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Hollywood: Opening Moves

Jeffrey Katzenberg
Jeffrey Katzenberg; drawing by David Levine

In the spring of 1988, my wife, Joan Didion, and I were approached about writing a screenplay based on a book by Alanna Nash called Golden Girl, a biography of the late network correspondent and anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. In the spring of 1996, the motion picture made from our screenplay, now called Up Close & Personal, with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and no longer about Jessica Savitch, was released. What follows, drawn from a longer account, is about some of the opening moves in selling a screenplay in Hollywood, years before the first day of principal photography—the day when the actors finally appear before the camera.

Two Cents a Page

I first met John Foreman in my sophomore year at Princeton, at a cocktail party my brother gave in New York. John was from Pocatello, Idaho, had taught English literature at Stephens College in Missouri after service in the Navy in World War II, then had abandoned academe to become a show-business press agent. He was shepherding a client at the party that day, a neophyte film actress promoting a Gary Cooper western in which she appeared. The picture was High Noon and the actress was Grace Kelly.

It was almost twenty years before I saw John again, when he hired my wife and me to rewrite a screenplay for Joanne Woodward. During the intervening two decades, John had metamorphosed, first into an enormously successful motion picture agent, one of the founders of Creative Management Associates, or CMA, the power packaging agency of the Sixties and Seventies, and then into an equally successful film producer—of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Judge Roy Bean, among other pictures. His partner in the Newman-Foreman Production Company was Paul Newman, whose agent he had once been.

The screenplay for Joanne Woodward did not work out. It had been an original script by Joyce Carol Oates called The Verbal Structure of a Woman’s Life, and was about a blue-collar interracial love affair in Detroit and Cleveland. Ms. Oates departed the project after her contractual rewrites, and, after a draft or two by my wife and me, so did Ms. Woodward. Always the optimist, John had us rewrite the picture for a series of actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, Faye Dunaway, Natalie Wood, Julie Andrews, and Shirley MacLaine, none of whom “committed” to the picture, but each of whom wanted to see an additional draft, with her own input. We did so many drafts that I protested to John that we were working for two cents a page. Detroit and Cleveland gave way to Hartford and New Haven, then San Francisco and Sacramento, and finally, by some alchemy I still do not totally understand, the blue-collar interracial love story, by this time retitled January, February, was situated at the Ojai Music Festival. There it blessedly died.

John was a welcome companion at the better by-invitation-only Hollywood funerals, where he could be counted on to have the last scurrilously hilarious gossip about the recently departed. We talked regularly, and it was he who, in 1973, put together our notion of a rock-and-roll version of A Star Is Born, which he developed with us and from which he was then unceremoniously elbowed aside as producer, with only token payment, by Barbra Streisand and her then-consort, Jon Peters.

Several times we gave him titles we found intriguing—a railroad western called Hundredth Meridian, an oil field thriller called North Slope—and John did the production deals with the studios and arranged meetings with actors and directors and set up location scouts, even though we had little more than the title and the notion that we would address the screenplay when we had finished whatever book one or the other of us happened to be then writing. North Slope, for example, consisted in its entirety of a production deal and some photographs of oil wells on Alaska’s North Slope in an annual report of a now-defunct oil drilling concern in which we owned a few shares. No money ever changed hands, but we knew that it could if we were ever up against it, that a deal was in place, and then there would be offices and travel allowances and a production number against which expenses could be allocated and a guaranteed pay-or-play fee for a first draft, set of changes, and polish.

The 1988 Writers’ Strike

Hollywood functions largely on the kind of personal relationship we had with John Foreman, Picture executives on a roll invariably tell interviewers that the secret of their success is an ability to maintain “good relationships” with the talent; “I don’t just work with these guys,” this executive mantra goes, “they’re my friends.” In such an insular and inbred community, a labor strike, or more precisely, an “above the line” labor strike (“above the line” meaning “talent,” or actors, directors, and writers; the technical people are “below the line”) tears apart the fictions that keep the industry going, putting into play envy and other ugly truths better left unstated. Writers in fact are the only above the line players who regularly go on strike; I have walked picket lines in three of the four labor stoppages since 1969, when I became a member of the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, the closed-shop union to which all screen-writers must belong, missing the fourth only when I moved away from Los Angeles.

