The Writers Guild of America went on strike last week, idling wordsmiths for both the small and big screens. Just think of the fun that W.C. Fields, who wrote scripts under such pseudonyms as Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Criblecoblis, might have had with that. From Perspective, 10 takes on TV and movie writers:
1. Joseph Farnham was a "title writer" in silent-era Hollywood, fashioning the words that appeared between scenes in films. In the first-ever Academy Awards, for 1927-28, Farnham won the Oscar for Best Title Writing. By the next year, talkies were in vogue and the "title writer" award was dropped, leaving Farnham as the only winner of that prize. After suffering a heart attack in 1931, Farnham added another distinction: the first Oscar winner to die.
2. Ben Hecht, the Chicago Daily News reporter and playwright who served as a script doctor on "Gone With the Wind," won the first Academy Award for original screenplay (for "Underworld"). Hecht used his statuette as a doorstop.
3. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was the quintessential television program about television writers. Since the show carried Van Dyke's name, you might think it was designed around him. But you would be wrong. Carl Reiner envisioned himself as Rob Petrie when he wrote and starred in a pilot called "Head of the Family." When the pilot was rejected, other leading men were considered. Even then Van Dyke wasn't a shoo-in. He had to beat out a guy named Johnny Carson.
4. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for "Taxi Driver," was raised in an ultraconservative Christian household and didn't see a single movie until age 18.
5. Robert Towne, screenwriter of "Chinatown" and "Shampoo," was so annoyed with the movie based on his script for "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" that he wouldn't allow his name to be used in the credits. Instead, the screenplay was credited to P.H. Vazak -- Towne's sheepdog.
6. Some famous writer-directors, such as David Mamet and John Sayles, have worked as script doctors on other people's movies. Mamet was brought in on "Ronin" and shared writing credit under the pseudonym Richard Weisz. Sayles wrote the final draft of "Apollo 13" but got no screen credit. Sayles complained that credits were unfairly based on how much of a script a writer changed: "It's this funny thing where you can make the movie 20 percent better and you won't get credit, but if you make it 60 percent worse ..... you'll get credit," he told the Tribune's Mark Caro.
7. The film version of "The Flintstones" (1994) may have set the record for the number of screenwriters. Reports range from 30 to 60.
8. Spike Lee, the writer-director whose screenplay for "Do the Right Thing" received an Oscar nomination, has never learned how to drive a car.
9. Chevy Chase was first hired for "Saturday Night Live" as a writer, but later became a performer. Two decades later, the same thing happened to Tina Fey, who has been a prominent picketer in the current writers strike. Chase's real name is Cornelius Crane Chase. Fey's is Elizabeth Stamatina Fey.
10. One of the funniest endings of a TV series wasn't conceived by a screenwriter. Bob Newhart portrayed a Chicago psychologist in "The Bob Newhart Show," and later played a Vermont innkeeper in "Newhart." In the last scene of "Newhart," he was shown in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife in the earlier show. He told her he had had a dream about a weird Vermont town -- thereby relegating the show's 182 episodes to a dream sequence. The ending was suggested by Newhart's real wife, Virginia, at a Christmas party.
Sources: imdb.com, Tribune archives and Tribune news services
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