Funny Man

By Alan Swyer

The actual interview consisted of two questions:

Q:  “Where were you born?

A:  “Newark, New Jersey.”

Q:  “Which hospital?”

A:  “Beth Israel.”

Instantly a smile I’d seen on TV and movie screens for as long as I could remember lit up Shelley Robbins’ face.  “Me, too!” he exclaimed, grabbing my hand and shaking it as hard as he could.  “This, boychick, was meant to be.”

With that, all the prepping I’d done, all the hypothetical questions I’d asked myself, and all the middle of the night what-if’s that had gone through my mind were rendered meaningless, as were my pre-meeting jitters and fears.  Thanks to Jersey geography, I had managed to enter the world of show biz, even if that was only to mean holding the hand of an aging comic who, in a weak moment, had consented to teach a college course on directing.

What I didn’t know was that for all his bombast and cockiness – and when not performing, or guesting on a talk show, or doing the annual telethon he hosted, Shelley Robbins was legendary both for bombast and cockiness – the notion of having to prepare a syllabus, which would subsequently serve as the foundation for a proposed book on filmmaking, was far more daunting and fear-inducing than making a movie, headlining in Vegas, or guest-hosting the “Tonight Show.”

Despite all his travels, acclaim, and wealth, despite the fact that he was often billed as “The Funniest Man Alive,” for Shelley, who barely made it through high school, universities were terra incognita.  Presidents, Popes, and paparazzi were easy for him — “old hat” in his terminology — as were casts, crews, and even casino drunks.  But college students were another matter altogether, and Shelley, I soon realized, was terrified.

Nor were the people around him any help at all.  His agents did nothing but, as he put it, “blow smoke up my ass,” telling him incessantly what he wanted to hear, which was how wonderful he was.  Even worse in that regard was the staff at the office he kept in Century City, whose primary functions, other than fawning relentlessly over Shelley, were doing his bidding and, when he felt the need to vent over something real or imagined, bearing the brunt of his wrath.

The office itself seemed to me on my first visit — plus every time thereafter — less an actual workplace than a shrine to King Shelley, where, when the spirit moved him, the comic could gaze at awards, plaques, and above all countless likenesses of himself.  There were photos galore, some of him alone in venues around the world, others with notables from show biz, politics, and sports.  There were paintings done by artists whose oeuvre would never be mistaken for Renoir or Matisse.  There were sketches and caricatures from various admirers and publications. And to top it off there were laminated headlines and reviews of Shelley’s films, stage shows, TV appearances, and especially his annual telethon, many from Variety, but also from countless other publications.

New to Los Angeles and, more importantly, new to the world of stardom and celebrity, but not the least bit new to the world of academia, I found myself in a singular and, in the eyes of some, privileged position.  On the one hand it was incumbent upon me — a guy in his early twenties who was hoping someday to write and direct movies, and whose only other source of revenue was teaching French at a tiny local college — to pump up a star known everywhere in the world.  Yet I was also, to the dismay of all those around him, allowed to use a word no one else could ever utter without being fired:  “No.”

Hearing “No” was anathema to Shelley Robbins.  “No” was a word banned from the mouths of others; a word reserved exclusively for his use, and his use alone.  What remained a constant source of amazement to me was not so much the arrogance of such a stance, but that, thanks to the almost hermetically sealed world he inhabited — which included not just his staff and representatives, but also his doctors, his lawyers, his tailors, his chef, and his various hangers-on, acolytes, and groupies — his wish had become a reality.  Because of his celebrity, his wealth, and his influence, I quickly learned, Shelley, like a despot, could create his own set of rules.

Yet I, through ignorance of those rules initially, then as time went on, through a desire, conscious or otherwise to flaunt them, did — and would continue to do — the unspeakable, the unpardonable, the unconscionable.  I, with ever-increasing frequency and delight, said “No” to King Shelley.

The first time was entirely innocent.  In the presence of several staffers, among them Joe Cortese, an ex-band leader whose title was president of Shelley Robbins Enterprises, but whose actual duties seemed to consist of boosting Shelley’s  Rat Pack credibility by looking and sounding like a Hoboken mob boss, plus keeping the funny man company on the golf course, Shelley mentioned to me one afternoon that he was thinking of having each session of the class catered.

