Saturday, January 31, 2015

#17. Phillip Browning and Jerry Lee. The actual writing.

#17.  Phillip Browning and Jerry Lee.  And the actual writing of a screenplay.

Even though I am a hard core Leftie and his politics were dead flat Libertarian, Phillip Browning was one of my favorite people ever.  He brought me slam up to two of my all-time musical heroes: Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams.  And got me paid me for it!

Since, criminally, Phillip is not Googleable, I will tell you a little bit about him.  Or what I gathered.  He grew up in Taylorville, Illinois -- the heartland of America -- where he trained and raced champion trotting horses.

After a stint in Air Force intelligence, he found a GI Bill birth in the American Theatre Wing in New York City and into the company of Katherine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic.  Phillip played Cyrano in one of their many New York productions.  They told him he was going to be the new Montgomery Clift who had started in a similar situation with Lunt & Fontanne.  Time passes and we all discover that even Montgomery Clift cannot be Montgomery Clift, new or otherwise.

So Phillip runs that string out and somehow ends up in Los Angeles as an associate producer on the Sixties music hit TV show "Shindig!" where he made relationships with every musician in pop music.  They all did that show, even The Beatles.  Seeing them at their best and worst, Phillip knew the whole roster.

When I met him, he was working with Pierre Cossette, the godfather of the Grammys TV show who was starting a new venture, to produce Phillip's project of "Will Rogers at the Follies" for Broadway.  "The Rose" had just been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Fredrick Forrest and the mighty Bette (but not moi).  Yet there for about forty five minutes, I was on the A-list.  It was during one of those minutes, Phillip Browning called me.

He was oddly formal in the roiling sea of Hollywood shuck and jive.  And he had a strange conversational rhythm that I liked.  He told me that he and Pierre had optioned the rights to "Great Balls of Fire," a Jerry Lee Lewis biography seen through the eyes of his former 13-year-old wife and first cousin Myra Gale Lewis.  And "Hellfire" by the great Nick Tosches which I had already read was also in play somehow.  Would I be interested?

Oh, mon frere, does a cat have an ass?  Of course.

I knew all Jerry Lee's work, even the country years on Mercury.  "What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me:" how're you gonna get better than that?!  Hell, I'd even seen him play Iago in Jack Good's "Catch My Soul," the rock and roll "Othello" in the big theatre downtown L.A.! What a brilliant stroke of casting.  And even though you could see him moving his lips for everyone else's lines (he thought he had to memorize the entire play), he was still Jerry Lee, he took the stage like a Cobra, and sang like Satan's very own angel.  I thought he was great.

So I went in to talk to Pierre and Phillip.  Pierre was Santa Claus without the red suit and beard; always moving, always smiling, always looking over the top of his reader glasses.  A deal a minute: get Mike Ovitz, hold for line four, what's the name of that little hotel in the French Quarter?  Pierre introduced me to his wife, in to join him for lunch, as Mary Mother of Five.  In the coming years, I never heard him refer to her as anything else.

A little older than me, Phillip was part Cherokee with browner and more perfect skin than Cher.  Who he knew.  He had grey curly mid-length hair and looked like the better-looking third Everly Brother.  Both of whom he knew, as well.  And apparently he had loved "The Rose" which endeared him to me forever, natch.

So we walked down to Pink's hotdog stand and had our let's-make-a-deal lunch under the greasy sun umbrellas out back.  Those hot dogs are seriously good.  And I was going to work!


The first thing Phillip and I did was to fly to Memphis to visit Jerry Lee who lived across the Mississippi state line down in DeSoto County, I think it was in Hernando.  Maybe Nesbit.  Since we'd be doing a lot of driving, we rented a big old Lincoln with the first car-phone I had ever seen.  We bought all the insurance, reprogramed the radio, half to country, half to rock and roll, and took off.

Casa Jerry Lee was set off a county road about a quarter mile up a winding drive.  It was nice and all, but definitely not fancy.  Over the years, he had been beset with career disasters, personal tragedy, and massive tax problems.  Mr. Lewis, as they say, was no stranger to the rain.

The first thing we saw running down the driveway, growling and barking, was the rattiest old Chow dog I had ever seen.  Being mostly Chow myself, I usually find common ground with the breed but not this one.  His name turned out to be "Killer" and as Jerry Lee strolled up to our long, black Lincoln, he called him off.  The patchy black dog slunk away.  You could almost see the fleas hopping on and off in the afternoon sunlight.

