Corrections Department #2: The TV Writer and the Playboy Bunny

March 31, 2008

Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003. 

Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.”  Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on.  To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes. 

A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details.  Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used.  Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s.  Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities.  Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across.  Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx?  Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while.  But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.

Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story.  (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.) 

Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968.  I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).  

But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring.  (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.)  The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders

That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller.  Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire.  The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.” 

But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing?  Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with.  Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed.  (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)

The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:

emmett-book.jpg

(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)

The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A.  She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies.  Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press. 

At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass.  In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.

Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer?  Now that’s a story!  But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all?  Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller?  Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side.  The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer.  I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts. 

But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business?  And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone.  It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.

It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here.  In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird.  Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?

That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards.  But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek.  Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.

Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s.  But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out?  If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories.  That’s the peril in my kind of research.  Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.

I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum.  It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself.  So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.

Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir.  We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts.  For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.

And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.

About these ads

12 Responses to “Corrections Department #2: The TV Writer and the Playboy Bunny”

  1. elizabeth Says:

    That’s definetly her in the picture…
    I know her well.
    She also claims that Spelling stole the Charlie’s Angels concept from her as well.

  2. gerryeverett Says:

    I knew her well too. She was my wife for five years. A great lady!I would like to here from here.

  3. Steve Z. Says:

    Stephen,
    Jeri Emmett was still writing with Jack Laird as late as 1975. There is a Kojak script on Ebay called A Wind From Corsica in which they were credited as participating writers with Matthew Rapf. The strange thing is though that this episode was actually taken from an episode of The Bold Ones: The Protectors called Carrier. Both episodes of The Bold Ones and Kojak credit the teleplay on screen to Mark Rodgers and Barry Trivers and the story to Paul Stein and Charles Watts.

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Well, that’s interesting. I’ve seen the Bold Ones but not the Kojak. I’m guessing WGA arbitration had something to do with the difference between what’s on that script page and what’s in the credits of “A Wind From Corsica.” Jack Laird was the producer of both shows, so he probably remembered an old script that Universal owned and reworked it in a pinch (that one came toward the end of Kojak‘s third season).

    Stein & Watts are clearly pseudonyms (they’re also credited on a Here Come the Brides episode, along with a third name that’s probably also fake). Probably for Laird & Emmett … or possibly for Laird & Rapf, who had been working together since Ben Casey? I wish I could’ve gotten Jeri to talk about all this.

    • Scott Says:

      If this matters at all, I found this post because today’s LA Times story about the “down and out” people at the Central Library surprised me when JEL’s name popped off the page and I Googled her. I was friends with Jeri’s son Michael at West Hollywood Elementary, who appeared in an episode of Night Gallery entitled ‘The Dark Boy’ (the article says he’s dead but I had found him alive on Facebook a year ago) and all these many years later I never forgot about that being a big deal, that his stepfather was a producer on the show and got him a non-speaking role at the center of an episode. So if you wanted to find her to talk to her it sounds as if the library is the place to be!

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        Thanks for pointing that out, Scott. Here’s the link to that LA Times piece. Is it definitely inaccurate about Michael Laird? Not to be insensitive, but could he have passed away in the last year? (Or I wonder if there was another son?)

        Really sad to hear that Jeri has fallen on hard times. I hope things improve for her. I wish she’d agreed to be interviewed and, in retrospect, I wish I’d framed this piece differently; if I allowed myself to go back and obsessively rewrite the archives, I’d probably start here.

      • Scott Says:

        If she had another son he would’ve had to be born after I last saw Michael when sixth grade ended in 1974. I’d only found him through a Facebook comment to a friend’s friend relating to the school they’d all gone to for junior/senior high, and it was barely two weeks after that before his Facebook page disappeared entirely… only to be replaced by one days later with a variation on his name that I could no longer see since I was no longer “friended” to it. I’d gotten the sense that he was facing some things in his life and it is entirely possible that he passed away and his family removed the profile; it’s also possible that he was thought to be dead before then, or even just the proverbial “dead to me” scenario?

        I can vouch for the house being accurate; it was up Sunset Plaza above what is now Mel’s Diner, which is across the street from the building where the Playboy Club and offices used to be located. It was an amazing house with some nice cars in the garage; I can’t imagine living a life like that and then losing it all.

        Since the story said she’s working on her memoirs (still) it’s probably not likely she’d talk to you now, but it might just be worth the try to resolve the above. It sure piqued my interest, especially after reading it, and maybe at her age and situation you never know!

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    “The Dark Boy” indeed. Jack was enormously talented. It’s sad to hear there’s an unhappy legacy there.

  6. a legal relative of Jack Laird Says:

    Wow, a lot of incorrect info here. Jack never married Jeri. Jack was amrried to Peggy Laird. He met Jeri when she was a playboy bunny during the marriage. He was the talent and writer. Who knows how long they were even together.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      So you knew with certainty that they were never married, but not how long they were together? If you can verify any specific inaccuracies in this piece, I’d be happy to make corrections.

  7. Steve Z. Says:

    Stephen, here is a link to a 1973 newspaper article about Jeri Emmett and Jack Laird being involved in an embezzlement case. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2245&dat=19730125&id=R2wzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ITIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=3323,3378184

  8. evan holz Says:

    Your comment about Betty Langdon’s script being bland is way off. It received a nomination for writing that year & was the first example of a show regarding autism / asperger that I’ve seen. Fugitive was a fantastic series as were many of Martin’s works. Seems to be a worthy man to study.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 177 other followers

%d bloggers like this: