It was October in 88 and I was saving my morning writing 88 on my Mac – the process It took about a minute longer than it took Michelangelo to chisel David—and that’s when the phone rang. I welcome the transfer.
“Turn on CNN,” said the voice on the other end. It’s Ken Finkleman, one of the producers on the script I’m writing.
“Just turn on CNN.”
I did. There is breaking news on the Internet. A baby fell into a backyard well in Midland, Texas. 18 The one-month-old girl is alive and first responders are desperately trying to rescue her. Jessica McClure, a toddler trapped in a well, will be the story that grabs the world’s attention during four days of 24/7 coverage.
Other than baby Jessica’s friends and family, I suspect no one cares more about the baby’s survival than I do. Of course, my first concern is the welfare of the girls. A distant second is a script I’m working on for a major studio. Called Baby Sam, it told the story of a young boy who falls into an abandoned missile silo, and caused a stir during four days of 24/7 coverage. World Attention. It’s an indictment of the news media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism, a recurring theme in Hollywood. It also has a romcom stuck in there.
“This is horrible,” I said. I want to go on record that I care more about the baby in the well than the outcome of my project.
“I know. Poor thing,” Ken said.
We’ve been watching in silence, but I’m thinking of something else, something I’m afraid to say out loud. If Baby Jessica is rescued, it will draw attention to our project setup at Major Studio. This would make us look prescient, telling a story that reflects global media events before . It’s safe to assume that the other writers knew at that moment that this was going to be a Slam Dunk TV movie, not to mention the inspiration for a feature film. But we’re one step ahead of them.
However, if Baby Jessica doesn’t make it— Dismiss it! — If Baby Jessica doesn’t make it, other than causing unimaginable pain and suffering to her friends and family – First and foremost – The studio could make a film about a child trapped in a North Dakota missile silo shortly after rescuing an unfortunate baby trapped in a Texas well. The baby movie got cold feet.
“They’ll save her,” Ken said. “They’ve got oil rigs up there. Keep an eye on the news anchors. Watch what the emergency crews do. Take notes.” Then he hung up.
I like Ken’s upbeat attitude. The phone rang again. It’s Major Studio’s creative lead, assigned to Baby Sam.
“Turn on CNN -” said the supervisor.
“I’m watching. That poor little girl.”
“I know. When will you finish the script?”
For the next 23 hours, CNN burned like a night light in my cramped apartment. I used Taster’s Choice as my thread, scribbled notes all over my legal tablet, and recorded CNN coverage on a growing number of VHS tapes. I wrote the script day and night, and I swear, if I was lying and gouged out my mother’s eyes, I would gladly trade a go-picture for saving that kid’s life.
But I don’t have to.
Baby Jessica is rescued. Her story has a happy ending. It also provides a tailwind for little Sam . So will another news event that threatens to disrupt Hollywood.
The Writers’ Strike of ’88 – No one called it 88 – Yes Storm clouds on the horizon. The studio wants the script finished in case the writer leaves. I was naively excited to have studios demand that my drafts be delivered “sooner rather than later”. Even better, not only did Major Studio like my rewrite, but they also had a major casting.
“Tom Hanks likes Baby Sam.” I was Broker Richard Green.
“Cool,” I say, even though I’m nothing.
Tom Hanks wasn’t Tom Fucking Hanks at the time, but he was a popular actor, one whose voice was in my head when I was writing witty leading men in the early thirties inside. I love him Nothing in Common and Splash.
“You’re having dinner with Tom tomorrow night to discuss the project,” Green said.
After a few months in Hollywood (well, Silicon Valley), I’m writing my first screenplay at a major studio, and Tom Hanks is about to commit.
Was it always this simple?
The next morning I was told to have dinner at Le Serre in Studio City at 7: 30 with Tom , his development president, Joe Seldner, and two of the Major’s top executives. Hanks is a native of Northern California who loves baseball as much as I do. I allowed myself to think that Tom and I would be friends, start producing shingles and take a Mediterranean vacation together.
An hour before dinner, I got a call from the creative’s exec assistant at the Major. I was told there was a change of plans. I didn’t have dinner because the studio wanted to “talk to Tom about something else first”. (Red flag.)
I was told to come for dessert.
Well, no dinner. But also nothing. I’m still eating cheesecake with Tom Hanks and discussing Baby Sam. I was told that I would get a call from the studio when they were almost done eating. I microwaved a Stouffer lasagna and waited. 8: 07, I got a call from the restaurant.
“Where are you?” the Major’s junior director asked.
“I’m waiting for you to call me for dessert.”
“You should come here for dinner. Now get your ass over.”