The second before Phillip introduced me to this legend, I was hit with an overwhelming wave of cologne.  Paco Rabanne, I believe.

"My dog is a Chow," said Jerry Lee.  "They're the meanest dog in the world.  You could look that little fact up.  Killer'd tear Jim Crotchy's Junkyard Dog down to his fruity pink paw pads!  You don't know nothing about Chows, do ya."  Phillip smiled as I shook my head.

Little old me?

Jerry Lee's handshake was very firm so I met it with what I hoped was matching firmness.  He increased the pressure, so I did too.  Then, it became a Thing.  Tighter and tighter.  But this man used his hands for his living!  And I was the supplicant, so I surrendered as gracefully as a combat handshake will allow.  When it rains, I still have pain in my little finger.

Just then, an old woman came out of the kitchen door.  She went straight to Phillip and give him a huge hug.  Her name was Lottie and she had been taking care of Jerry Lee for many years.  Phillip had been here before.  The three of them started for the house.  Suddenly, Jerry Lee turned and looked back at me.  "Betcha a hundred bucks I can beat you in a foot race and I'll run backwards!"

I believe, being the scribe and all, my exact words were "Say what?!"

"Come on, writer-boy, let's do it!"  Lottie rolled her eyes.  Phillip was laughing.  "I stay in shape, I practice on Killer," Jerry Lee said.  "Come 'ere, Killer!"

The hapless old Chow dog stuck his head out of the open garage door.  With that, Jerry Lee Lewis, the one time Crown Prince of rock and roll, 50s teen idol, scandal monger, country music star, and seller of twenty-five million records, began to run backwards down the driveway.  "Come on, Killer, you chickenshit!"

The dog just sat down.  I headed for the kitchen door.  This was Day One.

Day Two started a little better.  While Jerry Lee played his portable Yamaha keyboard, carrying it from room to room through the clouds of Paco Rabanne, we started drinking and discussing what kind of bite our movie should take of his life.  Jerry didn't much care for the biographies done on him.  "I guess that weirdo Toshes got some of it right," he said referring to 'Hellfire.'

While he talked, he continued to play his keyboard turned down low and some of the melodies, the endlessly rolling improvised ideas were striking.  Some were so great they stopped Phillip and me, mid-sentence.  Jerry just kept playing.  The man, simply, is made out of music.

"Tell ya what I DON'T want in this movie, he said.  "I don't want a whole to-do about Jimmy Swaggart (in the headlines then for soliciting prostitutes and over-crying), or when I lost Stevie, or the IRS buttholes coming up with trucks and takin' everything, or gettin' drunk all the time, or about Myra's bein' thirteen or whatever when I married her -- I'm tired of that shit!  Let's just have me singin' songs, man.  Hell, it worked for Elvis!"  With that, he broke into "Caught in a Trap."  And it was flat out better than Elvis' version.

Still, a two hour Jerry Lee Lewis concert film?  With his history of utter brilliance and misrule?  I don't think so, Sparky.

We drank tequila until it ran out.  Then, the vodka, the bourbon, and finally, peach brandy.  If Phillip and I had stayed there much longer, we'd have been drinking lighter fluid.  Lottie had long since given up and gone to bed.  At one point I smelled a foul gaseous stink.  I looked around and saw Killer, the ratty old dog, half asleep and settled into an over-stuffed chair.  He opened his eyes and said quietly, "What the fuck're you looking at, writer-boy?"  I told Philip we had to get back to the hotel; I wasn't feeling well.  At all.

Phillip drove the first three or four miles; out in the country.  But when we hit the first little town, he faded fast.  "Can you drive, Puppy?  I'm about half drunk."  Are you kidding, dude?  I drove in Paris, France and most of Europe!

He pulled the Lincoln into an abandoned gas station.  The old sign said low test had been 32 cents a gallon. Remember that?  Taking deep cold night air breaths as I walked around the car to the driver's side, I tried to judge my intoxication.  But since I had never been this drunk and conscious, it was anybody's guess.

But bad luck's salvation was on my side.  As I went to pull back out on the main road, I decided to cut across this long, large puddle next to where a rack of pumps had been, couldn't be more than a couple inches deep, no prob.


The Lincoln veered forward to the left, dropped down onto its frame and we were stuck dead.  Low gear, nothing.  Reverse, more nothing.

