Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Refusing to work with Woody Allen

A lot of readers have asked my opinion so I’ll weigh in. After all, I have an opinion about everything. Sometimes they’re even informed.

This topic refers to all these actors now outraged and distancing themselves from filmmaker Woody Allen because of the sexual abuse charges that have been leveled against him. (DISCLAIMER: He was never actually convicted.) And set aside your feelings for Woody Allen.

To me the issue here is that these charges have been known for 25 YEARS. And just NOW these self-righteous actors are aghast that they could work for such a monster? 25 YEARS!

It’s not like they weren’t aware.

There was no SPOILER ALERT.

But they CHOSE to ignore those charges to work for Woody Allen. Actors have won Oscars from Woody Allen movies. It was always prestigious to work on Woody Allen movies. So yeah, he might’ve done some horrible things but that’s no longer in the news and the film means a nice trip to Paris and a chance to work with other well-known actors so what the hell?

But now it’s fashionable to denounce Woody Allen. Now there’s little to gain from being in a Woody Allen movie. Well, I’m sorry. Unless you were in LOVE AND DEATH or SLEEPER, you knew what you were getting into so I find your disgust and your regret insincere, self-serving, and hollow. You got what you wanted out of those movies and you were willing to set aside your standards to do so. Don’t come forward now.

Some are donating their salaries, which is a nice gesture.  How many are doing it to save face and control the damage?   Call me cynical but that's the kind of plan PR teams and spin control firms hatch.

Look, here’s the thing: Since 1992 when these charges were first made VERY public, practically EVERYBODY in Hollywood has worked with Woody Allen.

Taking a left turn...

Remember Michael Milken? In 1989 he was mastermind of a huge junk bond scandal involving racketeering, and securities fraud. People lost millions. He was convicted and sent to prison for ten years. Of course, he got out in two years for “good behavior.” After that he became very active in a drive to stop prostate cancer. At one point he worked out an arrangement with Major League Baseball to go around the country, appear on local teams’ telecasts during games, and talk about the campaign. It was all for a very good cause. And so he did, guesting for an inning on local teams’ broadcasts. When he came to Dodger Stadium and this was proposed to Vin Scully he said, “Michael Milken? On MY broadcast? Not a chance.”

ALL of these shocked actors could have said, “Woody Allen? Not a chance.”

And I’m sure some did. THOSE are the ones I’d like to hear from.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cecil B. DeMille -- guest blogger

Hello, this is the great Cecil B. DeMille. I would say “famed director” but some of you younger readers wouldn’t know who I am. Suffice to say I’m the greatest film director that ever lived. My time was the ‘20s through ‘50s when motion pictures were king, theatres were giant ornate palaces, and there were no virtual reality games in the lobby. Between silent and talkies I made 70 movies. Take that, Woody Allen!

The 2018 Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow so I asked Ken (who is a lovely writer and in my day I probably would have hired him… but then had him rewritten) if I could be his guest blogger today and share some of my thoughts on this year’s crop. After all, I was the greatest film director who ever lived. And now you can add “greatest film director who ever died.

Overall I was disappointed. This year’s contenders are not “movies of the YEAR.” They are nice little diversions on a Tuesday night. A “movie of the year” was an EVENT. It had SCOPE. It had major stars. It was destined to be a classic, still viewed fifty years later. In fifty years from now is anyone going to be watching THE BIG SICK? And don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed THE BIG SICK. But it was a pleasant trifle. And too long. And I made three-hour movies. But I blame Judd Apatow.

Yes, I know. I sound like one of those old disgruntled burn-outs. “Hey, you kids, get off my movie lot.” But in my day, we made spectacles with no CGI. If we needed 10,000 extras for an intimate café scene we got 10,000 extras. For THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (perhaps the greatest film ever made – take that James Cameron), I parted the Red Sea. More impressive was getting a performance out of Charlton Heston. (We clashed considerably because I wouldn’t concede to his demand that all the Jews be armed with machine guns. “They didn’t have machine guns back then!” I screamed, but he kept claiming “the Second Amendment.” I had to constantly remind him that back in ancient Egypt the right to bear arms meant sticks.) Nowadays, what passes for spectacle? DUNKIRK maybe. But there’s no story. I watched it the other night with Joan Crawford and we were both confused.

