|Mr. Spielman had previously informed me that he
was working on a motion picture script. As I was curious about the
I inquired about his progress.
It's going very well, we figure perhaps another two weeks and we should complete it. It's always an exciting process, like literary brick building. You know, brick by brick, word by word, edit by edit. It's all a constructional thing, the heart of screenplay writing is construction. The thing should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.. an emotional apex. And each character, any character you see fit to include, should have an emotional curve as well. So, in other words, there should be no dead emotional space.
I've had good luck, selling what might have appeared difficult to sell. It's all a crap shoot anyway, so one might as well write from the heart.
The fun information on screenplay writing aside... the interviewee asked the interviewer a question. "What did I need from this interview?"
I asked for any information on how TYR started.
It was actually in the 1970's. I had just sold a motion picture and went on a brief hiatus. At that time, I was living in Malverne, Long Island, and I would sometimes go to the library there, just for fun....for no particular reason... to browse. When I have nothing particular in mind, that's when interesting things show up. I read history more than anything else. I don't read too much fiction. I like it, but I figure if I spend a lot of time reading fiction and then writing fiction, I have no life. I'm interested in history, factual things.
I was reading some obscure historical record of the west, with which I'm already pretty well conversed... and something just popped out at me. What it was, was the fact that the boy who would become Buffalo Bill Cody,
worked for Russell, Majors & Waddell on the Pony Express. He was a dispatch rider... And at the same time, the teenager who would become Wild Bill Hickok, also worked for Russell, Majors & Waddell. Hickok was essentially a wagon driver....but these were two historical characters in the same place at the same time. That just jumped out at me.
I once met the composer Aaron Copland and I shook his hand, thanked him for most of what I had of a worldly nature...He didn't know what I was talking about. The fact is, I have on numerous occasions used the works of
Aaron Copland as inspiration. I'll lie down on the couch... and put on earphones. I have a muse. And my muse loves music.
So, this day in the 1970's, I was listening to Copland's "Rodeo," "Billy the Kid", "Appalacian Spring"... and "Salon Mexico"... and suddenly there it was! The construction for what became 'The Young Riders'.
I had Hickok and Cody as teenagers. Then I created this character called 'The Kid,' who's really me... Actually they're all me...the character in Kung Fu, the men are me.. the women are me, the dogs are me... they're all me.
But The Kid was really me. Teaspoon...Emma.. and the rest of them are fictionalized, but many of them are inspired composites of people.. a little piece of this one.. a little piece of that fellow.
Interestingly, there was a wonderful real life character named Orde Wingate.. If you go to Israel today, there are streets named for him. He was a gentile British Army officer who saw himself as the first General of a renaissant Israel. He was killed in the second World War.. but he taught Moshe Dayan military lessons. One of the things Orde Windgate did was go on bouts of raw onion eating. He said it purified the blood... well, that's what we had
Teaspoon do, that piece of Orde Wingate... a real thing. You see, some of these bits are too wacky even for me to make up, but many of them I do contrive out of thin air.
A lot of the characters like Teaspoon are composites. One of the good things about the business that I'm in is this: if you're in the restaurant business and you sell a sandwich... you have to make a new sandwich, otherwise you're out of business. In my business, if you sell a project and it's not made, you can often get it in 'turn around'
and sell it again.
The Young Riders was created a dozen or more years before Young Guns. I had been doing a lot of television development in New York at that time.. at all the networks there. I met a wonderful man, who's still a friend, Josh Kane. He was Head of Development at CBS, and he was working with Michael Ogiens. Josh very
much liked this thing I pitched to him called 'The Kid'. We developed it. Mike and Josh wanted to do it as a series...but the head of the network was hesitant to do a 'Western'. They were not in vogue.
After that, I turned 'The Kid' into a theatrical motion picture, but still, it was not made. Then the third time, Josh and Mike went out as independantproducers. They came back to me and said they still liked the project. The
third time was the charm. Josh, Mike and I sold it, developed it again and set about doing the pilot movie. It was Josh, Mike and myself, and I cannot give too much credit to their fortitude and vision.
