|Terrence McDonnell GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Thursday, 17 September 2009|
At the 30th anniversary of the Battlestar Galactica series, held in September 2008 in the form of a cruise (aka GALACTICRUISE), we had writer and story editor Terrence McDonnell as one of our special guests. He amazed everyone, that after 30 years, he still remembered so well the Battlestar Galactica series and the episodes he wrote. This is the transcript of the interview panel Mike Egnor did with him plus a follow up phone interview that went into even greater detail about the series (135 minutes of audio in total).
Battlestar Galactica's writer and story editor Terrence McDonnell
This is the fourth con I've done for Battlestar Galactica, but this is the first one I've had with more than two people in the room (crowd laughing). Seriously, two or three people so this is really great!
We even have two or three questions for you (crowd laughing).
I'm ready for them.
You've said that ever since you were a little kid, that you've wanted to write something like Battlestar Galactica. What types of things did you write about when you were little?
Well, when I was a kid, and even up through college, writing never even crossed my mind as a career. I wanted to be a veterinarian from the time I was in high school up to my first year in college, because I love animals. My grades went right in the toilet, first year in college, because I wanted to play. All during high school I was always voted as the class clown, and I was that close from being suspended because I was fooling around. Even the Jesuits couldn't control the free spirit that was here. When I got into college, between my freshman and sophomore year, I was dating a girl who had a cabin out on the Vermilion River, which is off of lake Erie in Ohio. And I still remember the moment, because there are certain moments that transcend everything else in your life. We were sitting on the dock, she had this little canoe, and some guy came along when I was talking to her. He stopped and said: "Boy, you have a nice voice. Are you on the radio?" and I said: "No.", but I kept thinking about it and thinking about it, and I realized that the school that I was going to had one of the best radio and TV departments in the country. So when I got back to school I switched into radio and television, where I wrote, produced, and directed all these comedy shows, and I was also a disc jockey.
When I came out to Los Angeles I just wanted to get my foot in the door and I wanted to be a director where most directors are camera formed because there is not enough time to really rehearse. You just got to be able to block the shot and do it, rather than: "Here's the emotion I want to come out of you. No, there's not enough time for that." So writing was something that I could always just do. So when I came out to Los Angeles I got a job almost immediately writing, because I submitted like 35 pages of material on the day I was told I had an interview, because I said: "Give me some ideas that you want me to do tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock." I was up all night typing and cranking, cranking, cranking and I got hired, and I've been writing ever since. As a kid I watched so much TV and saw so many movies, it kind of absorbed, subconsciously you know what to do or where to take a story or something like that. It's so much fun doing that, because I was always making shit up all the time: "What is this? What about this?" Pretty soon things would kind of ultimately come together and that's how a script takes its shape. I had been preparing for that job my whole life without even knowing it, but you don't know that until you look back on it.
What science fiction influences did you have growing up?
Not a lot. The only science fiction movies were the bad ones in the 1950's, with the exception of The Day the Earth Stood Still. But I read Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, who I liked a lot, and have met many times since then, and Fritz Leiber, who's another scifi writer. So, there was a little bit of that, but we were always playing. When we would go out to play, we were either going to be playing pirates, or we were going to be in outer space, or we were going to be this or that. I'm sure everybody goes through those stages. We had better storylines though... (crowd laughing)
You ended up working with Jim Carlson, writing an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, and then again on The Bionic Woman. How is it that two people write together?
Jim and I met... I had been doing game shows when I first got my foot in the door in the business in Los Angeles. I met Jim at a run-through of a game show that never went on the air. What a game show run-through is, it's the actual game that you stand up in an office and you have a host, and people that don't know the answers to the questions, and you play it and see if there are flaws in it. I met Jim at this run-through and I don't remember who spoke to who first, but we both started laughing. He had originally worked for Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. He was a comedy writer. He had worked for Bob Hope, and some of these other ones. Jim is much older than I am. While I was doing this game show, and talk about serendipity, something we didn't expect to happen and it happens.
One of the guys that I was working with on this particular game show -- his name is Ken Johnson who you may know -- he's created The Bionic Woman, V, Alien Nation... Ken was working with me on this show and at the time he was writing The Six Million Dollar Man. One day he came in and he said: "Ï think they're going to offer me the producership of the show" and I didn't even blink or miss a heartbeat and said: "Well if you get the job, can I pitch stories to you?" and he says "Sure." So he gets the job, and I don't know what to do now. I don't know how to do this! But I knew Jim. I had met him like eight months before, so I called him and said: "Do you remember me?" and he said: "Yeah, of course. " I told him about the situation and would he be interested to possibly team up to see if we could do something and he said "Sure." So we got together. We hammered out a bunch of stories and we went in. We sold the first one and before we were done with the first one they handed us another one. Then The Bionic Woman was starting up and they handed us another one. Pretty soon, all of a sudden we were a team. So it just kind of stumbled into that.
When Jim and I would work -- after we would work out the whole outline, because we outlined everything; you can't do this stuff without working from an outline -- Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 4, and also if there is a teaser or a tag. A teaser is that opening part that gets you hooked, a tag is that little thing at the end. He would go off and write the first two acts and I would write the second two acts. Then we would get together and we would edit it, because we both had a little bit different style of writing, so we edited it so it sounded the same from act to act act, and then we would turn it in. We'd do that in a week, or we'd do that in five days. That's generally how we did it consistently, because it seemed to work for us.
Did you and Jim ever have arguments over the way a story was written?
No, we were a team for 20 years. I can think of maybe three times, we ever had fight over a particular plot point, or where something should go, and that lasted like five minutes. Then we threw out his idea, and we threw out my idea, and whatever idea we did come up with was better than either of those other two. Arguing was a waste of energy.
Can you talk about the differences in styles the two of you had?
It's just... For instance sometimes I'd have a particular idea on who this particular character should sound like. For instance, we had written a weekend special that was nominated for a number of Emmy Awards called "The Ransom of Red Chief" and it's a classic short story by O. Henry. Basically it's about these two con men who kidnap the banker's son in a small town and they think -- since his dad is the banker -- we'll ransom him and get a lot of money. It turns out that the kid is such a little bastard that they wind up paying the father to take the kid back. (laughing) When we were working on this we thought about these two great western character actors. One of them is Jack Elam, who you might remember from the opening in the Sergio Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West. He's one of the three gunslingers who are waiting at the train station. He's the guy with the bad eye. He always sort of looked like the big bad wolf to me, all grizzled and one eye was always skewed in the other direction. The other one was Strother Martin, who was in a lot of John Ford westerns. In the movie Cool Hand Luke he delivered the line: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." When we started writing it we thought: "Hey, let's use these two guys.", because we have these two kidnappers. So we did. When we were finished we turned it into the producer and said: "This is who we had in mind." And he sent it to them and they did it. I think they were both nominated for Emmy's for that. That was really, really cool for us. But sometimes just the speech patterns would be off. It was little nuance stuff like that, that nobody would probably notice, but we did.
