Lessons from stepping back through the curtains of time in Hollywood.
How do we change during this pandemic so we can create a new and better normal? How do we reassess and reset? When I get bogged down in doubt or discouragement, there are times a trip back into my past refreshes my perspective and illuminates an open door to the path forward. It is a myth that change takes time. Keep this in mind: we change at the speed of thought.
The months leading up to our country's declared independence from England were tumultuous. Daily life and independence plotting intertwined. They occurred both out in the open in plain sight and in venues whose locations were protected by a sworn oath of secrecy. There were no rules to follow in breaking away from king and country. Whatever worked that didn't get you killed was an unspoken motto possibly more popular than live free or die.
Two hundred years later, I was ensconced in the Universal Studios Mailroom working at close to minimum wage and plotting how to break away from the fear and limited beliefs that held me back and how to break into show business. I had turned down a couple of seriously lucrative contracts to be a radio disc jockey back east because I wanted a shot at my dream to make movies and television in Tinseltown Town, USA --- Hollywood. But I knew no one who worked in the Dream Factories. The way into this mad and enchanted world was both secret and seemingly unknowable. There were no rules to follow. Whatever worked was fine as long as the phrase you'll never work in this town again wasn't associated with your name. The best advice offered was always start at the bottom and work your way up.
Well, I was already at the bottom working in a single-wide mobile home trailer at the edge of the Universal Studios lot near Lankershim Boulevard and Valleyheart Drive. This was the mailroom, run by two former postal employees and staffed by wannabes like myself. I was a kid from Pittsburgh with a college degree --- summa cum laude no less --- and collegiate rewards. But that meant nothing. Zippo. Nada. Getting the mail --- the correct mail --- to offices on time was all that mattered. This was long before email and texts. One's ambitions were an afterthought.
The requisite skills for this job were minimal: be able to read who the mail was addressed to; find that slot in the mail stacks for the correct building or location; slip the mail piece into the slot; at delivery time, secure the mail for each office with rubber bands or paper clips; stack them in the push cart baskets on wheels for the closer locations, or for more distant travel, stack the mail in boxes in the back of a motorized golf cart. And away you'd go.
It was then a two-step process: 1. deliver the new mail and 2. pick up the outgoing mail. On the return to the mobile home HQ, the mail that was brought back got sorted again. Inner studio mail got re-sorted to the mail slots for their new location and Outgoing mail that was leaving the lot went to another section. Then...you waited for the next run. Hollywood trade papers were read, jokes were told, nonsensical games --- verbal & physical --- were invented and played, books read, naps taken, dreams conjured and dreams squashed. And always the hope...that someone would recognize your value.
Men and women were the "mail boys" and "mail girls." These were bright people --- most of them --- many with college degrees from bachelor to doctoral. Some had come from other professions and business, including the law. They were hopeful and ambitious and looking for a way inside. The first shock of how hard it was to get out of the mailroom and into a real studio job was when I learned that a number of these people had been in the mail room for four, five or six years! At this point, it should be repeated that these were smart people --- no troglodytes --- okay, maybe one. It was a specialized business and at that time --- and still today --- much of the entrance code was based on who you knew.
So the mailroom gave you the opportunity to meet everyone from CEO Lew Wasserman to movie stars, directors, writers, producers, executives, casting directors, editors, costume designers and everyone, all the way to the people who ran the machine shop or the paint shop. A few people with offices on the studio lot then: Alfred Hitchcock (doing Family Plot), Steven Spielberg (doing Jaws), Burt Lancaster (just finished The Midnight Man with Susan Clark and was developing projects), Rock Hudson (doing McMillan & Wife with Susan St. James), James Garner (doing The Rockford Files), Peter Falk (doing Columbo) producer Walter Mirisch (The Magnificent Seven, In the Heat of the Night, and at that time doing Midway) Edith Head (eight-time Academy Award-winning costume designer doing whatever she wanted) There were many others --- Robert Wise, Clint Eastwood, Hal Wallis, Goldie Hawn, Jack Webb, Steven Bocho, Stephen Cannell --- the list of which went on and on; it was after all, Universal, affectionately known as The Factory.