When I laughed, Shelley glared.  “Don’t you think it’s a great idea?” he asked.

“No.”

Instantly, Joe Cortese and the others gasped, certain that Mt. Shelley was about to have an eruption that would register on the Cal Tech seismograph.  But while Shelley’s face turned first red, then violet, then blue, and his jugular began to throb, somehow the explosion never materialized.  Instead, he picked up a pencil, broke it in two, then to the amazement of one and all, took a deep breath.

“Why not?” he asked with as much equanimity as he could muster.

“We’re talking about a seminar,” I explained.  “Not a night club.”

“What about the presents for the students?” he asked somewhat tentatively, bringing forth for my viewing pleasure a pile of pads with a Hirschfield caricature of himself on every page, plus Shelley Robbins attaché cases and pens.

Aware that he was losing face in front of his minions, I did my best to smile.  “Great ideas,” I said, willfully overstating the case, and in the process easing the tension in the room.  “But better, I think, as going-away presents after the last class.”

“What about guests?”

“You mean guest speakers?” I asked, assuming Shelley meant actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and maybe studio execs or producers.

“I meant friends.”

“Like when we comp people for Shelley’s live shows,” Joe Cortese added.

With all eyes upon me, I searched for the right way to get my message across.  “The class, as I understand it,” I said hesitantly, “is a seminar with ten carefully selected students.  So what we want to do, starting Day One, is set a tone.”

“Which is?” asked Shelley.

“That it’s an honor and a privilege to be there.”

Seeing a smile appear, first on Shelley’s face, then elsewhere around the room, I continued with a bit more confidence.  “There’s a saying about academia that all too often is true.  Those who can do, do.  Those who can’t do, teach.  These ten lucky students are getting an opportunity of a lifetime.  They’re getting a chance to learn from someone who can do and does.”

Shelley beamed.  “That’s why I love this boychick!” he exclaimed, putting an arm around me.

That was a moment, I came to understand, that the others in the room would never forget.  Nor, I also learned, would they ever forgive.

 

The first class, as it turned out, went quite well.  Despite a measure of nervousness and awkwardness from the students, who were unaccustomed to being in the presence of a star, and from the star himself, for whom the groves of academe had been elevated into some rarefied place, two hours went by swiftly and, except for what I considered to be excessively biting humor at the expense of a janitor who made the mistake of opening the classroom door, surprisingly comfortably.  There was no doubt that Shelley was a master at working a room and, when the spirit moved him, putting others at ease.

I presumed, therefore, that there would be a glow in the aftermath, a sense of accomplishment, of a hurdle having been overcome.  But instead of a smile from Shelley, or even a sigh of relief, what I got was a question.

“So what do you think?”

“I think it’ll be clear sailing from here.”

“And?”

“And what?

“How did I do?”

Recognizing that Shelley was fishing for a compliment — or worse, a bushel of them — I couldn’t help but see him as an overgrown kid, begging for approval.  But then it dawned on me that above and beyond whatever insecurities he possessed, after countless years doing films, TV specials, and live shows, he was accustomed to and, more poignantly, in need of reviews.

“You were great,” I said without significant exaggeration.

“In what way?”

“Your command of the material.  Your rapport with the kids.  Your sense of when to punctuate the points you were making with a story or a joke.”

“But?”

“But what?”

“There’s always a but.”

Studying Shelley, it became clear that he wasn’t going to let me off the hook.  “Well –” I stammered.

“Well, what?”

“Except for the janitor –”

“Forget the janitor.”

“I guess you could say the vocabulary.”

“You mean depth-of-field… above-the-line… pay-or-play… shit that’s technical, or show biz?”

“No, the jargon’s fine.”

“Then what the hell are you talking about?”

“Honest?”

“You’re goddam right, honest!”

“Multi-syllabic words.”

“What about ’em?”

“Why use ’em where they’re not needed?”

“You saying I’m backward?” Shelley snarled, his face turning red.  “Ignorant? Stupid.”

“I didn’t say that –”

“But if you’re even thinking it, get your ass out of my sight.”