We had a monsoon when we were shooting the pilot... You should also give a big round of applause to Harvey Frand, the line producer. Just a wonderful guy, a dear man. He was instrumental in having the pilot well made.
And Rob Leiberman is a great director, a fine man. He's wonderful with actors. I thought the cast all worked well.... and I'm also, as you know, the world's biggest Anthony Zerbe fan.
How involved were you in the casting process?
Very involved. Josh and Mike kept me in the loop. You know, Steve Baldwin was the best to play Billy Cody, I mean..he had that sweet, confident, goofy quality all at the same time. He was Billy Cody, that's what we saw. I
thought that Zerbe, well there was nobody close. He had everything that we wanted. I thought Josh Brolin had the brooding masculine quality, and he's a very good actor.
You know, when you do an ensemble piece like that, you really don't know who is going to rise...and it's the audience that chooses. When my friend, Henry Winkler became Fonzi, there was an event that took place.
The audience just picked him. On our show, I thought that Josh Brolin really brought the necessary heat and magnetism, and I thought that helped enormously. But, you know, I thought all of our cast were very fine actors.
As regards the character of Lou... Mike Ogiens, Josh and I were concerned about a female component to the show, because it was so very male in the way it was constructed. On several occasions, in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, there were women who masqueraded as men... I think one was killed and only then identified as a women. They masqueraded as men and were in battle. So, with the character of Lou McCloud, we carefully constructed along those lines. I love where Teaspoon refers to her as "puny but spry".
The part about Lou trying desperately to get money, to get her brother out of an orphanage... was inspired by a boxer named Barney Ross. A poor Jewish kid, his parents died when he was very young and he and his sister went to an orphanage. He was boxing to get his sister out of there. I thought that was so emotional and dramatic, it inspired me to give that emotion to Lou.
It's funny, you know, if I get hit by a truck one of these days, the obituary would say that...I was the man responsible for the 'grasshopper' line from Kung-Fu...That's the thing that I'll probably be remembered for. But, when you write this stuff, you don't really know what people will latch onto.
When we wrote the original The Young Riders , I didn't know that people would be so fond of lines like "I always been a girl, Kid." The writer never really knows.You just do the best you can.
What I tried to do with Teaspoon is his charm and eccentric wisdom. One of his speeches, I still remember. It's where the Kid asks Teaspoon about being married. (instantly, Ed begins a well-practiced
"Kid, the world is kinda like a wheel divided into three equal parts, and each part wants a part that don't want it. Now, if one of these parts should desire the 'tother and it's mutual, that's what's called a freak o' nature. See, Kid, people get married and they call it love, but it really weren't who they had in mind in the firstplace. So, time passes, and they find out they done married up to astranger. So, the problem is, Kid, if they's married to a stranger, who was they with all that time before? I tell ya, Kid, the human heart is amystery."
I thought it was sweet and Zerbe, his delivery of lines, the charm of the guy.
I told him that the line from the pilot that was my favorite was Emma's "They're not orphans while I'm around."
Thanks for that. We interwove characters of the period with details, even obscure firearms.
The interesting thing about the Beckwith Volley guns, is that they're real. I do a lot of original firearms in my shows. I unearth things that people haven't seen on film. I called a friend of mine who is a gunsmith and a purveyor of vintage firearms, I asked him what the most powerful shoulder firing weapon of the period was... and he said "I've got one. Come over." He showed me this actual Beckwith Volley Gun. They were used on ships. They would clear a whole boarding plank full of pirates...with one shot. Just clear the whole thing. The volley gun has six barrells in one, each 50 caliber and they all fire at once. For the pilot, we made two
real 'firing' guns and several rubber replicas. When we were doing the actual filming, we could have two actors firing the actual guns, and the others holding the non-firing replicas. We had a bunch of interesting things like that on the pilot, and it was great fun.
This might be interesting, and you wouldn't be aware of it... There's a scene in the pilot when the Kid comes in after one of his rides and Emma asks him, "Hard week, Kid?" He replies, "About average." There's a beautiful ambient light there. But, that scene was actually shot in a small exterior set...in the midst of a monsoon of black
rain. So torrential, you couldn't believe it. We tented that little building... the whole thing. All that gorgeous light is artificial. There was so much rain during the pilot that Harvey Frand was trying to find dry dirt in the middle of
the night. I mean, we were in a swamp. We were shooting this thing in a swamp.