Many of the offices of these people who might give you a job were guarded adeptly by secretaries and/or assistants. Some of these people were human and treated you as another human. Some even had an engaging sense of humor and were preternaturally kind. And some...some were the spawn of the devil and you were considered as important as...lint. I learned quickly that it could take months and months to wrangle an interview, the result of which was most often hearing the words, "We'll keep you in mind. Good luck."
Discouragement became your new shadow to haunt your days or the fire-breathing dragon to torch your dreams at night. You wanted to play! You were ready! Passionate! You were saying Put me in coach! But they were busy and you didn't know anybody, which to many meant you were a nobody, and they didn't hire nobodies. That was how the game was played.
If I wasn't out of the mailroom and into a real studio job within nine months --- an appropriate gestation period, I thought --- then I should look elsewhere and not get typecast as "professional mail boy." But "things" weren't changing for the better. They weren't changing at all. How could that be?! I had a schedule to keep to be somebody! (Note for the present moment: you were and are and always will be somebody --- a unique & valuable somebody unlike anyone else --- so don't even go down that rabbit hole.)
Back then, I hoped that Sid Sheinberg (the President of MCA/Universal) might discover me the way he did Steven Spielberg and gave him a contract and a start. Young Steven was then doing Jaws on the studio lot, on location back east and out at sea. But I realized that I hadn't been making little films since I was eight and I didn't have a brilliant little film called Amblin' that Mr. Sheinberg could see; what I did have was heart. At least that was a start, and I was delivering Steven Spielberg's mail, maybe I could meet him. But Spielberg was up to his eyeballs in keeping Bruce, the mechanical shark, from biting the ass out of his film career. He was hoping that producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown wouldn't fire him as his budget had hitched a ride on a rocket heading for God knows where. Still there was always the hope that...
Hope was choking on "nothing," because "nothing" was happening rapidly and repeatedly. How the hell was it possible for someone to be stuck in the mailroom for six years?!! Slowly, you began to understand. The change you were experiencing was really and mostly nonexistent, and at best occurred at a glacial pace. By the time you might get an Oscar, the statue would come with its own cane. There were no Academy awards for Best Mail Delivery.
Everyone seemed to accept that this was just the way it was --- that's showbiz --- and face it, you can't fight city hall. All accepted beliefs based on experience. Like Newtonian physics: because of this, that happens. Or Aristotelian logic: everything is either an apple or it's not. The world has looked at things that way for centuries. In this manner of thinking, I was basically SNAFUed and FUBARed.
So...remember the earlier statement, we change at the speed of thought.\ That is an actual, provable, livable fact IF --- that's the operational word --- IF you actually change your thought from the thoughts and entrenched beliefs that had you stuck. But if this causes that and things are either one way or their not, then what are the alternatives? You're stuck dealing with that model of thought, right? Well, Einstein said: "Nothing happens till something moves." What if that something is your thought? Einstein also said: "Your imagination is the preview of coming events." Clever dude, that Einstein. Untether your imagination. The Persian poet, Rumi, stated: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there." That's the Tertium Quid of life. The what??? It's Latin, Terium Quid. It is the third something, the something else and if you're open to it, it can set you free.
So, back to the past, no rules, right? That meant I could...change the game. Everyone said you had to play the game. Okay, but why can't I change it to something else? Why couldn't it be my game? I liked the feel of that thought and since no thunderous response from God hurtled me immediately down the chute to hell, I felt that maybe this third something might be doable.
One trick we all learned in the mailroom was how to unseal the mail and read it, then reseal it so no one noticed. You learned a lot about how the studio worked that way and sometimes were privy to some rather juicy gossip. So, I read everything --- everything --- even the mail marked Confidential --- especially the Confidential mail for I hoped that held the key to working in Hollywood. (Everything really meant inner-studio mail, not incoming or outgoing U.S. mail.) (Note to future aspirants: reading confidential mail can also get you skinned alive, so caveat emptor.)
The potential skinning occurred in an elevator with no escape, very Hitchcockian, although I was not Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair and Grace Kelly in any form was only wishful thinking. I entered the elevator of the Black Tower --- the name given to the main executive building and the seat of power --- on the underground garage level with my loaded pushcart basket. I pressed 16 as we always started at the top and delivered the mail first to Lew Wasserman, Chairman & CEO of MCA/Universal; Sid Sheinberg, President; Tom Wertheimer, Executive Vice-President; Ned Tanen, President of Universal Motion Pictures; and Jules Stein, Chairman Emeritus. I had my new game plan and was ready to rock'n'roll. So much for the plans of mice and men. One flight up, on the lobby floor, the doors opened and all these men except Jules Stein entered the elevator. I was hemmed-in by power.
