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Film Clips : Agent Is A Feather In His Clients' Cap

July 18, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Gobble, gobble.

--From the screenplay "Turkey"

by Norman Lapidus and L. Lee Snodgress

Norman Lapidus and L. Lee Snodgress need an agent. Badly.

Oh, they have one--Milton Isaacs of Contemporary Artists--and they like him a lot. He's a loyal, hard-working guy who in the six years they have been with him has shown the same respect and enthusiasm for their work that he would show for his own.

There are just a couple of problems.

One is that the Lapidus-Snodgress writing team, out of University of Iowa by way of University of Wichita, has earned a total of just $167 under Isaacs.

The other is that Isaacs--and this may come as a surprise to those in Hollywood who have returned his calls, exchanged letters or even taken a meeting with him--does not exist.

Isaacs and Contemporary Artists are functioning figments of the writers' imaginations, made up out of that hungry desperation known to generations of would-be writers who have climbed out of westbound interstate buses eager to launch their careers in Hollywood.

"We just got fed up one day," said Lapidus, who portrays Isaacs on the telephone and in all pitch sessions. "We must have seen 30 agents and we just weren't getting anywhere."

Lapidus and Snodgress ran into the screenwriter's Catch-22. Agents don't want to deal with unknown writers (most won't even read screenplays submitted by unknowns), and to become known, one usually needs an agent.

So, they invented Milton Isaacs.

"It sounded like the name of somebody who would get his phone calls returned," Lapidus said. "It sounds like a guy who's been around a while, whose mother may have baby-sat for Eddie Cantor."

Isaacs got busy immediately. He placed calls to producers, directors and agents all over town and they called back! He sent them scripts--"Turkey," "Planet of the Anorexics," "The Great American Floating Museum"--and they were read!

The interest level in Lapidus and Snodgress perked up noticeably with their new agent, but paying jobs didn't follow. They were invited by one studio to adapt a book it had optioned, but it was a speculative deal that earned them nothing.

A real agent, noting that 10% percent of nothing is nothing, might have given up. Isaacs had a lot to learn.

About that same time, Lapidus took a job as a clerk in a Hollywood motel and found that his luck was no better there. On one of his first nights, he was held up at gunpoint and forced to lay on his stomach. He ended up crawling into his boss' office--where another person was being interviewed for his job--to report the robbery.

Luck. You need a good agent and luck to get started in Hollywood, and the breaks have not gone this team's way. They recall the play they wrote a couple of years ago about two armless actors, a parody that they intended to produce on an Equity stage.

Lapidus and Snodgress actually found two armless actors before they started writing, then wrote the script around them. Unfortunately, just as they were about to go into rehearsals, one of the two actors demanded that they write the other one out of the play and replace him with a love interest for his character.

"The play was about two armless actors competing for a part," Snodgress said. "So that was that."

The only writing they have been paid for since moving here from Kansas eight years ago was a script for a 30-second cartoon they did for a Saturday-morning television show. It paid $167, or about 50 cents an hour, they figure. Isaacs' cut would have been $16.70, plus expenses.

For the last four years, Lapidus and Snodgress have been staying afloat on teaching salaries. He teaches remedial math to seventh graders, she teaches first grade. They write on weekends while Isaacs tries to push their scripts on the lonesome swing shift.

People who call Contemporary Artists during the day usually get a recording asking them to leave messages for Isaacs or whichever of his clients--Jennifer Cobb and Larry Dailey are two of the fictitious actors mentioned along with Lapidus and Snodgress--they're interested in.

Lapidus admits that as an agent, he makes a better writer. He said he gets nervous whenever he wears his Isaacs face to a meeting. Especially when there are other agents there. Takes one to know one, like that.

Lapidus isn't qualified to be an agent anyway. He has a conscience. He said he's never been able to stay in character beyond a second meeting with anyone. "As soon as someone is nice to me, I feel guilty and tell them the truth."

So far, no one has gotten angry at the revelation. In fact, producer Daniel Selznick, who got suspicious because he could never get Isaacs on the phone, said he is sorry they are publicly confessing. They'll have trouble replacing Isaacs, he said.

"It is surprisingly hard to get an agent when you're unknown and not coming out of the USC or UCLA film schools," Selznick said. "I think they (Lapidus and Snodgress) are very talented writers. They have a totally original, nutty sense of humor."

Indeed.

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