When writing, did you have certain strengths in one area, or Jim [Carlson] have certain strengths in another area? Whether it was writing dialogue or...
I was really, really strong on story and structure -- hammering the story together. I could knock an outline out, very, very fast. Jim could do it but it would take him longer. In terms of dialogue, he was much faster than I was. He could knock out dialogue faster than I could, but I would get there. It was a perfect match.
You wrote three episodes for Grizzly Adams?
We wrote three episodes, yes, but there was a fourth one, that we took our names off of. We had submitted a story that they liked and they decided to write it themselves and we hated the script so much that we took our names off of it.
Okay. I was going to ask you: How do come up with ideas for a mountain man and a bear?
Well, the first one we did they wanted to know how Grizzly Adams and Mad Jack met each other -- how that happened. So they gave us that thread and we just developed a story around it. And then we took one where Ben the bear gets kidnapped by a man who turns him mean. So this is all character driven stuff and then Grizzly Adams gets in the situation where Ben is threatening him and of course what's going to happen [after that]. The third one we actually took from an actual historical event that happened out in the southwest -- I don't remember if it happened during the Civil War or after the Civil War -- but they had imported a bunch of camels into Arizona to work with the army and apparently afterwards they just cut them loose. So for a long time there were these wild camels running around. The most famous of them was called Hi Jolly. So we did story about some weird creature that the people are seeing and Grizzly Adams doesn't believe what they're saying and then you find out it's this camel. We had slim pickings on that one. That was a real coup to have him in something that we wrote.
You also wrote for The Six Million Dollar Man?
Yes. I didn't write for the first season but I wrote four of those. I wrote one called "Divided Loyalty" which is about a kid who's trying to defect from Russia with his father. I did an episode called "Nightmare in the Sky" with Farrah Fawcett about a plane that is shot down by a Japanese Zero in the desert. I did a two hour TV movie called "The Thunderbird Connection" and I did one with Eric Braeden called "Walk a Deadly Wing". It was about a wing walker. And I did a couple of The Bionic Woman.
Unfortunately Jim Carlson died in 2007 of heart problems. How did you find out?
Jim was one of my best friends my whole life. Jim had been retired since 1994. He had moved to Colorado. I was friends with his kids, they grew up with me. I was working on a show for a game show network, and I got a phone call from one of his sons who said that he had had a heart attack and was in the hospital. I had just seen him 9 months before, because he would come out. I would see him every year almost. So, I talked to him in the hospital after he got his strength back, and I even talked to him when he was at home. A couple of days later I got another phone call that everything they had tried to do at the hospital, even though he was home now, didn't work and he was gone. I miss him every day. I think about him a lot. He was a hell of a writer and a hell of a good guy. Anybody who knows him from previous cons, knows that.
Let's move on to Battlestar Galactica. You said after two episodes of Battlestar Galactica had aired Don Bellisario asked you to do a first act of a "Patton In Space" plot. He liked it so much that he wanted you to write another act and ended up throwing it away?
Because of our success on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, an ex-girlfriend who worked at ABC had recommended us for the job. We got the call from Don [Bellisario] and he said: "We're looking for a story and we're thinking about doing an episode of ‘Patton In Space'. Could you go home and write Act 1?" and we said: "What's the story?" and he said: "I don't know. Patton in space. That's what we want." So, this is given to me in the morning and we went home and we pounded it out. We turned it in the next morning and he said: "What's that?" and he kind of looked through it and says: "Okay. Go home and give me Act 2 and give it to me in the morning." So, I thought: "This isn't bad, since we normally knock out a script in a week, so this is a little bit faster. By Friday we would have the whole thing done and we would be paid, so we turned in Act 2. The next thing we hear is: "We've been hired" and I went out to Jim's house because I figured we were going to work on Act 3. I got to his house and he was standing there with glass of wine and I said: "Welcome Story Editor" and he said: "No way." and I said: "Yeah, we've been hired!"
So what happened in the meantime was that they liked the first two acts so much that they sent it to Anne Lockhart, who had not been hired for the show yet. She liked the script so much, that she signed on to the series. I didn't find that out until a few years ago. We come in and we hear that: "Glen [Larson] read the first two acts, but he wants to do a two parter. So we're going to throw your script out and we're going to let him do that script, but you'll have other scripts to write." I still have those two acts at home. I don't know what the final two acts would have been, because that was long ago, but Commander Cain was called Jedidiah. I remember that, because Glen [Larson] was doing all these biblical references. I think we called Sheba, "Sheba". That's the story about that. Glen turned it into "The Living Legend". It was kind of the same and yet it was different. I should have read it again [before attending this convention].
You were a story editor at that point. They didn't have one prior to that. Do you know how they worked without a story editor on the earlier episodes?
Originally, from what I've been told, they thought this would either be a Miniseries or just a few episodes, or a mid season replacement, or something like that, and all of a sudden they decided: "No, this is going to be a series. " So Glen Larson was writing, Don Bellisario was writing, but they couldn't crank them out fast enough. They needed somebody else. So we were brought in as that third wheel, to write another episode while they were... That three week lack time helped everybody. We would just jump over each other. That's how that worked.
As story editor, can you tell us what your job consisted of, what kind of work you did?
Now, a story editor back then is the equivalent of a supervising producer today. What we would do was -- unfortunately we only did this a couple of times -- that the writers would come to us and pitch their story or their idea. We would find one that we liked and go: "Not that one, not that one, not that one." and on this show I would have to then take it to Don Bellisario for approval. On other shows I could just say: "No, that's a good story. Do that one." Then when the script was turned in, I would have to rewrite it. I would rewrite stuff that didn't work here or if I didn't like the dialog or whatever. It was a job to rewrite it and make it work. Which is why I went into Glen's office one day and said: "I have notes on your script." and all hell broke loose. That was my job.
You said as a story editor you could throw out 30% of the scripts?
As a story editor, you generally -- on any show in those days -- you rewrote every script unless it was written in-house. Sometimes even then, if they asked you to. No matter what somebody would deliver, if it wasn't exactly what we wanted, then generally you would end up rewriting it.
Do you know what types of things you specifically would look for in a script?
You know sometimes... On Battlestar Galactica it was different because we wrote everything internally. There really weren't any outside ideas, except... I think there might have been one we took from the associate producers and I don't remember if we turned that into a script or not. I don't remember, but we wound up writing that. Whenever I was a story editor on any show, I don't care if somebody has the whole story worked out. Obviously when they come in, they should have it all worked out. What happens is that if I hear the slightest inkling of something that interests me in a story, I may say: "Let's do this. Let's pull this out of what you have and do it this way." We'd sit there together and I would help them work out the story. That's how I work.
One story editor once said that: "Certain show runners encourage the lower lever writers to pitch some ideas and others don't. Some like to see things well thought-out before they present it, while others like to hear the kernel of an idea that can be expanded." So you say that you want to hear the kernel of an idea?
