Even in Hollywood, one good turn can lead to another
She was a housewife in Stillwater, Minnesota, a teacher's aide in a local junior high and had an assortment of hobbies including gardening and photography. Her latest was trying to write a gothic romance novel like her favorite, Kathleen Woodwiss.
She completed the typescript manuscript and sent it off to the same paperback publisher of that favorite novel, “The Flame and the Flower.”
Unlike struggling would-be authors who submit without an agent to dozens of publishers, LaVyrle Spencer's first novel, “The Fulfillment,” got accepted, she almost immediately received an advance of $2,500, and her first effort was published in 1979.
The little novel zoomed to the top of the paperback charts when in late 1980s it was discovered by WMA client Cheryl Ladd. She asked that I bring it to Steve Mills, who was running TV movies at CBS. I did. A period piece about two brothers, one married to the beautiful Mary Gray, longs to have a child but cannot. So her husband asks his dear brother for help, and Mary is caught among the passions of two lustful turn of the century ranch hands.
LaVyrle may have been a small town girl but she knew what turned on a network exec.
They asked me to find a writer. Cheryl and her husband were going to finance the production. I had just signed a veteran novelist and screenwriter Laird Koenig, who was famous for “Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane,” the features “Inchon” and “Bloodline,” and TV movies "Rockabye" and "Stillwatch," all agency packages. He was also a dignified gentleman with a great sense of humor. He accepted the adaptation and went to work.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Spencer wanted to know about the TV movie version of her very first novel. Somehow she got my name and sent me a handwritten note expressing her excitement. Just at that moment, I received Koenig's first draft. I sent a copy to Mrs. Spencer. She was delighted. I instructed my assistant that each time a new draft came in, to make a copy for Mrs. Spencer.
Before the resulting teleplay was ordered to production, Mills and group decided that the ending was too dark, and it was altered. They also decided to call the film "The Fulfillment of Mary Gray," in case the audience missed the point. Both choices saddened Mrs. Spencer, but somehow she didn't blame me.
Years later, as an "indie" producer, actually on my 50th birthday, I'm reading Publishers Weekly that announces a brief synopsis of the latest LaVyrle Spencer novel “Family Blessings.” An attractive mid-40s mom of a young motorcycle cop loses him in an accident and is comforted and falls in love with his roommate. Perfect TV movie.
However, my dear Mrs. Spencer is no longer an original paperback writer. Success with her first few novels has triggered a $40 million deal with Harper Collins.
I call the publisher and am overnighted a bound galley. Better than I expected. I want it. I call her small agent in Massachusetts who refers me to Alan Berger, then at ICM. As Alan and I had worked together at WMA, he spoke in shorthand.
"Axe, you can't get in. Edgar Scherick has already offered ten grand against a hundred and Sherry Lansing is considering it for a feature. It's out of your league."
"OK, maybe, but just take my offer ($1,000 against $100,000) to Mrs. Spencer. Just mention my name." Alan laughs and hangs up. A half hour later he calls, "I don't get it but she's taking your offer. You own the TV rights to ‘Family Blessings.’ What's going on?"
She remembered, that's all, she remembered. The novel had already shot up to No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list when I called CBS to pitch it.
Now the rest of the story is not so simple, happy and nice.
One of the major CBS execs hated gothic women romance novels and didn't want it. But I waited three weeks and he was gone. Then Jeff Sagansky called me and said that the universally loathed Michael Viner had three other Spencer novels and they all needed this one since it was such a current grand success and to please play ball and do it with Viner.
"I was rewarded for my capitulation but had to spend the next several years with someone who renegotiated our deal each month before we were actually in production."
The script was never as good as it could have been and the direction by Viner's wife Deborah Raffin was abysmal. Still the TV movie won it's time slot and the reviews weren't terrible. My kids got to see daddy's name on the screen. All four seconds.