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Just a Bunch of Wiseguys in Search of a Plot : It's 'crunch time' for the writers of TV's audacious 'Wiseguy'

November 26, 1989|IRV LETOFSKY

Leland Masters was taking shape as a most odious person. He operates inside the White House and has infinite political and military influence and a picture of himself as an incredible American patriot. Now he has a new moral fervor--the economic destruction of Japan.

In the tight little sixth-floor office on Hollywood Boulevard near La Brea, the air is thick with plot. Four huddled men are trying to figure this Masters.

Maybe he came to government from a powerful American business, like so many men before him. One of the men suggests, "He could have been a high-ranking officer during World War II. Could have been in Pearl Harbor."

Much as Dr. Frankenstein put together his monster, piece by piece, these four men decide that Masters is a military man with "an invasion mentality," "a four-star icon" who was on the Bataan Death March, entered Berlin with the First Army and smoked cigars with Churchill.

And best of all, he \o7 hates\f7 Vinnie Terranova. A piece of work, the general.

Now, as composed by the four writers-producers of the series, he joins the pantheon of "Wiseguy" antagonists for the next four episodes (CBS, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.).

The network, proud of the 2-year-old series and its audacious plots, agreed with the producers to let The Times watch some of the plotting process by opening the inner sanctum where the writers do their conniving. This "arc"--a story that covers multiple episodes--was set in Washington, D.C., and promised a lot of nifty political intrigue for Vinnie (Ken Wahl), who slips undercover into whatever collusions threaten society.

The writers--who also are the show's principal producers, charged with the day-by-day anguishes in the care and feeding of all the other episodes being prepared--knew last summer that they wanted a Washington story with some giant character to collide with Vinnie. Someone who would contrive to undermine Japan through economic war. It would be timely and terrifying.

That's all they had figured, but it was enough for CBS. In its enthusiasm to try to stir better ratings for the series, the network even offered to pick up the extra cost of a "major casting" to play Gen. Masters. Gregory Peck would be perfect.

The four writers began sketching out details for Episode 1 in September--and didn't finish their first draft until Oct. 10, 10 days ahead of shooting.

They kept running headlong into deadlines. On Wednesday, as this article was going to press, shooting was beginning in Vancouver on Episode 4. But on Monday and Tuesday, with nice white copies of the first draft of the script, they had second and third thoughts and closeted themselves for major reconstructive surgery.

It was a state of siege.

The writers--David Burke, Steve Kronish, Alfonse Ruggiero and Clifton Campbell--are in their early 30s to early 40s, married, working 14 to 15 hours a day for $300,000 to $600,000 a year (sources estimate), with the checks signatured by mega-mogul Stephen J. Cannell, who owns the building as well as a studio in Vancouver he's just had built. He is likewise "Wiseguy's" co-creator.

("Wiseguy" episodes cost $1.2 million to $1.3 million and CBS pays a "license fee" of $1.1 million plus, sources compute.)

His writers come from varied directions. Burke is the son of Alan Burke, who had the first acerbic talk show in New York in the '60s--"a better-educated version of Joe Pyne," or Morton Downey Jr. in today's terms.

The younger Burke once worked as a nervous flunkie for the maniacal Otto Preminger--until he came back late from lunch one day and the director called him a small profanity. To which Burke said that if he was lucky, he'd grow up to be a big profanity just like Preminger. Preminger threw him bodily out of his office. Burke said it was his proudest moment.

Burke went on to TV news and political media in New York and finally connected with producer Michael Mann and wrote the pilot for "Crime Story" in 1986.

Campbell, the baby at 32, supported himself at an ad agency while writing plays in Chicago--one was running while Burke's "Crime Story" pilot was being filmed. Campbell ended up writing three episodes. Later, newly moved to L.A., he worked on "21 Jump Street."

Ruggiero came from Buffalo, N.Y., lumberjacked, worked on a fishing boat, taught boxing, ran a rock club in Chicago and operated a Ford Foundation-supported business that hired ex-convicts.

A best buddy was an undercover cop in Miami, and Ruggiero collaborated with Anthony Yerkovich on a movie idea about him--which eventuated into "Miami Vice." He worked on the series and later on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Private Eye" before landing "Wiseguy": "How many times do you get to write about somebody like yourself when you're growing up?"

He brings a lot to the show from his old Italian neighborhood in Buffalo and the old neighborhood loves it: "They watch it in all the bars when it comes on. Everybody's gotta shut up and watch 'Wiseguy.' "

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