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Be Yourself, Unless Being Someone Else Is Better

September 24, 2006|Allan Katz | Allan Katz is a writer and producer whose credits include "MASH," "Roseanne" and the musical "Song of Singapore." He also wrote the copy for the original box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers popcorn treats.

If you want to get a movie made and you're not a star, the next best thing is to attach someone to your project who is. That's why many years ago I brought my screenplay "The Hunchback of UCLA" to Marty Feldman with the hopes of twisting his eye into playing the title role.

I had met Marty in the mid '70s when I was writing the "Cher" show and had insinuated myself into a circus sketch with him. As we swung together through the air, Marty said I was the first man in leotards to share a trapeze with him who didn't try to grab his ass. I told him I wanted to, but I didn't have a free hand. He said he'd grab his own ass and I could pay him back later. I laughed, fell off the trapeze, and we became close friends.

So now, years later, when I approached Marty to star in my film, he knew me well enough to ask why I didn't want to play the lead. I said I did, but I knew I couldn't get it made without a household name attached, and that I was barely a household name in my own house. Marty said I'd always regret not starring in it myself. I was too narcissistic to argue with him.

This decision put my agents in the unenviable position of convincing a studio that my script was so good that I was able to talk myself into playing the lead. My apologies to Creative Artists Agency.

I was stunned that 20th Century Fox liked the project enough to agree to let me play the title role--as long as (you guessed it) there was a star attached. Because I was the writer and lead, the star had to be the director. A name director. Or at least someone with a name who wanted to be a director.

Fox sent the script to Danny DeVito to see if he'd make his feature film debut directing me. Danny said "yes" and we began working together. In no time it became clear that I couldn't have asked for a better, brighter or more supportive director. I kept saying to myself that this was too good to be true--and I was right. Within weeks Fox got a new studio head and I was handed mine. Danny went off to direct another film and I went home.

Months passed without a bite until I met Arnon Milchan, one of Hollywood's most prolific, successful and influential producers. Remarkably, Arnon was enthusiastic about my playing the lead. He personally financed a screen test for me and packaged it with my script and his winning smile. Within a matter of weeks we were in preproduction.

And without a star.

On the Friday before principal photography was to begin, I went to join the Screen Actors Guild. I filled out the form and a secretary typed my name into the SAG database, then told me there already was an "Allan Katz" in SAG. I'd have to use another name. I told her I didn't want to use another name. She said if I didn't, I couldn't be in SAG and I couldn't be in the film.

She listed my options: I could alter the spelling of my name; I could add a middle initial as Michael J. Fox had done; or I could change my name completely, as Judy Garland had done when she didn't want to be known as Frances Gumm. (I'm guessing Judy's original name was still available, but I didn't want to be Frances Gumm either.) I could join using any name I wanted as long as it wasn't exactly the same as another SAG member's.

So I filled out a new form with a new name. The secretary checked my submission in her computer, discovered there was no one else in the guild by that name, typed out my card and handed it to me. I had just joined SAG under the name "Starring Allan Katz."

Ultimately my film got made under the title "Big Man on Campus" and without a star attached. But it came very close; it had a "Starring."

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