Darrell Vickers – The Ballad of “Sweet” John Dugan: Part One

Unlike the rather gloom-and-doom-to-the-tomb predictions of David Bowie and laugh-a-minute George Orwell, 1984 was a banner year for young Mr. Andrew and myself. Nothing major or full-time but enough paying assignments to keep the cockroaches eating our food instead of us. Mostly odd jobs, working for even odder people. While our next stint of gainful employ wasn’t terribly odd, the location of their production office and the executive producer in charge certainly fit that description.

The Story Begins:

As luck would have it, Ted’s daughter Shallyn was the assistant to the head writer of a action/comedy show out of Vancouver called “Danger Bay.” I’m sure Mr. Zeigler used some of his fatherly sway and possibly a session or two of abject groveling to wrangle us a meeting with her boss. The showrunner in question wasn’t actually credited as an “Executive Producer” or even “Head Writer” because he was a dreaded “Yank.” Gotta qualify for that Canadian content money, folks! His official title was “Executive Script Consultant.” In actual fact, he was in charge of the scripts and took regular trips up to Vancouver to help supervise production. This and other creditory slight of hands are frequently utilized by perfidious producers to grab fistfuls of Canadian cash earmarked to promote homegrown talent without having to actually hire those pesky Canucks that it was meant to benefit.

The Odd Location:

As stated, this was a Canadian series – therefore produced for couch-cushion money. The show also aired on the Disney Channel in the U.S. – it would have never gotten made, otherwise. Who wants to make a show that only Canadians like! Ewwww! The amount of time I have heard, “We love that idea! Go sell it in the States and come back to us.” It’s enough to make the average Icehead scribe weep into his donut. 

Back to Our Story:

Typically, the mendacious Mouse House misers weren’t interested in loaning the production a place to type and a key to the bathroom so other accommodation would need to be found. Traditionally, the series would probably have procured office space in Hollywood or Santa Monica but the showrunner – wink – executive script consultant lived in Encino and didn’t much care for the prospect of journeying over the hill every day to work. He also liked to partake in the odd nap, whenever tapping out riveting words and phrases on his trusty Olivetti became too wearying to continue. Thus the decision was made to rent an ordinary apartment somewhere in the Valley instead of a conventional place of business. Now, from the Santa Monica Mountains in the west to the Verdugo Mountains in the east, the San Fernando Valley encompasses 260 square miles and contains hundreds of thousands of shitty, badly built apartment complexes. From that vast array of shoddily erected, rat-infested, Sou’Western soul abattoirs, they spookily settled upon the building literally next to ours on Burbank Boulevard in Van Nuys. So, when we got the call to go in for a pitch session, our commute took all of 90 seconds… on foot. And that’s where Andrew and I met the legendary “Sweet” John Dugan.

The Odd Executive Script Consultant:

John was as old Hollywood as a vodka gimlet and shagging Marylyn Monroe and yet he wasn’t. Mr. Dugan had a PhD in theatre from the University of Minnesota. Most people in show business can’t even spell PhD. Sweet John went forth from those musty halls of really-knowing-stuff to teach creative writing at UCLA and Berkeley before retiring from academe in 1960. At the grand old of age of 38, brave Jonathan cast off the shackles of a steady wage to forge a career in television. This was 1960. In today’s chew-‘em-up-and-spit-‘em-out entertainment world, most people’s careers in TV – no matter how talented – are as dead as a Spinal Tap drummer by the time they hit 38. Past 40, wordsmiths survive in Hollywood by transitioning from forging careers to forging checks.

Sweet John’s Forgeries:

John got his career off to a galloping start – literally – by selling scripts to “Bonanza” in ’61 and ‘62. After conquering the world of leather, red-eye and six guns, he set his sights on white coats, head lamps and rectal thermometers with “Ben Casey,” “Dr. Kildare,” and “Marcus Welby.” From there he moved on to cops, kung fu, spying and taking a shit in a smelly shed with “Adam 12,” “Kung Fu,” “Mission Impossible,” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

This Is Great!

The link below chronicles the simply amazing tale of John storming the Bastille over a script he’d written for “Star Trek.” He loved the show and he loved the episode he’d penned for them. When he sent it in to the showrunner, he wrote “Please like it. You know how $#%*! sensitive I am…. Writer & Fan, John.” on the cover.

Alas, the creator and the showrunner – both named Gene” – did not like it. They hated it to the point where John had a “stink” memo thrown at his head, replete with rather unflattering assessments of his talent and screenplay. Most writers would have been more than cowed by such a withering critique of their work. Not John. The Sweet One informed the inflamed powers that be that he didn’t answer to memos (even ones hurled at his skull) and refused to do the rewrite until the guy who tossed the poisoned projectile talked to him on the phone. Eventually, exec prod grumpily capitulated but this was not the end of the intergalactic drama.

Gene L. Coon

Beyond the overall epic distaste for his saga in general, there was also a major kafuffle over the word “Oblivion.” The story revolved around these super human entities that have been stuck inside big glowing beach balls for half a million years (I suppose that will be my fate, one day). They immediately inhabit Spock and Kirk, even though they realize that when Spock and Kirk’s bodies die, they face oblivion. Sweet John was an extremely religious gent and to him, there was no such thing as “Oblivion,” even in fiction. More bitterness and figurative bitch slapping ensued. Roddenberry then did a massive rewrite to remove the perceived “stink” and believed that the subsequent stinkless script should have his name on it. John was outraged and took the show to arbitration with the Writer’s Guild to force his name back on. When John won, of course, he used a pseudonym so his own name wasn’t on it. Gene Coon – the head writer was so miserable at having to deal with Mr. Dugan, he quit the show. This was sooo gloriously Sweet John.


The Man Behind the Legend and Under the Rug:

Mr. Dugan shared a lot in common with Fred DeCordova. They both had wickedly dark senses of humor. They both had that gurgley voice and laugh from decades of non-stop smoking. They both longed to the very core of their souls to return to a bygone era before Andrew and I were born. We tried not to take it personally.

John was only 62 when we first met him but he seemed much, much more ancient to two rosey-cheeked Canadian scribes. He looked a little like Buster Crabbe in his later years. In keeping with his Crabbe-an motif, Mr. Dugan either wore a safari jacket or a polyester shirt adorned with palm trees. To top the whole visual experience off, S.J. sported a ludicrously obvious wig that was far darker than his own graying hair beneath it.

Shallyn tells the story of returning early one day, after lunch. She walked into the office and awoke a startled Sweet John from one of his customary naps. He was momentarily disoriented but then suddenly realized that his depilated pate was missing its thriftily priced adornment and proceeded to scurry around the office like a panicked cartoon rooster trying to locate his wayward cranial carpeting.

I think it’s fair to say that he was quite a vain man.

Next time – Andrew and I actually get to write something for The Big Sweet!



Darrell 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.co

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