"In the late 1940s I collaborated on a short-lived (four performances), long-forgotten revue for the Los Angeles stage called 'My L.A.' "
So begins playwright-screenwriter-television writer Larry Gelbart's program notes for his Tony-winning "City of Angels," now midway through its four-month run at the Shubert and still running on Broadway where it's been for the last two years.
But that "dismal experience" had a positive effect, he writes: "The bug to write for the theater had been implanted so deeply it could only be removed by major surgery. . . ."
Gelbart, who adapted "MASH" for TV with Gene Reynolds, isn't the only successful TV writer-producer with the theater deeply implanted in him. Recently, more of his big-name colleagues than ever before have joined him as either writers or producers for the legitimate stage, from Los Angeles to Massachusetts. Among them: James L. Brooks ("The Simpsons," "Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), Jay Tarses ("The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," "Buffalo Bill," "The Bob Newhart Show"), Tom Patchett ("Alf," "The Bob Newhart Show"), Matt Williams ("Roseanne," "Carol & Company," "Home Improvement"), Jeffrey Lewis ("Hill Street Blues") and Tom Fontana ("St. Elsewhere").
Now that television has helped give them financial resources, television's top writer-producers can indulge their love for the stage and the need to stay in control of their scripts, something that even the most powerful TV producers can't always get away with in dealing with networks. The theater also allows them to do less commercial subjects, something they feel they can't do readily in television, where they see the networks wanting increasingly banal material. And Broadway still beckons as The Destination.
"The freedom for the writer, the absence of people positively insisting on changes (in the theater), is soul food," says Gelbart, who turned a novelist's struggle with Hollywood's often-oppressive collaborative screenwriting process into a central issue of "City of Angels."
"This has happened before," says Steve Lawson, associate artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, and a writer for TV's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and "St. Elsewhere," "but not to the extent that it seems to be happening now."
"It is a greater number than (from any other medium) in the past," confirms Lloyd Richards, former dean of the Yale School of Drama and former artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards, who has been advising some of these television talents, sees the movement of TV names to the stage as a good sign. "It brings in new voices," he says, "which is always refreshing, new ideas, which is stimulating . . . and New York could certainly use it."
As with Gelbart, theater was the first love of many of these writers, but few could make a living at it. As a result, they drifted into television, where they enjoyed popular success and reaped the financial rewards that accompany it.
"A lot of the TV writers I know started in the theater and always had literary ambitions," says Tom Fontana, the Emmy Award-winning writer-producer of "St. Elsewhere" who is now playwright-in-residence at the Writers Theater in New York City. "They've made money in TV and are now saying, 'Maybe we ought to go back to what we wanted to do.' A lot of us have literary pretensions we'd like to keep alive."
For some, renewed flirtation with their first love has been sparked by increasing disappointment with the direction of network television, underscored by the recent cancellations of such drama series as "thirtysomething" and "China Beach."
"If you've already worked in television for a while and gotten your stash," says Jeffrey Lewis, a former executive producer of "Hill Street Blues" and last season's ambitious, now-canceled "Lifestories," "there's a disincentive to work in it because of the lack of creative opportunities, due to the collapse of network self-confidence."
As a result, Lewis says he's trying to produce the first play he has written, a fictionalized account of the life of I. T. Trebitsch-Lincoln, whom Lewis describes as a scam artist who lived his final days as a Buddhist monk in a YMCA in Shanghai during the early part of this century. Lewis claims Trebitsch-Lincoln was a Hungarian Jew who became an Anglican member of the British Parliament, an adviser to a Chinese warlord and, perhaps, a spy during World War I. Despite this fantastical background, the play takes place entirely in Trebitsch-Lincoln's room at the Shanghai Y as he ponders life's metaphysical questions.
"It's difficult subject matter," says Lewis. "It's not commercial."
Despite two offers to turn the play into a TV miniseries, Lewis says he's holding out for a chance to put it on stage, given the trivializing changes he expects television would demand. "It's cold out there for anything serious on TV," he says.