From the earliest days of the motion picture industry (always in Hollywood referred to as “the Industry”), the screenwriter has been regarded at best as an anomalous necessity, at worst as a curse to be borne. In 1922, Cecil B. DeMille offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who, in three hundred words or less, could come up with “an idea that would send a thrill through the world.” “It may be a freight brakeman or a millionaire,” Mr. DeMille wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “a starving beggar or a society queen.” It could even be “a grocery clerk somewhere who has a terrific and forceful idea boiling in his soul.” The brakeman, the millionaire, the beggar, the society queen, and the grocery clerk need not bother about putting the idea into scenario form. “We have our own trained scenario writers,” DeMille wrote, “who can work out the technical details of plot better than anyone else.” It was as if the screenwriter lacked the kind of soul in which an idea might boil and ultimately send a thrill through the world, but could contribute what Mr. DeMille dismissed as a technical detail—the plot.

Beating up on screenwriters is a Hollywood blood sport; everyone in the business thinks he or she can write, if only time could be found. That writers find the time is evidence of their inferior position in the food chain. In the Industry, they are regarded as chronic malcontents, overpaid and undertalented, the Hollywood version of Hessians, measuring their worth in dollars, since ownership of their words belongs to those who hire and fire them. “Schmucks with Underwoods.” Jack Warner, the most pernicious of the brothers Warner, called screen-writers, and the impression persists, especially among the freeloading hacks on the show business beat, except that today writers are seen as schmucks with laptops. “They’ve accepted the idea of being third-class citizens, the industry’s pain in the ass.” Frank Pierson, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for Dog Day Afternoon) and the WGA negotiator (and later Guild president) told my wife when she was researching a piece about the 1988 strike. “Our position is that maybe someday we could forget the old joke about the Polish starlet, you know, she thought she could get ahead by fucking the writer.”

The screenwriter’s problem is that he is neither a writer, in the sense that a script is not meant to be read but seen and its quality only then judged, nor is he a filmmaker, in the sense that he is not in control of the finished product, granting to the director, as the medium dictates, such writer’s concerns as style, mood, pace, rhythm, texture, and point of view, much of which is manufactured in the cutting room, where the director is sovereign. Early script drafts, before a director is involved, invariably contain too much exposition and explanation; this is for the benefit of the studio executives, who are seldom fluent in the grammar of film, and have a hard time visualizing the picture that will be made from a script. The writer’s presence on the set, furthermore, is generally discouraged as a threat to the director’s vision. Although ritual obeisance is paid to the script, rarely is it paid to the individual scriptwriter. Prevailing Industry wisdom is that the more writers there are on a script, the better that script will be. On our version of A Star Is Born, eight of the thirteen writers who actually worked on the script filed for credit; in the WGA’s credit arbitration, Joan and I received first credit and Frank Pierson, the last writer on the screenplay, other than Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters, second position.

Perhaps no one has a more pungent explanation for what he calls “the historic hatred Hollywood has always had for screenwriters” than Robert Towne, the author of Shampoo and Chinatown (for which he won an Oscar), and one of the best film writers of the last thirty years. “Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job,” Towne wrote in an essay for the quarterly Scenario. “In other words, he is the ass-hole who keeps everyone else from going to work.” That he or she is regarded as such, and more importantly is aware of it, is one of the major reasons that writers strike so regularly, whatever the ostensible creative, monetary, and benefit issues between labor and management. However cost-ineffective a writers’ strike may in the end prove to be, it is an option that inflicts a certain amount of payback inconvenience, a satisfying if ultimately self-destructive revolt of the assholes.

The 1988 strike lasted five months. Since more screenplays are assigned than are actually written, and more written than can possibly be produced, the studios decided to seize the opportunity offered by the strike to write off, under the legal doctrine of force majeure (an unexpected and disruptive event such as a labor dispute that may operate to excuse a party from a contract), hundreds of projects in development, and avoid the necessity of paying for them once the strike was settled. Any strike offers a certain housecleaning benefit to the studios, allowing them to get rid of a lot of dead wood and drop projects they don’t really want to make. In our case, contracts were cancelled on North Slope, on a western about the California water wars called Water, and on an adaptation of my novel Dutch Shea, Jr. These had all been kept alive in case we needed an infusion of cash, and since we had just moved from Los Angeles to New York, and since the move was more costly than we had anticipated, we had been counting on one of them coming through.

Now we had to find a picture from scratch. We had a further financial incentive for doing so quickly: I had undergone a cardiac procedure called angioplasty in the fall of 1987, and it was imperative that we remain covered by the Writers’ Guild health plan, which requires a continuum of television or motion picture work to remain in effect.

