Guest Blog: The story of "Doc Holliday's Woman," the real-life Hungarian immigrant Kate Elder, has come close to making it onto the small screen several times
HBO's announcement that they are developing a one-hour series from Ron Howard about Doc Holliday immediately brought up bittersweet memories of the Doc Holliday miniseries my former partner and I had set up at ABC in the late '90's.
Following William Morris, I had opened offices around the corner from the agency with a former ICM agent and named our company Benchmark Pictures. To get the attractive 860 square-foot office on Beverly Drive, we readily agreed to prepay for a year. With one assistant, one printer and two laptops, we found classic desks and set up shop.
Almost immediately, from positive word of mouth, our little offices were bubbling with star visits from Jimmy Caan, Faye Dunaway, Jane Seymour, Josh Greenfeld, George Hickenlooper, Tobe Hooper, Steve Kronish, John Frankenheimer, writers, agents, managers and even legendary producer Eliot Kastner.
We set up meetings with all the major and second-tier agencies and material was flowing in. Each weekend we took home dozens of existing scripts and book manuscripts and committed to show up Monday morning with synopses and "hit lists" to pursue.
To add credibility to Benchmark and us as producers. we set out to find an overall deal to help reimburse expenses for the office and assistants and enable us to option material. Two companies, one we shall call "Darkside" and the second Viacom, "bit." Like dancing bears, we took meetings where we would perform. We did well.
Darkside made an offer, Viacom made another. Counsel from a major industry attorney said "if there's a choice, go with Viacom. You'll never see a nickel from Darkside." We went with Viacom.
A veteran and well-respected agent named Betty McArtt brought our attention to a new book still in manuscript, "Doc Holliday's Woman," the first historical novel by writer Jane Coleman, who was married to Glenn Boyer, the acclaimed Western writer and expert on the Earps.
While "fiction," it was supposedly based on the actual diaries of Mary Harony, who called herself Kate Elder. She was a Hungarian immigrant who had emerged from Western brothels and traveled as consort to both Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, becoming a Western legend in her own right.
We alerted Viacom and they agreed to option the book for us. An agent friend of partner David suggested we "romance" a manager who handled female stars who could greenlight a movie. We met with that manager and gave her our copy of the book for her client Heather Locklear. The reaction was positive and we visited NBC (no interest), ABC ("looks promising") and CBS.
At CBS the exec Joan Harrison thought out loud: "… so Heather wants to do a Western … we must look through our inventory and see what we can offer her…." Outrageous! She was callously admitting to our faces to a plan to end run us.
The next day we heard from Maura Dunbar at ABC advising us that we had a four-hour script deal. We must select a writer. I happily called Joan Harrison who went ballistic. "You didn't give us a chance!" A chance to fuck us?
Dennis Turner was chosen and he wrote a great first draft. The book itself was not the usual basis for a miniseries. It was small and compact. I was surprised ABC agreed to four hours and secretly believed the material didn't warrant more than two hours. But Turner did a good job and his second draft was submitted to both Heather, her manager and ABC's Dunbar.
ABC ordered production with the intended star "of the essence."
ABC said that license fee negotiations would begin with Viacom and we should put together a directors list. Viacom was preparing a scouting trip to Calgary and who did we want to direct? After meeting with several candidates, we chose a rugged Australian named Rod Hardy. In the meantime, to satisfy the network's business affairs, we needed an immediate signature of the star's agreement. I asked Viacom to quickly draw up the deal memo.
ABC agreed to pay Locklear a million and a half to star.
For reasons known only to the Viacom lawyer Jim Goodman, when referring to the book in the contract, he titled the deal memo "Re: 'Big Nose Kate' aka "Doc Holliday's Woman." The book had never been known by the nickname for Elder, why would it appear on the deal memo? I was concerned and I was right.
The first question Locklear asked of director Rod Hardy was "Do I have to wear a big nose?"
She also didn't believe she could play an 80-year-old for the mini's opening and closing . But mostly she wanted to spend the summer with her new husband and not work. She would, she suggested, do it "next year." I warned that "next year" the ABC exec Judd Parkin who greenlit the mini, might not be at the network. I also thought to myself that next year Heather might not mean that much to ABC. I was right about both. But two hours later we were left with "she would think about it."
While CAA was the "packaging agent" for the mini and would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions if the four hours was produced, they made no effort to convince their star to fulfill her obligation. Failing Heather, the packaging arm of my former agency would have unleashed a frenzy of greenlight alternatives, delivering the next hottest TV or feature star who we could get to breathe life into this show. WMA would have made a full court press. CAA couldn't have cared less.
With WMA's help, my partner and I were able to attract the interest of Terri Hatcher, hot from "Lois and Clark," but Judd Parkin thought she was "too urban" and not believable in a Western. Hey, Katie Elder was a Hungarian immigrant in the Wild West, how believable was that?
An idea for country star Shania Twain to do the show was dismissed by ABC. They told us, however, all hope was not lost and they would go forward with another actress if their upcoming Western "Dead Man's Walk" did well. Starring F. Murray Abraham (in a Western?) with Keith Carradine and Edward Janes Almos, it was a ratings disaster.
"Doc Holliday's Woman" was dead in the water.
Maura Dunbar who my partner and I adored, was disconsolate. Unlike most network executives, she took our loss to heart.
"If there is anyway I can help you guys, let me know immediately." My partner had that very day read a script from a former WMA friend, Bettina Viviano. He told me "I think you should read this quickly. You know what the networks have already made a hundred times. Is this worth pursuing?"
I read it at my desk. A thriller that made use of the new emerging technologies with a perfect female lead, I told my partner that there were no ski murder mysteries ever made for TV and this was fresh and good. We made a star hit list. First David went to actresses from "Melrose Place" who all passed.
The manager who had handled Heather also handled Tori Spelling. We offered it to Tori, who committed. We called Maura and told her about the new spec script "Alibi" with our star attachment. "Send it over now." I got in the car and delivered it to her office.
Two days later we had a production commitment from the network. With a polish by writer-director Andy Wolk, who actually knew more about skiing then the authors, he masterfully directed "Alibi." Produced in Vancouver Christmas of 1996. it was telecast in March 1997. It was one of the happiest experiences in my life.
Some years later, with Benchmark Pictures a melancholy memory, I received a phone call from Maura Dunbar. She was at the time a newly chosen exec of the Odyssey network which was soon to change their name to the Hallmark Channel. She remembered "DHW" and asked if I had a copy to send her. I could and did.
Maura had to get it approved by a staff producer who made a lot of pedestrian Westerns for the channel. He was reluctant to agree. He didn't believe it warranted four hours. Dunbar acquiesced and asked that we cut it down to two hours. "Go renew the rights." I tracked down the author's agent, who said the author did not want an option deal and demanded a six-figure purchase. Maura laughed. Not possible. Once again it was dead.
With the recent enormous success of "Hatfield & the McCoys," I went back to storage and found the scripts, made a copy and asked the chief at the History Channel if she was interested in the true story of Kate Elder. She was and I submitted the Turner four-hour scripts. I discovered that the author had a new agent in Phoenix who I contacted. He never returned calls or emails. I would worry about "underlying rights" in success.
Recently a History Channel exec from New York called to pass. Loved the material but they have "too few slots in the pipeline," whatever that means.
So Jane Coleman's recounting of Kate Elder's diary is not in anyone's pipeline at the moment. I understand from the source material that HBO's Doc Holliday series will have the same limited focus and chauvinistic view of women (and especially Kate Elder) as has been depicted in past Holliday and Earp movies.
It's just a shame that the genuine account will go unseen.