I was very concerned... we had real Navaho Indians riding bareback. In the old days of film Westerns, they would put a blanket over a western saddle to make it look like they were riding bareback. Well, on our show, these Navahos were really riding bareback, full tilt in the wet, in the mud. It scared the hell out of me, but thankfully nobody fell.
You had a lot of good riders..
Very good riders and great wranglers.
Yes, so professional.
Did you stay to write scripts for the show after the pilot and first few episodes?
I went on to studio work under contract. But, it's satisfying when you create something that has some value for people, that is on the air for long periods of time. I have shows that are in reruns for 30 years, and people still relate to them. It's very satisfying. You know, I wrote in a book, that somewhere, somebody created The Lone Ranger or The Shadow or The Green Hornet, and to be in that company is a priviledge. To help create a part of what's laughingly called 'popular' culture.
How much were the actors told about their characters at the very beginning?
Well, they were told quite a bit. It's very important for a producer or anybody else, not to impinge on what a director must do with actors. There's a fine line there. In talking to the actors I would, without telling them how to act... or in any way violating the demarcation line between producer and director, I would give them.... "Did you know this... did you know this.... etc.etc. about that particular character. They could ask me, "Why did he do this?" or "What would he do here?" ..and Iwould tell them. What 'he' would carry... what 'he' would wear or why 'he' would do certain things.. or why 'he' wouldn't do a certain thing... and that seemed helpful.. It was a grand cast. Just a bunch of goodhearted guys and girls.. fun loving and very serious about the work.
You know, it's interesting.. I seem to specialize in material that may on the face of it appear odd-ball.. I'm probably the only one in the history of broadcasting that ever created and sold a Chinese Western series. "Kung-Fu" is a Chinese Western. So, the fact is that we've also put on The YoungRiders.. a classic western show at a time when that wasn't doable. That's a source of pride.... To me, the Western is an enduring art
form. I've been fortunate to have won the Western Heritage award four times.. and my shows have won seven. To me, it's because the Western embodies the very most important and classical elements of being an American.
The Western, at its essence, has to do with individual courage.. the value of the individual... the right to keep and bear arms.. to defend life and property, the second amendment... the kind of lonesome stranger who does a good deed and moves on. The western will allow you to do a kind of dialogue that you can do in no other venue... Actually there is only ONE other venue, where you can do dialogue like the western...and that's Samurai movies. That's true. In other words..that's why Walter Mirisch was able to transpose the Kurosawa "Seven Samurai" to the "Magnificent Seven", which became one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The ethics and underlying morality are very close. But that's a post WWII morality for the Japanese. The Japanese tradition is one of the group, not the individual. The Western exemplifies the dignity and heroism of the individual. I just so admire that. It's the very essence of what it means, historically, to be an American.
I'm still doing it as we speak. I've been doing 'curve-ball' Westerns for the last 30-something years. We actually succeeded... my brother, Howard, and I succeeded in putting on (this is bragging rights now) ...We put on the
first Western Anthology since "Death Valley Days". That was our series, "Dead Man's Gun". The odds of selling any anthology are minuscule. To sell a Western Anthology... forget about it.. and yet we did. It won a ton of awards and we had fun doing it.What's neat about "Dead Man's Gun" is that they're essentially morality plays, kind of 'O Henry'-esque morality tales with a little Rod Serling thrown in. They had double and triple twist endings, and were very interesting to write.
They kept you guessing the whole time.
And just when you think you know what's coming, we throw the curve ball again. It was great fun.
I lamented over the fact that I'd seen only a few episodes.. and graciously Mr. Spielman said that one day when he had time... we'd sit down and watch some... Hmm... what does my day-planner say...
We did two years of "Dead Man's Gun'.. 44 one hour shows at MGM. Interesting work. With an anthology, you never have the same actors button a pair of pants two weeks in a row. When you're doing an anthology you can never repeat yourself, unlike a series where you can run a character and storylines for however many
episodes. "Who shot JR.?" ..you can play that for awhile! But in an anthology, you know, the itinerant Button Salesman, you're only going to see him once.
