YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Over Tuna and Toast, They Discuss Final Chapters

A group of retired TV and film writers, subject of a documentary, meets weekly to chat, remember and argue a little.


The lunch lasted an hour or two and featured a shouting match between Fred Freiberger and Dr. Norman Lavet. This being a regular Tuesday lunch of aging Jewish men, the argument started with Israel but ended up on Iraq, with Freiberger and Lavet exchanging heated words. The other men at the table watched, as used to this as to the tuna fish. A TV in the far corner was broadcasting the horse racing from Del Mar. Finally, Leon Roth, a former professor at the USC film school, spoke.

"For whatever it's worth," he said, for the benefit of a reporter who had joined the men today, "there were a couple of guys here who were very funny."

They are former motion picture and television writers--men, for the most part, who are out of the game, but not before they contributed mightily to the pantheon of televised entertainment. They made good money if not silly money. They wrote for "All in the Family," "The Flying Nun," "Chico and the Man." They wrote movies including "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium."

It is a not uncommon milieu in Los Angeles, these informal gatherings of older writers in delis and cafes; this one happens every Tuesday at the Mulholland Tennis Club, up in the hills, the San Fernando Valley in the distance.

In 1998, David Zeiger wanted to film the men. The result, the documentary "Funny Old Guys," is 40 minutes long and will screen for the next seven days at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica, as part of the Doctober Fest, a documentary film festival.

"Funny Old Guys" starts out as you might expect, given that Zeiger began with the intention of capturing the banter among seven or eight writers whose careers encompass everything from the Hollywood blacklist to "The Love Boat."

Unexpectedly, one of them, Frank Tarloff, a blacklisted screenwriter who left the country for 12 years and went on to win an Academy Award for the 1964 film "Father Goose," as well as write for "The Danny Thomas Show" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," discovers his cancer has recurred. Suddenly, Tarloff faces mortality, and the lunches take on a new tone.

So, too, does the film, as Tarloff gamely allows Zeiger to document his dying process.

In an interview recently at the Mulholland club, as Zeiger and The Times waited for the funny old guys to show up for lunch, the filmmaker talked not only about Tarloff's mortality but the health issues that continue to catch up to the group. Mike Morris, whose resume reads like the entire programming schedule for Nick at Nite ("All in the Family," "McHale's Navy," "The Smothers Brothers Show"), has Alzheimer's. "We literally caught the last phase of his lucidity," Zeiger said.

Zeiger's father, Irv, was one of the founders of the tennis club in the late '60s. David Zeiger worked on "Funny Old Guys" as he was shooting and editing "Senior Year," a 13-part documentary following 15 seniors at Fairfax High School that aired on PBS earlier this year. "Senior Year" was an ambitious, all-consuming work, Zeiger said, and so "Funny Old Guys" became a kind of escape. He shot much of it with a hand-held camera, a microphone set up on a stand and hanging over the table. Zeiger futzed with the mike as he ate his lunch.

On this particular Tuesday, the lunch group included David Shaw ("The Defenders," "Playhouse 90," "Quincy"), Bernie Kahn ("Get Smart," "Love American Style"), Lavet, Freiberger (everything from "Bonanza" to "Starsky & Hutch") and Roth. Bernie West was supposed to be here but was with his wife, who had taken ill.

The food came--scoops of tuna over greens, eggs and toast, a turkey burger. Kahn, one of the group's younger members, said he had just seen the new movie "Full Frontal." "Just an awful movie," he said. "I was in pain watching this movie."

"How were the locations?" Lavet asked.

"The locations?" Kahn said. "What do you mean?"

"My son was the location manager."

What about "Road to Perdition"? The table was unimpressed.

"Hanks, who I love, I think just walked through that part," Freiberger said. "Now you're pulling for murderers. At least in 'The Godfather,' which was a dangerous picture which I loved, you're rooting for the crooks against the cops. But a wonderful picture! This was just nothing."

One of the more moving parts of "Funny Old Guys" is the decision to stage Tarloff's memorial service before he dies, so that he too can attend. A sign goes up at the Mulholland Tennis Club. Over lunch, however, Tarloff didn't come up much. He was gone, and the guys were pressing on, talking into the teeth of another hot day.

Shaw said: "Last week, I got two checks from the Writers Guild, in separate envelopes." One check was for $334. The other for $335. The statements were almost identical.

The guild guy told him to keep the one for $335.

"Funny Old Guys" will screen with another film, "Venice: Lost and Found," at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex Theater, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Show times are: Friday at 4 p.m.; Saturday at 12:15 p.m.; Sunday at 6 p.m.; Monday at 10 a.m.; Tuesday at 2:15 p.m.; Sept. 18 at 9:15 p.m.; Sept. 19 at 7:45 p.m.

Los Angeles Times Articles