As a mail messenger, we were everywhere; so we were also nowhere, invisible because we were always around...like wallpaper. I assumed my best hiding-in-plain-sight position in the back corner as a barely noticed, silent Roman column with blond hair --- 6'4" 230 lbs of invisible --- and listened to the high-powered conversation. The corporation was involved with intense negotiations at the time to acquire and buy Putnam Publishing and a deadline was approaching. I, of course, had just read the confidential telex concerning the negotiations and the acceptance by Putnam of MCA/Universal's terms.
The executives were waiting for this news and were speculating about what to do if Putnam turned down the latest round of negotiations --- all except Wasserman. He kept glancing over at me and watching my facial expressions as I listened to their concerns and their potential counter-offers. I tried to act like wallpaper, but even The Actors Studio didn't have a course in wallpaper. Wasserman, arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time --- and one of the most brilliant negotiators ever in the entertainment business --- sucked the air right out of my chest when he casually said to the others: Why don't we ask Bill? Wasserman looked over at me with a perfect poker face. The others all stared at me, wondering why the boss had single me out. I realized however that I had been assigned a name and it was in fact correct. He had not called me Lint. I had never --- as in never --- met the man. Delivered mail to his office, yes. Actually met him, that would be a big no. How the hell did Lew Wasserman know my name?!(Additional note to future aspirants: the best CEOs know everything about what happens at their company. Everything.) I waited for the fateful question.
"Bill, do you think we should be worried about the Putnam deal?" Mr. Wasserman asked, expecting an honest answer. The elevator, filled with the most powerful men in Hollywood --- and a tall piece of wallpaper --- was deathly silent as they waited for my response. The first piece of mail on top of the pile was the sealed Confidential telex. I knew right then, that he knew that I had read it and that it was probably not the first time I had read his mail. I offered Mr. Wasserman a slight smile which basically implied please don't torture me, just kill me quickly and then I replied: "No, sir, not to worry. I think you'll be very pleased, sir." "So, good terms then?" was his response. I managed to choke out "Congratulations, sir.," and with a nod to the others, "Gentlemen." The gentlemen scrutinized my face. It was clear they wanted to know how a piece of lint knew the results of the negotiations before they did.
I survived without being skinned because contrary to what was learned on the street from rumor or gadfly gossip or even penetrating journalistic exposés, powerful and famous people are more than mere description. Lew Wasserman, besides being tough & brilliant & powerful recognized intelligent ambition and was insightful enough to know that I was harmless. Decency also had its expression in the pantheon of power. Mr. Wertheimer I never got to know, but Ned Tanen became a friend years later when he was President of Paramount Pictures. Sid Sheinberg, on the other hand, the second most powerful man in showbiz, became another lesson in applied power and punishment for me a short-time later during my final something else stage.
But, did any of them offer me a real studio job or position or working as their assistant or protege for my Putnam deal insight? No, I escaped with my life, which was good. The usual words "We'll keep you in mind, good luck" were not even implied. I was alive though, so I pressed onward.
In untethering my imagination --- and not wanting to start as a PA or production assistant as everyone said you have to start at the bottom --- I decided I was going to start as a producer. Why not? Well, there were a thousand good reasons why not, but I decided they didn't apply to me. I was most passionate about writing and directing, but producing was a job where you put projects together. I felt I could give that a try. No one was pointing fingers at me saying let him direct something, anything, traffic, whatever. I was however writing a treatment for a feature film based on true life events which took place in England and India in 1890 and 1910. Not exactly a two person love story set in a mountain cabin so I knew I was too inexperienced a director (a stage play, a reader's theatre project, a live TV stage production and a small documentary film in college) to be considered for what was an epic-scale international project.
