‘Deadman’s Curve': How We Turned Near-Forgotten ’50s Surfer-Rockers Into Icons

All the story of Jan and Dean needed was a joyous resolve — the problem was, the story was so tragic we had to invent one

He was an old Hollywood song and dance man, with the same Pat Rooney name as his father and grandfather (who dated back to modest celebrity in vaudeville). He had somehow managed to put together exploitation features as a producer, and found his way to a William Morris television agent. 

He dropped off the material (his background not warranting a true meeting), which included a copy of Rolling Stone magazine featuring a Paul Morantz-written article Rooney had optioned "Dead Man's Curve": the story of '50's California rock stars Jan and Dean.

Most members of the Thursday morning meeting were more interested in shmeering their bagels than in Jan and Dean's story. Departing the meeting, I took the Rolling Stone back with me.

Clearly within lawyer-turned-journalist Morantz' story was a colorful movie. Adorable girls on the beach, the cars, the music, the tragedy — all that was missing was the joyous resolve. 

Jan Berry, the sandy-haired surfer boy, a vision of old Los Angeles, had suffered a horrific car crash driving his beloved Stingray down a dangerous curve on Sunset Boulevard near UCLA. His grueling recuperation, physically and emotionally, was the heart of the film. Missing was that comeback reveal: his on-stage spectacular performance victory in front of an audience. It didn't happen because it couldn't happen. He was that badly damaged, so one had to be invented.

But first I had to sell it.

Booked up for meetings all week, I did what agents should never do. It usually leads to a pass or silence. I messengered the article to Paul Monash, a successful writer-producer (he had made "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Carrie") who had agreed to work in television as head of CBS-TV movies, for reasons no one could understand.

He called when he read the article and asked, "Who's writing?" I said Tracy Keenan Wynn. I used to often suggest his name because he was fast and he was the hottest TV writer at the time, but I was having a hard time getting his answer — and when it finally came it was a pass. I had to go back to Monash with someone substantial. 

Marian Rees, working as a producer and Roger Gimbel's right arm, had strong praise for Dalene Young, the new hot writer, especially good at bios. Represented by Don Kopaloff, a one man show who was formerly a Morris guy, I called him and asked for her availability. He said not to worry, even if she's busy she writes "several" at the same time — just bring the article to her home.

I drove to meet a tiny waif of a girl typing at a massive IBM a seedy part of Hollywood. On yet another desk was another IBM typewriter with portions of a script in it. He wasn't kidding.

Dalene said, "Yes." I was in luck. Monash said, "You have a deal."

Initially, this being the loose early days of TV movies, CBS had approved Pat Rooney to produce the movie on his own. His behavior, once he saw that we were excited and this was real, became erratic. Ray Kurtzman, then head of WMA business affairs, cautioned, "This guy worries me. If we move forward and CBS orders this, we'll be culpable if this guy defaults." 

Kurtzman and I went to CBS and did a reversal of what a TV packaging agent usually does. We expressed our discomfort and asked the network to consider another entity as a backup, to be "at risk" to protect the network's investment. Our friends at CBS were happy to oblige. EMI and Roger Gimbel were declared the umbrella company and a deal was made for Rooney to partner with EMI.

Dalene's drafts followed swiftly, and the picture was ordered to production. Richard Hatch from the TV series "Battlestar Gallactica" was chosen to portray Jan. Bruce Davison portrayed Dean Torrence. Richard Compton was hired to direct.

The resulting picture was satisfying to everyone and became a cult favorite. All networks, when buying an independent producer's television movie, purchased two network telecasts over four years. "Deadman's Curve" enjoyed three network telecasts in primetime and one in late night and became a worldwide favorite in video. 

The network and foreign telecasts of "Deadman's Curve" resulted in international media attention for the near-forgotten Jan and Dean. Their "best of" LPs were re-released and sold at a rate that tripled original sales. This attracted the interest of promoters and a reunion tour, which was mostly successful. And all because of a little TV movie.

I think "Deadman's Curve's" place in worldwide television culture has something to do with nostalgia. Perhaps the time when Southern California's image included drivers that actually gave pedestrians the right of way, inexpensive apartments, cheap neighborhood diners, fun-loving, adorable blonde kids on the beach in bikinis and tattoo-free skin heads. A more innocent and treasured memory of an era lost forever.