Only one of our pre-strike projects was still breathing, and that one on life support. It was a script we had written for Lorimar Pictures called Playland. Lorimar had taken over an old deal we had with MGM to write an updated musical version of Mildred Pierce, and asked us if instead we were willing to do a screenplay about the gangster Bugsy Siegel. We were initially as unexcited about Bugsy Siegel as Lorimar was about Mildred Pierce as a musical. There was, however, something naggingly persistent about the Siegel idea; we went back to Lorimar and suggested that instead of a straight-up Bugsy Siegel story we do an original script about a generic Jewish gangster who comes to Hollywood and falls in love with Shirley Temple. Not the real Shirley Temple, of course, but a major child star, seventeen years old, trying to cross over into grown-up parts, a child-woman with the vocabulary of a longshoreman and the morals of a mink. Lorimar gave us the go-ahead, and an enthusiastic response when we delivered a first draft of Playland shortly before the strike began.

Behind the scenes, however, the big business of Hollywood intervened: Lorimar was bought by Warner Bros. For Playland and the other Lorimar feature projects in the deal, this transaction was the kiss of death. Although we owed another draft, we knew it was unlikely that Warner’s would proceed. Their executives were frightened enough of getting burned by projects they themselves had greenlighted without having to take the fall for projects picked up from another studio. “We inherited all these little orphans from Lorimar,” a Warner’s vice-president named Lucy Fisher said by way of setting the tone for our one Playland meeting. Of course the meeting generated a set of notes. In Hollywood, a meeting without notes is a meeting that never took place. Since senior studio executives consider it beneath their dignity to jot down or even remember the thoughts they advance at script meetings, notes arc always transcribed by ambitious assistants, called “Creative Executives,” or CEs, who often add their own spin to the mix. Jargon is the currency of a CE’s notes. A screenplay must have a “creative are” ending in “resolution,” or a “controlling idea” leading to “the inevitable climax”; major characters inevitably lack “motivation,” and sometimes “basic motivation.”

Warner’s notes were signed by an entity identified only by the title CREATIVE, and they began, “We feel this project has a lot of potential,” the translation of which means file and forget. That Warren Beatty was also said to be developing a Bugsy Siegel project left us feeling even more orphaned, but Playland did not fall entirely between the cracks; the unproduced screenplay jumpstarted a dormant novel of mine that was finally published six years later under the same title.

In early August 1988, the strike was finally settled, on terms the Guild membership had turned down in June. It was at this juncture that we heard once again from John Foreman.

The Package

Hard times had visited John, as they do most people in Hollywood, particularly as they get older and there is no nest egg from a huge hit laid away; the well-earned retirement benefits enjoyed by senior executives in corporate America, with a pension and medical insurance and a golden parachute, are not usually available. After he was bumped from A Star Is Born, John had produced two very good pictures directed by John Huston, The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi’s Honor, but both had taken years before they were made, and because Huston was an insurance risk—chronic emphysema and advancing age being the reasons—budgets and fees were slashed to the bone. John had always been like a junkyard dog with a picture, never letting go of it, even when it would have been to his advantage to do so. To him the important thing was getting the picture on, no matter what humiliations and belt-tightening financial incursions were dealt him by the money people. Now he had a project and he had a partner, a casually dressed good-old-boy Beverly Hills lawyer named E. Gregory Hookstratten, who is always called “the Hook.”

The Hook’s affable demeanor did little to mask a reputation as a fiercely combative agent for professional athletes (O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen being two) and especially for television newscasters, both local and network, with NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel the jewels of his client list. In Jessica Savitch’s troubled later years, the Hook became her agent, and for a brief interlude they had a romance. Through this association, he controlled the film rights to Alanna Nash’s biography of Savitch, Golden Girl, which was then in galleys. The Hook was used to dealing with the treacherous egos and plays of the sports and television news worlds, and was smart enough to know that he would not be at ease with the equally treacherous but differently nuanced egos and plays of the picture business. To guide him through this minefield, he called John Foreman, who had once been his neighbor in Beverly Hills, and John called us in New York.

What John wanted was to “attach” writers to Golden Girl, so that when he went to lay the package off on a studio, with himself and the Hook as its producers, he could say that Joan and I were what in Hollywood is called an “element,” although it was our considered opinion that a writer’s value as an element was at best questionable, and certainly not “bankable,” i.e., sufficient to attract a studio’s investment in a film. John mentioned bankable actresses and directors, the usual A-list suspects, all of whom, he assured us, without actually offering any proof, would kill to become involved in this picture. This was normal pre-pitch stroking and was understood as such, since he knew and we knew that no first-string actress or director would ever make a commitment without seeing a script.

