Obituary: Edward Adler (1920-2012)
June 15, 2012
Edward Adler, a television writer who lived in and wrote about New York City for most of his career, died on June 8, in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91. Adler, who was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1920, had suffered from dementia in recent years.
Adler’s early work ran the gamut of sixties New York dramas, from an initial feint on The Nurses to a quick pass at Mr. Broadway to significant contributions to East Side / West Side, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D. Fittingly, he capped his career in the eighties with producing stints on two hard-boiled street shows, the vigilante drama The Equalizer and Night Heat (which was lensed in Toronto, but liked to pretend it was a New York cop show).
“He was the most lovable guy I guess I ever met in my life,” said Buck Henry, a friend for nearly fifty years. “I don’t know anyone who knew Eddie that didn’t want to protect him, because he always seemed like an innocent. Eddie was a great example of someone who always lived close to the ground, so to speak. He wandered through life with his eye and his ear on a kind of New York that doesn’t exist any more.”
Past forty before he ever typed a script page, Adler was something of a literary sensation in the early sixties. After a succession of odd jobs – short order cook, furrier’s assistant, Catskills chauffeur, numbers runner for a Brooklyn pool hall owner – Adler spent eight years as a New York City cab driver. During that time, he produced a novel that was published in early 1962. Notes From a Dark Street was a Joycean compendium of Lower East Side eccentrics, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, favorably or neutrally, no less than six times during the first half of 1962. One review compared the book to Hieronymous Bosch; another declared it “a carnival of the senses” and proclaimed Adler “the literary find of the year.”
“Most of the greater New York writers of the twentieth century recognized how good it was. Philip Roth was always ready to lay a quote on it, and Mailer read it and liked it,” recalled Henry.
Adler was not of the intellectual class – his parents were Eastern European immigrants and shopkeepers in Brooklyn, and Adler himself only had two years of college on the G.I. Bill – and the press made much of his self-taught talent, cultivated through avid wartime reading of Dante, Conrad, and Beckett. Years later, Adler told me how ridiculous he felt when a Time magazine photographer posed him atop a Checker Cab – with his typewriter.
Notes From a Dark Street sold fewer than three thousand copies and it looked like it was back to the garage for Eddie Adler, until television came calling. Adler palled around with musicians and writers and Greenwich Village characters; two of his friends were George Bellak, a television writer who was then story editor of The Nurses, and beat scenester David Padwa, whose ex-wife, Audrey Gellen, was developing the new social work drama East Side / West Side for David Susskind.
The Nurses fizzled out – his script, “Many a Sullivan,” was rewritten by Albert Ruben, possibly among others, and the New York Times described Adler’s experience as “bitter.” But he kept pounding the keys because, as he told the reporter, “Things were not going so good on the hack.”
Fortunately, Adler was a perfect match for East Side / West Side and, in particular, for its initial executive producer Arnold Perl, a blacklist survivor who wanted the series to be as bluntly progressive as possible. Adler wrote three terrific, tone-setting scripts for East Side / West Side, all of which number among the most downbeat and street-literate tales mounted by that series. “The Passion of the Nickel Player” covers the world of small-time numbers runners, which Adler knew well. “One Drink at a Time,” about a pair of truly desperate, derelict Bowery binge drinkers, may be one of the most depressing and sordid hours of television ever made. (That’s a compliment.)
But the most important was the first, “Not Bad For Openers,” which drew upon Adler’s inside knowledge of the hack racket. Curiously, he bypassed this obvious subject for his novel and saved it for his first fully realized television story, a study of a cab driver (Norman Fell, probably an apt Adler surrogate) with a gambling addiction. Adler, who hung around the Long Island City location (a garage out of which he himself had worked) as a technical advisor, was cagey about how autobiographical the script was. “I knew a couple of people like the lead in the show,” Adler told me, but also conceded that much of his own experience made it into “Not Bad For Openers” (originally, and more vividly, titled “An Arm-Job to Oblivion,” an arm-job being a taxi ride for which the driver doesn’t turn on the meter).
Adler continued writing his slice-of-life stories for Hawk and N.Y.P.D., both late-sixties time capsules of the New York streets. A fast writer, he served as an uncredited rewrite man on the first series and a story editor on the second. “Larry Arrick [a producer of East Side / West Side] used to say, ‘Here comes the fireman,’ which meant that I rewrote very fast, and that carried over into another series that Susskind did, a half-hour cop show called N.Y.P.D.,” Adler said when I interviewed him in 1996.
