Larry Brody: Is TV Art? Does It Matter?

’70s edginess. The way it was.

by Larry Brody

NOTE FROM LB: Every once in awhile something good – really, measurably good – comes out of something you’ve done and makes you realize, “Hey, life ain’t so bad after all. This excerpt from my long out of print nonfiction, nonclassic book, Turning Points in Television, is about one of those times actually, remarkably, miraculously, happening to me.

The year is 1980, and I’m standing in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco on a cloud-enshrouded Saturday night, having a little not-so-friendly discussion with the manager because I’ve come to the City on a whim only to find that there are no rooms at the Inn. Any Inn, including this one, where I’ve stayed a million times before.

I feel foolish as hell, so I hide it with anger and a voice loud enough to be heard across the Bay. Having grown from a Chicago kind of kid to a Hollywood kinda guy, I’m screaming my credits at the manager in the firm belief that they’ll cause him to cough up a place I can stay.

It doesn’t work, of course, but my recitation of what people used to call “ego-boo” attracts the attention of the clerk at the magazine stand off the lobby. The clerk, who’s in his mid-twenties and taller than I am, still manages to look up at me in awe.

“I heard you talking to the manager,” he says.

I say, “Uh-huh.”

“Did you really write Baretta?”

“I was the second writer to work on the show,” I say as though that means anything. “For just a little while, but I was there.”

“Baretta saved my life,” the clerk says.

“Baretta?” I say. “Robert Blake?”

He says, “Who’s Robert Blake? Baretta’s my guy.”

“What do you mean?”

The clerk looks around to make sure the manager has moved far enough away so that he won’t be able to hear. Then he leans forward confidentially.

“When I was sixteen I ran away from home,” the clerk says “and went to the Tenderloin. Did a lot of drugs. Lost it completely. One day I come down from my room in this flophouse hotel and I see this guy on the television in the lobby.

“His name’s Baretta,” the clerk continues,  “and he’s a detective but he talks like a junkie. He’s grabbing some guy and pounding the crap out of him and telling him he’s got to straighten out and get off the drugs. He tells the guy he’s supposed to take him to jail but he doesn’t want to because he loves him so he’s giving him one more chance. Then he lets the guy go and the guy runs away.

“A week later I’m coming downstairs again, wasted, and I see Baretta on TV with another guy, screaming at him to kick the habit and then going back to the station house and throwing his badge down on his boss’s desk because he’d rather quit than have to take the guy in.

And I think,” says the clerk, “‘Wow, Baretta really does love this guy. He loves him enough to put his own ass on the line.’

“And then I think, ‘Wow, I’m just like that guy. Baretta loves me.’”

The clerk straightens up and looks me in the eyes with pride. “I figure that if Baretta loves me that much, then I can’t let him down. I’ve gotta get straight. It was hell, but every time I wanted to give up and go back to the dope I thought about Baretta and how it’d kill him to see me get all fucked up again. So I stayed with it and I’ve been straight for five years and I’m the night manager of the News Nook over there.”

Now the clerk reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of keys. He presses them into my hand. “I’m working ‘til eight tomorrow morning,” he said. “Nobody’s at my place so you won’t be bothered if you stay there. Can’t do anything less for a friend of Baretta.”

He writes his address down on a little slip of paper, puts it into my hand with the key. “It’s a nice little place on Haight Street. If you leave before I get home just put the key under the mat outside the door.”

I don’t know what to say. Finally: “Sure you want to do this?” I say.

“Gotta do it,” says the clerk. “Did I tell you how Baretta saved my life?”

Is TV art? Artists and non-artists alike have been debating that since it was born. This is where I add my voice to the argument.

I don’t know what art is (yeah, I admit that here and now), and sometimes I’m not even sure of what I like.

But I do know a miracle when I see it, and I saw it that night, almost 40 years ago.

I did go to the clerk’s place, by the way. All things considered, including the era, it was neat and pretty clean. And no drugs out where anyone might see.

I slept on the floor, in my clothes, and left before he got home. But I had to sleep there. I mean, hell, he was a friend of Baretta’s, and so was I.

Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.