Had it not been for the strike and the dumping of our other film projects, it is unlikely that we would have even opened the Golden Girl galleys. The main attraction of this embryonic project was that it was the only picture we had been offered since the strike ended. If a studio could be interested in the package, the money would ease the burden of carrying two apartments in New York, one of which we were trying to sell in a plummeting real estate market, and get us back on the WGA health plan. In the meantime, we had pressing non-movie commitments. I had to go to Germany and Ireland to research a long-overdue book, and Joan was under assignment to cover both the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and the Republican convention in New Orleans. We had promised to visit friends in Italy late in the summer, and we told John that we would read the galleys while we were gone.

Although John pressed us to commit on the basis of his enthusiasm alone, we refused. We needed something more, and saw no point in being attached for months to a project that had little possibility of attracting studio financing. If we liked the book, and if he could set it up before something more viable came our way, we would become involved. We told John, however, that we would not attend any session to pitch Golden Girl to a prospective buyer; we are not among those writers known in Hollywood as “good meetings,” those with the gift of schmoozing an idea so successfully—as if getting that idea down on paper was only a matter of some incidental typing—that studio executives pressed development funds on them.

As it happened, we liked Golden Girl, and when we returned home we told John that he could use our names to try to set it up.

A Buyer’s Market

It was a buyer’s market. Once profligate in developing scripts, only a fraction of which ever went into production (it was not unusual for writers to make several hundred thousand dollars a year for years on end without ever seeing a picture go before the cameras), the studios, having humbled the writers in the strike and thinned their inventory of expensive development projects, were in a feisty, fee-cutting mood. Speculative scripts, many written during the strike (the only kind of screen work WGA members could do, as it was without recompense), were the rage. The beauty of a spec script was that it was finished, could be read and discarded at a sitting if found wanting, or put into production quickly if desirable. The bidding wars on the hotter spec scripts, mainly action thrillers like The Last Boy Scout, Radio Flyer, and Ultimatum, sent prices through the roof; a million dollars became the floor bid when an auction was held.

Toward the development project, however, the project adapted from a book or a play or a magazine article, and then converted into a screenplay, the studios in this post-strike era brought an accountant’s green eyeshade. WGA rules mandate that writers receive a significant portion of their fee upon signing, in other words before a word is written, and the balance of their first-draft payment upon delivery to the studio. The inexorability of these payments is what makes studios sullen, and they try to control the content of the script by endless meetings, often with as many as a dozen people present, all of them offering their ideas about what the script should be. To attend one of these meetings is to understand the cold truth of the saying that a camel is a horse made by a committee.

Neither John Foreman nor we were under any illusions that Golden Girl would be easy to sell. There had been a time in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the period of Darling and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, when the life of Jessica Savitch would have been an eminently feasible subject for a film, with a possibility of a tidy profit if the picture was produced under strict budgetary constraints. Her story was a perfect cautionary gloss on the perils of the counter-culture: a small town girl with more ambition than brains, an overactive libido, a sexual ambivalence, a tenuous hold on the truth, a taste for controlled substances, a longtime abusive Svengali relationship, a certain mental instability, a glamour job, and then in 1983 a final reckoning, at age thirty-five, that seemed ordained by the Fates—death by drowning with her last lover in three feet of Delaware Canal mud after a freak automobile accident. This was not a tale, however cautionary, much valued in the climate of the late Eighties, when “high concept”—a picture that could be described in a single line, such as Flash-dance (blue-collar woman steelworker in the Rust Belt becomes a ballerina) or Top Gun (cowboy Navy jet jockeys train and love at Mach 2), pushed along by a hit music track—was in vogue. Studio after studio passed on Golden Girl. Then, shortly after Thanksgiving 1988, John called from Los Angeles to say that he had received a nibble from an unlikely source—The Walt Disney Company.

The Monster

Once known mainly for its animated features and the cartoon shorts of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, WDPc (as Walt Disney Pictures is referred to in its contracts), with Michael Eisner as its CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg as its head of motion picture production, had become a Hollywood powerhouse. After a string of tightly budgeted commercial hits. Disney in 1988 was on a roll, and believed it had found a formula, sure-fire as long as that formula—family entertainment that did not too rigorously tax the imagination—was controlled by its own executives. The bottom line was the final arbiter and the audience that mattered was the company’s stockholders, with whom WDPc enjoyed an extraordinarily profitable fiduciary rapport. To the studio’s studied indifference, the brand-name actors and filmmakers used to getting top dollar and their own way tended to take their wares elsewhere.