“There’s a goddamn episode [of Hawk] that I wrote over a weekend. Paul Henreid directed this episode, and there wasn’t a script for him ready to shoot. They called me up and I came in and I wrote a script in twenty-four hours,” added Adler. But he had left his glasses at the summer cabin where his family was vacationing. “By middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. They ran me down to Delancey Street and I got an emergency pair of glasses in fifteen minutes. And finished the sceenplay and was blind for about three weeks!”
“The big thing about Eddie was that he came through all the time,” said Bob Markell, the producer of N.Y.P.D. “His writing was kind of Group Theatre writing. He was the working man’s writer. It was tough and gritty. Great sense of humor; very biting. I loved some of the things that he did.”
Adler left N.Y.P.D. at the end of its first season to work on a screenplay for Susskind’s company, a daring story about race and the police based on Paul Tyner’s novel Shoot It. The film’s director and star would have been George C. Scott and Al Pacino, respectively, but it fell apart at the last minute. In the early seventies, Adler partnered with his friend Buck Henry – whom he had met during East Side / West Side, when Henry and Mel Brooks were creating Get Smart in a nearby office – on two other movie projects, during the period after Catch-22 and Milos Forman’s Taking Off made Henry an especially hot property. One, Seven Footprints to Satan (later renamed Cells), was a generally indescribable effort that the New York Times attempted to describe in 1970 as “a black comedy about kidnapping and assassination” (“more of a melodrama,” Henry says now); the second, Bullet Proof, was, as Henry told the Times,
about an 18 year-old boy and his relationship with his girl and with other citizens of a Long Island community – particularly the members of the local branch of the American Legion who give him a bang-up going away party when he’s drafted . . . . The title refers to the bullet-proof Bibles that are issued to G.I.’s.
“It was fun to write with him, because we spent an awful lot of time, like writers do, goofing off and laughing and watching the ballgame,” Henry told me yesterday. “I’ve never had many partners; I don’t write well with partners. But sometimes when we were working together, because we were both highly pretentious literature fans, we would stumble onto something that made us laugh for a day or two. We wrote a script once in which we were really stuck for a series of pieces of pretentious monologues, so we just got a copy of [Sartre’s] Being and Nothingness, turned to whatever page our fingers went to and copied a paragraph from it.”
The “director of record” for Bullet Proof was Milos Forman, but neither that nor Cells was made. In the end, Adler never had a feature credit, just the tell-tale gaps that turnaround projects and unsold pilots leave amid a writer’s credits.
“He was always going toward jobs that he was completely unsuited for,” Henry said. “He got a job on a soap about ten years ago. He came out here to L.A. to write the bible, as they say, on it. The first day he was here he opened his car door into traffic and saw it ripped off and dragged a mile away. Eddie never was able to figure out Los Angeles. It was a mystery to him, as it is to many hardcore New Yorkers.”
Adler held out in New York as most of the other television writers moved west. He made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles twice a year, to pitch stories, but drew the line at a permanent relocation – even when a lucrative offer to head-write a soap opera was made. His credits from the seventies are thin – Gibbsville, a portion of the Benjamin Franklin miniseries, several unsold pilots, and Death Penalty, a made-for-television movie about Salvador Agron, the “Capeman” killer – in part because Adler devoted more and more of his time to his union, the Writers Guild of America, East. Adler served on the Guild’s council for thirty-two years and was its president from 1983-1991.
Adler’s wife, Elaine Lipton, died in 2003. (The main character in Death Penalty, played by Colleen Dewhurst, is named for her.) He is survived by two sons, Tony (a first assistant director) and Joe, and one novel, which “should be always in print, but it isn’t,” as Buck Henry pointed out. You can buy a copy of Notes From a Dark Street from Amazon for a penny.
And what of a second novel? True one-book writers – as opposed to writers who wrote only one famous book, or one good one – are rare (and there’s a great documentary about them, in particular one named Dow Mossman, called Stone Reader, by Mark Moskowitz). Edward Adler is a member of that small fraternity. There were notes, scraps, various false starts, according to Joe Adler, but nothing ever came together.