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COVER STORY | First Person

No Experience Wanted

A writer of a certain age finds awards and credits mean little to youth-obsessed executives.

June 10, 2001|BOB SHAYNE | Bob Shayne has won two Emmys and been nominated for a Writers Guild Award, two Edgars and a Grammy. He has recently been visiting screenwriting professor at the Newhouse School of Communications of Syracuse University

The first person who ever told me I was too old for the job was named Rick Rosner. It was 1970, and he'd taken over as producer of "The Steve Allen Show." The previous season I'd been the staff member who found what we affectionately called "the kooks," the eccentrics Steve had such a good time reacting to. Rick told me, "Your resume looks great, but I think I'll have to find someone young who'll work their tail off."

I was 29 at the time. So was he.

So it struck me as ironic when I recently received the legal papers from the attorneys handling the class-action suit by older writers, including myself, against the television industry over age discrimination, that one of the other plaintiffs was Richard Rosner.

Ah, I thought, the lead for my L.A. Times piece. But it turned out not to be the same guy. Rick, who went on to become the creator-producer of "CHiPS," is about to turn 60 and says he's still in the game. No discrimination in his career. He sounded a bit desperate to me when he said that, but maybe it's just my imagination. He also denied saying what he'd said to me 31 years ago.

Richard, the other Rosner, now in his early 50s, told me a typical horror story of the writing jobs just stopping dead in 1990 after a 14-year network sitcom writing career. He moved to Arizona and went into a new career--in telemarketing. This spring, he was hired to write a TV episode, his first in 10 years.

The latest Writers Guild statistics--compiled in 1998--find that out of the 122 prime-time TV series, 77 of them did not employ a single writer older than 50. Five years earlier, only 19 of them didn't. Over-50 writers make up one-third of guild membership, but only 5% of those writing on episodic comedies. Three years later, it can only be worse.

All 50 of the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit against networks, production companies and major talent agencies were highly paid, long-time, consistently successful television writers--many earning six figures a year--whose careers were cut short in midlife for reasons that are hard to explain except by the word "discrimination." Some were as young as 40 when the checks stopped coming in.

The first writer named in the suit is Tracy Keenan Wynn. In his 20s, Tracy was already a platinum-standard TV writer when I began writing in the mid-1970s. He started out by writing "Tribes," the TV movie that put TV movies on the map. He went on to write "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," "The Glass House" and the first of 17 "In the Line of Duty" movies. Today at 56, the father of three, two of them college-age, he's living in a borrowed house in Aspen, Colo., having lost his $3-million home and been forced into bankruptcy.

"I haven't had a job in 17 months," he says, well aware of the irony of the gracious landscape surrounding his personal poverty. "It's a nightmare; I don't know why it's happening. I see movies on TV that I know, had I been able to get hold of, could have been so good. I see the mistakes, and I know how to fix them, but no one has asked me to."

Tracy was represented for 12 years each by Creative Artists Agency and International Creative Management, two of the top talent agencies. His first agent retired a multimillionaire. His second, he says, "dis-invited me to be a client. I was told they felt there was nothing they could do for me and it was time for me to move on."

Tracy noticed something was beginning to change in the late 1980s. "Somehow things were slowing down, but I didn't know until last August that it wasn't just happening to me." That's when he learned about the pending lawsuit and finally realized the 12-year decline in his career wasn't "because I'd done something to [tick] somebody off."

All of the writers in the suit can regale you with horror stories of not being taken seriously by the film and television industry to which they've more than proved their worth. Here's one of mine: Five years ago, I wrote a screenplay called "Naomi Weinstein--Private Eye," about a young Jewish woman in New York in 1953 who gets embroiled in the anti-Communist purge of the early TV industry. About the only negative response, among much positive feedback, was from a young woman named Lisa Moiselle who unfortunately worked for New York-based Miramax Pictures, run by Harvey Weinstein--unfortunate because Miramax was the most likely company to make such a film.

So I entered it in the New York Independent Feature Project script competition, figuring if it did well it would acquire some buzz. This aged, decrepit, out-of-touch, over-the-hill, washed-up, then-55-year-old TV hack was up against hundreds of edgy, fresh, happening, cutting-edge, twentysomething, Tarantin-ish screenwriters.

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