We had Henry Winkler playing a Button Salesman, it was priceless.
I asked about the awards "The Young Riders" won...
On a personal note, I was proud to have been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame on the same night as Clayton Moore; the Lone Ranger, James Garner; Maverick, and Bill Wittliff, who wrote the screenplay for and produced "Lonesome Dove". That was a very memorable night. "The Young Riders itself" won numerous Western Hertiage Awards. Later we three more for "Dead Man's Gun." They probably get tired of seeing me there in Oklahoma City.
You know.. interestingly, when you write this stuff.. it ends up all over the world. There's a certain weight on you.. because you want it to be good. You know, half the time, I'm in some hotel room and I'll check the channels and there'll be one of the old... whatever-it-was.. that I created or co-created. So, even if it goes away for awhile, it comes back, just shows up.
I informed Mr. Spielman that we have fans from a number of countries.. even as far as Bahrain, Sweden, Canada, Brazil, Japan, France.. etc etc.
So, it's like the Young Riders International Fan Club?
Exactly, it's wonderful that such a great show can bring us all together.
I really should attend one of your gatherings someday.
Please do, we'd love to have you!
Thank you for the invitation. That would be fun.
You know, in creating this kind of work, you get to do things that mean something in big and small ways. For example, I have friends, Geoffrey Seidler and his daughter, Nancy.. and though he lives in Brooklyn, NewYork,
...he's sort of 'cowboy'. He's got all the gear, a horse.. but he's a
guy from Brooklyn. When the Young Riders was in production in Mescal, I got a call that we needed to name
the mercantile...give it a new name. So, they asked me what I wanted to call it. I said, "Okay.. give me five minutes." So I got back to them and said, name it "Geoffrey & Nance". And I had the location manager shoot panoramic stills and I wrote a brief history of Mescal, and my friend Geoff has it framed on his wall... 'cause we
named the mercantile after him and his daughter. I get to do fun things like that from time to time.
On the second episode of "Dead Man's Gun", my brother, Howard and I named the whole town 'Jacob's River' after my grandfather Jacob, of Blessed Memory. A little homage to Grandpa. Those are the satisfying 'perks'
that go with creating original work.
I asked about the backstory for Lou and Emma.
Lou's history is essentially someone, who like many unfortunate kids of that period... is an orphan... went to an institution/orphanage... I don't remember if she ran away or just got out.. and she moved around... and the
fact is that at that time.. a young girl, alone with nobody to help her... there were many societal and other constraints ... and dangers. Lou is nobody's fool... she's a person who is older than her years and so she basically operates out of a survival mechanism - She knows horses really well and she's incredibly feminine, but she's a ferocious feminist at the same time...and takes guff from absolutely nobody...So, that fiesty nature she
brings with her and is willing to face death because of the need ... her brother is waiting in an orphanage in St. Joseph, Missouri. Sometimes you base the backstory on very realistic events, depending upon the circumstances of where the piece is going.
Now, with Emma, she was a mother figure. The one thing that all the female characters have... was the empathy, previous loss and they had big hearts and were older than their years. That was Emma. I thought the actress,
Melissa Leo, did just a wonderful job.
To me, those female characters were at least as heroic as the men, because they were always working under more duress. A man's life is simpler. You live, you die...you have courage... or don't. Women must
havecourage for the long haul, putting up with a lot of additional pressures. I thought, in creating these female characters, that it was a good opportunity to show not only their heroism, but what they had to deal with just to make it through the day.
The thing that I love about writing what I consider to be classic American dialogue in that venue, is like when she says to the Kid, "Hard week, Kid?" He's been through everything, he nearly gets killed, nearly loses his horse,
and he answers, "'bout average."
In a way, one of the things that is nice about working in this venue is that you can create characters that you would like to be.. as modest... as brave...as selfless. This is a part of where I come from...the generation in which I was raised. We went from the tail end of classic radio to the beginnings of television. And the motion pictures that we liked, the entertainment that I always gravitated to, you wanted to be like those characters you saw. I remember coming out of the movies on a Saturday afternoon... and wanting to be that character. I think we've lost that, that kind of 'naivete'. In many ways, it was far more socially constructive.
