G. Gordon Liddy and Robert Conrad: Risking your Life for a TV Movie

Unlike Liddy, I refuse to eat a rat, I keep kosher

Six mimeographed, orange pages told the story of the yet-to-be published biography "Will," of Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy — an egomaniacal Nixon White House operative famed for organizing and directing the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, and dining on a rat while in jail to demonstrate his superior self control. 

Liddy, who began his career in the FBI, served 52 months in federal prisons. His and Howard Hunt's abuse of law permeated the Nixon White House and led to Nixon's resignation moments before impeachment.

How to sell this and where? Did anybody care? It surely wasn't ABC. It could be CBS or NBC, most likely the former but they had already done John Dean's "Blind Ambition" a few years earlier — so NBC, not known for political TV movies, was moving into first position. 

I had heard that producer Sonny Grosso was sniffing around but had not yet made an offer. Grosso at the time was not a client, and I didn't want it to get away. But what attachment could push it over at the networks? 

It was in the shower the next morning that it came to me. Liddy was small and wiry, with a major chip on his shoulder, a right-wing mad dog who could take on all comers and yet was 138 pounds soaking wet. Physically and emotionally he had a Hollywood clone — Robert Conrad. 

First thing, whatever it takes, get to Conrad. Will he read "Will" in manuscript? Indeed, must I wait for him to actually read it? I brought along the synopsis but wasn't certain he was accessible to a Morris agent.

In luck, I find that he was among a bizarre group of near stars and former stars represented by David Shapira. I liked David and we often spoke, to gossip and commiserate about the highs and lows of our respective careers. I called Shapira and asked if I could get his client's commitment to star in a movie based on a WMA represented bio. Would we be protected? 

David started with, "Sure. We can split the package fee." Not happening. "OK, I tried, just bring it to him." 

He was working out of his Winnebego on the studio lot shooting one of his series, and I drove over. While I intended to give him the manuscript, the New York agent had overnighted a rare demo copy of the actual book.

Conrad emerges from his trailer, looks me over and sees the book, grabs it. "I'm in." What's the deal?

We walk the lot in search of the studio cafe. Once seated, I begin with "the agent for Liddy wants $10,000 against $100,000 as an opening bid. "My production company makes the film  I'm not an employee."

"Fine. The agency represents the package, your agent has agreed." 

"That's 5 percent up front? Agreed. We're closed?" 

"I'm not Liddy's personal agent, never met him, don't know that I want to. But you should. I can't officially close without going back to her."

"I know what to do, Axelman. This is very good, I mean, I know some of his story and can't wait to get into it. Does William Morris have to supply the writer? I mean, am I forced to use one of your clients?"

Not at all. We can help, give you lists, but once we do close, it's all yours. Where do you think we can go? NBC or CBS? 

"It's NBC all the way. They need it."

Not so fast, boys.  New York tells me that Sonny Grosso has made a $15,000 offer. Conrad either matches it, beats it or loses it.

In the meantime, I learn that Liddy wants to have a "sit down" with his California agent to discover "what I'm made of." I refuse to eat a rat, I keep kosher.

Jerry Katzman and I call a meeting at agent Shapira's office. It would be better, we agreed,  if we could calmly tell him in person and not on the phone.

Yeah, right. Jumping into the eye of the storm.

Katzman had the courage to break the news. The option payment is now at $15,000. A producer named Sonny Grosso has made that offer.

Conrad, looking wobbly, screamed. "You told me 10 grand, what the f— is this, it's your f—ing book, you control it, why is the f—ing price going up?"

He is moving a small end table back and forth as he yells. In my calmest tone, as when speaking to the insane, I say "We can't control outside producers making offers …" He screams back at me. "But you can tell your literary agent in New York that you have a deal with the only reason it's going to be made, CAN'T YOU?" 

He is, by the way, absolutely right.

"You're absolutely right, Bob, but she said you've got to match the option offered. She doesn't understand television. She only wants to get as much upfront money for her client as she can."

Conrad picks up the table and throws it at the two of us. I ducked better than Katzman, who was bruised.

"Listen, Bob, you know NBC is going to buy it, right?"

"Yeah, so what?" 

"They will immediately reimburse your option payment."

Shapira, who had hid in a corner during this confrontation, suddenly appeared: "Arthur's right, you'll get it back or William Morris will reimburse you. Am I right?"

"Sure," I agree, without realizing the implications of what he was proposing. It was, however, good enough to calm Conrad and allow us to return to the office.

I didn't care for the current and anonymous NBC exec who, after buying "Will," denied to the Los Angeles Times that he made the purchase with William Morris because Conrad was "a slam dunk." 

"Conrad wasn't the reason at all and I resent the implication."

Sometimes, in the course of daily commerce, you develop a friend at a network, someone who comes into your life who is bright, literate, honest and cultured with taste and good humor, but sometimes you must deal with jerks who are incredibly stupid. I suffered the jerks over two decades at all three networks and each network also provided real and lasting friends during my career.

At this moment in time, our NBC buyer was a jerk, which made having Conrad exclusively dealing with him perfect.

At ABC I liked Esther Shapiro, the late Scott Spiegel, Judd Parkin, Stu Samuels, the late Lou Rudolph, Len Hill and especially Maura Dunbar.  

Also at ABC I liked Andrea Kogan so much that I married her.

At NBC, Steve White, Dennis Considine, Deanne Barkley, Hamilton Cloud and Karen Danaher. 

At CBS Paul Monash, Bill Self, Steve Mills, Larry Strichman, Mattie Horn, John Matoian, Kim LeMaster, Michael Severeid, Norman Powell, Christine Grierson, Bill Klein, Greg Maday, Jane Rosenthal (before she began to believe she created the universe) and, of course, Dighton Spooner.

Conrad refused to sign packaging papers, saying, "I never betray my word, and you will be paid." He wanted a favorite writer of his choice named Frank Abatamarco to write and expected a battle. Happy not to have to come up with a writers' list, I told him "great."

Abatemarco did a good job, and the picture was ordered. Robert Leiberman was hired to direct, and his work was superior. If you ever get a chance to see "Will," you will be impressed.

And the agency package fee? One morning, as I arrive, I hear my assistant: "Bob Conrad called to see if you were here. He's coming over and urgently needs to see you." 

"When he's announced, send him right up." He arrived with Red West, famous as Elvis' best friend and a working actor in all Conrad ventures. I think Red was accompanying Conrad for security as he had with him Liddy's rights payment of $85,000 in cash and William Morris' packaging fee of $150,000, also in cash. When I realized he wasn't kidding, I brought the two of them down to COO Morris Stoller's office with the money.

I thought Stoller would fall down when he saw the cash. He merely said, "Thank you, Mr. Conrad. You're a man of your word."

When Conrad and West had left, Stoller called me. "I bet you thought this was the first time this happened. Well I can tell you, over the years, there were a half dozen clients who had to be paid in cash and paid us in cash. Red Skelton and Chuck Berry were two. Nice work!"