by Larry Brody
My hero who doesn’t know I’m alive strikes again:
Bill Cosby: mentor?
by Ken Levine
I’ve always been a big fan of Bill Cosby. Loved his comedy albums as a kid, took my wife to Las Vegas to see his stand-up act…and admired THE COSBY SHOW (at least when it started). He was a true original and his comedy came out of reality. You laughed because you related. He was also a damn good spokesman for Jello. So I respect his work. We’re clear on that, right?
Recently, WRITTEN BY, the WGA’s monthly magazine did an article where they referred to Bill Cosby as a writer’s mentor. I think they were being a little overly generous. I wouldn’t call him a mentor.
I’d call him an egotist who worked his writers as if they were pack mules.
In this blog post based on the Written By article he cites, Ken Levine translates the facts, which the magazine presents in the same light Doris Day used to be photographed in once upon a time, into hard truth. Bill Cosby’s work habits make him into a classic example of a boss who had absolutely no respect for the writers he worked with. None. Zero. Zilch.
But I think it’s important to know that Cos isn’t standing alone in his Vile Boss costume. Nor is this kind of behavior limited to powerful actors. Although throughout my career I’ve had many mentors, none of them were the guys who ran the shows. The showrunners – who in those days were called simply Executive Producers or, in one case, Studio Heads – were for the most part monsters, pure and simple.
David Gerber, who ran Columbia Pictures Television back in the day, was a bully who not only yelled but physically threatened writers. I had to hit the gym and build up my body just so I could withstand the cross body blocks he threw at me in the halls everyday.
Roy Huggins, whose characters (remember Maverick, anyone?) were known for their relaxed, easy charm, was a martinet who would summon in a writer and then go quickly (so quickly it was impossible to follow what he was saying) word by word through a script he’d covered with scribbled notes and throw each page on the floor when he finished it. Well, not just on the floor, all over the floor. And at the end of the meeting he would order the writer to scramble around on hands and knees and pick up the pages and take them home so he or she didn’t miss any of the criticisms.
Jay Bernstein, known more for his explosive temper and expertise as a P.R. man and personal manager than for his writer-producer skills, couldn’t read. When he ran MIKE HAMMER, he would have various actors and actresses act out the writers’ drafts for him in his office, promising them parts in the episode as payment. And then making the writers write in new characters and scenes for his helpers to perform in. Characters and scenes that later were cut out.
Even My Favorite Boss Who Shall Be Anonymous Because I’ve Always Had A Great (and perverse) Affection For Him, did his best to humble the writers we worked with. A favorite trick was to read only the first and last 5 pages of a writer’s script and use everything he could find there to demonstrate how utterly inadequate the whole draft was. At the end of that meeting, he’d come up with an entirely different story – I mean so different you couldn’t even use the same characters – and demand a new, fully completed draft the first thing the next morning, although he wouldn’t be in the office until later in the day.
I’ve always envied the writers I knew who missed most of the egotists and tyrants who kept me fit and trim, and wished I had their luck in the draw. But whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I let the memories flood me, and instead of drowning I inevitably start to laugh. Mentors are wonderful. We need all the help we can get. But for great mind-bending, hair-raising stories, you can’t beat a good monster. They’ll make you the life of the party every time.