Making a Deal with the Devil — The Patricia Neal Story

“It’s show biz, it’s biopic, it’s overcoming odds, it’s a catastrophic malady, it’s a female ‘Brian’s Song!’ I told whomever would listen

Last Updated: July 25, 2011 @ 11:58 AM

On one carefree Sunday, shopping and eating in Malibu, I met a guy named Don Silverman who told me, when hearing I worked for Morris, that he was a producer and had a great idea for a TV movie.  

While by now running TV Movies for several years, I reluctantly accepted his treatment and stuffed it in a satchel I carried at the time.

Back at the office I read it. "Pat and Roald" was the story of Oscar winning Patricia Neal, one of my favorite actresses from "Hud," "Face in a Crowd," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and, her husband, Roald Dahl, a legendary British children's writer I also liked.

But it was primarily about the incredible grief that Neal underwent in her life and career. 

An extraordinary actress, and the "secret" mistress of Gary Cooper for four turbulent years, she plowed through hundreds of now-classic movies as a leading lady. When attempting to set this up at CBS, I told whomever would listen: "It's show biz, it's biopic, it's overcoming odds, it's a catastrophic malady, it's a female "Brian's Song!" 

CBS bought it without knowing we didn't actually have the rights.

The picture tells the story of the actress Neal, whose life alternated between triumph and tragedy. She wins an Oscar, and suffers a massive stroke while still in her thirties and pregnant. She had already endured the death of her first child and a catastrophic injury to her infant son, who was brain-damaged in an accident.

Then came three strokes, a year after the Oscar, leaving her in a coma for three weeks. Afterward she was semi-paralyzed and unable to speak. She nearly dies but manages to pull through. Gradually, through speech and physiotherapy, and with the battering persistence of her husband, Roald Dahl, and her friends, she recovers and returns to her career as an actress. 

What Silverman hadn't told me or disclosed in his treatment was that he had based it entirely on a published book Pat and Roald by Barry Farrell. I contacted Farrell to secure and represent the book and he sarcastically wished me good luck in trying to get the Dahls to co-operate on a movie, they barely cooperated on the writing of their story. 

A bright and likeable agent down the hall, Barry Soloman, had signed a notorious, hustling former photojournalist, TV movie and book packager named Larry Schiller. Schiller appeared able to convince people to do things no one else could achieve. I asked Barry if he would meet with me. 

Barry responded that "Larry doesn't really need an idea for a movie, he has too many of his own he can't get to …"  Still, happy that another agent wanted to work with his client, he set a date and I sat with Schiller and spoke of Patricia Neal. He read Silverman's unauthorized treatment, also read the book and I told him about the dilemma of getting the Dahls to agree. He said "You've come to the right place. Consider it done."

Both of us weren't wrong. However, a first floor TV boss expressed discomfort with his reputation. "You're making a deal with the devil," he warned.  

While Schiller befriended the Dahls and they took to him and agreed to have their story told on television, Patsy Neal asked for "absolute script approval" meaning, if they read the final draft and did not like it, they could withhold their life rights at any time and cancel. 

When a network develops and pays for the writing of a script there can be no possibility of the subject canceling the movie or demanding changes when the network intends to move forward. A stumbling block for Schiller? No, he never mentioned the words "script approval" to the network. 

Set up at CBS, the prestigious playwright Robert Anderson was chosen to write. Schiller advised, "simply cross your fingers and pray that the Dahls love what Anderson writes."  They did and production was ordered.

To Schiller's credit, the teleplay attracted an astonishing cast. Glenda Jackson portrayed Neal and Dirk Bogarde Roald Dahl. One of the few movies that had two directors, Anthony Harvey directed the U.S. locations and Anthony Page the British. Why? Only Schiller knows. 

It was a major event for CBS. Following its success, that "first floor TV boss" moved in on signing agent Soloman and became Schiller's agent! 

And Don Silverman, who I accidentally met in Malibu that sunny day, miraculously received credit as "Producer."

 

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.