No, I want to hear the story. Always when I would go in to pitch to anybody, I would have 5 or 6 storylines. Not all worked out, but generally worked out. Kind of like: "This happens in Act 1. This happens in Act 2. This happens in Act 3. This happens in Act 4." How the character develops. That's how I prefer somebody to come in. Obviously they're prepared and it gives me confidence that they know what they're doing. Now within that, if somebody pitches me something, that's why I say... If I don't like what they have, but I like part of what they have, then I'll pull out that part of what they have and then generally I would hammer out the story with them right there in the office and let them go off and write it up. Because then I'd know exactly what I'm getting. That's how I work.
You talked before about some of the time constraints you were under; you would have to write a script in only a few number of hours.
"Murder on the Rising Star". Was that it? We had turned in a bunch of storylines to Glen [Larson] and we were waiting and waiting to get his approval. He was on a beach in Hawaii and was writing this film script. All of a sudden we got a phone call at 4:30pm on Wednesday afternoon and we were to write "Murder on the Rising Star". We didn't even have a story. We had a plot line and it had to be finished on Friday morning at 7:00am. So we didn't go home. That was written in 36 hours and it was basically what came out of the typewriter. We didn't have time for any rewrites. I know people love that episode a lot and all I can think of is: "Oh my God!", because all I can remember was panicking when doing that. We had no idea what would happen. We were both hallucinating practically from writing through it.
Did you have a Battlestar Galactica Bible? How did you keep up with all of the terminology?
That's [what] the whole Glen Larson story [is all about]. (To the audience) Was everybody here for that the other day? I would go through all the scripts that were on my desk and would say: "Secton, Senton..." and he was using them interchangeably. So I just put together a little dictionary thing and when I went into Glen's office and say: "I have notes on your script." simply for consistency, so from one show to the next things would make sense when it was called this. Well, he didn't want to listen to that. All he heard was: "I have notes on your script." That was the last time I ever did that, and that's why things are still inconsistent on the show. At least on the three that we did, it's consistent.
Because the writing was going at the speed it was, do you think you could have done a better job if you were given more time?
On that particular script, yeah. If we had an awful lot of time we could have knocked out a better script. But [on the others] no, we were used to writing things in a week. So it was no big deal. Most writers get two weeks to do it. We always felt, the quicker we can turn it around, the quicker they would give us another one.
Aside from what you said above. How was it to work with Glen Larson?
I didn't have much contact with him.
He didn't give you much input on scripts and stories?
No, none. Generally, my contact person was Don Bellisario. Because quite often Glen wasn't even there. He was in Hawaii writing scripts. But working with Don was great. We'd meet with him once a day or so and he came to us if he wanted to toss around some ideas, or if he was stuck at a particular place in a script, or if he just needed something for the script. Like on how he needed some weaponry for the Nomen. That was dropped in our lap and that was fun.
As the writer on the show, did you have to rewrite on the spot through either errors or directorial changes?
No, never. We were lucky in that in our whole career. We very rarely got notes. Very, very rarely. The only thing we had to write on the spot -- and it wasn't really on the spot -- but after we had shot "Fire in Space", there were so many sequences that were shot without sound -- where firefighters are fighting the fire inside the ship. So we had to write a whole bunch of wild lines and they just got a bunch of people in a studio, read the lines out loud and they just dubbed them in over the action that was going on.
There was another time. It was for the Triad game and I can't remember if it was for the "Murder on the Rising Star" or the one with Fred Astaire ("The Man with Nine Lives"). But everybody is waiting, like by an elevator to go down and over the PA you can hear some guy doing the play-by-play on the Triad. I had to write that. It's just in the background and you can kind of semi-hear it. That kind of thing we would have to do.
How was your writing on Battlestar Galactica affected or constrained, considering it was on the family hour?
There was a bit of network interference on it. There was this episode called "Take the Celestra" that we wrote. Starbuck and Apollo are going over to the Celestra in their ship, but when they get over there, there's this big firefight in the landing bay, because there's a mutiny taking place. So they get into the fire fight and we cut back to the Galactica. I don't know what was going on back there, but we had another story there. Now we cut back to the Celestra and the fire fight is still going on. Then we cut back again. Every time we cut back you would see this fire fight. Well, ABC had this rule that we could only do four or six -- I forget what the number was - incidents of violence per hour. They were claiming that every time we cut back to the same fire fight, that it was a new act of violence. And we'd say: "No! It's the same fire fight. It's the same act of violence." and they'd say: "No, no, no." So finally we were so pissed off that we would call Burt -- we had this one woman on our show and we'd call her up to tell her: "Here's the situation and here's what's happening." -- and she sounded like she was understanding and said: "Fine. No worries.", so we got a little bit more interested into putting more violence into that than we did before. We couldn't kill, so we already didn't have that. There's no way we could have done that, so we did have some constraints.
I told this story up to a few people here. I brought a script that nobody has ever seen. The original "Fire In Space" episode. The ending, if you're familiar with it, has Starbuck and Apollo going out onto the hull to blow a big hole in it so the vacuum of space will come into it and smolders the fire. In the beginning we have a Cylon suicide attack that crashes on the Galactica which is then on fire. Well, the ending that you see, is Starbuck and Apollo going out on the hull and they clamp these charges to blow a hole in it, and coincidentally when they head back holding onto this ring his hold comes loose. The one then goes off into space floating right over the explosion and the other one then launches himself into space and gets him out of the way. How Sheba ever picked them up in her viper is beyond me! (crowd laughing).
The original ending was not that. The original ending of the show was that they go out on the hull to plant the charges and the Cylons come back in a suicide attack. Just exactly like before. One of them is getting through. So on the hull not only are they trying to plant the charges, they're dodging laser fire, they're watching everything go on and one Cylon comes through and is coming right at them. They have to time the explosion and get out of the way, so when this explosion goes off, it completely incinerates the Cylon. Really a cool ending! And the way it should have been done.
I'll tell you about the tag in a second. ABC, in their infinite wisdom -- these are non writers telling creative people what to do - said: "We don't like that ending." I went nuts! I said: "Are you crazy?! That's a great ending." They said: "No, it's repetitive." And I said: "What do you mean: ‘It's repetitive'?" They said: "Well, you had a Cylon attack at the beginning. Now you're having another Cylon attack now. " I said: "Don't you get it? The fact that we know what they can do. We know what they're coming to do?" and they said: "No, we don't like it and you'll have to rewrite it. We're fought it for three weeks but never got through...." And then the tag -- if you remember the stupid tag -- they've got Adama in bed and they've got the singed daggit laying next to him (crowd laughing). I burst out laughing in the screening room when I saw that on screen. What happened in our episode was at the very, very end of the episode, before that tag, Apollo doesn't know if Boxey is dead or not. He thinks he's dead, so that tag is this warm reunion for everybody and it brings the whole thing together. That whole part of it was completely deleted. That's a typical example of what we had to deal with the network.
