Harlan Hits Hollywood

June 30, 2018

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Harlan Ellison wrote some of my favorite television episodes, and hopefully some of yours.  There are the acknowledged classics for The Outer Limits and Star Trek, yes, and the combative stints on The Starlost and the eighties Twilight Zone.  But there are lesser-known gems, too.  There’s the quartet of gleefully horned-up Burke’s Law whodunits, all of which call out or lean into or send up the lust and misogyny that became Aaron Spelling’s golden ticket.  If you want a truly pure exercise in pop, sexy and slick, put on “Who Killed Alex Debbs?,” a riff on Playboy Club glamour that opens with the Hugh Hefner character’s corpse stuffed in a gilded cage.

There is the harrowing addiction story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” which Ellison wrote for his friend Zalman King’s ambitious series The Young Lawyers (and which, because it overlapped with the truculent scribe’s short-lived TV column for The Los Angeles Free Press, became one of the best-documented cases of network neutering in an especially timorous era).  And there is Cimarron Strip’s “Knife in the Darkness,” a bold genre hybrid that followed Jack the Ripper to the American frontier.  “It was an examination of urban violence versus western violence, and urban violence wins every time,” the series’ producer, Christopher Knopf, told me.  Ellison, one of the twentieth century’s greatest complainers, thought “Knife in the Darkness” was badly directed.

Early in my career I interviewed Ellison about one of his early works, an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour based on his 1961 book Memos From Purgatory.  Starring a young James Caan as a thinly disguised, flatteringly buff version of Ellison, “Memo From Purgatory” was the science fiction writer’s first television sale, even though  it sat on the Hitchcock shelf for a couple of years (due to protracted rewrites or network squeamishness or both; Ellison’s memory was atypically vague, and the production records are inaccessible, although he was right for once about this one, which took on a West Side Story phoniness in the execution).  By the time it aired, in the no-one’s-watching Christmas week slot of 1964, Ellison had already done storied battle with the likes of Spelling, Irwin Allen, and the Control Voice (which mispronounced the word “Sumerian” in his narration for “Demon With a Glass Hand,” a flub that Ellison was still mad about decades later).

It could have gone the other way, given how unenthusiastically he suffered fools, but when I called Ellison from my dorm room that afternoon, I caught him in a generous, expansive mood.  Over the course of a ninety-minute conversation Harlan ended up telling me the tale of his ill-starred trek to Los Angeles to follow “Purgatory” into purgatory. That portion of the interview was such a lively digression that I set it aside with the hope of someday asking him to rewrite it as a foreword to one of two relevant books I was working on – a plan complicated somewhat by the fact that I still haven’t finished either manuscript.  Well, so much for that idea.  Harlan, who died on Thursday at the age of 84, has recounted parts of his cross-country odyssey in several essays and interviews, but I think this version may contain a few details not recorded elsewhere.

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How did your book, which was a work of (mostly) non-fiction, end up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour?  It was an odd fit for that series and I didn’t know until you told me that it was actually your first script for television.

I guess it was Norman Lloyd or Joan Harrison, I never have been sure which, but it was one or the other, read the book.  It was either recommended to them or they stumbled across it.

I got a call from the Hitchcock office that they wanted to option Memos From Purgatory.  So, I was preparing to divorce my second wife at the time – it was kind of a strange situation – and she said, “As long as you’re going to divorce me, at least take me to California where it’s warm.”  Which seemed like an odd thing to say, but it made a bizarre sort of sense, so I said okay, and I accepted this offer to buy Memos, but only on the condition that I could write the script.  So they sent back word: “Yes, it’s okay, have you ever written any scripts?”  

And I, of course, lied in my teeth and said, “Oh, many.”

I had never even seen a script.  I had never done a teleplay in my when I accepted the gig.  They said, “We’re going to the one-hour format next season, and we’re going to want this script fairly quickly.”  So I said, okay, I would come out. I was sort of commuting between Chicago and New York at the time with my almost ex-wife and her fourteen year-old son from her previous marriage.  And I had no money at all. We got stuck in Cleveland [his hometown] and I had to wait until a check came through for this book I was doing.

We drove out from Chicago in the middle of winter, December [1961], Christmastime.  We were on the road, we got hit by this drunken cowboy on the access bridge leading down to Fort Worth.  We’d have been killed had we not had all our baggage and everything. My typewriter and everything was in the trunk and the backseat, and when this guy hit us doing about 60 miles an hour down this icy bridge, it stove in the back of the car and we got thrown into a whole pile of cars that were sort of smashed up on the bridge.  We got stuck in Fort Worth because we didn’t have the money to get out, and we were in a motel and there was a newspaper columnist who learned that we were there and he knew my name. He did this little bitty piece about “the author Harlan Ellison is stuck in a motel, his typewriter’s been smashed,” and the sheriff [actually police chief] of Fort Worth – I’ll never forget his name, his name was Cato Hightower – Cato Hightower sort of took me under his wing.  All of a sudden there was a garage that offered to fix the car for nothing, there was a stationery place, a typewriter shop that gave me a new Olympia. But we had no money – we had just enough money to pay for the motel.

