Darrell Vickers – Have Mercy Part Three: A Title or a Cry for Help?

 

Andrew and I now had our blindingly luminescent stars (Daniel Hugh Kelly and the ever-lovely Heather Locklear) and, thanks to Ellie Kanner, we also managed to accrue a rootin’-tootin’ supporting cast. Paxton Whitehead (Gilbert – the British concierge), Stuart Pankin (Bertrand – the French chef), Julie Payne (the maid) and a young Patrick Warburton as the muscle-bound bellboy were dreams to work with. Talented and cooperative? To quote the legendary Wally Shawn: “Inconceivable!”

Our title character was played by 11 year-old Courtney Peldon, an amazing actress who beat out Kirsten Dunst and Thora Birch for the part. Courtney was whip smart, knew how to milk every joke and bounced back and forth between bitchy and vulnerable effortlessly. Plus – her mother was all of 3 foot tall. It’s always advantageous to have a child actor who won’t inconveniently sprout up like kudzu during a five-year-plus run. It’s so much cheaper than having to hire meaty-palmed PAs to beat their kidneys at night or making them sleep in spine-inhibiting pajamas.

The massive hotel set was being built and we were given a small budget to hire some punch up writers. Our foot was full on the gas and we were quickly picking up speed. Only time would tell whether we were J.J. McClure & Victor Prinzi or Thelma & Louise.

Corporate Think:

The Cast and Crew on Set (Darrell Front and Centre)

The set was magnificent. It cost over $125,000 to build. The next pilot season, we asked if we could re-use it for another show and they informed us that once our gorgeous hotel had been taken down, it was just left out in the elements to rot. The Studio would constantly and needlessly waste massive amounts of cash and then turn around and nickel and dime us over the smallest crap.

The Cast on the Verrry Expensive Set

At one point – on another show – Warners decided that it didn’t want to pay for individual meals for writers working late (on a sitcom, that’s usually every night). You could order extra large pizzas or a giant deli platter but you couldn’t request a single order of chicken-fucking-chow-mein. Imagine being selfish enough, after working all day and often well into the wee hours of the morning, to want to eat something that hadn’t been pawed over and coughed on by 12 other bath-starved scribes! Why, they’ll be demanding single-use toilet paper in the bathrooms next! Where does it end???

Back to Our Story:

Next up on our list of to-dos was procuring a director. I’m not sure who recommended David Steinberg but it was the start of a relationship that lasted about a decade. We were thrilled. I’d seen him on the set of The Tonight Show but had never actually talked to this Canadian comedic icon. He was shooting a sitcom on the Radford lot (St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, Newhart) at the time, so we agreed to luncheon across the street. David is exactly as he appears on television. He has a sparkle in his eye, a witty line on the end of his tongue and a charm that fills the room. He loved the script and we loved him. He was hired before we were served the entrées. Luckily, Andrew and I were paying the bill instead of Warners, so weren’t forced to divvy up a family-sized bucket of KFC.

David referred to Pilot Season as “Gravy Time.” Back in the early 90s, a sitcom director received between 9 and 16 grand an episode during the regular season but a sought after director could pull in 100-120 grand per network pilot and do 3 or 4 of the little moneymakers a year. Not bad for a few weeks work.

Pilot Week!

One of the most nerve racking moments of the entire, drawn out, nerve-racking-in-general machinations of this torturous process is the table read. Exciting but pant-wettingly tense. It’s where you get to see your cast together and interacting for the very first time. The script had already been through more gangbangs than a Hell’s Angel groupie so we just prayed that we’d managed to keep the funny in despite the ardent efforts of the network and studio to fuck it up. You’re also hoping that the actors have gone over the material a few times. A bad read by one of your stars or a flat performance can throw your entire week into a bottomless midden of needless rewrites and network “fixing”.

On Your Marks!  

Our happily employed thespians posed around the long, weather-beaten table, scripts at the ready. I’m pretty sure Mr. Steinberg was tardy. He was late to every meeting and function I was involved in for all the years I worked with him. David loved to play mind games with people and I’m sure this was one of them. If a person always makes everyone else wait, he has to be super important, right? Uber coincidentally, although he was never on time, Mr. Steinberg was never Godot late. Just delayed long enough to have people looking at their watches but not so egregious that the rich and disgruntled were spitting out lit Cherry Bombs by the time he arrived. After just enough ticks of the clock had passed, he’d float in with that patented Steinbergian smile and get down to work.

