Inside ‘Kent State’: How I Brought My First Mini-Series to TV

I had to dodge slings and arrows to bring the image of a hippie girl placing a flower in a guardsman’s rifle to the small screen

William Morris' policy for its book/literary department was to send out coverage and trust its West Coast colleagues to sell its books to TV and film.

Occasionally New York agents such as Peter Lampack and Ron Yatter ignored it and did the selling on their own. Owen Laster, department chief, appeared to follow tradition, but in reality Owen regularly called me for a head's up.  

He was significantly responsible for my first miniseries at NBC.

It was in fact his call that morning, saying that he would be sending a memo that James A. Michener's "Kent State: What Happened and Why" would be coming out from under an option to Universal Pictures. While Michener was Owen's very important client (seven of his novels had been sold to film and television), he realized that "Kent State," not Michener's best work, might be a difficult sale.

After all, Universal had owned it since publication and couldn’t get it made.

During the week, Inter Planetary Pictures, a new TV movie company (headed by two married lawyers Max and Micheline Keller) that Alan Iezman signed, brought in a three-page idea based on the photo of a hippie girl placing a flower in a National Guardsman's rifle at Ohio's Kent State University. Their idea for a TV movie about Kent State was a good one, but its execution was pedestrian at best. 

I suggested that they option Michener's "Kent State" as it would give them the credibility they did not enjoy at the networks. Never having heard of Michener, they took my advice and made an offer on the book, which was accepted by New York. 

We went to Dennis Considine at NBC and succeeded in scoring a deal for a four-hour teleplay. I came prepared, and we chose my favorite writer from the early days of television, Reginald Rose, who had written "12 Angry Men" and the miniseries "Studs Lonigan," which had been an NBC success. I had already spoken to Rose and he was enthused.

Two weeks in, Rose called me and said that attempting to write this story was too emotionally draining for him. He spent evenings sobbing and he wanted out. I could not convince him otherwise and went back to my list. 

I wanted to have another top writer in the wings before going back to NBC. Gerald Green's "Holocaust" had aired to enormous worldwide reaction and he immediately committed to writing "Kent State," shocked that NBC would do it.  He had begun his career as co-creator and producer of NBC's "Today Show."
While this was going on, I heard rumblings on the first floor about “secret sources at NBC business affairs” that "Kent State," among other development, had absolutely no chance of ever getting made, and that I was simply wasting my time and energy in proceeding.

Ignoring the bad vibes, I revealed the loss of our writer to Considine and he approved Green to replace Rose. Another NBC executive Hamilton Cloud joined Considine to work on development and he was creative, energetic, easy to work with and enormously helpful.

In pursuing the authenticity of the work, we discovered that the Michener book, largely the work of intern researchers, had taken a judgmental approach, attacking the victims and supporting the guardsmen. The victims' families did not want to be associated with Michener. 

The resulting mini would therefore not be titled "James A. Michener's Kent State," as his other adapted works enjoyed. In fact, the producers were compelled to purchase the rights to other, more sympathetic books, including two books called "Kent State Cover Up" and "J. Gregory Payne's Mayday Kent State."

Jack Rapke, whose opinion I valued, introduced us to Bruce Postman, a self-proclaimed Kent State expert. I instructed Max Keller to hire him as a consultant — a good deed that was turned against me when the picture was ordered. No good deed goes unpunished?

When the teleplay was complete, NBC brought in a division of their legal department that was a form of Standards & Practices that no longer exists. It demanded that, if presented as true, each scene would have to be documented for authenticity and accuracy. 

In other words, you must submit an additional, thoroughly and totally annotated script.  This was beyond the producers' immediate comprehension or ability. 

Cloud, Considine and the Kellers went over the script and interviews with 87 relatives of victims, many of which were parents or the actual Guardsmen who pulled the trigger.

It was monumental, but it was accomplished, and a fully-annotated copy was turned over to NBC. Yet management still would not greenlight the picture as it was deemed "relentlessly one-sided." 

A new writer, Richard Kramer, was brought in to adapt what I believed to be a masterful script that did not need to be rewritten. Mistakenly believing he would get sole credit if he rewrote totally, Kramer did a page-one rewrite, inventing characters and scenes that never happened. So much for the annotation. 

Cloud, Considine and the Kellers were disconsolate, but they took the two scripts and rewrote with pieces of each. The resulting hybrid was submitted, approved and got a "blinking greenlight."

Still, in staff meetings, I would get word that I was delusional and that "Kent State" was hated at the network and would never get a "real" greenlight, whatever that was. Closing a license fee, I hired a director.
As expected, the Kent State campus denied permission to shoot on location, so the Kellers found a similar and very inexpensive location in Gadsden, Ala. 

When WMA made arrangements for my location trip they were shocked by the $8 a night accommodations. Even in 1981 that was a pretty seedy hotel and paint did indeed fall each night from the ceiling onto the mattress — but sleeping in Alabama was not supposed to be luxurious.

Director Jim Goldstone masterfully orchestrated six "Super 16" cameras to shoot and created an elegant four hours. NBC, however, worried about two nights, cut the mini to three hours to telecast on one night.

Goldstone, my client, won an Emmy for his work.

What I learned? 

While I never gave much thought to new-wave business dynamics that would have enriched me such as "owning" your position, clients, strengths, and entrepreneurial energy, and was admittedly terrible at office politics, I would learn from this trial-by-fire to ignore all rumors, the soon-to-emerge slingshots, arrows and bullets firing at me each day, the fear of the unknown, to respect my judgment above all others and plunge headlong into what was fast becoming my expertise.