We had enough money to limp out of Fort Worth, and it was still a long drive to Los Angeles.  We had only enough money for either gas or food, and so for the last I guess about six [or] seven hundred miles, all we had to eat, the three of us, was the last of a box of Stuckey’s pecan pralines.  To this day, to this day, the sight of pecan praline makes me want to throw up.

We limped into L.A., literally limped into L.A.  I had no idea where I was going. I had no contacts at all here.  We came in on the Hollywood Freeway, and I recognized it was Hollywood because I saw the Capitol [Records] Tower.  I turned off, and we went down Vine Street until I saw a TraveLodge and we went in there. We stayed there overnight until the next day, when I could call GAC [General Artists Corporation, a talent agency to which he had been referred] and bluff them into believing that I was this famous writer from New York, and that they’d better hurry up and send a car for me.  And they did! It was a complete and total bluff. It was like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

They put us in a TraveLodge on Santa Monica Boulevard across from the Mormon Tabernacle.  I didn’t have any money at all. We had no way to get out of there, so I had to borrow two hundred bucks from Robert Bloch, an old friend.  And I borrowed from Bob a couple of teleplays, and I, sitting on toilet of this tiny little motel room of the Santa Monica Boulevard TraveLodge while my almost ex-wife and her son slept, I put a board across my lap and I sat there night after night and I wrote the very first teleplay I wrote, which was “Memos From Purgatory.”  It was just after New Years’, so it had to be sometime in January 1962.

Which is interesting, because “Memo From Purgatory” wasn’t broadcast until December 1964, nearly three years later.

There was some kind of an upheaval on the show or at Universal, I don’t know what it was, and they put the script aside for awhile.  Finally, when they got around to needing a rewrite, I already had an apartment. Billie, my almost-ex, a very nice woman, was living up in Brentwood and I was working my ass off to keep her up in this apartment in Brentwood, while I was living in this $135-a-month, two-room little house in Brentwood.  It was a treehouse in Beverly Glen. It’s not even there any more. The street isn’t even there any more. The street got washed away in one of the floods. And on the basis of the Hitchcock script, I was able to get more work and bluff my way through and learn as I went along, and I think along about my fourth or fifth script won the Writers Guild Award for best teleplay of the year in whatever category it was, [for] The Outer Limits’ “Demon With a Glass Hand.”

I was going to ask you if you remembered watching “Memos From Purgatory” when it was first broadcast, but perhaps you don’t, since it wasn’t actually the first one.

It’s a moderately funny story about what happened the night it aired.  I was living in Beverly Glen, in this little treehouse. The television set that I had was a real small TV, with rabbit ears, and the antenna was up the side of the mountain behind the house.  I mean this house, literally and actually, sat half on a rock ledge and the other half sat in the crotch of a gigantic banyan tree. It was raining that night, it was raining terribly. And the antenna, which was up the hill – rabbit ears down in the house and an actual antenna up on the hill; I mean, there was no cable – well, the antenna fell over.  

I had invited all these people to come and see the show, and we couldn’t get any reception.  So a friend of mine volunteered to go up, and he put on my raincoat, and he stood up there in the pounding rain, a really torrential downpour.  He stood up there holding the fuckin’ antenna up. And I was kind of, you know, upset that he was up there, not to mention that there were cougars or mountain cats – really, there were catamounts or cougars or whatever the fuck they are – up there running loose, because it’s all watershed land.  And I was terrified that he was going to get eaten, or washed away, or drowned, or fall off the mountain, or something. So about midway through I went up and I took his place. And I came back drenched, soaking wet, I looked like a drowned rat, and everybody was raving about this thing, and I had only seen about half of it.

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Cosmopolitan ran a behind-the-scenes article on the inner workings of Burke’s Law in January 1964.  Is that Harlan, who’s mentioned in the text, at the typewriter?  Photo by C. Robert Lee

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Leigh Chapman doesn’t look like any seventy year-old screenwriter you’ve ever seen.  Auburn-haired and svelte, she arrives for coffee clad in tight jeans, a loose-fitting blouse with only one button fastened, and designer sunglasses.  Two young women stop to admire her knee-length boots, which are black and metal-studded.  “My Road Warrior boots,” she says.

It’s apt that Chapman would identify with Mad Max.  Her resume reads like a long weekend at the New Beverly, as programmed by Quentin Tarantino.  Chapman tackled just about every subgenre now enshrined in grindhouse nostalgia: beach parties (A Swingin’ Summer), bikers (How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?), car chases (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), martial arts (the Chuck Norris campfest The Octagon).  She did an uncredited polish on Robert Aldrich’s lady wrestler opus, …All the Marbles, and a treatment about a caucasian bounty hunter that morphed into the blaxploitation howler Truck Turner.

