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VERY FIRST PERSON

Sex, Lies and Age in Hollywood *

* OK, by 'Sex,' We Mean Gender. But Lying About Age Is as Old as the Industry.

November 29, 1998|ANN MARCUS | Ann Marcus won an Emmy award for her writing on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Her memoir, "Whistling Girl," will be published this month by Mulholland Pacific

I have only three words for Riley Weston: "You go, girl!" Weston, you'll recall, is the 32-year-old who pretended to be 19 so that she could write for "Felicity," one of television's now-ubiquitous shows that portray teenagers as if they're in the prime of their lives and at the center of the known universe.

Heck, I was almost 40, married, raising three kids and had been through a couple of careers when I got my first writing assignment in television. According to one contrarian theory, television is often best when it bears some resemblance to life, and it has been proven that there is occasionally life after the age of zits. So I can only smile at the shock, dismay and righteous indignation that have been showered upon Weston for lying about her age--and ruminate about how times have changed.

In my first career, you see, I pulled a reverse Riley and lied about being older to get a job on Life magazine. It was 1944, and New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey was running against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Life assigned me to the campaign. One of my first interviews was with John Foster Dulles, Dewey's foreign-policy advisor. Feeling mature and professional, I grilled him about the domino theory and other lofty matters. Then his phone rang. "I can't talk to you now," Dulles told the caller, "I'm being interviewed by a little girl from Life magazine."

Soon enough, that same little girl pulled off a journalistic coup that may have been responsible for Dewey's defeat. Life sent me to Albany to gather background material on the challenger. As famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt shot candid pictures, I interviewed the governor in his office. When Dewey's staff briefly summoned him, I made the Big Discovery. He had been sitting on two telephone books to appear taller, more presidential. My expose ran in Life, and every daily and popular periodical picked it up.

During this period I married writer Ellis Marcus. He worked in "live" television in New York, and when the infant TV industry relocated to Los Angeles, we followed with our kids and dog. I loved working on Life, but it was the '50s, and women who were married-with-children were supposed to stay home, join the PTA and bake bread. The trouble was, I could never get my bread to rise or get a rise out of baking bread, so I opted for my second career and took up acting. Briefly.

I think it was Konstantin Stanislavsky who said there are no small parts, only small actors. I was, and will always be, small and the parts weren't getting any bigger. So I quit acting, enrolled in a playwriting course at USC and wrote an autobiographical play about a wife and mother who wants to write. By now it was the '60s and women were still not encouraged to have careers, so the play's central theme played up this conflict. Since it was a comedy, it was a funny conflict; funny enough to get me my first crack at writing for television, another career move complicated--but not thwarted by--petty bias.

The producer of "The Hathaways," a short-lived sitcom starring several chimpanzees, didn't care how old I was. But he would give me the assignment only if my husband wrote with me. Ellis and I had a ball pounding out that first script. Every morning we'd dazzle each other with our wit and humor as we drove over Laurel Canyon from Studio City to Ellis' office above Manny Dwork's tailor shop on Little Santa Monica Boulevard. The writing was a breeze, a piece of cake, such a high that a couple of times we got carried away and found ourselves making love on the desk.

Our passion for the work apparently showed, because the producer liked the script and gave us two more assignments. But Ellis and I were beginning to have creative differences. By the third project, our unbridled lust had been replaced by long silences. Although our marriage flourished, we didn't collaborate again for almost 20 years.

I don't know when producers started checking writers' IDs, but I didn't have to pose as an 8-year-old to write for "Dennis the Menace" or as a collie to write for "Lassie." Nor, come to think of it, did I need to have extramarital affairs, illegitimate children or X-rated sexual escapades to write for "Peyton Place" (although that desktop experience probably didn't hurt). In fact, I was living the most conventional kind of suburban life--Little League, Cub Scouts, trips to the beach and Disneyland. And as the decades rolled by, my career waxed instead of waned. I wrote soap operas, pilots and TV movies, happy to be working and proud of my credits. How different it is today when writers routinely lop off of their resumes any mention of having written for classic shows such as "M*A*S*H," "All In the Family" or "Hill Street Blues," because those credits would give clues to their age.

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