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Script-Writing Hopefuls Find Happy Endings--Years Later

October 26, 1986|KATHRYN HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

Each spring, Norm Gunzenhauser felt sick when he pictured another class graduating at UCLA. There he was, a frustrated screenwriter selling boots in Santa Monica, visualizing new graduates with connections in Hollywood snaring the jobs that might have been his.

It took six years for Gunzenhauser, the son of an upstate New York cattle breeder, to land a full-time job writing for television. But when he and partner Tom Seeley joined five other staff writers at "Newhart" this summer, they discovered that none of their colleagues had UCLA degrees or Hollywood relatives.

None of the writers is even a Californian.

"Offhand, I only know of one writer who has a famous relative. I don't and neither do any of my friends," wrote producer-writer Sheldon Bull in 1984, in a tough-minded but encouraging letter to David Tyron King, then graduating from the University of Texas.

Today, King holds one of the coveted staff spots on "Newhart," with an annual income exceeding $100,000. He's only 27.

Who breaks in, and how do they do it? And what's the job like, once they join the staff of a prime-time television series?

At "Newhart," a half-hour sitcom now in its fifth season, the writers' average age is 33. For three of the seven full-time writers, it is their first staff job.

Each has a college degree, but their majors ranged from electrical engineering, business administration, English, sociology and government to television and film.

Nearly every writer held at least one low-paying job, if not several, before selling a script. Some of the jobs were more memorable than others:

Gunzenhauser sold boots for 3 1/2 years.

Seeley spent a year in the federal VISTA program, working in an Atlanta reform school.

King typed mailing labels for 7 cents per address.

Arnie Kogen sold stories to Mad magazine after his father fired him twice from his children's wear business.

Michael Loman taught junior high school in Manhattan, but also appeared on Broadway as an actor.

Doug Wyman worked as a scheduling supervisor at Cable Health Network.

David Mirkin worked first as an electrical engineer, then as a stand-up comic.

Miriam Trogdon waited on tables, then worked at the post office. (A former full-time writer for "Newhart," she now works just one day a week on the show.)

Of the eight, only Kogen and Loman had television writing credits before moving to Los Angeles. The other six knew only that they had to write a "spec" script for an existing TV show and somehow submit it to powerful agents or producers.

"Spec" scripts serve as writing samples; writers concoct the story on their own, hoping to prove that they can write for television. For a half-hour comedy, the script might run about 41 pages of double-spaced, wide-margin typing.

Most of the staff writers did not succeed quickly. Doug Wyman and David Mirkin, accomplished writers who also serve as the show's executive producers, each say they endured a four-year stretch in Los Angeles without selling a script.

Four other "Newhart" writers note that they succeeded only after setting a tough deadline for themselves: in at least two instances, the impending birth of a child. They vowed either to find work as a writer or consider a new career.

Talent, perseverance, ingenuity and luck finally squeezed them through the door.

Although writers can make a living by free-lancing, selling scripts to any number of shows, Mirkin explained that "the best living is on staff. The vast majority of working writers are on staff. Good free-lancers eventually get a staff job. That's generally the goal in today's television."

The staff writers' primary task is to write several scripts and help rewrite others for the 22-episode season. Each staff member typically writes two or three during the year and is paid additionally for each one. For a half-hour network prime-time show, the Writers Guild of America mandates a minimum fee of $10,940.

About 6,340 people belong to the Writers Guild, which claims bargaining jurisdiction in screen, television and radio. Only 389 individuals joined the guild in the past 12 months. To be eligible, those new members had to sell one or two scripts (depending on the format) or secure writing assignments from companies that are signatory to the guild's collective bargaining agreement. Each paid an initiation fee of $1,500.

Judging from data collected by the guild, fewer than half its members might be working at a given time. Only 41% of the membership reported earnings for television writing during the first three months of 1986. A scant 15% declared earnings during that period for feature film writing.

Arnie Kogen, the most seasoned "Newhart" writer, contends that even fewer writers enjoy their work. Low-brow material, a bullying producer or a star's peccadilloes can make the 10- to 14-hour days miserable.

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