“I wrote action-adventure,” Chapman says.  “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it.  I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die.”

Chapman arrived in Hollywood at a time when women fought uphill to succeed as screenwriters, and rarely specialized in masculine genres like westerns and crime pictures.  She fled her South Carolina hometown (“a humid, green version of The Last Picture Show”) after college and found work as a secretary at the William Morris Agency.  Chapman had minored in theater, and the agency sent her out on auditions.  She landed a recurring part as the spies’ Girl Friday on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Screen Gems signed her to a six-month contract and cast her as a guest ingenue in episodes of its television series, including The Monkees.

“They thought I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn,” says Chapman.  “Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”

Acting wasn’t her bag anyway.  Congenitally nocturnal, she hated the 5 A.M. makeup calls, and recoiled at the notion of revealing her inner self on the screen.  While moonlighting as a typist, Chapman decided she could write scripts as good as the ones she was transcribing.  Television jobs came easily.  Her favorite shows were those that let her think up clever ways to kill people, like Burke’s Law (an exploding tennis ball) and The Wild Wild West (a gatling gun in a church organ).

One of Chapman’s last casting calls was for the legendary movie director Howard Hawks.  Hawks was instantly smitten.  Only years later, after she caught up with Bringing Up Baby and Red River, did Chapman understand that Hawks had seen her as the living embodiment of his typical movie heroine: feminine and pretty, but also tough, fast-talking, and able to hold her own in an otherwise all-male world.

Hawks had a fetish for deep-voiced women, and he started Chapman on the same vocal exercises he had devised to give an earlier discovery, Lauren Bacall, her throaty purr.  “I was supposed to press my stomach into an ironing board, to make my voice lower,” she remembers.  “It only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board.”

Hawks deemed Chapman hopeless as an actress, but liked the sample pages she gave him.  He put her to work on a Vietnam War script (never produced), and for a while Chapman shuttled out to the director’s Palm Springs home for story conferences.  Finally, Hawks made a tentative pass, and Chapman shied away.  “That was the end of it.  He had too much pride,” she believes, to persist.

Hawks wanted her to write Rio Lobo, the John Wayne western that would be his swan song.  Instead, Chapman “dropped out” and moved to Hawaii, where she spent a year lying on the beach and taking acid.  It was one of many impetuous, career-altering moves for Chapman.  A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” she collected dangerous hobbies: motorcycles (Hawks taught her how to ride dirtbikes), fast cars, guns, skiing, and even momentum stock trading, which pummeled her portfolio when the dot-com bubble burst.  In 1963, she spent her first paycheck as a professional writer on a Corvette.

Skeptical about commitment and children, Chapman favored passionate but brief affairs, some of them with Hollywood players.  Her U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn and the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison are two that she will name for the record.  Any time permanence loomed, Chapman bailed – a response more stereotypically associated with the male of the species.  “My alter ego is male,” she says.  It is a credo vital to her writing as well as her personal life.  “I decided early on that guys got to have all the fun.  Women don’t interest me.”

Today, Chapman keeps a low profile.  She lives alone in a Sunset Boulevard high-rise, drives a vintage Jaguar, and burns off pent-up energy at the gym.  It is the lifestyle of a professional assassin awaiting an assignment, although Chapman, at least so far as I know, has never killed anyone.  Her final film credit, for the 1990 thriller Impulse (one of her only scripts to feature a female protagonist), preceded a decade of turnaround follies.  She was attached briefly to Double Impact, the camp classic in which Jean-Claude Van Damme played butt-kicking twins.  The Belgian kickboxer hired her to flesh out another idea (“Papillon, but with gladiatorial combat”), but that script was never made.  Later Chapman rewrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, but she fell out with the showrunners and substituted her mother’s name for her own in the credits.

“One day,” says Chapman, “I woke up and just said, ‘If I write another script, I’ll puke.’”

Now she channels her energy into underwater photography, a hobby she took up about five years ago.  She hopes to arrange a gallery showing of her photographs, which she alters digitally into exuberant, kaleidoscopic whatsits.  Scuba diving began as another kind of thrill for Chapman, but what she loves about it now is the feeling of weightlessness that comes as she drifts among the reefs.

“It’s the most serene I will ever get,” Chapman muses.  “Which is not very.”

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Above: Leigh in her television debut, an episode of Ripcord (“Million Dollar Drop,” 1963).  Top: Promotional still from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (courtesy Leigh Chapman).  Photo captions and Ripcord image added on 10/31/13.

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Author’s note: This piece was commissioned last year by LA Weekly, but spiked after a change in editorship.  A longer question-and-answer transcript, focusing more on Chapman’s television work, will appear next year in the oral history area of my main site.  Below are two of Leigh’s underwater photographs, with her titles (and the note that these images have minimal digital manipulation, relative to some of her other work).

 

Aphrodite’s Throat

The Guardians