You said you were on set during filming sometimes?
Did you really enjoy watching the filming?
The one I remember specifically going down for was the "Fire in Space" episode, because there were so many stunts. I remember all the actors and the crew were in a big semi-circle around the bridge when the big explosions would take place. They'd have stunt guys in costumes over here where the starfield was shown on the screen, and they had little tiny trampolines in place. So at a given moment, when "Action!" was called, the guys would hit those trampolines and go flying over everything and they would drop plastic stuff from the ceiling, so it looked like it was debris from the bridge. Then there would be this big round of applause from everybody, and then they would go do it again. There was also a big map on the other side of the bridge that was all wired in the back and that would shatter as well, so there were all these cool things. When they were out in the hull, that was a projection. They just had a couple of boxes on a huge empty stage and they'd have a projection in the camera of the hull. They had, I think it was Dirk [Benedict] and Richard [Hatch], wired like they'd go flying. I remember they were going out of control and just spinning, because they had to get the hang of all of that. (crowd laughing)
That was where the daggit left his shoes out on the floor, he jumped up to the rafters (crowd laughing) The other daggit story I was telling was... Evie, the chimp, had her own pet. They had this little dog which was called a Schipperke. I don't know if you know what they are. It's this Australian dog, they're cute, they don't have a tail, their nose is this little button and are short haired. The chimp would walk it around on a leash. They had a birthday party for Noah Hathaway (Boxey) this one day and they gave Evie a piece of birthday cake. The owner of Evie said: "Evie, you share that birthday cake with Skipper." Evie looked up at him, and looked down at the dog, and took the entire cake and stuffed it into his mouth. (crowd laughing loud)
While you were there during filming did any of the directors need rewrites during shooting?
No. Generally, when we write a script, and it's always been that way in my career, I've hardly had any notes. Very rarely do I have to make major adjustments. But I do have a [story]... we're talking about the directors? One of my first jobs in the business in Los Angeles was that I worked in the mailroom at ABC. Another guy who worked in the mailroom at ABC was (Battlestar Galactica director) Rod Holcomb. He and I were really good friends and we would hang out together. I'd hop on his motorcycle and we would go out to Westwood and see foreign films, like by Ingmar Bergman, and we would see Woody Allen films, and we'd talk about it. We loved film. He wanted to be a director and I wanted to write. We often said: "Wouldn't it be cool if some day you would get to direct something that I wrote." It happened with "The Murder on the Rising Star". He directed the episode. That was very cool, very cool.
Were there any directors that shot your scripts in such a way that made you think: "I didn't expect this to come out like that at all."
As a writer we see the movies first, in our head when we write it. So no matter what they do: it's wrong! (crowd laughing) It's not just wrong, but it's not what you saw, because you wrote it. There are moments when I thought: "That looks great. That really works a lot better than I thought." I didn't have any real problems with it, I thought... Well two tiny complaints. One was on "Fire in Space", but it had nothing to do with the director. It was when they fired the boraton towards the camera from the vipers I thought the effect was really lame. It looked like a bad... It wasn't even smooth like a cartoon it was like somebody had put two or three slides together relatively quickly. I just thought it was sloppy.
At the end of "Take the Celestra" -- and I've talked about this before -- when Commander Kronus is killed, there was supposed to be a shot of his casket rolling out of the shot and then there would be a shot outside of the Galactica as it floated from the ship. Which as far as I know, would have been the first funeral in space on film, but I guess they didn't have the money to do the effect, so you never saw that.
Did any of the actors come up to you and say: "My character would never act or talk like this"?
Not so much. This where you get the real pros. That day when we were on the set watching the stunts on "Fire in Space", we got introduced to Lorne [Greene]. Lorne is very intimidating at first, because he has that really deep, fantastic voice. I don't know if you know this but he was the voice of Canada during World War II, as Edward R. Murrow was the voice of America, that's the guy David Strathairn plays in Good Night, and Good Luck. Well, he was the equivalent of him during World War II. He has this big deep voice and he was tall. He was over six feet and when we wore those boots he was even taller. So he came up to us and he said [imitating Lorne]: "Boys..." (crowd laughing) "You don't have to give me a lot of dialogue. But whatever I say has to be important." (crowd laughing) So whenever we would see Lorne in the future and he'd catch our eye, we would go the other way. (crowd laughing) Because we knew it would be something about we should give him or not give him.
But Richard [Hatch] and Dirk [Benedict], both, asked to go to lunch with us various times to talk about their character. Just so we were on the same wave length as them. It helped us and I'm sure it helped both of them. So those two definitely got right into it with us. They weren't critiquing or anything. It was just them saying: "This is how I see the character and this is what I like, this is how I'd like to deliver it."
I'd like to ask a question about "Greetings from Earth"
Which one was "Greetings from Earth"?
The one with Larson's kids and Lorne Greene's daughter.
I don't remember it just from that. Was that the one with Ray Bolger?
Yes, that's it. I was wondering if you knew if it was intentional from the start that they wanted to write an episode so they could use Glen Larson's kids and Lorne Greene's daughter?
No, but the whole point of that episode was, I think -- though it never came down to me specifically -- it was more an attempt to do Little House [on the Prairie] in space. Maybe there was some concern from Glen, because he wrote that, that the show might get cancelled and he might have to write something that could be spun off on Sunday nights, for the family hour. I don't know if that's true. I don't know if that's true at all, I'm only surmising, because it was such a departure -- at least to me -- compared to the other things that had been done. There was no real adventure in it. I didn't care for that episode personally.
When you write a script for a show that involves a guest actor, you've said that you have people in mind when writing the character, like you did with that western. Did you contact people in casting during Battlestar Galactica and request that they get certain guest actors?
Just once, and only because we were asked. On "Murder on the Rising Star" they wanted to get -- what did we call the attorneys?
Chief Opposer Solon?
Yeah, Solon! We'd done a Bionic Woman episode that had Brock Peters as the lead and he was really good and brought a lot to it. If you don't know who he is, he was the black guy being defended by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. We just thought he was a fantastic actor and when they said that they needed somebody that had dignity and obviously has a sense of who he is, we suggested Brock Peters and they got him.
Have you ever seen any episodes and seen the guest actors they chose and thought it was a bad move, or is there any that you have really liked?
That's kind of a hard question. Generally the people they had for most of the guest parts were established actors to begin with. The casting of Ray Bolger at the time I thought was fantastic, but unfortunately -- as I recall from watching the dailies -- Ray at the time was having a difficult time remembering his dialogue and they'd have to do a lot of retakes. I don't remember if that was for the entire episode or just for some of the days that I was in for dailies.
Was there ever a case where they'd have a certain guest actor and you'd have to rewrite the dialogue?