I've never written anything where the 'bad guys' win.... I don't care to write that, because bad guys win enough in real life. You don't have to pay money to see it, or I would never write something in which there wasn't at least a happy ending. I like happy endings, I think that happy endings are very important. You don't need me to give you an un-happy ending.
I have children, I have girls... and now a grandson, I'm concerned about what they watch. Just as I'm concerned about what I watch. When you see 'entertainment' that depresses you, or some really
horrific ending, and you wonder why somebody would do that? I don't think it's a case of being unsophisticated or naive. I think there's a lot of very bad films that masquerade as art with emotional gimmicks, the dark side..
whatever... They don't need me to do that. Life is tough enough. I prefer to ennoble human beings.
Who was Dog Man?
The Dog Man is me, unquestionably. The Dog Man is a guy who ... and the fact that the Dog Man didn't make it in the pilot really hurt me... The Dog Man sees a dog as pure gold, 'cause a dog loves you no matter what. He talks about how valuable and how wonderful a dog is, but people let 'em run loose in the cities and sometimes treat 'em mean... He even paraphrases Oscar WIlde, spits and says "Men, they know the price on everything... and the value of nothing."
Dog Man is me... You know, my dogs are like my kids, and my whole family are animal nuts. My mom was like that and my brother's like that.... My brother, Howard, spent $600.00 to give an operation... to a parakeet. The
parakeet had a tumor.. so he had the parakeet operated on. No expense spared. That's the kind of family I come from. All of our lives we've always had cats and dogs we got out of shelters... ones we'd found.. or strays we
rescued . The Dogman is really from that sensibility and I dramatized it. But, you know, there's something about a Western that's really wonderful. When The Kid's in trouble with his horse.. in the original script... and he thinks he's going to have to shoot her, the Dog Man comes out of the night, almost like a 'space odyssey'.
That's how I view America, as a place that is infinite and anything is possible. That's the beauty of a Western. You'd have a hard time doing that in urban drama. So, The Dog Man was a bit of a wandering philosopher.
Almost all my characters have a philosophical side, but the Dog Man has given up on civilization, given up on the ways of men and prefers his dogs. He's a good hearted guy...and he's nobody's fool... and he has these powers. He saves the Kid's horse. It was just a wonderful character.
One of my other favorite scenes in the construct was the idea that the Kid fights for his horse. The idea that The Kid gets beaten nearly half to death... just to buy that horse. I love that. The thing that I liked about it was when he shows up... beaten to a pulp, just stands there, holding his broken ribs and he holds out the money... That's all you have to know about him. That really tells you everything you need to know about The Kid. That he would die to buy that horse, and nearly did. I like that whole sequence and the establishment of that character.
Just one other little thing that I'll tell you. Sometimes I'll stay with a show and sometimes I won't... it depends upon what's going on...One of my jobs is to put down the 'tent posts' of a show, to establish it's characters, it's heart, it's dramatic viability, and it's direction... so that it'll withstand almost any bad idea that's thrown at it... three seasons later. I'm not denigrating anybody else's work. When I'm not there, I often don't approve of what's done to my stuff, my characters...But if I've done my job well, (no pun intended again) sometimes the characters are 'bullet proof'. They can survive what is done to them and still hold up... and as a result, they live a long life. In the creation of a television pilot, you have to be careful about it because those characters have to live for a long time... and you feel responsibility because you don't want to give them a short life.
If I'm not there and have moved on, I can't very well have an opinion about it. Except that I think I'm a tough act when it comes to people adding or 'fixing'... so I'm really the last guy you want to ask. Because, if I had wanted it in the show... I would have put it there.... and if I didn't put it in.. then the hell with it. So that's my back-hand answer. It's very proprietary.. I understand... it's not fair at all to those who come later.
Still, the fact that you're interviewing me about a project I created so long ago, indicates that the value of it came through. For that, I'm most grateful. And I'm also, very happy to have met my new friend, Miss Raye, who is so charming and articulate.
My thanks to you, Raye, and to all those who have been so kind regarding my work.