Anyway, it was a good story and I was planning on writing a screenplay based on my treatment. But this was a work in progress. Until that was finished, I might be able to act as a producer and get people excited about what I was doing. Of course, I also hoped that Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman) might go out with me if I ever met her, but that TV series was produced at Warner Bros. Studios, and I only had access to Universal, yet if I was a producer... (Note to future aspirants: sometimes an untethered imagination is a ridiculous thing.) So what did I know, what was part of my third something, something else, tertium quid plan? I knew a proper Motion Picture Producer needed an office.
(Next note to future aspirants: Always remember to ask. You might just get an answer.)
I went to Dick Nieman, an executive in the Black Tower. He was one of the people in charge of assigning and co-ordinating the use of office space and the workings of the physical plant at the studio. I introduced myself --- he recognized me as a "mail messenger" --- and asked if I could use one of the empty offices in one of the producer buildings. It was somewhat in the back and out of the way. "What for?" "Well, for putting projects together as a producer and having a place to write my screenplay when I wasn't delivering the mail. The mailroom was too crowded for that." I said all this with a straight face. "No one has ever asked that before." I told him "I didn't mind being the first one" and I told him I had observed that the particular office I had in mind had been vacant for quite some time and that since we in the mailroom got the notices when someone was moving in, I would basically know at the same time he would, and I could then move out in plenty of time. "You're not leaving the mailroom?" "Oh no, I'll still deliver the mail, but in-between runs I'll go to this office to get some work done before I have to make the next mail run." "Well..." He stared at me as if assessing whether I was actually sane, and then said, "Okay." The lint was on the move.
The office was almost bare. Four walls and air. No furniture, except a couch. This was not very conducive to work or making a good impression should I ever want to conduct a meeting in this space. I was church-mouse poor at the time, barely surviving on mailroom pay and a few small but blessed checks of support sent from Mom & Dad. I certainly couldn't afford furniture.
I was at the largest and most financially successful studio in Hollywood that was swimming with money. Producers were given lucrative deals at this studio. Deals that covered overhead expenses. I knew this from reading all the mail, all the contracts. Director-Producer George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) was on the studio lot at the time. I delivered a check for him --- after unsealing the opaque envelope, checking it out, then carefully re-sealing it--- and it was for partial payment for the movie, The Sting, which he had made for Universal. The amount of the check was for $7,000,000.
What if I gave myself a deal? I'd already been given a producer's office. My producer's fee was obviously crap; it was my mailroom salary. But no one needed to know that. Producer deals were fairly secret then --- except for those of us reading the mail --- as the studio didn't want producers getting jealous of someone else's deal and asking for more. Overhead expenses covered things like furniture, phones, supplies and typewriters.
I needed a typewriter to type my treatment and screenplay on. I needed a desk to put the typewriter on. I needed a chair to stick my butt on and pull up to the desk to reach the typewriter. (Note to future aspirants: a famous person's great writing advice was ass in chair. This was a reference to sit down and do the work, not a character description of the writer.) I needed a phone to make business calls and to be reached by the mailroom in case I needed to make a special delivery. I needed notepads for notes and pens & pencils to make notes. Didn't need to be fancy. Just the necessities. Ego dedicated to the work. I would be the anti-luxury producer. The Steve McQueen of the cool, new breed of producer. Okay, that hope was probably in the date-with-Lynda-Carter category. I already had a couch which was for creative napping --- good writing was not --- then and even now --- done without one. That was simply a sacrosanct law of the universe, an essential furnishing.
If one read the studio mail at the time and paid attention to the tea leaves of data, those figures yielded a goldmine of useful knowledge. When someone ordered items of any kind for their offices, buried innocuously at the top or at times the bottom of the order sheet were numbers referring to the items requested. One of these numbers if you knew what to look for was a charge number. The overhead expense would go on the monthly expense report for that office via the charge number. The figures were handled by the studio accounting department who kept track of all expenses and their related deal allotments. The most nimble and creative writing in the entire entertainment industry was not by screenwriters but by these accountants. Some offices had only one charge number. The higher up the food chain, the greater number of charge numbers. The powerful men on the 15th & 16th floors of the Black Tower had what seemed an excessive amount of charge numbers. I was not planning on arguing with them about their excess however.
What I did decide to do was borrow one of those charge numbers to supply my office. I kept track of how these numbers worked until I found a number where my expenses would be an unnoticed drop in the bucket of its usage. That number belonged to Sidney J. Sheinberg, President of MCA/Universal.
