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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Millionaire : When He Sold a $1.75-million Screenplay, Shane Black Became a Hollywood Role model, Whether he likes it or not

August 19, 1990|JAMES GREENBERG | James Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer who is not currently working on a screenplay.

Like any other successful writer, he's received his share of criticism. Women frequently attack his work for being too violent and totally male oriented. "I don't hate women," Black says. "If a feminist thinks I'm evil because I dip heavily into male icons, then I will have trouble getting along with that person. I write about male heroes because I write adventure fiction. So sue me."

BLACK'S SOFT, almost weary delivery seems to keep a lid over his emotions--rage, frustration, and even happiness only occasionally dart out from under the cover. He tends to be overly critical of his social skills and says he didn't go on a date until he was in college. He thinks of writers as the guys who stand in the corner at a party gawking at the girls. Looking at his six-foot frame and solid build, it is hard to imagine him as the 98-pound weakling he claims he was in high school and in some ways still imagines himself to be. He's surprised that his shyness is sometimes perceived as arrogance.

For fun, Black is content to shoot pool in his garage, read a good mystery and hang out with his friends. The center of his social life is the Pad O' Guys. Conversation at the Pad, a cross between an L.A. Algonquin round-table and a bull session by a couple white guys hanging around a mini-mall, ranges from banter about great-looking babes to semi-serious discussions of favorite movies. "We're not totally geeks, but we used to be," he says by way of explaining the bond that keeps a core group of 10 or 15 guys and a couple of girls together seven years after finishing college.

Any visit to the PAD includes, at no extra cost, a tour of the premises, including a stop at the "Shane Shrine," a framed copy of a story from People magazine hanging in the place of honor in the dining room. It is unlikely, however, that much actual dining goes on there. In the kitchen, a 7-Up coffee shop placard features the PAD O' GUYS MENU, offering such items as praise, a rare commodity, for 50 cents, or sarcasm, clearly in greater supply, for only a cent. To describe their housekeeping skills, the Guys tell a story about how after their annual PAD O' PARTY last August they started to smell what they thought was a dead rat under the floor. It wasn't until two months later that someone opened the oven and discovered the remains of a piece of raw chicken left over from the party.

When they first met at college, most of the Guys were just beginning to figure out what they wanted to do when they grew up. In those days, Black was a theater major. An actor and a stand-up comic, he was known as the Wild Man for throwing things around the stage and his general erratic behavior. He wrote a string of one-act plays and continued on stage throughout college but scrapped acting after he graduated because he was too intimidated by auditions. "It was very frightening to think I could just go on not having a career and end up living at home," he says.

Home was in Pittsburgh until high school when his father moved his printing business to to Fullerton. His father, an ex-college football player, passed his affection for hard-boiled heroes on to his son. Shane devoured the Mickey Spillane books and the Matt Helm adventures his father left lying around the house and then sneaked down to Sun Drugs to spend his lunch money on more pulp fiction.

He started writing at an early age--comic strips, short stories, journalism--but never thought of it as a way to make a living until his last year in college. His friend Fred Dekker, who was working on a screenplay assignment, showed him his sci-fi script and suggested that he try it too. "It just popped like a bubble in my head that writing was not impossible and that, in fact, I would probably be good at it."

After college, Black worked as a typist for a temp agency, a data entry clerk for the 1984 Olympics and, for a short time, an usher in a Westwood movie theater. Finally, he made the big move and asked his parents to support him for six months while he wrote a screenplay. The result was "The Shadow Company," a supernatural thriller set in Vietnam that he describes as a cross between "Platoon" and "The Exorcist." With Dekker's help, the script landed him an agent and a lot of posh lunch meetings with mid-level studio executives. Black enjoyed the attention for a couple of months until he realized that he was wasting his time. Instead of buying "The Shadow Company," they wanted to give him an assignment. Even then Black knew that that was not for him. "I was terrified of being hired. I didn't want to have to work on a deadline. So I stopped taking meetings and sat down and wrote a script in about six weeks. And that was 'Lethal Weapon.' "

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