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Plotting His Next Big Break

Eric Monte was a successful Hollywood writer before losing it all. Now, on a laptop in a shelter, he's got projects waiting to be pitched.

April 14, 2006|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Long after "lights out," he labors quietly at a keyboard. His "room" is a cubicle large enough to hold two cots, two lockers and a shared desk. Among his few personal items: a cellphone, a wireless laptop, a laser printer. "Home" is a shelter run by the Salvation Army; he is one of nearly 300 people who sleep in the former military depot in Bell every night.

For Eric Monte, the last few years have been a blur of disasters. A series of strokes led to a spell of anti-seizure medicines and the loss of some memory. A year of crack cocaine abuse robbed him of money, dignity and a circle of Hollywood friends. Attempts to sell a self-published book drained the last of his savings.

The laptop, he insists, holds the key to a comeback: 30 movie and book projects waiting to be pitched.

And that just might be true.

Thirty-five years ago, Monte was among a group of young African American writers and directors who sparked an explosion of black culture. He wrote and helped create some of the most popular -- and groundbreaking -- movies and TV shows of the 1970s. He started with one episode of "All in the Family," moved on to co-create "Good Times" and wrote the 1975 film "Cooley High," which, in turn, inspired the hit 1976 TV series "What's Happening!!"

With success came an NAACP Image Award, a house in Tarzana at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, a Mercedes-Benz and the excitement of helping to spur a new generation of programming. Not only would Monte's shows portray African American families, the individual characters would be multidimensional and the scripts would avoid negative stereotypes. He would break with tradition and illustrate that life for the working poor isn't all about crime, drugs and cheap laughs.

But Hollywood, he says, did not share his vision.

Monte, considered by some -- even his friends -- to be his own worst enemy, was prickly about script changes and refused to endorse plots he considered degrading to blacks. He wanted more control, but when it came to ownership, he says he was frozen out.

In 1977 he filed a lawsuit accusing ABC, CBS, producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin and others of stealing his ideas for "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" (an "All in the Family" spinoff) and "What's Happening!!" Eventually, he says, he received a $1-million settlement and a small percentage of the residuals from "Good Times" -- but opportunities to pitch new scripts dried up along with his money. He lost the car, the four-bedroom house he shared with his two daughters and almost all the trappings of his successful life.

Today, the 62-year-old Chicago native receives occasional residual checks, enough to cover the $300 a month the shelter charges for housing, three meals a day and counseling. Meanwhile, reruns of his shows continue to be broadcast daily on TV Land and other channels worldwide. When one of his episodes airs on the shelter's wide screen, Monte doesn't watch.

"I'm not bitter; I'm angry," he says. "Bitterness is something that stays with you. Anger comes and goes. When I see those old shows, they make me angry."

Few of his friends know that he lives in a shelter; those who do suggest that he move on with his life.

"That's a bitter pill to keep sucking on," said Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Cochise in "Cooley High."

Glynn Turman, another friend and former "Cooley High" cast member (he played Preach), added: "Eric ran smack into the wall of 'Don't Care,' where this town just doesn't care about its talent. It has no use for talent; it only cares about survival." Shelter life has its distractions, but Monte says he has found peace of mind in the quiet routine of his work. There's time and space enough to create in a place where many of the residents and staff know him as Kenneth Williams, his birth name.

"I feel safe here," he says. "I feel I won't get burned, and I've been burned too many times.... The lights are paid. The doors are locked. I meet a lot of people from all walks of life. My life has been like a river. I meet people and move on."

Being homeless hasn't diminished his belief in himself.

"I'm never that far away from a blockbuster hit," he says. "They can tell me 'no' a thousand times, but all I need is one hit again and I'm cool and the gang."

*

Monte was full of stories when he arrived in Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago, a street-savvy high school dropout who grew up in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. He was homeless then too, living the life of a hippie and selling drugs. Then a series of theater classes at Los Angeles City College inspired him to pursue a childhood ambition. He wrote poetry, and then plays.

His work eventually caught the attention of a fellow student, Mike Evans, who had won a bit part in the 1971 sitcom "All in the Family." Evans persuaded Monte to write an episode expanding his role as Lionel, the son of George and Louise Jefferson -- Archie Bunker's African American neighbors. The script, submitted to the show's producer, Norman Lear, was accepted.

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