Toward those members of the creative community not coveted by other studios. WDPc’s attitude was to take no prisoners. Late one evening, at a back table in Le Dôme, a Sunset Strip restaurant much favored by the Industry, a producer friend of ours and his screenwriter, a best-selling novelist we also know, argued vigorously against the changes Disney was demanding in a picture already in production. The president of the Disney division over-seeing the picture, who was paying for dinner, suddenly demanded silence.

He was, he said, forced by the writer’s intransigence to take the monster out of its cage.

In the silence that ensued, the division president reached under the table, pretended to grab a small predatory prehistoric animal from its lair, and then as if he was clutching the creature by the neck in his fist, exhibited his empty, claw-like hand to the people around the table. He asked the screenwriter if he saw the monster, and the writer, not knowing what else to do, nodded yes.

I’m going to put it back in its cage now, the executive said, drawing each word out, and I never want you to force me to bring it out again. Then he mimed putting the monster back into its cage under the table. When he was done, the executive asked the writer, Do you know what the monster is?

The writer shook his head.

The executive said, “It’s our money.”

In time, after an extended run of box office failures, the executive himself met the monster, and was fired the way studio presidents are fired: he was allowed to work out his contract as a Disney independent producer.

Meet & Greet

The reputation for being difficult to deal with was one Disney at that time actively encouraged. With Katzenberg its point man, the studio had taken a consistently hard line during the strike, and a collegial spirit toward the people it had under contract was seen as such a lesser virtue that some who worked there called it Mouschwitz or Duckau, after its two most famous cartoon characters. Though we had been adamant about not attending pitch meetings, John Foreman called to ask if, since Katzenberg was going to be in New York on December 9th, we would agree just this once to meet with him.

I was reluctant. I did not think Golden Girl the sort of picture Disney would ever make and thought a meeting with Katzenberg a waste of time. Joan was practical: she said my cardiac distress, however optimistic the prognosis, was still an unknown factor; we needed the health insurance and this was the only project in sight. Together we pared Golden Girl down to a one-sentence pitch: the story of an ugly duckling with nothing much going for her who reinvents herself at great effort and greater cost into a golden girl.

On the appointed day, Joan went to see Katzenberg by herself. It is well to remember that Hollywood is largely a boy’s club. The presence of a woman at a studio meeting tends to make male executives uneasy. Whenever Joan and I are at a script conference, the questions are invariably directed at me; for years Joan was tolerated only as an “honorary guy,” or perhaps an “associate guy,” whose primary function was to take notes. This mind-set is prevalent even to this day. “Is John there?” an executive’s assistant will say over the telephone when calling for his master. “This is Joan.” “Tell John to call when he gets home.”

We have always maintained contractually that as screenwriters (our only professional collaboration) one of us equals both, and her going solo to meet Katzenberg would establish that premise with Disney. There was also the thought that my continued lack of enthusiasm for the meeting might prove contagious. Hobbled by a household accident that had taken most of the skin off her right shin from knee to ankle (a heavy tabletop had fallen on her leg while she was checking a storage closet before a Thanksgiving party we were giving), and unable to get a cab, Joan walked fourteen blocks through the snow to Disney’s Park Avenue offices.

The purpose of such a meet-and-greet is to allow the executive to size up the supplicant. Katzenberg had not read Golden Girl, but he was aware of the less savory details of Jessica Savitch’s life. He liked the ugly duckling idea; it was the kind of narrative he wanted, and he was also responsive to the television background against which it would be played. He did have reservations, and here I quote Joan’s notes of that first meeting: “Wants to know what is going to happen in this picture that will make the audience walk out feeling uplifted, good about something and good about themselves.” With subjunctives and qualifiers in place, Katzenberg indicated that Disney could make an offer if somewhere in Savitch’s messy life we could find an angle that would fit within the studio’s story parameters. With this as our Christmas holiday project, it was agreed that we would meet again in Los Angeles after the New Year with the full Disney creative team.

The Suits

To see what kind of deal Disney might be contemplating, we called our agents at International Creative Management, Jeffrey Berg and Patty Detroit. With one timeout. Jeff Berg has been our motion picture agent since his graduation, with an honors degree in English, from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, and we, as marginal screenwriters, were given him as clients. Like so many in Hollywood, he comes from a show-business back-ground. His father, Dick Berg, was a top television writer and producer; our first screen credit was on a TV show Dick Berg produced—wheels within wheels. Jeff Berg was now the president of ICM, a descendant of CMA, the agency John Foreman had helped start—more wheels within wheels. Early in his career, we had fired him and the agency when his superiors tried to include us in a package in which we did not wish to be included, but in time we returned because we found no one with whom we were more comfortable, although ever since we have told him the second time is easy.