Then there’s THE POST, which is a pale version of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. That’s like if Steven Spielberg followed up my picture with THE SIX COMMANDMENTS.

As for THE PHANTOM THREAD – excuse me but motion pictures require “motion.” That is not a film, it is an oil painting. I watched it with Lana Turner and she fell asleep.

LADY BIRD was a sweet little comedy that we would call a B-Movie. Studios cranked those out once a week. You wouldn’t buy a hard ticket to see LADY BIRD. You would go to your neighborhood theatre where for a dollar it would be playing with THE DISASTER ARTIST. GET OUT is a terrific B-Movie that would break all boxoffice records at the Drive-In.

If MOLLY’S GAME came out in 1927 instead of THE JAZZ SINGER, the silent era would have been extended an additional five years. I watched it with Marilyn Monroe and the dialogue gave her a migraine. She had to lie down (with Clark Gable).

The other contenders are pretty or thoughtful in that Art House way, but again, where is THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH or SAMSON & DELILAH? As for candidates in the acting categories – I haven’t heard of half of them. Where are the STARS? Back then we had Claudette Colbert, not Stephen Colbert. Why isn’t George Hamilton up for anything?

I understand the U.S. boxoffice had it’s worst year in over a decade. On the eve of the day when they announce nominees for “the Best Picture” I say “Make Better Pictures.”

Thanks, Ken, for letting me rant. From what I understand, Ken will be reviewing the Oscars again on his podcast. Carole Lombard says she subscribes so I’ll probably go over to her place to listen.

Cut!  Print!  That's a wrap, everybody!  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

High wire writing

Today I am participating in another one-day play exercise at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica. Five playwrights meet at the theatre at 9:00 am. We are all given the same topic and each handed headshots of the two actors who have been assigned to us. Based on that we each go off to our little corners and write a ten-minute play in three hours.

And there are certain restrictions. They all must take place in a café. (The program is called THE CAFÉ PLAYS.) On the stage is a small table, two chairs and a counter. No internal light cues, no tricky sound requirements. And for the sake of the poor actors who have to learn and perform these plays in only a few hours, no long monologues. Two or three sentences at the most per line.

At 12:30 the actors and directors arrive, receive their scripts and fan out into separate rehearsal spaces. I hear a table reading of my script, offer any insight into how I see it, and then I go home and nap for four hours. The directors stage and rehearse the plays, the actors memorize them, and at 7:30 and 9:00 they’re performed for generally sold-out audiences (the theatre seats 65).

It’s great fun and a real adrenaline rush. But it’s also nerve-wracking as hell. I’m always amazed at the results. Most of these plays are terrific, and the actors learn enough of their lines to pretty convincingly pull it off. It’s also so interesting to see how the same topic leads to five wildly different plays, both in terms of style and subject matter.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

And at the end, for me as a playwright, I now have another ten-minute play. And I can always polish it at my leisure. A couple of the Café Plays I’ve written have gotten into other festivals. And the Ruskin provides bagels! Another advantage is being introduced to a bunch of really talented actors. It’s a win/win.

Writers always complain of not knowing what to write. They can’t think of a good idea. For some that’s an excuse but for many it’s a legitimate thing -- a form of writer’s block. But this exercise shows there are ways to break through that. Assign yourself a task. Imagine you will have two actors. They can be any age, gender, nationality. Pick a setting. A café, park bench, a street corner. And then pick a topic. It could be an expression, something you saw in the paper, an old cliché. The three I’ve had since participating were “The end of summer,” “The graveyard shift,” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Pick one of those if you’d like.  You can even impose a time restriction if you like.  Sometimes not having all the time in the world to think about something is a good thing. 

The point is I’ve written plays on topics I never would have thought of had it not been for the exercise. You don’t need the world’s greatest, most unique, dazzling idea. You just need a topic and a relationship between two people. And bagels.

If you’re in LA, come see our Café Plays. They’re tonight and every third Sunday of the month.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

MY PLAYBILL -- Aren't you impressed?