Never. There just wasn't time. It's not like the movies. If I wrote a script and was trying to peddle it so Tom Cruise was interested than I'd have to write it specifically towards him and towards his speech patrons. Then if he would decide not to do it and Nicolas Cage wanted to do it, I would have to rewrite it for him. But that's not done in TV. There's no time.
For the episode "Fire in Space" you had talked about how you had a different ending, about the charges blowing and blowing up the Cylon ship, but were there any other differences that you can remember from the final version vs. what you had in mind for it?
I don't think so. You'd be a better gauge for that, because you could take a look at the script. That's the second draft, which was done in just a few days after the first one, and I don't know if there were that many changes in it. We might have just cleaned up a little bit here and there, but I don't think that there were [any other changes]. You know, there might have been that I don't remember. Or we might have had to change something because they couldn't get this location, but I just can't remember.
The things that stuck out in my mind from reading your script was the entertainment room that they had where you wrote out that they have a pool table with flashing lights and sounds, and to be able to see what they came up with from that.
That's pretty cool. Did we do that?
You wrote that it needed to be a game -- and I forgot the name of the game - where it had a certain type of table and it had flashing lights.
I have to go look at that.
You even specified what colors the balls were.
One of them was zebra striped. But I don't think that the color of the balls you wrote about corresponded with the colors of the balls on the table that they used.
That's interesting. I forgot that.
How much did you draw from the Irwin Allen film Towering Inferno when you wrote that script?
Zero. Are there any similarities?
I haven't seen the movie, but people have said that they thought that that script came from the movie Towering Inferno.
Well look, when we were first hired... there is a shorthand in television. "The Living Legend" is basically -- we were told when we were first hired that they wanted to do Patton in space. That's shorthand, since you know the kind of character Patton was, so you work that character into a story. For "Fire in Space", they didn't even have to say Towering Inferno, because you just get what that is. But if you want to make a parallel with Towering Inferno, that's fine, but it was never really specifically said that way.
For the episode "Murder on the Rising Star" do you remember if there were any changes from what you envisioned in the beginning vs. what came out in the end?
I don't remember. I guess I could go back and look at the first draft and the final draft, and see if there any significant changes, but I don't remember. It seems to me that because we had 36 hours to write it that there weren't any changes because they had to go and shoot it. I don't remember doing an extensive rewrite of any kind on that script.
I think this is probably the only episode that showed a flashback to the attack on the colonies. Ortega is shown taking a bribe from a person who wanted on a ship that wasn't supposed to. Which I think was a nice touch, to go back and show some flashbacks of the colony.
This episode is where you created Triad.
Yeah, again I don't remember if we created it or if we were told about it and put it in. I just don't remember. But I do remember that I had a sheet of paper with rules on it that we had come up with. I don't know whatever happened to that. That would be pretty interesting to see, but as I told you, it was originally supposed to be done without gravity in a big cube, or a big rectangle.
That's what I wanted to ask you. The original idea was for it to be something like weightlessness basketball?
Yeah, you could ricochet off the ceiling and stuff. We pitched that to Don [Bellisario], but you know it was almost a half-ass attempt to pitch it because we figured they'd never go for this because it would be to expensive to do. Because it is a critical part of the piece. If it was something that we could go back to and use several times well that might be something else. They just said: "No, this is going to be too expensive." So we never put that version in.
Let me go back to "Fire in Space". One of the things that was in the script was that Starbuck wanted to blow the charges prematurely before they finished them all and the response was: "No, we have to lay them all out, because they have to blast them in sequence so the explosion wouldn't tumble the gyros." My question is this. They're in deep space, what difference does it make if they tumble the gyros? They're not likely to run into anything?
No, but if they tumble the gyros our thoughts... Well first of all we had to do two things. One of them was that we had to toss up the question the audience might have: "Why don't they just blow up what they have?" We needed to take a little bit more time so we gave that answer. The other thing is -- in our heads anyway -- if the gyros start tumbling, who knows what that would cause on the ship? If it just goes spinning out of control, do people go flying around? How do they get them to -- "calm down" is the wrong word but you know -- settle down. We just didn't even want to go into that.
That's an excellent point. The G-forces could have hurt the crew on board.
In the episode "Take the Celestra" we see a new ship and Commander Kronus. It was nice to see some backstory with Adama and Kronus. Kronus dies at the end and he gets shot by the laser pistol. When we see Cylons shot by laser pistols, they blow up. We see Kronus get shot and he doesn't look hurt at all, and then the funeral. Is that because of the standards and practices?
Probably. But they must have had some sort of funeral director, who did a lot of makeup on him. I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. Sorry.
On "Two for Twilly" there was a story with Jamie Lee Curtis?
Yes. I have the actual sheet for a read through for the script. We were in casting on that episode. There were two people that came in that I knew, because of their work. One of the women -- and I can't remember her name -- but she was... There was a Robert Altman movie called A Wedding. Carol Burnett is in it, and this young lady (Amy Stryker) played the bride in that movie, and I thought she was really good and I thought she might have been good as one of the characters. The other one was Jamie Lee Curtis, who only had done Halloween at the time. She came in and started reading and she got the giggles. She just started laughing. Finally the casting director thanked her for coming in and she left. Jim Carlson turned to me and he said: "Poor kid. She's never going to go anywhere in this business." (laughing)
You said you were there at the read throughs. As a writer were you supposed to be there and help choose people?
No, it was not necessarily to chose people but just to watch the process, because... and we only did it on our own scripts. Generally if there was the situation where there was a guest star. "Fire in Space" didn't have a guest star. "Murder on the Rising Star" I think we were so whipped form doing that, we didn't have an opportunity to go to that one. "Take the Celestra" had Paul Fix, who played Kronus, who was a regular on the hit western series The Rifleman. He played the sheriff in town. I always liked him. He'd been around forever. Ana Alicia, I think might have been a contract player at Universal. I'm not sure. So the only one we actually got to be in on was the "Two for Twilly" one, but I've been on many other ones. Generally what happens is, when you write a script, you have a picture in your head of how this person might look, or how they talk, or just even move. Because when you're writing it, you see it first. The casting director might look to us to say: "Who did you like and why?" Ultimately it wouldn't be our decision, but we might have a little input on it, that's all.
The other episode "I Have Seen Earth". Could you tell us about that script?
"I Have Seen Earth" was already there when we got there. Jim and I got a hold of the script and we did a bit of a rewrite on it. We thought that Jasper, the lead character, could have been played by Jack Elam, again. Somebody that we knew and it was easy to write, but basically what that script is, it's The African Queen. So again, here's the shorthand. It's an old rattletrap spacecraft, that's basically held together by chewing gum and wire, that they run into, and he claims that he's seen Earth. Boxey believes him and nobody else really seems to believe him, because he's loaded with tall tales. So ultimately what happens is that Boxey stows away on his spaceship and then they crash land and run into the Cylons on this planet where he's been prospecting. I know, obviously, Starbuck and Apollo come to the rescue. That's basically the story. I know that script is around, if you don't have it, somebody must have it.