Mr. Sheinberg was a lawyer who had first worked in the studios legal department, then moved into its television division where he rose to be President of Universal Television. When Lew Wasserman ascended to Chairman & CEO of parent company MCA, he appointed Sheinberg as President, MCA/Universal. He was then 38, and when I appropriated one of his charge numbers he was 40 or 41. I was 23. He was a tall man around six feet and a powerhouse of authority. He had a well-known reputation as an iron-fisted executive who was whip-smart. If one was going to cross swords with Sid Sheinberg in business, one should not feel faint at the sight of their own blood dripping onto the floor. His wife was the talented actress, Lorraine Gary, who was co-starring in Jaws at that time. When I had encountered him on the lot, his focus seemed locked in business mode. For the most part, he did not acknowledge you while you were pushing your mail cart. He was simply focused elsewhere, and of course, I was merely a gallant member of the Legion of Lint. When disturbed though, I saw another look; it was a look that could cauterize the chromosomes of your DNA.
My office got furnished. I even ordered a name plate for the door and they even spelled it correctly --- the second time. This was my one indulgence with ego because I only put it up for the short time during the day that I used it. I always took it down when I left --- since it was supposed to be an empty office --- and I unplugged the phone. I knew for this to succeed there were very few people who could really know about this, since my job --- the real job --- was in the mailroom. Fortunately, the head of the mailroom at the time, Joe Rene, had a good heart and knew we were all wrangling to break away and break in. My furnishings and supplies were an infinitesimal drop in the bucket of that charge number.
But there was one more blockade to overcome. Underneath the imagined bravado and driven dreams that had gotten me this far was a reservoir of fear. I realized that I was terrified of never being given the chance to prove myself. I'd taken steps, not just driven from imagination and passion, but also from fear. If I was going to really change the game, I had to change my thinking & feeling --- both together --- or it wouldn't work. I had to trust to move forward. I had to let go of the fear. The great writer, Johann Goethe, once stated "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." He also felt "Doubt can only be removed by action." I had to add to the plan. Release the fear. Trust. Move.
I was off and running. In between mail runs, I would return to this work sanctuary and pound away creatively on the typewriter. It was actually exciting being able to carve out these few precious minutes working as a writer-producer at Universal Studios between mailroom duty. I chose to believe this illusion of writer-producer and it filled me with confidence. When I finished the treatment to my satisfaction, I needed to garner some interest from people who would add credibility to my newly minted stature as Producer.
I was a huge Burt Lancaster fan, not only for his dynamic acting, but for being one of the few actors in earlier years to form a production company to steer his own destiny and make the films he wanted to make. The Academy Award-winning actor (for Elmer Gantry) had offices on the lot for his production company in another producer building from where I had my new office. I delivered his mail.
At that time, I had never actually seen him in his inner office when I delivered the mail to his assistant, but occasionally I'd catch a glimpse of him striding across the lot with the grace and athletic power of a panther, a magnificent physical specimen. He had been a circus acrobat and usually did all of his own stunts. (Check out The Crimson Pirate from 1952 for a stylish & rollicking pirate caper with amazing stunts by Lancaster and his best friend from circus days, Nick Cravat.) As Multi-Emmy Award-winning director John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, Ronin), who directed Lancaster in five major feature films (The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train and The Gypsy Moths), once remarked: "Nobody has ever looked like Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate." Strikingly handsome with a virile presence on screen and in person, he was imbued with a larger-than-life movie star persona that shown like the sun.
One day after finishing my treatment, I delivered his mail and his assistant was out, but he was in his inner office sanctuary. I quietly placed the mail on his assistant's desk and was about to tiptoe out before disturbing him because he seemed deep in thought and focused on work. But he saw me. Barely looking up from his work, he gestured to me with his arm and said "You can bring it here." I gestured to the mail on his assistant's desk and said "I didn't want to disturb you." "No, no," he said, "Bring it in here..." and with my hesitation, he added "Don't worry, I won't hurt you." So, I grabbed the mail and strode into his office to hand the mail to one of my movie star idols.
As I got closer --- his office was big --- he looked up and said "Well, you are a big lad." Somehow, I managed to squelch my normal self-consciousness and shot back --- with a grin--- "Don't worry, I won't hurt you." He looked at me with a spark of fire in his eye and for a split-second, I thought he might leap from his desk to hurl me out the window! I was a screenwriter with an imagination after all. But instead, he broke into his best Burt Lancaster movie-star grin and a big hearty, virile guffaw and said "Sit down, sit down, tell me about yourself."