Taking a deep breath so as not to say what was really felt, I forced myself to speak softly.

“If you’re gonna play mind reader with me –” I said slowly.

“Yeah?”

“Then you’re on your own.”

To Shelley’s amazement, I handed him the paperwork for the class, then started toward the door.

Other than the noise generated by my footsteps, there was not a sound to be heard until a voice shattered the silence.

“Wait.”

Turning, it was impossible to miss the look of embarrassment on Shelley’s face.

“What’s wrong with big words?” he asked like a kid who’s been scolded.

“Nothing when they’re used correctly.”

“And I don’t?”

“Not always.”

“You sure?”

I nodded.

To my surprise, Shelley thought for a moment, then grinned proudly.

“See that?” he asked no one in particular.  “He’s the only one who tells me the truth.”   Shelley smiled for a moment, then icily pointed a finger at me.

“But just so we’re clear, nobody walks out on me.”

I let Shelley’s word hang in the air for a second or two, then once again started for the door.

“What the fuck are you trying to get me to do?” Shelley screamed.

“Behave,” I said softly.

Lo and behold, Shelley started to laugh, then walked up and hugged me.

 

Evening phone calls from Shelley started coming my way, tentative and infrequent at first, then with greater confidence and regularity.  Occasionally there was something substantive to be discussed — a question about rescheduling a session, or getting film clips of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or grading.  But more and more the conversations were turning into what Shelley dubbed Schmoozefests, where he would ramble on about a film he’d seen, an article he’d read, a notion for a script he might commission or write, or, at least once a week, what he viewed as the scourge that was destroying American culture and ruining its kids — rock & roll — by which he meant everything from Bo Diddley and Little Richard through the groups he dismissed as “scruffy Brits” and on to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.  Rather than argue with someone who had no idea what he was talking about, I quickly took to cutting him off when he started a rant by feigning stomach trouble and disappearing into the bathroom for long enough for the venom to pass.

Though from time to time Shelley would ask for input on topics other than music, or for an answer to a specific question, it soon became clear that, for the most part, the man who was accustomed to being the center of attention was simply in need of someone to talk to.

That’s when I first came to recognize that despite his numerous family members, his staffers, his friends, and his fans, Shelley felt sadly, painfully, monumentally alone.

It was during one of these mostly one-sided gabfests that Shelley took me by surprise with a question.  “When was the last time,” he asked, “that you saw me play live?”  By answering truthfully, that I’d never actually seen him on-stage, my fate was sealed.

There are certain genes, I have come to realize over time, that are missing from my DNA.  For one, even as a child I was never been big on war toys or films.  Nor did I — or do I now — have any inclination to see Disneyland.  Or much interest in the Beatles.  Or even the slightest bit of curiosity about Las Vegas.

That’s why, having agreed to make the trip there due to Shelley’s urging, I got such a kick out of what took place when, together with three friends, I showed up, hungry and road-weary, at the casino where he was playing and got on line for the show.

Ahead of us was a guy who looked like he had been sent by central casting as a Vegas sharpie, with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest to reveal gold chains with all sorts of pendants.  Clearly fancying himself a sport, with lizard skin shoes and carefully blow-dried hair, Mr. Slick eyed our scruffy foursome with complete disdain, then announced to his companion, whose cleavage was of historic proportions, that, unlike certain other people, he’d be getting the best seats in the house.

“Watch a pro in action,” he said to the woman who was definitely not his CPA in a stage whisper as the two of them inched closer to the ticketing area.

Conspicuously revealing a roll of bills the likes of which I could never have matched, Mr. Slick palmed several, then handed them to the casino employee at the desk.  “Front row would be nice,” he announced, all the while sneaking a contemptuous glance at me in my work shirt and jeans.

“I’m sorry,” said the casino employee.  “The front tables are entirely booked.”

Determined not to lose face, the would-be sport peeled off some more green.  “Then maybe this will help you find an opening.”

“Not tonight,” was the employee’s response.  “VIP only.”

“Then give me the best you’ve got.

“I’ll do what I can,” said the employee, pocketing the cash.

But instead of following the woman assigned to lead him and his date to their perch, Mr. Slick chose to linger, then leaned toward Miss Cleavage.