When the musical I co-wrote was produced I was asked to submit my bio for the program. The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theatre critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theatre crowd. And now I have a few full-length plays I hope will hit the Great White Way.  What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse whom he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, HAMILTON (it was originally about actor Hamilton Camp), OSLO, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played four nights in Los Angeles and three nights in Houston. It was called the 2017 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions and even answers.

Andy Rose starts us off:

If a show’s main set is due to be damaged in some way on camera and then fully restored later (the Cheers bar gutted by fire, Frank driving his car through the front door on Everybody Loves Raymond), do they typically damage the real set and then rebuild it, or do they build a temporary replacement that gets damaged in its place?

They build a duplicate set, or the part of the set needed. And it’s often not exact down to the letter because a car is going to go through and smash it in two seconds.

There was an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote where Cliff was distraught that his mother sold his boyhood home. So he chained himself to the main beam holding up the house. Eventually Norm uses a saw and cuts the beam, releasing him. Once they exit the house the second floor collapses and crashes down to the first, toilet and all. We did that live on the stage in front of the audience. Jimmy Burrows directed.  Needless to say, the audience went wild. 

But if the main set needs to be doctored, they often just pre-shoot the day before. Remember one of the Bar Wars episode of CHEERS (also written by me and David) when Woody is trapped in the bar area which has been enclosed by cinder blocks? We just shot that the day before.

From Don Burke:

How does a freelance director get hired? Is there a directory and the show runner rifles through a bunch of names? Is it just through personal relationships? Does a certain script come across the show runner's desk and he thinks "You know who'd be great for this? Ken Levine?" Just curious how certain directors get paired with certain shows/scripts.

Personal relationships help A LOT. Or recommendations. But networks and studios have lists. There are certain directors certain networks just like working with.

Agents also do a lot of the heavy lifting. They pitch directors to show runners. They pass out directors’ reels, etc.

And the reality is many freelance spots are filled by crew members of that show. An editor, First AD, camera coordinator, DP, writer might get that coveted one or two open slots.

Beth wonders:

Who (if anyone) keeps track of when royalties are due? Do people just take it on the honor system that they will get paid if they should? Do certain "groups" (i.e., actors vs writers vs directors vs various crew) keep better track than others?

The various Guilds police that. I can’t speak for all of them but with the WGA, you can now go on line and see what residuals you’ve received. And if there’s something you feel is missing you can call the Guild.

The truth is we all get cheated out of residuals.

VOLUNTEERS (a movie David Isaacs and I wrote) aired several times on ABC, for months on HBO, then in syndicated packages all over the country. We didn’t see a dime. I called the WGA. They investigated. David and I each received huge checks. But if I hadn’t flagged them we never would have received what we were owed.

There is no such thing as "the honor system" in Hollywood. 

Brad Apling queries:

What does your podcasting setup look like? Did you build a sound booth at home or you just plug a microphone into your laptop, setup your script, close the office door & fire away with stories and advice?

Here’s the beauty of radio (and podcasting) – everything is left to your imagination. Radio stations that I imagined looking like the bridge on the starship Enterprise were old shit piles. But boy did they have mystique.

So for my set-up, I’ll just say I do it at home with really excellent equipment. And I’ll let you picture the rest. Hint: think “Norad.”

Do you have a Friday Question? Please just leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A broadcasting lesson I learned the hard way

Sorry to hear that Ronn Owens will no longer be hosting a talk show on KGO radio in San Francisco. He’s been there for like 40 years. Considering you get a gold watch in radio if you stay on the same station for two months, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Ronn taught me the biggest lesson in hosting talk radio shows. And I was reminded of it recently when Jake Tapper shut down White House staffer Stephen Miller.

In 1980 I began hosting a talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. My shift was Saturday nights from 8-10. One week I arranged to have Sid Caesar as my guest. Caesar was one of the funniest men in the history of television. He hosted a 90-minute live prime time variety show on NBC in the early ‘50s that was a huge hit. Ever see the movie MY FAVORITE YEAR? That was based on Sid Caesar’s show. Writers of Caesar’s show at various times included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (who also co-starred), Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen among others. The Mount Rushmore of comedy. Anyway, Caesar was BIG. There’s not even an equivalent in TV I can think of today. B-I-G.