(To this day I have no idea what prompted him to do that, only gratitude that he did. That conversation started a friendship --- and a brief mentorship --- which continued on and off for years, seeing him the last time when he invited me to the LA County Museum Of Art retrospective of his work on the night they were showing The Crimson Pirate where he and Nick Cravat spoke after the screening. I met with him afterward and thanked him...and then he walked off into my cherished memories, just like his character Dr. Graham did in Field of Dreams as he faded into the cornfield when the last words uttered to Burt Lancaster on film were: "Hey Rookie, you were good.)
I did sit down that day. We talked. He laughed. I laughed. He loved that I had procured an office on the lot in a producer's building. I told him about my treatment and that a key role was one for which I felt he was the perfect choice. "Well let me read it," was his immediate response without being prompted. "Let's chat again, I've got work to do." I hightailed it out of his office, finished the mail run, dashed back to my office and grabbed a copy of my treatment and hustled it back over to him before returning to the mailroom. Out of breath, I walked back into his office and handed him the treatment and was treated to another movie star grin. "That's good," he said snatching the treatment from my hand, "Don't let the grass grow." With that, he waved me out of his office.
A few days later, I called his assistant and asked if Mr. Lancaster had had a chance to read my treatment. To my utter surprise, he got right on the phone and said "This is a helluva good story. I'm giving you permission to tell people that I'm definitely interested. I don't want to produce it though, I'm too busy with other things, but you've got my word, I'm in. Tell whoever you have to, and maybe I can give you some advice now and then, you've cut off a big piece here, don't want you choking on it." The last phrase was said with a conspiratorial chuckle. "Drop by sometime next week why don't you." Then he hung up, just like that. Oh My God...I landed a movie star!!
The other leading role required a British actor. (A lesson I learned then and try to remind myself of when I need a lift: When your imagination recognizes the presence of infinite possibilities, Divine Providence smiles.) When I wrote the treatment, I always had only one British actor in mind. He was about 38 or 39 then and I was 23. I had first taken notice of him during college when I caught a 12-hour BBC production of Tolstoy's War & Peace which had aired on PBS. He played one of the three key roles, that of Count Pierre Bezukhov. I was completely enthralled and blown away by the emotionally-gripping, vulnerable, powerful performance that leaped out of my television set. Two years later, I was riveted by his performance in the ABC television mini-series QB VII (with Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick). I subsequently learned that he had co-starred in The Lion in Winter which starred Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn. It was his first feature film. How would I possibly meet him? He lived in England and I was in California and could barely afford the price of gas to get to the studio let alone airfare to Jolly Ol' England.
That actor was Anthony Hopkins. (Today, Academy Award-winning [The Silence of the Lambs] and Emmy Award-winning [The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case and The Bunker] Sir Anthony Hopkins.)
The daily studio call sheets were the record of everything that was shooting on the lot on any given day. They listed what the project was and who was in it and who was directing and producing and sometimes even mentioned the writer. Jules Irving was a producer on the lot and I delivered his mail, including call sheets. He was a genuinely nice man who treated "mail messengers" with decency and dignity. His daughter was the excellent actress Amy Irving, who became Steven Spielberg's first wife. Jules Irving was someone who had always taken time out of his day for me to ask questions about breaking into the business and he had provided sage advice.
He also was greatly amused by my having a producer's office while I was in the mailroom. He loved hearing about producers who were very confused by my presence in their building. The confusion went something like this: "You're a mail boy?" "Well, I work in the mailroom." "But you have an office in this producer's building." "Yes, I do." "Yet you deliver my mail." "Yes, I do." "Do you have a producing deal with the studio?" "I have this producer's office...it's probably best for me to not talk about my deal." Mostly, they wandered back to their offices shaking their heads. The world of Hollywood was obviously going to hell in a handbasket. Mail boys as producers!!
I read the call sheets every day in the mailroom, and one day, when looking at my stack of mail to deliver to Jules Irving, I noticed that his latest production was scheduled to shoot on the lot. I read his specific production call sheet.