I've seen it on eBay. Were there any other scripts, that you know of, that didn't make it?
There was a story that David Caren had written, that I remember: "Hold the Crickcatcher". I do not remember what the story was at all, but it had to do with a bunch of insect-like creatures on the ship. There was a script called "Mutiny" by Guy Megar, who at one point was Glen [Larson]'s driver. That never got shot and I never cared much for that script, but Guy went on to become a very successful television director. Those are the ones that I remember.
Did you have any ideas for scripts that you never got around to writing?
Yeah, I have a list of them somewhere, but I'll have to check around, because I haven't been able to locate them.
Unfortunately the series didn't make it to the second season. What things did you have in your mind when planning the second season?
At the last Galactica convention I couldn't find...I have it, I have it at home, but I couldn't find it then. I have the presentation that Glen [Larson] made to ABC with six storylines for Season two. In my personal opinion -- no offense to Glen -- it's no wonder that they cancelled the show. Five of the six storylines I thought were... I had seen them before, there was nothing new, there were no twists, it was just... they were very flat in my opinion. Now, on the other hand, on the very first episode of Season 2, they were going to kill Sheba. Anne Lockhart was going to be written out of the script. I thought that that would not necessarily have been a good thing. Anne has never seen that. I want to get a copy of that to her, so she knows what was going to happen to her character.
But I think what Glen was trying to do for that opening episode was to create some kind of a buzz. There certainly would have been publicity. The other storylines were kind of... I'd seen them before. I wanted to do different stuff. I was telling the [people at the] table last night; somebody was asking me about where the ideas came from. Glen would write these big epic scripts like "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero", which was The Guns of Navarone. He did the story of "The Living Legend", which was Patton, and then he would... What was the one with the spaceship with lights and the white suits? (crowd saying: "War of the Gods") Yes, "War of the Gods". They were these big epic kinds of things. Because they would cost so much to do, because you had to do relatively new special effects, we didn't have that much in our budget.
So what we were kind of forced to do -- not by choice, but by situation -- we started exploring more personal stories; stories about who else was in the fleet. If you were in this situation, who would do what? What if there was dissension on another ship and what would be the results of that? Who was the wizard of technology if things broke down? Those were the kind of things we sort of looked at. I think we would have explored more of that. Since that sounded really interesting to me.
Towards the end of the first season it really looked like we were not going to be picked up, because it cost so much. Each episode was like $1 million, which at the time was unheard of. So projecting into Season 2, we had a bunch of storylines and I personally would like to have seen more about the internalization of the fleet. One thing I also wanted to do was that I wanted to make the Cylons real villains, and they're crappy villains because they couldn't kill anybody. It was like an old trap, since you knew nobody was going to get killed. It's not like in the new episodes that was all going to change. That's why toward the end of the first season they brought in the Nazi storm trooper types, because they were looking for a villain. That didn't work either. So I would much more prefer the Cylons, because they were pretty cool... just make them dangerous.
Some of the secondary characters like Tigh, Boomer and Cassiopeia, we never really learned where they were from, who they were. Did you have any ideas in your head like: "This is who Tigh is, and this is where he came from"?
Not with Tigh, especially not in the first season, since they were not going there. They were looking for more action. With Cassiopeia, who started as a hooker on the first episode (crowd laughing), it was a totally different story. Sure they called it socializer, but basically it was still a hooker. (crowd laughing) Obviously when the series started, they softened that a bit. What we tried to show in "Take the Celestra" was that Starbuck had an old flame there and that relationship with Cassiopeia and how she felt about that. Again, we were going for a more emotional kind of drama. We showed what would be happening to these characters in the future. So we were setting things up in a way. Keep in mind that this show wasn't serialized like it is now. It was episodic. You couldn't continue that thought in another episode.
How about any other secondary characters?
Not just secondary characters, but also like we did on "Murder on the Rising Star" with some flashbacks and the relationship between Adama and these people. Or "Take the Celestra", where we found this other ship and this other commander. Even in "Two for Twilly" here's a guy who's the great mechanic for the fleet, which I thought was kind of an interesting angle. I think we would have found more people like that. Especially if Glen [Larson] would have continued to write his big epic two-parters, we would been forced to do more of these internal shows to accommodate that, because there wouldn't been that much special effects situations there.
Do you know if there was any thought of bringing the Pegasus back?
Well yeah, the first episode of Season Two, the Pegasus comes back and Sheba is killed.
Would the Pegasus have stayed with the Galactica or would it have gotten lost again?
I don't remember. I think he only had a couple of pages on it. I know that's around, that thing for Season Two. In fact I was talking to somebody who was going to get me a copy of it, because I can't lay my hands on the copy that I have. I know I have it here somewhere, but I just don't know where it is.
The Cylons were changed from being lizards to just being robots. Was that done for the fact you needed to blow them up?
Probably. Although that all happened before we got there. I was never crazy about the lizard angle anyway. Even when I watched the pilot, the first two-three hour episode. I really liked the show until I saw the lizard and then I thought :"Ah, that's lame." But it was okay. It seemed to work and it didn't hurt the show one way or the other, so...
When and where did you found out that the show had been cancelled?
There were rumors towards the very, very end. We had written the second to last script, "Take the Celestra" and Don Bellisario had written the last one, "The Hand of God", which was another network interference, since it was in fact originally called "The Finger of God", because of the protrusion in the hull where they went up and they could look out into the universe. The network thought that the title was too dirty.(crowd laughing) Don wrote the last episode about we finished them at about the same time. We knew that there were...We weren't sure if it was coming back or not. So I can't remember if we were there or if we were just gone when it probably wasn't coming back. I don't know.
Were you ever asked to write for Galactica 1980?
First of all you have to pronounce that show properly. It's called Galactica [Terry spitting] (crowd laughing and applauding)... Except for the last episode "The Return of Starbuck". That was fine. No, that series was just hideous! So no, I was not.
Speaking of... Why couldn't you use "crap"? Is it "felgercarb" or "feldercarb"?
"Don't step in the felgercarb". It depends on which episode you're watching. Sometimes Dirk [Benedict] would say "felgercarb" and sometimes he'd say "feldercarb". It's obvious what that word meant. It was thought up by Glen [Larson]. It wasn't us, but we certainly liked it.
At the time you were writing it, the first season, was there ever talk of doing a theatrical movie?
You know what they did. They obviously released the first one. They mixed the "Fire in Space" and "The Living Legend". The combined it into Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack. They released that all over the world. I think they did a third one too and then, when they did Galactica [Terry spits] (crowd laughing), they combined some of those together. They even combined them with some of the Battlestar Galactica episodes together to create two hour movies. It was just two episodes in two hours.
How about towards the end of Battlestar Galactica? Did you hear them talking about making other movies?
