WHITTIER — Try as he might to block out the cold, Bob Eisele kept seeing his breath as he struggled to rewrite a script against a deadline. Tucked away in a Chicago apartment, the native Angeleno wondered where his career was headed.
"It was freezing, there was no heat, and all I could think about was my future," recalled Eisele, 37, a writing and acting professor at Rio Hondo Community College, who went to Chicago in the winter of 1979 to rework one of his plays for a regional theater.
"There was a distinct possibility that I could turn 50, be known as a regional playwright and have little or nothing to show for a lifetime of late nights," he said. "Right then and there, I realized I wanted to write for a broader audience."
Eisele can't get much broader than 20 million TV viewers who Monday night will tune in CBS' Emmy-winning police drama, "Cagney & Lacey." He wrote this week's episode, "Ordinary Hero," his first crack at writing for a television series.
"I avoided TV for a long time because plays, then movies, excited me more," said Eisele, a West Los Angeles resident who makes the 30-mile commute three times a week to teach at Rio Hondo. "To see a play or movie, people must leave their homes. They have to be committed. To watch TV, all they do is flip a knob--and half the time they're not paying attention."
A faculty member at Rio Hondo since 1976, he began teaching as a way to pay bills during lean years as a playwright. Although his plays won several awards and were produced regionally, it was not enough to make a living. So he turned to teaching, and quickly felt at home.
"As a teacher, I think I have a greater impact on people than as a writer," said Eisele, who started writing seriously as a high school senior in Arcadia. "I don't know that the movie 'Streetcar Named Desire' ever changed anybody's life, but I've had teachers who have changed me.
"When I was 18, I wanted to enlist and go to Vietnam, but my college teacher talked me out of it," he said. "I have a lot of friends who went and never came back. That's heavy."
In the end, it was really TV that courted Eisele.
He owned the rights to a story that the producers of "Cagney & Lacey" believed was perfect for their hit show about two female detectives in New York City. Rather than relying on car chases and violent gunplay, the show's acclaim has been built on story lines about tough, topical issues like teen-age drug abuse, child prostitutes and breast cancer.
Eisele's story fit the show's mold. It is based on a refugee from El Salvador who in 1981 helped police track down the killer of Sarai Ribicoff, a Herald Examiner editorial writer and the niece of former Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut.
Oscar Benitez and his brother-in-law, Antonio Folgar, were working as chefs in a Venice restaurant when they heard a gunshot. Rushing outside, they spotted Ribicoff lying on the sidewalk and two men fleeing on foot. Benitez and Folgar followed the two assailants to a nearby apartment and then called police, who arrested the suspects on murder and robbery charges. Benitez and Folgar, both illegal aliens, were awarded special medals for heroism by police officials.
Months later, however, Benitez was caught in an immigration sweep and nearly deported before friends persuaded authorities to hold off long enough for him to obtain a green card.
Having made the decision to attempt feature film writing, Eisele was searching for suitable subjects. His wife, Diana, read of Benitez' troubles. Eisele was intrigued, tracked down the restaurant worker and bought his story in 1982 for a few hundred dollars.
"What an irony!" he said. "This young man becomes a hero in America, decorated for his courage, and then is picked up by the INS that threatens to ship him back to a country he fled."
A movie script of Benitez' tale drew little interest, and by 1983 Eisele shelved the project. But a year later, producers of "Cagney & Lacey" read the script, liked it and filmed it earlier this year. The episode takes liberties with Benitez' story, changing his nationality from Salvadoran to Chilean. And the show spins around attempts by its stars, Sharon Gless and Tyne Daley, to keep the ordinary hero from being deported after seeing him perform a heroic act.
Eisele likes the finished product, largely because the spirit of his script was left intact.
Author of Four Films
"I'm a dramatist, and believe me that has worked against me in Hollywood," said Eisele, author of four feature-length films, including one titled "Breach of Contract" about an ambitious San Francisco attorney that is scheduled for cable TV distribution this fall. "Today, the studios want youth comedies. But I don't want to write about sex, rock 'n' roll and roller skates. That's not me--at any price."
Besides teaching, Eisele runs a high school drama festival at the college and oversees a script library on campus.
One reason Eisele makes the long trip from West Los Angeles to Rio Hondo is the students. Born and raised in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, Eisele says teaching at the campus near Whittier is "like a journey home, back to the real world.
"Sixty percent of my students come from working-class families," he said. "They have real problems, loves and desires. They didn't just step out of the Polo Lounge. They don't believe, like a lot of industry people, that Hollywood is the center of the universe. It keeps my head screwed on straight."
While he says his free time is too precious to spend watching TV, he said he plans to watch "Cagney & Lacey" on Monday night.
"It's just lucky," he said, "I don't have class that night."