 I got out and suddenly was in water above my knees.  "Guess what, Pup," Phillip called out.  We won't have to drive!  We'll get towed..."  He called AAA on the car-phone and a half hour later we were jammed into massive tow truck's cab and headed back to Memphis, towing the wounded Lincoln behind us.  Phillip promptly went to sleep, leaving me to make conversation with the Triple-A guy.

"Y'all from California, huh?"  Yeah.  "What're you doin' in Hernando?"  Visiting Jerry Lee Lewis.  The guy snorted.  "I figured.  I'm out there at least once a month.  Did he show ya his '40 Ford with the Caddy engine?  Fastest thing in the county but he keeps blowing the motors, can't keep it running."  By this time, even though I knew the hot rod Ford was going to be part of the script, I could no longer keep my eyes open.  So I passed out.  But not before I'd had my first inkling that I might shall I put this...

An alcoholic?

This was the end of Day Two.  I couldn't wait to get to Day Three to start drinking again!  Booze: it made you crazy, it took your reason, made your breath stink, it made you piss in the houseplants and, speaking of that little arena, it killed the performance part of the sex drive.  Death by confusion.  I hated everything about booze...except the actual drinking of it.

There were other, better days to be sure.

One was our visit to New Orleans where Jerry Lee closed a huge outdoor celebration at midnight.  Right in the middle of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," he leaned back, sucked in a huge breath...and inhaled a moth the size of a small bat!  Twenty thousand people all went wooooo as Jerry Lee kept banging the piano in perfect rhythm, coughing wildly, trying to wretch up that monstrous insect, second after second -- woooo, cough cough cough, plink plink plink, woooo -- and finally, he spit it out!  The crowd cheered, he finished the song, and had never missed a beat.

I saw this from backstage, fifteen feet away.  It was as an Herculean musical feat as ever I did see.

Let's just say the life of Jerry Lee Lewis is an embarrassment of triumphant and maladroit riches.  God dumped down talent and bad luck in equal measure upon this man.  Once I had the incident cards collected, I knew I was ready to start writing.  So I went home, turned on my IBM Correcting Selectric II and typed almost my second two favorite words back then


And again, I was off to the rock and roll races.


And here we come to the ACTUAL WRITING OF THE SCREENPLAY.  I'll come back to Jerry Lee and Phillip later.

As I am sure you know, talent is utterly evanescent.  It cannot be bought, caught, or taught in some class.  Talent is mostly about who you are, not what you want.

It has to do with your entire life up to this point; it's innate, a gift that not many have.  If you do, if you are one of the lucky ones, don't strut.  You are only talent's keeper, often just its maid.  Sometimes it comes extravagantly, sometimes it dries up and blows away.  But having the bones of a great story, its outline, will help enormously if the Muse suddenly falls in love with someone else and heads south.  One does not have to be covered up with talent to have a decent career; an evening of network television illustrates this.

Screenplays are not the best vehicle for "good writing" anyway.  Fiction is better served by those gifts.  When we start out, we often think good writing is flowery and purple, worked and whipped within an inch of its life, dripping with metaphors and deep meaning.  This usually leads to a kind of monkey vomit baroque style that hides rather than serves the story.

Scripts should be deceptively simple.  They are like a strip tease -- intended to elicit a cheap but real response that will glue the reader to the characters and the arc of their story.  You want everyone who reads your script to feel like they are its director, its star, its cinematographer, even its writer.  Aww, I could do this, you should think.  I could do better than this!

As you write, you should NOT be calling attention to yourself.

If you still have to do that, find a therapist or go into stand-up comedy.  As a screenwriter, you are calling attention to a story, so the fewer the fancy flourishes, the better.  Yet this is just a rule-of-thumb.

Some stories call out for those gymnastics just as some writers are born gymnasts.  But few and very few.  These artists live trick shot lives.  It would seldom occur to them to think about such things.  In my thirty years in that business, I've only met, like, two and they have no idea of why people make such a big deal out of it.  In fact they don't even know what 'it' is.

So write simply, write clearly.  Remember the Bauhaus architectural dictum: less is more.

Happily there are times when it will look like screenplay poetry.  And it ends up having the added attraction of a shorter, easier read.  When an executive is faced with fifteen scripts on a weekend, they will be grateful, maybe even more inclined to the shorter, simpler ones.  In my scripts, I used to leave one or two faint lipstick traces of the hotshitery as evidence but they were few and far between.  I knew I shouldn't have but, hey, I'm a poor prideful Hollywood sinner too.