I arrived at the restaurant and was taken to a private room where I apologized for being late. Tom Hanks waved. He is everything he is today. Funny, well versed in all subjects and very gracious. Over dinner we discussed little Sam in general, and Tom expressed his enthusiasm for the script as well as the other major studio project (Red Flag). He had some story ideas for my script and changed the name of his character Josh in Baby Sam. He’s playing a “Josh” in a new upcoming movie about a boy who turns into a man in an instant, directed by one of the Laverne and Shirley stars. one way or another. It sounds stupid. We hooked up with NorCal stuff like jumping frogs at Camp Angels and Tom selling hot dogs at Oakland A’s games. We skipped dessert and soon found ourselves waiting for our car at the valet. (Actually, I pretended to be waiting for mine. I decided to save my two bucks and park the car on the street.) When the executive’s foreign exotic pulled up at the valet, Tom quipped, ” Love the new Capri.” We all smiled like bosom friends. Even though I’m late, it was a good night.
I made my next revision, invited by Tom’s agent at William Morris to a screening of his film Punchline
and then attended WGA Strike meeting, sold out venue, Hollywood’s Palladium. (Membership at the time was predominantly male and white. Sadly, it will take 18 years to change significantly.) Never having been in a union, I was Impressed by the eloquent and powerful language of the WGA members and the free use of Yiddish, which will be my first exposure to Yiddish. Members spoke enthusiastically about the expanded authoring rights and remaining rollbacks. The rhetoric is often belligerent, the energy contagious and binding. As the old men lined up for the open mic that night, I was struck by what they said—the strike was not just for the benefit of current members, but for those who came before and came after.
Two weeks later I was on the picket line. A month into the strike, a junior director at Major Studios called me. I’ve been told that we’ve got a lot of momentum on Baby Sam, but if we don’t keep “developing it” the movie will fall apart. They asked me if I would meet secretly at an undisclosed hotel in Los Angeles to get their notes for rewriting. I’m grateful they gave me my first paid screenwriting job, and I enjoyed being there with the creative team. But they don’t understand how proud I am to be a card member of the Writers Guild of America and grateful for the opportunity to have health care and a pension. So, there I was, my dream of making a living in Hollywood fully realized, writing a feature for an actor I was certain would be a star, just to learn that I might need Pushed all my career chips into the middle of the table.
I called the producer, Ken Finkleman, and told him about my call with the Major and that I would not meet or change the script until the strike was over. Not surprisingly, Ken agreed. “Damn right, you’re not.”
The strike lasted five painful months – not just for the writers, but for the crew, cast and all the area businesses that depend on us . I went from worrying about Baby Sam to worrying about the rent. As Tom Hanks begins filming another film, pictures of boy-turned-man are released. It’s called Big,, it’s directed by Penny Marshall, and it does a little business. My big break is slipping away. It won’t be the last time either. ’07 The strike happened midway through the first season of the first TV show I created, an episode called Journeymen . I had to leave it. Shortly thereafter, the kill came; the force majeure of my whole deal.
So here I am again, spinning around in the ’18 strike (nobody calls it that yet). I wonder how many of the people I’m shuffling with are writers about to start their first staff jobs, or screenwriters whose movies are discontinued, or episode writers who finally finish their episodes only to die halfway through By. I know how bad they feel. It crushes the soul and either sows radioactive seeds of cynicism where inspiration once existed, or pulls you into a warm milk bath of self-pity. It all seems personal, like successful puppet masters conspiring to single you out for punishment.
Yes, I’ve been there. And I know there’s no guarantee that when Labor returns peacefully, these writers will return to their shows, or their films will be made. Hell, who knows what the business will look like when this is all over.
But those writers need to remember that before they strike, they are on the precipice of something great. It means hard work, perseverance and talent got them there and will get there again. Choosing to treat these times as end times is a waste of precious time. In fact, all writers should come back better at their craft than they left by continuing to write, read, create, feel, and develop. After all, we must upgrade our organic intelligence to cope with the rise of the machines. The office of Joe Seldner, head of development at Tom Hanks.
“Do you think Tom will make time for little Sam ?” I asked.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Joe, like a man about to embellish bad news. “You and Tom will have long and successful careers—maybe just not together.”
Joe is right. But I didn’t really appreciate his wisdom until many years later.
I consider myself lucky to be on my third strike. That means I have a long career. For me alone, the most rewarding creative experience I’ve had in this wonderful, exciting, entertaining, fascinating and heartbreaking industry, wasn’t the shows and movies that were derailed by the strike, but the ones that followed.
As for Tom Hanks, I’m not sure what happened to him.
TV shows including Sports Night, The West Wing, This Is Us and pitch . He also created Journeyman, co-created Franklin and Bash and wrote two films, The Temp and d Summer fishing.