Andrew and I, along with David were encamped at the table’s head. Circled around us, like disapproving vultures, sat the network, the studio, casting, managers etc. Mr. Steinberg rose from his recently occupied seat, bestowed a few welcoming words upon the gathered, and we were off to the races.

The episode sprang to life with a craggy, rotund taxi driver (Ron Karabatzos – who years later dropped dead so magnificently as Momo in Get Shorty) helping carry Dugan’s bags into the bucolic inn. He is a bluebird or two shy of happy.

TAXI DRIVER

You know what kind of guy you are? You’re what we call a nuisance fare. I gotta come 20 miles out of my way, now I gotta go 20 miles the other way with my meter off. How’s a guy supposed to make a livin’?

DUGAN

Well, you could try prostitution, but I’d build up your saving’s first.

Big laugh! Phew, it’s always better to start with a bang than a bomb.

Our main stars inhabited the roles of Dugan and Janet. Dugan was once married to Madeleine, the deceased owner of the hotel. His character was basically a drifter who’d been coasting through an unproductive life and relying on his questionable charisma to keep him ahead of the bailiff.  Janet, Madeleine’s loose-living sister, had moved to Europe and utilized her considerable feminine wiles to infiltrate the mega-swank world of the rich and famous. They’d both rushed separately to the hotel for the reading of the will, hoping to be left a few monetary scraps.

Dugan spots an attractive woman at the bar. He smiles devilishly and gives himself a healthy spray of breath freshener before approaching his quarry.

DUGAN

I hate to see a girl drinking all alone in a pretty dress, so do you mind if I join you in your pretty dress?

Janet turns to face the would-be lothario.

JANET

Hi Dugan, still wearing that cologne, even a dog wouldn’t sniff?

DUGAN

Do you know me? Cause that’s really going to lower my chances.

JANET

The last time I saw you, I was 14 and I kicked you in the kneecap.

(looking him up and down)

I’m a lot taller now.

DUGAN

Janet. Holy cow, Janet. What’s it been 15 years? I thought you were slumming through Europe.

JANET

Well yes, if you consider my various boyfriend’s villas in Stadt and Marseille to be “slumming”.

DUGAN

Is it true they don’t shave under their arms over there, cause yours must look like ZZ Top by now.

This type of dialogistic parry and thrust occurred throughout the entire episode.

DUGAN

So, haven’t hooked a rich playboy yet, huh?

JANET

Dugan, if you could hook ‘em, they wouldn’t be playboys.

DUGAN

Speaking of hooking, what are you doing for money these days?

JANET

Ha. Ha. Shouldn’t you be upstairs, inflating your date?

The world weary but avarice pair spends a few moments reminiscing about what a monstrous and incredibly malicious woman their late benefactor was in life.

DUGAN

She hated me. She hated the trailer park. The day she left, she tried to run me down with my own house. Later, she mailed me pictures of my underwear with other men in them.

Dugan sighs and raises his champagne flute.

DUGAN (Cont)

To rich dead Madeleine.

JANET

I bet she left me something I have to feed, like a coma victim.

DUGAN

Oh, we’re probably not being fair. I mean, you’ve been in most of Europe, and vise versa.

While Janet and Dugan don’t expect more than bequeathed crumbs from the will reading, they are delightfully surprised to find Madeline – via a posthumous videotape – has left them both a share in the hotel. The part of mean Madeleine was played epically by Veronica Cartwright.

MADELINE

And to my cheap yacht hopping sister, I also leave 1/3 of the hotel.

Janet is ecstatic. She dances around the lobby touching things she’s just inherited.

JANET

Yes, I’m rich! I own this hotel. I own this table. I own this chair. I can sleep in a different bed every night.

DUGAN

(scoffs)

You did that when you were poor.

Patrick Warburton, Madeleine’s dim but hunky former boy toy approaches his new boss.

NELMAN

I guess you’ll be expecting me to perform the same three services I performed for Madeleine.

Janet is not impressed.

JANET

You aren’t fit to lick my boots.

NELMAN

Okay. How about the other two?

To their mutual horror, Janet and Dugan are informed that their inheritance comes with a big fat caveat. The terms of the will dictate they must raise Madeleine’s daughter at the hotel to retain ownership. Everyone present is aghast at the news.

MAID
Daughter? Madame had offspring?

GILBERT
I suppose it’s possible. Even the creature in Alien had young.

Although they’re now attempting to become “responsible parents” for profit, they still can’t resist picking at each other’s scabs.

JANET
Must be strange for you, being alone with a woman who isn’t wearing a John Deere Hat.