You heard Richard [Hatch]? They had no clue on what they had. They absolutely didn't have a clue. The network executives were used to doing their cop shows. They looked at it as this weird science fiction show they had going on somewhere on the lot. They just didn't get it, despite the fact that they wanted it on the air. They saw what Star Wars did, obviously. I wished they would have! Maybe then we could have had a continuation of the show, at least theatrically.
Did you ever hear any talk of bringing the original series back with the original actors?
Richard [Hatch] has been trying to do that for a long time -- to get Universal interested. Again: "Why do that show?". They didn't understand the fanbase. They didn't understand the show. They didn't understand the interest of people like Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto -- having interest in the project. Obviously, I wonder if they ever are going to. Has anybody heard if they're going to do anything with this new version of Battlestar Galactica, when it goes off? Are they going to do a spin-off or anything?
They're talking about doing Caprica and they're filming another movie.
Well, that makes sense, but they didn't have the vision back then.
Question by Robert Feero, Bora the Borellian Nomen, who's sitting in the audience: Did you write the script of "The Man with Nine Lives"?
I did not write the script of "The Man with Nine Lives". That's the major debut of you Nomen, right? Don [Bellisario] came to Jim and myself and he said two things. Apparently he was sitting in the hallway and was thinking of a name to call you guys and was looking for something in the line of "nomad" or whatever and my partner (Jim Carlson) said: "What about ‘Nomen'?" Don Bellisario liked that, so Jim contributed to that. Don Bellisario came to our office one day and said: "We've got to give these guys some kind of cool weapon. I don't know what they are, so see if you can figure something out." So we were thinking. It seems like they come from a desert planet. They're wearing these long robes. They're more primitive, so let's think of primitive weapon and jazz it up a little bit. I personally came up with the laser bolo idea. So when you threw them that laser would cut everything. I still feel it was a cool idea.
Question by Robert Feero: I want to ask you about Fred Astaire and his grandchildren. They wanted him to be on the show and the word I have was that Fred called Lou up and said: "Help me out."
I'm not sure, but that's the same story that I have heard. And who could turn down Fred Astaire? Fred is a complete gentleman. I remember that he was there on stage. He had everything memorized, just like he was doing a feature film. I don't think anybody knows this, but Anne Jeffreys (Siress Blassie), who was the other guest star on this episode, was a big, big star of the 50's on TV on a show called Topper. There was a sequence where they're on a dance floor of the Rising Star and they're dancing together. Well Fred didn't want to do it. He put up a big stink with Bellisario about how: "I don't want to dance. I don't want to do anything like that." And he said: "No, no, it's just a little movement. You don't have to do any steps."
But I think it's the very, very last time Astaire danced on screen. I think that's it. I wish I knew more about that, but it is pretty close idea of what happened. And I want to thank you for playing a great part! (crowd applauding). Here's some trivia for you. One of the other Nomen was an actor named Lance LeGault and nobody here would know what Lance was in. If you see Elvis Presley's comeback special when he's wearing the black leather jumpsuit in the late sixties. Lance LeGault was the drummer!
Back when television first started, from 1949 until 1975, it seemed like every network had a space show. So why is it that the entertainment industry is now so bias against any kind of science fiction?
If you could do a cop show or a doctor show or you build one set and that's all you need. Basically... You might have a swing set where you're going into a lawyer's office or something like that. You've got the doctor's office in the hospital. You've got the attorney office, that's one thing. You've got the police precinct, that's one thing. When you do a space show or a scifi show there's a lot of costs involved. It's not only the interior of the ship. Whatever you're going to do there should be a lot of special effects, because this should be the future.
So I think cost maybe be prohibited when they say: "Look, we can do this show with all of these great characters. There's fifteen characters with a really big actor that's the lead guest star for an X amount of money. Or we could do a show with a bunch of unknowns because the special effects cost so much." Which is the audience going to come to? Are they coming to see Glen Close or are they going to see a bunch of unknowns? I don't know if that's the answer, but I certainly know that's something that should be taken into consideration if I was a network executive. So the scripts would have to be tip-top or the guy who's lines were given should have to be tip-top.
If they would do a continuation of the original Battlestar Galactica series, would you be interested to write a script?
In a heartbeat. (crowd applauding) Of course. I haven't forgotten how to do it.
Were you ever consulted on the new series, by the production company or the writers?
No, they didn't contact any of us. If they contacted anybody it might have been Glen [Larson]. But even there I don't know how much influence or input he had... or if he cared about it. He had sold the rights off, so he really had no say. I don't know if they've consulted him. I never heard that.
Have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica series?
Bits and pieces. I don't watch a lot of television because I'm generally not home to watch a lot of shows, because I'm working. I'm home anywhere between eight and midnight. I just can't watch everything. I know it's a totally different show from what we did and it would have to be. I know that the people who watch it, love it. I haven't really seen it. Twenty minutes here, ten minutes here, so I can't say.
Here at the 30th anniversary of the Battlestar Galactica series we screened the "Saga of a Star World" pilot. I also saw you in the audience, watching it. What did you think of it?
I stayed for about the first hour and ten minutes or so. I left before the lizards came on, and I liked it. I liked it a lot.
Was there anything specific that you saw that stood out?
No, it was like: this still holds up, after all this time. Not that I was necessarily surprised by that, but it was nice to see. Because a lot of shows you have fond memories of and then you see them years later and you go: "Oh, geez..."
For that, or for any of the episodes before you came on board and watched them, as a writer have you ever thought: "Oh, I would have done that differently"?
No, it's a fairly decent science fiction series. There were a couple of episodes that I really liked and there were others that I wasn't that fond of. I was never crazy about the western angle that were in like three of the scripts, but there were other things that were pretty interesting. They were doing things that hadn't been shown before for science fiction. I thought effects-wise the first season of Star Trek is just unwatchable. Guys in crocodile masks. I was like: "Oh, come on!" Obviously that was ten years before. Things like that wouldn't hold up. A lot of this series really looked like it could have been shot yesterday.
As a writer when you watch anything on television or when you go to the movies, are you not able to enjoy it, because as a writer you say: "Oh, I would have done this differently."?
Sometimes. Sometimes I already know what's going to happen before it happens. I'm way ahead of the audience because I'm looking at the tricks the writers use. For instance if they're using subjective camera so you're seeing everything through the killer's eyes, but you never see who the killer is. Well there's a reason for that. It because the killer is someone you'd never suspect.
Another example is that I loved the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but I can't tell you how much I hated that movie. Because they set up the Tyrannosaurus Rex as... the minute he starts to move, everything shakes, and you can hear and feel that, so there's this great threat. At the very end they're in the kitchen and they're being chased by the raptors. They run out and coincidentally there's the T Rex in the middle of the hall. Nobody heard him coming. Not just that was bad, but I just think it's horrible writing when an "Act of God" gets somebody out of a situation -- where the heroes are not being heroic. Wouldn't it been cooler, when they ran out, or at least one of them runs out, like Sam Neill, and he hears the T Rex. He runs out and diverts the T Rex to chase him back into the building. That would have worked for me. But just the way it was? If I had a box of popcorn I would have thrown it at the screen. This stuff is horrible.