It was a television movie remake of the feature film Dark Victory which had starred Betty Davis. For television, this character was played by Elizabeth Montgomery, the talented actress who had been the popular star on the TV series Bewitched for many years. One of the key male roles was played by...Anthony Hopkins. So again, I asked. I asked Jules Irving, out of respect and courtesy, if I could visit his set on the lot when they were shooting and would he introduce me to Anthony Hopkins. He asked why --- he didn't want to disturb his stars, while they were working, for a mere fan --- and I told him about my treatment and Burt Lancaster's interest. "Well, if Burt Lancaster's interested you must have something special." I felt a supernatural big smile shining down from Divine Providence.
On the day I was introduced to Anthony Hopkins, I was brimming with confidence. He couldn't have been nicer. He was genuinely flattered, stating that no one had ever written a part specifically for him. He said he would read my treatment right away. In our conversation, I told him honestly that I worked in the mailroom but also had a producer's office on the lot. I did not feel the immediate need to dissipate the fog of confusion that fluttered across his eyes when I said that.
True to his word, the very next day he called the mailroom to speak with me. I had only left him the mailroom number because there was no secretary or answering machine in my office, and if I wasn't there I didn't want to miss his call. Also, I always unplugged the phone when I left.
One of my best friends in the mailroom, Simon Ayer --- who went on to be a top casting director --- answered the phone. "This is Anthony Hopkins, is Bill Froehlich in his office?" Simon had a wickedly funny and lovably irreverent sense of humor and at times no filter before the humor flew out. Many of the laugh lines on my face were planted there by Simon --- which started when he trained me on all the mail runs! But none of us thought of the mailroom as our office. I remember Simon saying something into the phone like "Oh, of course you are, that's a really good impression though." Simon handed me the phone and said with a certain je ne sais pas flair: "Anthony Hopkins is on the line for you." I grabbed the phone and said: "Hi, Tony." Simon remarked: "Sure, play it to the hilt with --- Tony." To Simon, it was all a believable prank on my part because why would a movie star be talking to a member of The Lint Mob? Mr. Hopkins had actually told me to call him Tony, by the way, I did not just assume the familiarity privilege had been granted.
My heart was beating faster talking with Tony because he was excited. He wanted me to know that my story had completely enchanted him. He felt that he must be in this film and that he was very grateful I had thought of him and that I wanted him in my film. That was the first time I had heard anyone --- let alone a rapidly-rising movie star --- mention the words my film in reference to something I was doing. He said he would be honored to work with Burt Lancaster and "When would we start?" It was dawning on Simon that Anthony Hopkins was in fact shooting on the lot that day --- he read all the mail too, no dummy he --- and realized the voice he could still hear over the receiver was actually Anthony Hopkins. "Tell Tony he's got that accent nailed."
My conversation ended with telling Tony that I had to finish writing the screenplay --- I didn't tell him I hadn't even started --- and that I would keep him informed of the potential schedule. He invited me to dinner to chat further about the captivating story and I hung up with my head spinning. I had now landed two movie stars!! "Why the hell is Anthony Hopkins calling you?!" Before I answered Simon, the thought struck me that I would have to accelerate my office work time with the script.
A little side story to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and kindness of Anthony Hopkins. When I was still working on the first draft of my screenplay, I got a phone call from Tony, and he was rather concerned. He had just been offered the role of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the NBC 3-hour showcase television film The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. He had called because he did not want to accept the role if it was going to interfere with my film project with Burt Lancaster. When the bottom of my jaw bounced off the floor and back to its proper position, I thanked him profusely for his consideration and concern for my project, but assured him that there would be no time conflict as there was no start date on my film.
He then wanted my advice on whether this was a good role to take since Hauptmann was the man convicted and executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby despite some doubts to his guilt. How would an American audience react to that since Lindbergh was an American hero? I didn't know how audiences would react to the actor who played that character, but I felt an emotionally vulnerable and truthful performance was always moving and memorable, and I quipped that he would probably win an Emmy. I was right about that. He didn't miss out on working with Burt Lancaster that year either as they both starred --- along with other acting "light weights" Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Dreyfuss --- in the television movie, Victory at Entebbe, about the daring Israeli commando airfield raid to free hostages in Uganda .
