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A 'Leg Work' Script: 16-Hour Days in Search for Truth, Sleaze in N.Y.

Second of two articles about how TV writers prepare their shows.

October 31, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A slate-gray 1985 Porsche 911 Cabriolet with four tires missing is not funny. But a slate-gray 1985 Porsche 911 Cabriolet nose down in the gutter because its front tires have been stolen--now that's funny.

Mark Lisson, supervising producer of CBS' new series, "Leg Work," tried to make this point to the other three members of the show's writing staff as the group pondered what to put in the opening teaser for an episode of the Saturday-night series.

Lisson, a bearded, beaming ball of enthusiasm, illustrated with his hand the comparative funniness of horizontal Porsche vs. bumper-in-gutter.

There was no reaction from the others. They were busy calling out their own ideas.

"In this room you've gotta say 'I've got an idea, I got an idea' 50 times before anybody listens to you," Lisson grumbled to no one in particular.

A few days before the Labor Day weekend and just before the start of the fall TV season, the creative team behind "Leg Work"--producer Frank Abatemarco, co-producer Marv Kupfer, story editor Deborah Baron and Lisson--were holed up in a warehouse office on West 50th Street, trying to create a story for an episode entitled "Blind Trust." The series debuted Oct. 3; "Blind Trust" is scheduled to air next Saturday.

The series, produced by Abatemarco and Treasure Island Productions in association with 20th Century Fox, stars Margaret Colin as Claire McCarron, a 30-ish, unmarried private detective, solving cases and living way beyond her means in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan (the Porsche is hers).

The writer/producers, all of whom lived in Los Angeles, had relocated to New York in mid-July, preferring to use authentic city settings rather than the generic urban locations in Los Angeles that could have subbed for New York. Abatemarco, a former "Cagney & Lacey" staffer, developed the show at the request of Roseanne Leto, CBS vice president of programs in New York, who wanted a realistic series about a female private eye.

In the television business, they call what was happening here a story meeting. For the record, this is not glamour. It is 16-hour days, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the community cold and "sorry-no-chicken-salad-you-get-tuna" from the local deli. It is combing the New York Post for new and different insights into the criminal mind because sleazy truth is often stranger than sleazy fiction. (The Post is later used for swatting flies.)

It is trying not to come up with the kind of idea that might not already be in the works on "The Law and Harry McGraw" or one of CBS' other action-adventure series. It is playing verbal volleyball with serious ideas along with such half-facetious possibilities as a mystery attached to the disappearance of Claire's dog, Clyde, or a bleak Christmas show featuring a suicidal Santa Claus who needs to be talked down off the roof. It is Marv yelling at Deborah and Frank yelling at Mark who is by this time busy yelling back at Marv.

Things are not all work and no play here, however: Kupfer hopefully mentioned plans to take four hours off within the next few weeks for his wedding.

This--according to those directly involved in the torture--is the hardest step in creating a TV episode: hammering out the story.

Occasionally, the job of coming up with a story will go to a free-lance writer, but usually the task falls to the show's staff. The dirty work is breaking the story into acts and scenes, which will be scrawled in red watercolor marker on a big white story board.

"This must be like watching snow melt," Abatemarco told a visitor, "but what we've found is that when these (stories) work on the board, if somebody writes it logically, it will work."

Added Kupfer: "You can always improve the dialogue; the structure is the important thing."

Once the story was up on the board--"Blind Trust" would take three days and two boards--the writers would each take a separate section of the script to write alone at home over the weekend. "If this part of the process is done right, we can each take an act and literally not have to talk until it's done," Abatemarco said.

Having the staff create the story is easier than bringing in a free-lance writer, who is likely to come up with ideas that are either already in the works for future episodes or might be rejected by the network because they are being used by other shows. "The (free-lance) writer's worst nightmare is coming in and having us say, 'We're already doing that,' " Abatemarco said.

The process of breaking "Blind Trust" began with nothing more concrete than a tentative title, an idea sparked by a newspaper clipping about a public housing scandal and the need to develop the character of Claire's play-by-the-rules brother, Fred McCarron, a public information officer with the New York Police Department. Although the story-boarding took three days, discussions of a story along these lines had begun months ago before the staff left Los Angeles.

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