Part 4 – The Fonz: Up Close and Personal
So, just to recap, in the last issue I was on my way to meet with Henry Winkler who asked to see me after I informed the studio that the ‘Hourglass’ concept wouldn’t work—at least in my humble opinion.
Now Henry’s office was on the Paramount studio lot, which is smack dab in the heart of Hollywood. And the traffic there is usually terrible, so I’m really counting on the long crawl across town to rehearse the encounter in my head and get my nerves under control. No such luck. In some freak occurrence that defies all explanation there is no traffic. The roads are deserted and you just know I make every single traffic light. It’s almost as if I’m being inexorably pulled toward his office like it’s some black hole from which any escape is hopeless and I will be sucked into oblivion— forever.
And before I know it I’m inside the studio gates and marching across the acres of parking lots, sound stages and twisting warrens of offices— in the searing southern California heat—so that, by the time I finally locate Henry’s office, you could wring the sweat from my clothes, my nerves are in wicked knots, and when his smiling assistant chirps, “Would you like something to drink?” it takes a Herculean effort NOT to ask for a double scotch and instead mumble that a water will be fine, before I’m ushered in to meet my fate.
Though he’s not smiling, Henry graciously welcomes me in and we exchange a few seconds of pleasantries about the heat, the incredible lack of traffic, and the like before he directs me to a dark brown leather sofa—to which I instantly stick from all my perspiration– as he sits in a matching chair adjacent to the sofa and set at a right angle to it. And it’s then that I first notice it…
There’s a small baseball bat leaning against his chair. And as he launches into the matter at hand he takes this little Louisville slugger—or whatever it was– and starts gently tapping the business end against his free hand.
“So,” he says, “The studio tells me you’re not happy with the concept for ‘Hourglass’” And, as I toss back a heavy slug of my water before starting to explain that it’s not a matter of ‘happiness’ but, you know, the logistics of narrative film, my eyes can’t seem to move off that bat—even as he gets up and starts pacing around the room, twirling the thing around in his hand like a Billy club.
Now, to be fair, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a bat in a producer’s office. Lots of guys—particularly writer-producers—have bats or golf clubs or nerf balls to get them out from behind their desks and help them break a creative logjam (remember Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”?).
But Henry’s not a writer. And he’s not trying to solve a creative problem. He’s pissed off—and waving this bat around for…what?
Now, again to be fair, I can’t really blame him for being upset. Here he used his considerable star power to sell this cool-sounding concept to the network—who loved it so much they bought it in the room, remember? And now there’s this nobody of a writer sitting in his office telling him that it’s a dud and will never really fly as a series. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I’d be pissed too.
And that’s when it dawns on me what the bat is all about—since even in my worst moment I didn’t really imagine he was going to take a fat swing at my melon– as I realize I’m not in a room with Henry Winkler, one of the nicest guys in show business- even if he is pissed off…
No, I’m really talking to the Fonz! One Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, Henry’s stellar alter ego, and I’m Ritchie Cunningham, desperately pleading to assuage the fearsome displeasure of TV’s most renowned—if not safe for prime time—motorcycle gang member. And suddenly, the bat, the pacing, his whole demeanor makes perfect sense. And there’s nothing left for me to do but lay it out for him with all the clarity and certainty I can muster– and let the chips fall where they may. (After all, how many times did Ritchie really get pummeled by the Fonz anyway?)
And to his credit—and my sincere relief— Henry/Fonz is actually listening to me– and getting it. And, while he may not be happy, I can see the problem with ‘Hourglass’ becoming clear to him as the bat finally slows to a stop and just hangs from his hand like it had no business being there in the first place.
“So you’re really sure we can’t make this work?” he asks with the anger all but drained from him. “For a pilot or a few episodes, yeah maybe,” I reply, “But for a long-running series? You’d be painting yourself into an impossible corner. And I can’t see how that’s a smart way to go.”
And he nods, and sits back down and—for the first time since they dropped ‘Hourglass’ on me at the last meeting—that hideous ticking in my head has stopped as I realize the Fonz has left the building—and it’s Henry, one of the nicest guys in show business, who’s turning to me.
“You know,” he says “When Grant and Tony told me about your call to them, I was really ticked off.” “Really?” I say—like I hadn’t just witnessed Dr. Winkler and Mr. Fonz stalk around the room with a fricking bat in his hands. “But they said this is exactly why we hired you: to really give us a series and not just a pilot” (Note to self, I’m thinking, be sure to send Grant and Tony a big basket or fruit or muffins or something!)
“But,” he continues, “That still leaves us with a problem.” Oh God, now what? “Because I’m not going to call the network and unsell this. They gave us a pilot deal, and I intend to honor that.” “Okay….” I say, waiting for the other shoe to drop as he goes on, “Which means, if ‘Hourglass’ won’t work, then you’ll just have to come up with something else that will. Understand?”
Now, I’m so relieved that I’ve survived the Fonz and might yet not have to watch my children beg for food at a freeway off-ramp, I blurt “Of course! Absolutely. That’s what I’m here to tell you.”
“Good”, he says, patting me on the knee, “Then just let us know when you have something, ‘cause the network is anxious to get rolling on this.”
And I’m peeling myself off the leather sofa, and we’re shaking hands, and I’m bounding out of his office and walking across the broiling studio like a man reborn… Until it hits me: I haven’t got a clue what to do now. I was so entirely fixated on the problem with ‘Hourglass’ that I didn’t give any thought whatsoever as to how to replace it. And I’ve got nothing.
Good news: I’m still alive in all this. Bad news: the bomb just started ticking again…only this time I own it!
NEXT ISSUE: The exciting conclusion…Who You Gonna Call?