Pounding away on my script in my office on the Universal Studios lot felt like dreams did come true. I was speaking with two movie stars about my project. I loved the sound that the IBM selectric keys made as creative expression flowed onto the page. Life was good. Things were going great. Then they got darker. Actually darker, because a shadow had just crawled across the page in the typewriter. I looked up from my work.
The figure of a man was standing in the doorway to my office. His tall form was casting a shadow over my desk. My eyes sunk deep into my head and my heart dropped into my left shoe. The figure was Sidney J. Sheinberg, President of MCA/Universal. I waited for the chromosomes of my DNA to melt from the heat of his gaze. I also wondered what on earth I would say to my parents with the one call they gave you from prison.
The first shock was that instead of being melted by death rays from his eyes, he spoke to me. "So, Bill, what are you doing?" Oh my God, I was no longer an anonymous piece of lint to him. That meant there was no escape by claiming to be lost. He knew my name. Just like Lew Wasserman. When proprioception returned to my brain and I could locate my tongue, I responded. "Ahh, Mr. Sheinberg, I'm working on a screenplay...based on my treatment." "Is it any good?" "Ah, yes sir, it is, I think, at least I know Burt Lancaster and Anthony Hopkins think so because they'd like to be in it...when I'm done." "I see." I waited to be fully eviscerated or to have my body hauled off by guards and hung up in his office to be used as a piñata.
Instead, he posed a leading question. "Are we going to get a first look at this screenplay?" "Oh, ah, yes sir, ah, yes, first look, absolutely, Universal will have the first look. Definitely. Before anyone else. First...look. Totally open to that." "Good." Then he looked at me and took the best dramatic pause I have ever experienced on screen or off and said: "I wanted to make sure that one of my charge numbers was being used wisely." With that he left, and light fell upon my script page once more, and blood slowly returned to my face.
I never ever found out how he knew. He never said anything else about it when I would pass him on the lot and he would notice me. It might just have been wishful thinking or nervous projection on my part, but sometimes I swore I saw a slight sparkle in his eye before the steely-eyed focus would return. Sid Sheinberg was a sharp business man who could be brutally tough when necessary. He also defended and supported filmmakers when they needed it. He trusted talent. He left a legacy to last the test of time. And as I learned, he had a heart and a delicious sense of humor.
So, what about my film with Burt Lancaster and Anthony Hopkins? Well, that's another story for another time and more lessons learned. I left the mailroom three months later --- almost nine months to the day I had started full time--- because a director --- Richard Colla --- was impressed with how I had my own office and had landed two movie stars while also delivering his mail. He too had a movie star committed to a script and was soon to start pre-production on it as an independent feature film, a non-Universal project.
The script was Olly, Olly, Oxen Free. The movie star was Miss Katharine Hepburn. He offered me a job --- a real production job. Both Lancaster and Hopkins were pleased for me as they had both worked with Miss Hepburn. Lancaster in The Rainmaker, and as I had mentioned, Hopkins in The Lion in Winter. Lancaster remarked: "She's a gem. But be ready." Hopkins called her "Marvelous --- and formidable." My gestation was over. I was born into showbiz. My title: Associate Producer. And boy are there stories to tell from that production...at another time.
So...the way forward after stepping back through the curtains of time to the present moment. First, we release the fear. Fear comes as a suggestion. It does not exist by itself. It needs a partner to engage with and play. So, we don't take the suggestion, we don't play that game. Remember Goethe: "Doubt can only be removed by action."
We then untether our imagination. We change the game. We have an opportunity to change the way we live --- to change our economic system to be more equitable, to change our social culture to be more inclusive, to change our healthcare system to cover everyone, to break the bonds of poverty, to erase hunger. We can do it and quickly.
Given the scope and scale of the challenges, some may say to themselves or out loud "I find that hard to believe" --- it spurts out so quickly --- yet that thought & feeling are one of the most limiting beliefs anyone can have. It's swift and subtle when it enters our consciousness masquerading as reason and wisdom based on experience. Far too many of us say it, think it, and feel it automatically far too often, without realizing how it paralyzes our thoughts and actions. Untether your imagination!
The terrible consequences of this pandemic and how it has been handled demand that we hit the reset button, that we change dynamically for the better. That we are honest. It does NOT take years or generations to change.
We change at the speed of thought.