And I got him as a guest. How cool was that?

He arrived at the station and we went on the air at 8:00. I had not realized that Sid had a drinking problem during that period. He got on the air and was surly and abrupt and started snapping at the callers. Needless to say, the phones lines went dead. Who wanted to be denigrated by Sid Caesar? Well, that left only ME. It was just me and him the rest of the hour. Picture the domestic fight scenes in I, TONYA.

The next morning I called Ronn and reported this – how mean he was, what a nightmare for me it was, etc. He listened calmly and finally said, “It was your fault.”


He said it was my show and I should never give up control of it. I should always be prepared with enough other material to talk about so that if I have a bad guest I could get rid of him pronto. He said I should have gotten to the first commercial break, said “Our guest has been Sid Caesar and we’ll be back after this” and send him on his way.

I said, “Yeah, but he came all the way over here from the valley and…” Ronn cut me off. “Who gives a shit? He’s killing YOUR show.”

He was right, of course. And I have always heeded that advice. There have been times when I’ve had to abort interviews (Jose Canseco jumps to mind) and other times when there were technical difficulties and I couldn’t take callers. I always am armed with articles and other topics to fill with.

Jake Tapper must know that rule too. When Stephen Miller became unhinged, Tapper said, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” thanked him, turned to another camera, promoted the next guest, and threw it to break. Miller was gone.

Setting aside politics (if I were interviewing Obama and he suddenly starting flipping out and being abusive I’d cut him off too), to me this shows the value of experience. I always felt terribly embarrassed that I had to learn this particular lesson on a major Los Angeles radio station. Yes, we all make mistakes and we all are green, but that’s what smaller markets or weekend all-night shows are for. Unexpected things happen on live radio and TV. How the host handles them is where the rubber meets the road. All too often these days hosts are hired for their bombast or shtick. My first thought when I watched the Tapper-Miller interview was not what a loon Miller was, but what a pro Tapper was. There’s a lot to be said for experience and professionalism. In all professions.

NOTE: Stephen Miller will not be a guest on my podcast.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

EP55: Let’s Do Lunch!

Power lunches are a Hollywood tradition and this week Ken examines the rituals and which restaurants mean you have a viable career.    Ken also shares some personal lunch tales -- some good, some not so good but all entertaining. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Hugh Wilson

So sorry to hear that Hugh Wilson has passed away. He was 74 -- waaaaaay too young. Hugh created WKRP IN CINCINNATI, some other terrific series like FRANK’S PLACE, EASY STREET, and THE AMAZING TEDDY Z. And he became a movie director, megging the first POLICE ACADEMY (hey, it was a huge hit and spawned 37 sequels), FIRST WIVES CLUB, BLAST FROM THE PAST, and one of my favorite rarely-seen-today films, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.

I first met Hugh in 1977 when my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got our first staff job, which was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM. Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses were the showrunners, but the other two staffers were Gary David Goldberg (sadly, now gone too) and Hugh Wilson.

Hugh could not have been more welcoming and fun. We were nervous, needless to say, but Hugh really helped us come out of our shell. I believe he was originally from Atlanta (although my memory might be faulty). In any event, he had kind of a good-old-boy demeanor. He never lacked for confidence but instilled confidence in you as well. And he had a unique comic way of getting across his message. In wondering if David and I were Jewish he said, “So are you a couple of them boys from the college?”

Another thing about Hugh, he really knew his stuff. His suggestions were great, his joke pitches hilarious, and it all seemed to come so easily. He also directed some episodes for us and was the same unflappable guy we saw in the writers’ room. When he later graduated to film directing I wasn’t surprised in the least. Nor was I surprised by his success.

We left TONY RANDALL to join the staff of MASH after the first season so really didn’t get the chance to spend much time with him over the subsequent years. As a radio guy myself I loved WKRP and called him on several occasions to praise the show. And over the years we would each offer writer recommendations.

I’ll remember Hugh Wilson for his talent, his spirit, his David Letterman gap-tooth grin, and kindness to a couple of young rubes. And I’ll think of you more than just “once in a while.”