“I want to see where these clowns wind up,” he muttered, watching with great interest as, together with my girlfriend, I stepped up to the desk.

“Mr. Robbins was hoping you’d make it!” the employee exclaimed upon hearing my name.  “In fact he picked out a table for you.”

Hardly a Zen master, I couldn’t resist a smile knowing that we were being watched angrily as the four of us were led to a choice front row spot.

 

With my musical tastes running, both then and now, to Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Thelonius Monk, sitting through the opening act, the Osmond Family, was a rare test of endurance.  But both the wait and the pain were worth it, for Shelley’s performance was better than I ever dreamed possible.  Though it was a different kind of cinema that lured me to Hollywood — films like “The Hustler,” “The Apartment,” “The Lady Eve,” and “His Girl Friday” — in contrast to friends who dismissed Shelley’s movies as silly and puerile, I’d always liked them immensely.  But years of watching Shelley on screen, and on talk shows, and of late getting to know him, didn’t at all begin to prepare me for the timing, the grace, and the intelligence he displayed on stage, or for the breathtaking range.  There was physical comedy, verbal humor, old-fashioned schtick, and even mime, all done with a brilliance that managed to seem effortless.  Perhaps most important of all, except when he took a moment to get an unneeded laugh at the expense of a heavyset guy who had the audacity to sneeze, Shelley was hilarious in all sorts of ways:  smart funny, silly funny, goofy funny, and even — surprise, surprise — funny in a sentimental sort of way that made him seem even more multifaceted, more multidimensional, and more human than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Backstage afterward, Shelley was uncharacteristically gracious, ducking our praise and thanking both me and my guests profusely for having made the trip from L.A.

“You’ve got smarts and loyalty,” he whispered to me as we prepared to leave his dressing room.  “That’s what I need more of in my life.”

 

Soon manilla envelopes started to arrive — a script here, a treatment there, sometimes a newspaper article or a clipping from a magazine.  I wasn’t supposed to do what in Hollywood is called “coverage.”  That kind of synopsizing, fortuitously, was invariably provided by a studio, or by Shelley’s agents, or by a part-time reader he employed — and once in a while, with contrasting opinions and not-quite-overlapping narratives or accuracy, by all of the above.  My task was primarily to provide a sounding board for Shelley, who often wanted to discuss what he took to be the merits, or lack thereof, of this project or that, though on occasion I was also called upon to give thoughts about what might make it better, or even an opinion about the material itself.

It was time I considered to be well spent.  Aside from giving me a greater sense of how the movie business worked, it also provided an opportunity for me to become far more familiar with screenplays, both technically and, if I dare use such a word for the projects that came to Shelley, and then to me, artistically.  To be ready for the evening calls, I had to learn to think in a brand new way not just about structure, character, dialogue, mood, and tone, but also about real world considerations such as shooting schedules and budgets — all of which, I discovered, began to inform my own fitful attempts at writing.  Plus, given the kind of material submitted to or for Shelley, I was gaining confidence for another reason.  Since most of what was submitted to him ranged from so-so to downright awful, I couldn’t help but feel that even as a novice I could do far better.

Another change soon thereafter was that instead of phone conversations, our evening talks started taking place at what I called Fort Robbins, a walled estate that had been built, Shelley informed me on numerous occasions, and always with an elevation of tone, for Irving Thalberg.  But despite the Tara-like grandiosity of the place, and the security cameras that abounded, there were surprising touches of hominess provided by Shelley’s wife, Jeannie, a shy woman who had let her hair grow white, which meant, I came to learn, that in public she was often mistaken for Shelley’s mother.

Forever ready with milk and cookies, which Shelley always took the time to point out were tasty, fattening, and homemade, Jeannie would great me warmly, then disappear into another wing of the spacious dwelling, only to return at some later point to ask if there was anything else we needed.

I can’t, or won’t, deny that there was something flattering about the one-on-one sessions with Shelley.  Having always felt like an outsider, not just in Los Angeles or when I lived in Paris, but also growing up in blue collar New Jersey, and even in my parents’ house, where I never managed to mesh with the others,  it was strangely comforting to be accepted into both the world of Hollywood and that of Shelley’s own inner circle.