How has the writing and story editing business changed over the years when you started until now?
When I was starting out as a young writer the story editors on the shows that I was working on were people who had written major movies. There was a film in the 60s called The Pawnbroker and it's with Rod Steiger. He was nominated for an Oscar for it. He's plays a pawnbroker in New York who was in a concentration camp. It was made with an extremely low budget and it was just an incredible performance. Another guy that I worked for wrote a movie called The Train, which is a Burt Lancaster movie. John Frankheimer directed it. It's the best train crash in any movie I've ever seen. These guys, writing these kind of movies were editing television shows. These knew how to write and they were older, 50 or 60.
In 1988 there was a writer's strike and out of the smoke of the writer's strike came this guy named Brendon Tartikoff, who was 25 years old and the head of NBC. He couldn't relate to these older writers because they knew more than he did. They knew about life, they knew stories, they knew structures and so on. He surrounded himself with college graduates and people of his own age. Nothing wrong with that but all of these great writers locked their houses, left the business and there was no work for them. He had a big hit with Miami Vice, so it was all young, all young people. Now, when you're 35 and you're writing prime time, you better start looking for work because you're not going to be hired much longer.
You wonder why sitcoms are not on television anymore? Because the young writers have grown up on bad cartoons. They think that this is funny. If you watch their sitcoms, there's no joke. It's just horrible, horrible, horrible and nobody watches them. This is my opinion. There is certainly room for young writers. My God, I was one of the youngest writers in the business when I got in. I think we obviously need the combination of both. But where is the story? Even when I go to the movies, I walk out of there and go: "Oh my gosh, there's a hole in there so big that you can drive a truck through. Come on!" So when you think of something that is working, well okay, but I think that was a big, big problem. Sitcoms died. Obviously there always the great episodes like Cheers, Barney Miller and things like that. There's always going to be something like that. But at the same time, most of them are dying and they're putting on these stupid reality shows.
What's the best thing you've ever seen or ever done yourself?
Oh gosh. When it comes to movies I can't pick one movie, but I can pick a bunch of movies as long as they had good stories, good actors and things like that. Of my work, without question, the seven years I spend on Win Ben Stein's Money. A lot of people don't know Win Ben Stein's Money, never heard of it. That's because it was on Comedy Central and at the time not everybody got Comedy Central. You know, Ben Stein was a right wing republican. God love him. Jimmy Kimmel, the co-host was as left wing as you could possibly get. This show ran for seven years, we were nominated for 22 Emmy's and 21 of them I had over the course of seven years. I had 22 writers and 21 won Emmy's. This is the only cable game show that ever won an Emmy for "Best Gameshow". It's the only game show in history where every single year the writers were nominated for best writing. And every single category was a joke. It was really, really edgy, because Comedy Central let me get away with it. There was one day -- this is an example of what we would do -- we had a category about presidential pets and it was called "White House Dogs Other Than Chelsey" (crowd laughing and cheering). So the network called me up and said: "You can't do this!" and I said: "What's wrong with that?" He said: "you can't take a pot shot at a 16 year old." So I said: "Okay" and we retitled it "On All Fours In The Lincoln Bedroom" (crowd going nuts!)
Did they accept that?
Absolutely. It was on! And that's how we looked at every single category. So we had "Popping Horses Not Married To James Taylor" (crowd laughing). No prisoners! We went after everybody. No matter what they were. I laughed for seven years straight. All we'd hear was laugh, laugh, laugh, because every time the question was never revealed, the question came back to be retitled. We would have these writer's meetings that were like The Dick Van Dyke Show. You'd be sitting there and seven geniuses would be trying to outthink each other. And when somebody would come up with the right category, everybody would applaud and laugh.
We were just pounding the floor most of the time, we'd even literally go rolling on it. The way this game worked was that Ben was the host for the first half of the show and he'd put up his own money. This was not bullshit. This was actually what happened. He got paid to do the show, but if he won the game, he got another $5,000. So when you beat him, he was furious. (crowd laughing). Because on the first half he was the host and then at the end of the first round we got rid of the person who was in the last place. Ben then became a contestant and Jimmy Kimmel became the host. So Ben never knew what the categories were that were coming up. And we'd just kill him, left and right, since he didn't know what was coming.
You and Jim wrote the third episode of the initial X-Men cartoon. How did that come about?We were called in. We'd done a lot of work, over at Universal with Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Battlestar Galactica and we'd also done The Gemini Man. We'd also done a lot of animation. I think somebody just saw our credits and said: "We want you to do this." I can't remember if somebody that had worked for us and was working on that show or not. They just called us in and said: "This is the episode we want you to do." We just did it.
I'm just wondering if you're writing for a cartoon if you do things differently?
The scrip format is different a little bit in that. When you write one hour drama it's about one minute per page. So a 60 minutes show would be about 60 pages. For animation, a 30 minute show would be anywhere from 35 to 42 pages, because there's an awful lot of exposition. You have to put your stage directions down, you have to explain what the shot is, so the artist knows how to draw it. You don't want a bunch of talking heads, so you always have to have characters doing things. That's what I always do. That's the difference between cartoon and television.
Had you read the comic book before?
Oh, yeah. I was a huge fan.
I was wondering if you needed to do any background research so you know what the characters...
No! No way! But I had to explain it to Jim! (laughing)
I thought the first few seasons of that cartoon were excellent. The episode was called "Enter Magneto". Was he fun to write for, because in his mind he's not a villain?
Yeah! Those Marvel characters are great because they always have flaws and they're very human. Everybody is in conflict with each other. Everybody has got issues, so there's a lot of stuff to play with. I remember in the late 60's or early 70's they killed them all. All the X Men got wiped out. They just started over again, which is interesting.
What are you doing these days? Still working?
I've sold a project to Michael Davies who is the executive producer of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. We just signed the paperwork on Friday. We may be doing a pilot and this will be for the internet. That's all I can tell you about it right now. We have sponsorship and looks like it will be a "Go".
Any hobbies to keep you busy?
Reading. I'm interested in just about everything with the exception of the sex life of an insurance salesman. I can get interested in just about anything.
Have you thought about writing an autobiography?
I have little pieces done. I'm about 85% done with the chapter on Battlestar Galactica. And there are other interesting stories too. I wouldn't have done it, except everybody that I talked to and was telling stories about some of the things that had happened in my life, said I should write this down. In my spare time, if I'm still motivated, hopefully I'll get it all together.
That's all the questions I got.
Well Mike, any time you get a wild hair and want to know something just email or call me and we'll set it up.
You're such a wealth of knowledge on the show. We've all heard the stories from the point of view of Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict, but you were behind the scenes, you were there. So I'm sure I'll have some more questions later.
Anytime! I'll gladly brush up on the old scripts, the original versions, and look at them again. Keep me posted on the website.
Thanks so much for doing this!
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