To hear screenwriter Bob Kaufman tell it, he and MCA-Universal President Sid Sheinberg used to sit around in an office at the company's Universal City headquarters smoking Havana cigars and philosophizing about movies.
"Comedy is the way life should be, drama is the way life is and tragedy is the way life shouldn't be," says Kaufman, recalling those long afternoon discussions. "We'd talk on and on."
Today, in that same office, Sheinberg and Kaufman are meeting again. Only this time there will be no cigars and the mood is likely to be much less convivial: They will be sitting across a table from each other, with lawyers at their sides, a court stenographer tapping away. Kaufman's attorney, Paul Leserman, will depose Sheinberg in a lawsuit claiming that MCA's Universal Studios stole his idea for the hit TV show "Major Dad." In 1971, Universal TV, then run by Sheinberg, bought Kaufman's script for a pilot episode of a similar show called "About Face Kids" and Kaufman says he talked to Sheinberg about it repeatedly over the years. Now he wants 15% of the net profits and story credit on "Major Dad."
"About Face Kids" was the story of an Air Force sergeant who married a young woman with three children--a girl and two boys. As far as Kaufman is concerned, CBS' "Major Dad" is the same show, except that the sergeant is a Marine Corps major and the children are all girls.
Sheinberg, speaking through his secretary, declined to comment on Kaufman's allegations, noting that the case is under litigation. But his attorneys have denied the charges. And John Stephens, one of the original creators of "Major Dad," said he came up with the idea himself and brought it to TV writer Richard Okie to flesh out.
"I am a producer, not a creator," Stephens said. "What's hysterical about the whole (suit) is the idea that Universal would hand the thing to me, a non-creator."
Whatever the outcome of the case, Kaufman's suit against Sheinberg illustrates what happens to relationships when allegations start flying in Hollywood's fluid marketplace of ideas.
Kaufman recounts in vivid detail the many times he pitched "About Face Kids" to Sheinberg after the executive bought his pilot script. Sheinberg's attorneys say their client remembers nothing. They asked the Superior Court judge reviewing the case to force Kaufman to produce more evidence before the busy MCA executive could be deposed. The judge refused their request. The loquacious Kaufman is a comic writer whose first film credits back in the 1960s included the Frankie Avalon farce "Ski Party" and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine." In TV, he cut his teeth on episodes of "Ben Casey," "McHale's Navy," "Alfred Hitchock Presents" and the first "Bob Newhart Show." He later went on to write the feature films "How to Beat the High Cost of Living" and "Love at First Bite."
Kaufman wrote a couple shows during the 1960s for Sheinberg, then a vice president in Universal TV. The studio never produced them, but Kaufman says he and Sheinberg became friendly.
"I'd come up to the office, and he'd make a five-minute speech about the business, then the glaze would go away from the eyes and he'd become human, talking about movies," Kaufman recalls.
"He'd say, 'Why in a comedy does someone do this or that?' And I'd say, 'Believable people doing unbelievable things,' or 'Life's the way it should be rather than the way it is.' He'd write it down, and we'd come back and argue. Then we started smoking cigars. I'd go see him every three or four months."
Kaufman says he got the idea for "About Face Kids" from listening to the life-story of his wife, Robin, whose father is an outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable Marine Corps sergeant. In 1971, he took it to Universal, which bought the script for $15,000. After making several suggestions on the script, Kaufman says, Sheinberg decided it wouldn't work as a TV show.
"I argued with him for an hour," Kaufman recalls. "I threatened to take away the cigars."
Sheinberg wouldn't budge. Seven years later, Sheinberg had risen to president and chief operating officer of MCA and Kaufman pitched him the feature film "Love at First Bite." But Universal was making its own vampire movie, John Badham's "Dracula," so Sheinberg passed. Kaufman says he once again made a pitch for "About Face Kids."
"He said, 'Bob don't make a fool out of yourself.' So I gave him another box of cigars."
Kaufman said he reminded Sheinberg about the show again in 1983, when his production agreement with Universal was terminated in a management shuffle. "By now," Kaufman insists, "it had become a running joke."
Kaufman wrote Universal a letter when he first saw "Major Dad" on the air in 1988. No answer. He wrote another one. Still no answer. Then the lawyers got involved; then the lawsuit. Now the days of the Havana cigars have come to an end.
"The sad thing is," Kaufman insists, "I really love the guy."