Action director/writer Walter Hill's scripts are stunningly short, sometimes well under ninety pages.  But those high testosterone stories cover a lot of ground with less verbiage than most.  This guy was the 2nd A.D. on "Bullitt," man!

The process of this kind of storytelling shakes out into the classic pyramid, but turned upside down on its pointed little head.  At the bottom, we have the story teller, then above him, the story itself.  Finally above them, getting wider and wider, is the audience.  Movies and TV are art for the marketplace.  So don't forget your audience.  Even though you can't see any of their faces, they are there and they are real.  And they are subject to being moved.

I only wish I could have moved more of them when I handed in my script of "Great Balls of Fire."  It started out so smoothly; I liked it, Phillip liked it, Pierre liked it, Mary, Mother of Five loved it, apparently the reader at ABC Films liked it.  And then it got to honcho Stu Samuels.

He at least had the graceful balls to call me up and tell me they wanted to go in a different direction followed by this:  "It was a good script, just not what we were looking for."

My buddy Mark Waxman once jokingly wanted to name his production company: Well, What Are You Looking For Then?

The next I heard of "Great Balls of Fire," it was another movie with Dennis Quade, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder, directed by Jim McBride.  I bet it's good but I haven't found the nerve to see it. But whatever it was, I would never have to smell Paco Rabanne again.

So I folded my tent, got paid, and we all went on to different projects.  Six months later I was watching the Tony Awards show on TV when I saw Pierre walk up on that stage and pick up his Tony for smash hit "The Will Rogers Follies."  Two days later I got a call from Phillip.  "Chow Puppy, you know, you're our writer.  And Pierre and I are about to close a deal to do the life of a favorite of yours --Hank Williams.  Have you ever thought about writing for Broadway?"

I believe my exact words were, once again, "Say what?!"  But not even waiting for an answer, I quickly followed it with --

  Hank         Hank  HankHank           HankHank
   Hank       Hank   HankHank        Hank
    Hank     Hank    Hank             Hank
     Hank   Hank     Hank           Hank
      Hank Hank      HankHank           Hank
          Hank           HankHank                 Hank
          Hank           Hank                             Hank
          Hank           Hank                          Hank
          Hank           HankHank               Hank
          Hank           HankHank    HankHank


  1. I'll keep it short and sweet: Wow!

  2. "[B]rowner and more perfect skin than Cher. Who he knew." Ha! As far as Pierre's wife, Mary, I have something similar: my cousin Christopher often had his name shortened by his mother and sister, not to Chris but to Christ (or sometimes just "X, as in "Xmas"). Well, since his mom's name is Mary, I naturally called her Mary Mother of Christ . . .

    That handshake scene is hilarious. "Then, it became this Thing." What a fucker!

    I'd never heard of Tosches ("I guess that weirdo Tosches got some of it right"), so I looked him up. Apparently, Hellfire is “Hailed by Rolling Stone as ‘quite simply the best rock 'n' roll biography ever written.’” This Mr. Lewis was quite a character, wasn't he? (You'd never know it, of the cousin of Jimmy Swaggart . . .)

    I had to look up what Jerry meant by "when I lost Stevie." All I found at first was that he'd been on the Steve Allen Show a lot, and wondered, “Was he kicked off for good?” Then I finally read that he'd named his SON Steve Allen . . . wow.

    This is fabulous: “I don't want a whole to-do about . . . gettin' drunk all the time, or about Myra's bein' thirteen or whatever when I married her—I'm tired of that shit!”

    "I had never been this drunk and conscious . . ." Beautiful!

    "Guess what, Pup . . . We won't have to drive! We'll get towed . . ." Now, that’s how I feel every time I get turned down for one more job: Yay! I won't have to work!

    Loved this, Billy. You're great.

  3. I stumbled on this post while looking for more information about my Grandpa. It looks like he experienced more than he told us. Thanks for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Matt,

      I too stumbled onto this post. I was very involved with Pierre and John Cossette many years ago, and worked with your grandfather. For a time, we were very good friends, and I thought the world of him! He was the best, and I have many fond memories of the time we spent together -And his amazing Chili :)) As is the way of some things, we lost touch over the years, and I had no idea that he had passed away. I was deeply saddened to hear of this news. Especially not knowing when, or how he had passed away... My deepest sympathies and belated condolences to you and your family. Phillip was one of the most genuine and kind individuals I had ever met. -And a hellava lot of fun!