“So look you kook!”, the pot bellied old man said snidely in a thick European accent, “Who invited you to the party?” The tall Nubian looked at the gray haired fossil with complete disdain. His car was still smoking from its engine the fro end crumpled around an even older oak that had prevented it from careening into the sixties era split level house. A voice cried out behind the two on the front lawn from the side door of the residence. “The police are on the way!” , said the elderly homeowner’s portly wife as she cautiously stretched past the entrance’s screen door. “Shut up Ofay Bitch!” the black man slurred back with a heated malevolence amplified by a red eyed stare. “Harry!“, the old woman’s voice rang out again even more emphatically. “Come back in the house, the police are on their way!” “Don’t worry Madge, baby, I can handle his punk with one hand behind my back!“, the old man replied over his shoulder, “This ‘schvartza’ is so high as a kite that he can’t even see straight!” “Oh no, white man?“, the black interjected as his hand went suddenly searching behind him to his waistband. “I’ll show you whose fucked up you old muthafukker!“, and his arm swung around with a small automatic towards the old man. The gun hand carelessly coming level an instant from a trigger click when a deafening shotgun blast rang out carrying the tall African to the side five feet his head exploding like an overripe moat against a wall. A young white boy shot gun still raised to his shoulder shivering just the other side of the car. “Cut right there!“, said the director as he hung over his editor’s shoulder who was sitting at the flatbed Steenbeck editing board.
“Tell Arnie in production that the head shot has to be just a flash of tomato sauce!“, the thin balding figure sharply quipped. “My names not Peckinpah!” “These fucking post guys always want to push the envelope for their own personal reel to try to make head of the department one day!“, he said in a barely audible tone. the leisure suited director walked swiftly out of the suite mumbly. “Let them get their own Emmy on somebody else’s time, I ain’t got time for that crap.” Herbert Fine was no Don Seigel and he knew it. He had a Wednesday night TV series running half way through its second season of reruns working on producing a third. The studio was already giving him mixed signals about their uneasiness about this new tack of gritty urban drama. Quite frankly, he wasn’t so keen on it either! But Maury, his wife’s uncle had say as far as the producer’s ear and was trying to break out of the umpteenth generation of tried and true format of crime drama. The industry was well past the doubtful social messaging of feature length ‘Blacksploitation’ tales. Fine’s assistant came rushing down the narrow hallway towards him. A nice young ‘kolboynik’ still only two years out of Cal Arts film school with too many ideas. It would take him at least another two before he caught on the the way things really worked at the studio. Herb grabbed the young ‘goy’ by the upper arm. “No need to rush young man!“, he crooned authoritatively in his thick Brentwood polished Yiddish accent. “I need to get voiceover on the ‘schvartzer’ on episode three!“, Herb said in his commanding tone, “The asshole keep fucking using swear words!“. “Huh?“, said the young assistant. Herb frowned shaking his head, “The black lead actor, for Christsakes!” These college boys responded better when you boomed at them he thought to himself.
Herb had learned the business the hard way. Staring out with a runner’s job hoofing costume changes over to different sets in the the middle of the night at the old Burbank studio. There he had met Hazel Birnbaum who worked as a secretary in the front office at the cafeteria during breakfast when he was getting off work. Fate had worked its magic and he soon had a fiance and the ear of one of the backbone producers who took him on as a lowly production assistant. He knew enough to mind his place and make sure any of his bright ideas were those of anyone her was assigned to work with. Ten years of hard work and ingratiating himself to some of the worst old pricks that studio budget money could buy had seasoned him well-enough to understand that if you wanted to get anywhere in this business you had to know your place. Currently, he was a well-respected TV unit director. He wasn’t looking for any Academy Award feature opportunities but was happy to stay safe with an occasional TV critic’s choice award or maybe some day, an Emmy. His assistant hurried away ambling down in the opposite direction towards the Foley studio. Herb watched the young man from behind thinking that he wasn’t such a bad kid after all. He just needed a little trimming off that puppy-like ambition. This industry would kill you if let your own hopes rise too high. Keep your nose to the grindstone and stay on schedule, or better. That was the ticket to success around here. That and having a relative or two in the business that could occasionally make a call.
Herb was not really thrilled with the change in writing for the new season. The swing towards what the head of production of the studio called ‘authenticity’ bugged him. A new writer from New York had been flown in in the middle of Spring. Some guy that had won an EUTV or Taomina or some damn award over in Europe though it turned out that he had been working in TelAviv. Jason Lawrence was his ‘New Testament’ name. Jacob Rabinowitz to his rabbi and his mother. He was no Norman Lear, but you would have thought otherwise the way that everyone made a big stink about him in the front office. Hazel had said that she had heard he had some big connections both there and in New York. They had given him a contract with an option to renew for five years. Something considered unheard of for anyone without three years or more of a hit show safely under their belt. All Herb knew from dealing with him was that he was a real ‘shicker’. Someone that would probably step over your sputtering corpse to pick up the possibility of another slightly better deal. It was better to keep your mouth shut because he seemed to have an ‘in’ with that unnamed committee in the room that for anyone outside the higher ups of the studio, officially didn’t exist. The place where a ‘yeah’ or a nay’ could lop any project off at the knees if it didn’t conform to the narrative that was set for the coming year. This year it was urban drama leaning towards street level violence scripts without the ‘Spic’s or ‘Schwoogle’s’ especially if he had a little ‘sheeny’ somewhere behind it. The empathy factor was leaning to the left with a white schmuck cop or power broker made out to be the cause of all disasters in the third act. You could ‘kvetch’ and ‘plotz’ all you wanted about the audience rating demographics and mixed ratings but in the end the decision was made for you. After all who were you to complain, the sponsor? Be a ‘mensch’ and mind your own business and make a silk purse out of a piece of ‘schlock’. And of course, hope like Hell you got through a full season!
