly-line business – more suits, less greasepaint.
Cruising past his former office window, Dave saw that the suite of offices right inside the gate, known affectionately as the writers block, was now home to TV production offices. But he thought he smelled cigarette smoke wafting through the small port-hole windows that dotted the second floor of the faceless cement structure. It had been less an office and more of a holding cell with harsh fluorescent lights and no air-conditioning where scripters like himself had spent their days procrastinating by swapping stories with fellow prisoners.
Azenberg still occupied the same clubby wood-paneled suite in the main production building, a two-story white stucco edifice at the north end of the college campus-style quadrangle. As Dave entered through the heavy walnut double doors, Doreen peered over her wire-rims. She’d been Jules’ main assistant for the past twenty-five years. A chorus of younger beauties, some of them legitimate secretaries, had worked beside her. But she sat alone now due to the studio’s budget cutbacks and Jules’ waning sexual appetite after a prostate operation in the early 1960s.
Since this merger with Echo Finance Corporation in 1965, Jules was merely the vestigial head of Argot Pictures with his perks and some voting stock along with the bragging rights to running one of the industry’s most consistently successful production operations for more than four decades. But he was kept on because he represented the glamour of old Hollywood which is what had attracted Echo to acquire the studio in the first place. He was good window dressing at premieres, which he now always attended with Scott Templeton, Echo’s CEO who hailed from the company’s home base in Atlanta, and Edgar Schacter, who actually ran the studio. Central casting couldn’t have chosen two more suitably anonymous executives. In Sunset Boulevard, when Gloria Swanson reflected, “We had faces then,’’ she wasn’t only talking about movie stars.
“Dave, lovely to see you,’’ Doreen said, extending her right hand. The move made Dave recall a conversation with a British director over drinks at the Polo Lounge who’d noted that, ‘In Hollywood, people don’t shake your hand, they incubate it. And if you tell a joke, they don’t laugh, they say ‘Now that’s funny.’ ’’
Dave was prepared for the mandatory wait before being ushered into the inner sanctum. Industry protocol demanded he cool his heels in the outer office to impress upon him the hectic nature of the executive’s schedule and how fortunate the visitor was to be granted an audience at all. Depending on rank in the hierarchy, the interval could stretch from a perfunctory five minutes to half an hour or more. So Dave had brought a book to read.
He had barely sat down and cracked the spine when Doreen chirped, “Mr. A will see you now." Dave pretended not to be surprised and Doreen pretended not to notice.
The giant ornately carved oak desk behind which Jules Azenberg was sitting dwarfed him even more now than in his more powerful days. Like most of his erstwhile rivals, he was a compact man since power in Hollywood seemed to be inversely proportional to the height of the individual. As Dave traipsed across the faded mustard green carpet toward his former employer, he noticed how much smaller Jules appeared, as if the combined impact of advancing age and studio diminution had whittled him down to puppet sized.
Jules looked up, his chin just a few inches higher than the top of the desk. He didn’t get up nor did he offer his hand. He simply bobbed his head up and down and forced a weak smile. He pointed a frail liver-spotted hand toward a hard-back chair. “Dave, old boy. Good to see you.”
“Mr. Azenberg," Dave greeted as he took his seat.
“I’ve been noticing your name on the TV when I flip through the dials. I always knew you and television were a match. Your voice was never strong enough for features, at least not the A-titles. And television pretty much took over the B-movie business.”
There it was, the insult wrapped inside a half-hearted compliment, a caress followed by a sharp slap. Dave tried to suppress a smirk. “So, Mr. Azenberg, how’s the world been treating you?"
Jules tilted his head toward his left shoulder, which rose in a slight shrug. “The players change but the game remains the same." Then, placing an index finger to his lips and tapping it lightly, Jules drifted off for a moment. When he returned, he looked up at Dave and said, “How busy are you these days?"
“Never too busy to see you, Mr. Azenberg.” Great, David thought, you’ve been in the office two minutes and a decade has slipped away. You’re right back into apple-polishing mode.
“Still quick with the answers, I see. Listen. I need you to help me out on a project. Something different."
