The Emmy and Humanitas-Award winner has also gotten Oscar nominations for his work on Tootsie and Oh, God!; three Tony Awards and seven Writers Guild Awards, including the prestigious Laurel for career achievement and the Valentine Davies Award for being one of the biggest mensches in Hollywood. He talked to Eric Estrin about finding the rhythm, ignoring cold shoulders, and this thing called rewrite.
You know, whether you’re a success or a failure, you always have to keep proving yourself in this business. I’m still getting turned down. If after a number of rejections I still have faith in the idea, I just go ahead and do it on spec.
I’m working on something right now, which deals with some really unsavory characters. It’s called “Pinnacle,” and people think I’ve gone too far. I keep remembering that John Osborne once answered a critic by saying, “I only know that I’m succeeding when people tell me I’ve gone too far.”
Hit or miss, you go back to work the next day. I think one of the redeeming features of a writing career is that you’re always starting on page one over and over again. So whatever anyone’s reaction is, you’re on to the next thing.
I remember when I went to work for Red Buttons when he first got his series on CBS. I really didn’t know how to write a sketch — you know, a playlet, the equivalent of a little theater sketch. I had been doing Bob Hope material, and our sketches were really… if it was a cowboy sketch it was a series of 20 jokes strung together about being bowlegged.
So the first material I wrote for Red Buttons reflected that poor understanding. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew it was shit; I knew it was terrible. I had missed, and he knew that I had missed. It makes you feel like Fred Astaire. You literally pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. It’s called rewrite.
I don’t know how I managed, but I remembered some Broadway sketches — this was so pre-YouTube or pre-Google — but I remembered some, and I saw that they had a rhythm to the jokes and required something else other than jokes. And I finally got it to work.
I sometimes have more doubt now than I had then. People were nicer then. The climate was nicer and people in the business were nicer a lot of years ago.
Yeah, I get respect. I get almost too much respect. I’m sort of like some kind of Hollywood monument. People just drive around me during meetings and say, “My God, he still exists!”