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‘A Cry for Help': The Making of the Tracey Thurman Story

Thurman, who remains scarred and partially paralyzed from stab wounds inflicted by her husband, won a $2,6 million judgement against the city of Torrington, Conn.

 

It's 1988, and in my morning mail I open up a copy of a New York Times article from Pam Bernstein in our New York office. 

Thurman v. Torrington is the first federal case in which a battered woman sues a city (Torrington, Conn.) for the failure of the police to protect her from her husband’s violence.

Tracey Thurman, who remains scarred and partially paralyzed from stab wounds inflicted by her husband, won a $2,6 million judgement against the city. 

Pam had signed Thurman and her lawyer as she believed, correctly, that both would be depicted in any potential dramatization of the case.

As the office was flirting once again with signing Dick Clark, who enjoyed special relationships with all networks, I sent it over to Clark, who I had personally known since he was a staff announcer at WFIL radio and I was the junior high school magazine editor who hung out at Walter Annenberg's West Philly studios at 46th and Market Streets.

At age 12, I climb up the actual "bandstand" to make a suggestion to Clark a month or two after the show had been picked up by ABC. 

I was proud that a network show was originating from my hometown, yet still there were days when Philadelphia was never mentioned. 

I suggested to Clark that he have Charlie O'Donnell, staff announcer, open the show each day with "Live from Philadelphia, it's American Bandstand!" 

Dick's response is that they couldn't do it beause there were places (Alaska and Hawaii) that got the show late and ran kinescopes, so it wasn't always live. 

Then I suggested having Charlie simply announce "From Philadelphia …"  Dick laughed and said "you're a born producer." 

A few weeks later, if you tuned in and saw the opening moments of the show you would hear Charlie O'Donnell announce "Live from Philadelphia!"  I never told anyone I was responsible, nobody would have believed a 12 year old.

Flash forward 30 years, Dick responds immediately that he was "in" and draws up option agreements. 

The deal that Bernstein wanted was very rich for a traditional TV movie, $10K against $100K, usually the terms of a best-seller or high-profile ripped-from-the-headlines case. But Clark agreed and the deal was made.

Steve Weiss had heard about the story and wanted it for Kristi McNichol to star. 

We attached her and, with Clark's TV movie VP, approached Marian Brayton, who solely occupied CBS Specials, a division making TV movies that had some undefinable quality that made them stand out from ordinary TV movies, but in reality were identical in every way. 

From five potential writers, we chose Beth Sullivan, whose sensibilities seemed perfect and, more important, was beloved by Brayton. 

Sullivan was a pro and a first draft was delivered within a few weeks. 

Some notes were given and a second draft was ordered. Followed by two more. Then silence. 

And silence can be the worse possible sound. I know producers who developed a two-hour at CBS in the late '90's who are still awaiting a rewrite. They refuse to call for an "update" because they refuse to hear the word "pass." So they continue to list the CBS two-hour on their in house development reports and complain at parties about how long it takes to get a TV movie made.

Our CBS end came when I bumped into Marian sitting with other agents(!) at the Palm, and she attempted a sad face and said "we're passing on Tracey Thurman. Sorry." 

Thanks. I'm supposed to have a nice lunch now?

I told Steve to break the news to Kristi. 

And I called Bob Markowitz (right), a first-rate director to whom I had slipped a script. NBC was next. While Dick Clark had a strong relationship with NBC, they put him through substantial rewrites that were primarily bogus.

The existing script had a documentary feel, a grittyness and "cinema verite" style — it was, of course, all true, violent and castable. 

Nancy McKeon, an NBC favorite from half-hour series, was offered the lead. 

Only problem is everyone seemed apprehensive of the true villain of the piece, portayed fearsomely by Dale Midkiff, and no one wanted to be listed on the screen as the force behind the picture. 

While most TV movies had a half dozen or more "producers," the resulting picture lists only Lee Miller. 

Not even Dick Clark took credit. 

When production was ordered, Dick Clark opened a special production office staffed by an assistant to the line producer, casting and below the line crew. 

The working title was "Tracey Thurman Story" and they answered the phone "Tracey Thurman." 

If you remember the "SNL" skit with David Spade as Dick Clark's receptionist, refusing to allow anyone to meet or talk to Dick Clark, including Jesus, you must understand that the creator of this segment must have had to deal with Dick Clark's office at some point. 

For one hot and sunny day, when I was off on vacation in Hawaii, I learned that Tracey Thurman, already distressed from not promptly receiving her jury award, tried to reach me and, ultimately, Dick Clark to find our where her rights fees were as nothing had been paid. 

Our New York office had given her Clark's Burbank office numbers and Thurman called. 

(You may not believe the following verbatim conversation, but it's all true.)

"Tracey Thurman," Clark's office answered the phone. 

Thurman was taken aback, hearing her own name, and said, "Hi, can I speak to Dick Clark please?" 

"Who's calling?" 

"This is Tracey Thurman." 

"What's it regarding?"

Her attorney, portrayed by Bruce Weitz in the NBC film "Cry for Help: The Tracey Thurman Story" could never get through to Dick Clark. Tracey ultimately did and even got paid. 

Bob Markowitz' next film for NBC starred a new discovery named Brad Pitt. 

Sadly, Tracey's recently been back in court, this time to support her 29-year-old son, who has been in trouble with the law since he could walk.  A sequel?  "Son of Tracey Thurman?" 

Let's hope not.

 

A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.