Berg and Detroit spelled out the new realities: our first draft fee would be nearly 60 percent less than it had been before the strike; we would have to write more drafts to get a smaller total fee, the biggest chunk of which would be loaded onto the back end, payable only if, after shooting ended, it was adjudicated that we were due either a solo or shared credit. “Net points,” or a share of net profits, would be negligible, with a ceiling on the amount we could even hypothetically receive; the payoff on net points has become such a rarity, as a result of the Industry’s elastic accounting practices, that they are dismissed as “brownie points.” The offer was take it or leave it. We took, and agreed in principle to a deal that also called for a nominal producers’ development fee, what is called “walking around money,” for John Foreman and Ed Hookstratten.

Late in January 1989, Foreman, Hookstratten, Joan, and I went to WDPc’s Burbank headquarters to meet with Katzenberg, David Hoberman, the president of Touchstone Pictures, the division to which the project was assigned, and a full studio support team of vice-presidents and creative executives—the “suits,” so called because they all came to work uniformed in jacket and tie. In the seven weeks since Joan’s New York meeting with Katzenberg, she and I had expanded on the idea of Savitch as an ugly-duckling-turned-golden-girl. In the notes we prepared for the Burbank meeting, we wrote that Savitch was

moving in the very fast, very bigtime, very demanding, very seductive world of network news which she fails to understand is a MEN’S CLUB, in which, when she gets close to achieving her goal, she is closed out. She is closed out in the traditional way: it is said that she is unstable, that she sleeps around, that she uses drugs, drink, sex, whatever, in her “relentless” drive to succeed; that she is in short, “too ambitious.” The double bind.

It was the most positive spin we could put on the life of a newscaster whom David Brinkley had once publicly labeled “the dumbest woman I ever met.”

The subordinate suits waited for Katzenberg to open the questioning. Did she have to die in the end? he wanted to know. It was a question we had anticipated. If the character was not called Jessica Savitch, we answered carefully, then it was not necessary that she die. Disney, with its family reputation, was also uncomfortable with Savitch’s addiction to cocaine. The transformation had begun, and the caveats started to add up, if only inferentially. Savitch had once had an affair with the CBS newscaster Ed Bradley, and we surmised that the interracial nature of that relationship might be another source of discomfort for Disney’s core audience. Her abortions could also pose a problem, as could her two marriages, especially the second, to a gay gynecologist who, less than a year after they married, hanged himself from a crossbeam in the basement of her Philadelphia home. And it was clear that an uplifting story that would make an audience feel good about itself was not going to encompass any allusion either to Savitch’s suicide attempts or to the lesbian episodes in her life.

Then there was Ron Kershaw, the antisocial, alcoholic news director who through most of Savitch’s professional career (and through both of her marriages) was her lover, mentor, and tormentor. Something of a genius broadcast gypsy, Kershaw skipped from city to city and channel to channel, successfully reconfiguring news departments and finding new Galatea reporters and anchors on whom he could work his magic. “She only existed electronically,” Kershaw told Alanna Nash about Savitch, and it was he, according to Golden Girl, who taught her the smile that became her on-the-air trademark. “You’ve got to show teeth,” he told Savitch. “Teeth is vulnerability in primates, whether you’re a chimp or Dan Rather.” Kershaw was also an aggressor who, when he was not feeding Savitch cocaine, regularly beat her black and blue.

If Savitch was not Disney’s ideal heroine, Kershaw (who has since died of cancer) left something to be desired as a romantic hero. Still, Disney was willing to go to a first draft before offering any specific suggestions, which would then, of course have the force of law. When we left Burbank that day, this is what we knew: that as long as Disney was footing the bills, Jessica Savitch would cease to be a factor in the Jessica Savitch screenplay. To persist in writing her story under Disney’s rules would be like writing a biography of Charles Lindbergh without mentioning the kidnapping and murder of his son, the trial and execution of Bruno Hauptmann for those crimes, and Lindbergh’s flirtation with fascism and America First. What we did not know was that it would take six more years, four more contracts, two other writers, and twenty-seven drafts of our own before the picture that resulted from this meeting reached its first day of principal photography.