DUGAN
Honey, when I’m alone this long with a real woman, she’s usually wearing a saddle.

Janet is appalled by his coarseness.

JANET

Please! There is a child in the next room.

DUGAN

Janet. Don’t lecture me about children. The only thing you ever raised was you skirt on the side of a freeway.

JANET
I’ll have you know that women know about child rearing instinctively.

DUGAN
Oh yeah?

JANET

(shrugs)
How hard could it be? Cher has kids.

Even Gilbert, the uppity concierge gets in on the slamming-Janet act.

GILBERT

Bertrand can make Mercy a big party cake. It will be a unique experience for you, Janet. Seeing one from the outside.

But Janet was a tough cookie and gave as good as she got. At one point Dugan makes a snide comment about his ex-sister-in-law’s voluminous luggage.

DUGAN

You think you’ve got enough bags there?

Janet looks appraises Dugan’s aged and battered suitcase.

JANET

Yours is nice. Did you find it in a field next to the Big Bopper?

And Janet is more than willing and able to rebuff any amorous come hither from Mr. Ladykiller.

JANET

Oh cut it off and sell it Dugan. You’re not even in my league. I have slept with Kings.

DUGAN

I hope you made them take of their skates, first.

At this point in the proceedings – the ever flamboyant Tim Flack turned to me and said, with his best Noel Coward delivery, “I don’t even know what that means and I still think it’s funny.”

In fact, the entire reading was funny. Laughs galore. Andrew and I took a big gulp of happy breath. Hopefully now, the production week would be as smooth as Jamie Lee Curtis’s colon. The actors were sent off for their medicals and we braced ourselves for the inevitable quibbles over the words we had assembled. But there was one bump in our risible road that we hadn’t anticipated.

Once the room had been cleared of performers, Peter, the vice president of CBS, sighed and dropped his script onto the table. “Well, before we talk about the screenplay, I think we have to address the obvious problem.”

Wait! What? There’s an obvious problem?????

Everyone but Andrew and myself nodded their resigned heads in agreement.

While Heather Locklear had done an excellent job and won the part while reading with Ellie Kanner, she had seemed like a little girl being verbally abused while delivering her lines against Danny. Heather came across as way too nice and vulnerable. When Janet and Dugan went at it…

JANET

You can teach her to fish, play the harmonica and belch.

DUGAN

And you can teach her to put on makeup so she looks good under bus station lighting.

Instead of thinking this quick-paced, witty banter was a knee-slapping delight, everyone else at the reading felt sorry for her. Andrew and I of course were too busy selfishly listening to how big the laughs were on each and every line to have grasped the bigger picture.

Peter scanned the room beseechingly. “So, who is going to tell her she’s out?”

Executives are infamously loathe to dole out bad news. I know of at least two instances on shows where I did toil that the victims didn’t even find out they were fired until they read it in the trades. “Spite” and “Spine” may be very close together in the dictionary but they couldn’t be further apart in Hollywood. You could hear all the expensively be-suited buttholes in the room tighten, forging cotton diamonds out of their Fruit of the Looms.

Eventually, our stolid director raised his charming hand. The cabal of cringing cravens around the table breathed a collective sigh of relief. If anyone could lop off a pretty head with the least amount of agida, it was he.

So, we were only about an hour into the production of our first pilot as showrunners and we’d lost yet another one of our stars. FUUUUUCK!!!!

=DV=

Please scroll down to leave Your Comments, Kudos, and Complaints

DBAWIS_ButtonDarrell Vickers started out as one half of Toronto area band, Nobby Clegg.  CFNY fans may remember the cheery song “Me Dad” which still gets airplay.  From there, he valiantly ventured to L.A. and eventually became head writer for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Since then, he’s created numerous sitcoms and animation shows in Canada and the U.S.  He still writes music and has an internet band called Death of the Author Brigade (members in Croatia, Canada and the U.S.)   Mr. Vickers also had a private music mailing-list where he features new and pre-loved music.  Anyone who would like to be added to his daily mailing list, just write him at Radiovickers1@gmail.com

4 Responses to “Darrell Vickers – Have Mercy Part Three: A Title or a Cry for Help?”

  1. Don Lamont Says:

    Just wondering why Jamie Lee Curtis’s colon would be smoother than anybody else’s.

  2. Stein Mitchel Says:

    Heather Locklear is gorgeous. Too bad to lose her.

  3. Felt like i was right there a fly in the room – funny funny stuff – Usually funnier when told by a pro – but that’s obvious – and probably not so funny at the time.

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