#29. The Bad Dog phone call.
According to his biographers, John J. Nicholson grew up in New Jersey thinking the woman who raised him was his mother. Turned out to be his grandmother. And his "Older Sister?" His mother. His father in that odd mix? Who knew?
In his early twenties, Jack Nicholson wanted to make it big in Hollywood. But in the era of Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson, his singular looks and talent weren't an immediate fit.
So he bounced around in early TV westerns and the Roger Corman stables, learning to write, direct, and act for the camera. Many of those cheapies are memorable because of Nicholson. And when he finally did "Easy Rider," with that million dollar smile, overnight George Hanson became a made man. Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson: Jesus Calhoun, what's not to love?!
When I met him, he had already racked up "Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Detail" ('I am the Shore Patrol, motherfucker!'), "Chinatown" and had just finished shooting "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." With these hits, he became the biggest movie star in the world. No one else was even in second place.
He was living with Angelica Houston (who he called "Toots") up in the Hollywood Hills at the end of a short driveway off Mulholland that was known as Bad Boy Lane, the drive servicing just two houses, his and Marlon Brando's.
Jack had a dog, some kind of Lab, one of many over the years, apparently all named Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. He also had a semi-permanent houseguest named Helena who was nowhere near as friendly as the dog. His best friends back then seemed to be Warren Beatty (who he called "Maddog") and Bruce Dern (known as "Dernsie"), legendary Ur screenwriter Robert Towne, and maybe his agent Sandy Bresler upon whom he relied for much.
Another of Jack's friends was Scott, a nervous New York hipster who was in all the meetings. Scott Farcus was charming, smart, and had the dead eyes of a cobra.
Jack had bought the film rights to a Don Berry historical mountain man novel called "Moontrap." Turned out Farcus would produce this project.
I don't know how I got the job -- these guys weren't exactly my homies -- but with some John Ptak agenting magic dust, I did. In the Nicholson biographies, I was one of the faceless writers who "trooped in" on the project. Jack had enough bread, used carefully, to finance the script versions. I am not at all sure where on his road of troopers I was, but mamma, the deal closed, the check cleared and suddenly I was working with Randal P. McMurphy!
Up at Casa Jack, we smoked a lot of dope, made a lot of plans, and rode the high-flying talk to movie heaven. At first.
But after one extended afternoon of surefire weed and wonder, that evening I perused my screenplay notes and absolutely could not make sense out of a single sentence. It looked like scrambled ideas over-easy with a side of onion rings. From then on, I stuck to Winstons, coffee, and soft drinks. Former one-meeting-mentor Sam Peckinpah would've been disgusted with ol' Bob. The problem, as we continued working, was this new way allowed me to see -- in real time -- our collection of "Moontrap" ideas was still an inchoate mess. The spirit was willing but the brains seemed to be AWOL.
These days were well before I encountered Syd Field's "Screenplay" so I was mostly thrashing around on caffeine, excitement, guess-work, and outrageous dialogue. And whatever movie I had just seen. It was enough to keep me employed but not to do very good work. I could've used ol' Syd's unwritten book trying to unpack that mountain man's saddlebags and bedroll.
Goddamn it, Syd, start writing!
Finally I came up with a treatmenty-outline from the novel that didn't make too many eyes roll. "Go get 'em, Wild Pup," said Jack. He was addicted to nicknames too. Okay, John J, I said, gathering up my notes and heading for the door. On my way out, Helena gave me a deep scowl as she turned away.
What I didn't know was that would be my best day on the project.
At home on my trusty Selectric ll, everything seemed to misfire. At that early point, I hadn't yet learned the 3X5 outline card trick, hadn't learned about cutting all the pages out of the "Moontrap" paperback, copying them on large format paper leaving plenty of room for notes and ideas, and crucially, hadn't learned the three act paradigm that Syd Field made so famous a few years later.
Everything I wrote looked bad. I'm pretty sure every writer has these moments, at least that's what I kept telling myself. I'd look at the scene from the book. Then, at my scripted version. My cat Tector could do a better job.
With that, my cat stopped as he sauntered through the room. "That's right, Puppy, I could! But I'm not going to. Because you're a bad dog."
It bottomed out for me one afternoon when I saw a Writers Guild screening of the Robert Redford memorable "Jeremiah Johnson." Um, maybe a little too memorable, I had seen it when it first came out, but this time I was shocked at how similar our two stories were. And how alike our dialogue was. I thought I'd been recycling my own from my first unmade script for Warner Bros., "Clay Allison." Which is embarrassing enough, but it turned out it was way more John Milius and hardly any Chow Puppy.
Unfortunately, I had already turned in the rough first draft because I was still young and dumb and apparently hadn't learned the immutable lesson: do NOT EVER turn in "rough" material because everything in Show Biz is an audition. No one really wants or knows how to read anything but your very best offering. And then, only maybe.
That's when I got The Phone Call. In all my days, including the ones since, I have never heard anything remotely like it.
Producer Scott Farcus was screaming. There was no prelude, no small talk, he was already at the E above high C. Apparently, he'd seen "Jeremiah Johnson" recently, too. Oh oh. He put together excoriating insults like King Lear's storm scene rewritten by the "Bad Santa" guys. For minutes he howled on until he finally stopped and said, "well, aren't you going to say anything, you fraudulent hack asshole?!"
"I think you have the wrong number," I said and hung up.
I immediately called my agent in a blind panic. I was in trouble. I had brought it on myself. I was utterly lost and terrified. What could I do about this? "J.P., what can we do about this?!"
"Take your phone off the hook and wait an hour," he said. "Then, call me back. I'll reach out to Farcus. Is it really that bad?"
About the longest hour of my young life.
I called my agent back. Against all odds, he had somehow made it better. When smart people in Hollywood 'reach out,' amazing things can occur. Upsides are illuminated, some form of reason is seen, the famous Favor Bank is alluded to. I can't remember the gory details, but I took my leave of "Moontrap," keeping the start money but relinquishing everything else.
"Don't worry, Puppy," J.P. said. "Live and learn. We'll get you another job. And Farcus promised not to call you back."
About fifteen minutes later, my phone rang. "You no talent dildo," said Scott Farcus and hung up. I never saw or spoke to him again.
I sent a dozen red roses up to Nicholson's dog Guinn Big Boy Williams and called it a day. Jack went on to cinematic immortality and I went on to the stories in this blog. Don't get me wrong; I'm dead flat happy about who got what. Especially when I pulled that draft of "Moontrap" out of my files last week and had a look.
Oh, me. Bad dog. BAD DOG!