Thank god for Hazel! Her kin were a group of tough minded Sephardi’s that had come out to Hollywood in those glory days before sound. At least a generation or two before all the Ashkhenazim from Germany and overseas took a liner over to escape Hitler. Though the five ‘kings’ from Poland’s ‘pale’ had made the business what it was today, there was ever the division between old money and new. The Six Day War in sixty-seven had shifted the focus somewhat as Golda and Mehachem seemed to take the U.S. ‘bull’ literally by the horns and led it around for the sake of God’s chosen people. It didn’t hurt that Ladybird and Lyndon were purported to be ‘crypto’s’. Of course all this mean’t spit down the palm lined corridors of Bel Air. The ‘big macher’s’ were fighting their own battled with their second cousins in the East Coast for keeping things cost effective and on the West Coast and not on location! Oy Gevalt! The ‘meshuga’ late nineteen-fifties with that Screen Gems’ “Naked City.” The well had almost run dry in town over the last couple decades fighting cash cows like “Hawaii Five O” or “Miami Vice” that had been filming entirely on location throughout. The unions and the studios had made some pretty compromising deals that left the rest struggling against each other to stay busy. Herb was on his fifth pilot and into his third series which wasn’t chopped liver! But a career here could disappear like a soap bubble in a cactus patch if the wind started blowing the other way. That’s why ‘Mr. Lawrence’s’ marvelously creative insights about fostering a new sensitivity about race relations by shifting the audience’s empathy from the victim to the ‘real’ victim, the perpetrator, were considered gold. An underlying level of role reversal based scenarios that was helping to foster new era of more civil race relations. After all, ‘R&B’ was out and ‘Rap’ was in tune with the meaner ‘street’ temperament of the times. And those times were not looking too good.
Had anyone asked Herb, who wisely kept his mouth shut he might have reminded that the major audience spending money on washing machines and pain medicine was not in Compton or any other urban center of minority populations. All the pain medication that they needed to get was freely available at street level. It was a big risk to start ringing the same sort of bell for blacks on the topic of discrimination as one could with the six-million chant of the the sacrosanct Holocaust. The cities that burned down in the Sixties with King’s death didn’t inspire much empathy from the grandparents of the whites that soon fled in big numbers to the suburbs. Herb knew that the name of the game for most of the audience was ultimately some vicarious entertainment where they got to identify with the hero. Not feel bad for the ‘neger’ breaking into his home. Things were changing that was true! But how much and how fast could leave a lot of bodies by the roadside out of work. And he was determined that he wasn’t going to be a clay pidgin for anyone. There were some good ‘shwartza’ comedies that did well! Some good ones with ‘spic’ actors too. That made everyone feel good! The gritty stuff was walking down a dark corridor to who knew where? But that what was coming out of every meeting in ‘the room’. He figured that the floodgates for that sort of thinking would have to be opened by some big budget feature from MGM or Paramount. Van Peebles and Gordon Parks had trailed off into the creative jungle. Those gates were rattling hard from young upstarts like that black kid from New York, Spike Lee. Not a good development for the old guard of Hollywood urban features. But a sign of what might be down the road for their television based cousins. He still could recall the hubbub with “Roots.”
The new script revisions called for more focus on the character of the black perpetrator. The evaluation as taken from the rushes suggested that the footage was making him look ‘too scary’. The penciled notations along with the accompanying neatly typed ‘suggestions’ offered that he should, present more humanity! Make him look angry and confused sure, not high on drugs and dangerous. The facial expression on the boy with the shotgun should be more vengeful and angry. That should be the enduring mental image that the audience should have in mind before the cut to commercial. Herb stumbled down the hall back to the editing suite as he paged through each of the notations cross referencing them page by page with the script. “Eddie!” His editor looking up abruptly from his spinning reel before him. “Dig up some of those closeups on take four where Tommy has just existed his smashed up car!” “You know the one where he starts laughing but then almost breaks into tears.” As his editor went to the bin opening up the door to rifle through the shots, Herb looked up at the wall to study the old stained and tattered movie posters that had been tacked up by some other unknown duo years before. “Casablanca”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, “I Love Lucy”, “The Pawnbroker.” Boy, those were the days!”, Herb unconsciously muttered musing aloud. “What boss?“, said Eddie turning around. “Naw nothing, just nothing at all!“