It was one of Jules’ standard descriptions, usually followed by, “But not too different.” This time, however, he did not add the proviso.
“How’d you like to write about me?"
Dave prided himself at his ability to have some kind of response ready for even the most unexpected question. This time, he was stumped. He searched the air for a rejoinder. But the best he could do was, “Uh — I’ve never written a biography. I’m not sure I have the proper skills.”
“Who said anything about a book? Who reads books anymore? I’m talking about a biopic. The life of Jules Azenberg on the big screen. At a theater near you."
Dave, again, was at a loss for words.
“My days here are not long, and by that I don’t mean I’m about to die. Knock on wood, the doctor thinks I’ll live, if not forever, then close to it.” Jules shifted in his seat, offering a slight wince. “Goddamn hemorrhoids. As you know, things around here are different now. I’m just taking up space. But the pricks owe me a put picture. And I was thinking my life story’s as interesting as anyone’s. And that’s what I want to do. But the budget — we’re not talking $25 mil here.”
“And that’s why you thought of me?”
“There you go. You writers and your thin skins. Perhaps I didn’t express myself correctly. What I meant," he continued, “is that you have great economy of means, which is important, because I’ve lived a long life. Television is excellent discipline for a writer. More importantly, you’re honest. Cause I’m not looking for a blow job here. I want my story just like it happened. The good and the bad. I needn’t remind you that no one’s ever accused Jules Azenberg of being a nice guy. It’s like that joke they used to tell about me when I was still married to Doris, may she rest in peace.”
Dave knew that Doris was still very much alive and happily remarried, but didn’t interrupt Jules.
“The joke is that Doris comes home to find me lying dead in a pool of blood in the living room. Somebody has beaten me to death with a large blunt instrument. The homicide detective arrives and sits Doris down. ‘Mrs. Azenberg, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know this is not a good time but I need to ask you: did your husband have any enemies?’ "
Jules erupted into a raspy phlegm-rich laugh, which ended in a choking cough. He wiped the white spittle from the corners of his mouth with a bunched-up linen handkerchief.
“That’s a good one, don’t you think? The day I croak will probably be celebrated in Hollywood as an official holiday."
Dave found it difficult to conceal his amusement at the way Jules talked about his irascible and sometimes contemptible behavior with almost a sense of pride. The ironic self-deprecation drew Dave in like a fly.
“I want the truth. No makeup on the corpse. I want people to know how I really was. I know what you’re going to say. The bastard says he doesn’t want a blow job, but if I turn in a script with one hair out of place, he’s gonna skin me alive."
That was exactly Dave’s thought.
“Look, I wanted you for a reason. You’ve got a beef with me because I let you go and because of the reason you think I let you go – which is partly true. You want to settle the score? Write this script. Now who’s your agent.”
Dave offered no response at first. His silence said it all. Then he offered, “Cabe Fallman at Morris.”
Jules visibly shuddered. “Like a knife in the heart. That one doesn’t stop until he hits an artery. But I’ll pay the devil his due.”
“I haven’t said I’ll do it yet."
“Oh, did I mention that Steiger is dying to play me? McQueen wants to do it, too. But who’s kidding who. And besides, Steiger just won an Oscar. He’s hot,’’ Jules chortled. He had Dave’s head in a vise and was enjoying giving it one last twist. “You already know my life pretty well. Back in the day, I filled your head with the stories. I dined with kings and presidents. I was on a first-name basis with captains of industry, playwrights and philosophers. And this is where it ends. Me, holed up in my office like a hostage with some cockamamie title that means nothing. What did Booth say when he shot Lincoln? ‘Sic semper tyrannis.’ You even know the last camera angle. Crane shot, up high, making me look even smaller than I am. Slow pull. Fade out."
Dave let out an audible sigh. “You’re not going to let me out of here until I say yes. So I’ll save us both a couple of hours."
Jules laughed. “Call me boss. I always liked the way you said it because it actually made me feel important. Now go and have that blood sucker agent of yours call me."
As Dave walked out of Jules’ office, Doreen looked up. “Welcome back," she smiled and he half suspected she had been listening at the door. But she didn’t have to. The outcome had been decided in advance.