Though there was, and always would be, a fair measure of rambling and free association on Shelley’s part in our conversations, there was also, more and more, a surprising amount of back-and-forth.  Though getting to voice my feelings about scripts, films, and at times the world, was, in today’s parlance, “empowering,” of greater importance to me was the amount of knowledge I was acquiring.  I was getting a tutorial about scripts, amassing an ever-increasing sense of how Hollywood worked, and learning tons about Shelley — his life, his understanding of comedy, his thought processes, his goals, and even his demons.

Above all, I started jotting down what I dubbed ROBBINS RULES ON COMEDY.  My first notations:

  1. The audience wants to like you.  Whether it’s a movie, TV, or live on-stage, they arrive wanting to have fun, which means they’re ready, willing and eager to laugh.  They’re yours to lose, so don’t lose ’em!  Make the right first impression by giving them something winning immediately, and you’ll be rewarded with sustained good will.
  2. All humor is based on a man in trouble.  It’s not bombastic Oliver Hardy or self-assured Bud Abbott who’s funny, but put-upon Stan Laurel or flustered Lou Costello.  Jackie Gleason is a laugh riot in the “Honeymooners” not because of his posturing and his schemes, but because he’ll ultimately have to face the music:  his long-suffering wife Alice.   Then there are Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” who have the misfortune of witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and can only escape by donning dresses and joining an all-girls band.
  3. Schtick works best in threes.  Once may be missed for all sorts of reasons:  inattentiveness, a sneeze, or simply because the gag went over someone’s head.  Though twice is better, it’s not enough, since the audience is still not sufficiently familiar with the joke, which guarantees that the response won’t be fully satisfying.  But three times is perfect, for the audience is both comfortable and primed, making the laugh not just a treat, but a satisfying and shared experience.  Yet going for a fourth time is a bad move since it risks wearing out your welcome and making the gag both tiresome and stale.
  4. For whatever reason, certain words are intrinsically funny.  Chicken is funny, but pork is not. Spaghetti is funny, but pasta is not.   Casserole and  thoroughfare are laugh-inducing, while sauce pan and street are bland.  And mother-in-law, probably because of Rule #2, invariably gets a guffaw or even a scream.  So learn the ones that bring a smile and use ’em!
  5. Don’t worry about everyone, everywhere, getting each and every joke, gag, or bit.  If an environment of funny has been established, and sufficient laughs are being generated, lots more will come, sometimes in unpredictable or unlikely places.  So don’t pander, don’t condescend, and above all don’t ever force things or be a laugh whore.

The acceptance I was getting from Shelley was a refreshing change from what I was accustomed to at home.  When, for instance, it was discovered that I was headed to California with the hopes of some day making films, my parents, instead of welcoming or even accepting the news, immediately proposed that I go instead to law school.  When I demurred, their suggestion gave way first to urging, then to demanding, and finally to pleading, which carried precious little weight considering that for years I’d been out of the house, financially independent, and on my own in every way imaginable.  When I chose to ask why, at that particular point in time, law school was suddenly so all-important, my parents eyed each other while determining which one would voice what had clearly been the topic of much discussion between them.  It was my mother who spoke.  “So that you’ll have something to fall back on.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I responded, more resolved than ever to head west.

 

It was only after a month of our evening get-togethers, on an evening I showed up a little early, which meant that Shelley was just climbing out of his Olympic-sized pool, that it finally dawned on me that for some time I’d been used.  Greeting me with her customary smile, Jeannie Robbins, with a tray of milk and cookies in hand, led me into her husband’s study.  There, she thanked me not just for the profession help I was giving Shelley, but more importantly for accompanying him at places where she was loath to go, such as at the Chinese restaurant on Vine that always gave her heartburn, or for late-night snacks at the 24-hour deli on Fairfax whose name she could never remember.

When Shelley joined me ten minutes later, full of cheer and ready for our nightly chat, I surprised him by ducking his forays at conversation until he finally realized that something was amiss.

“You’re goofy tonight,” he announced with some frustration.  “What’s on your mind?”

“Almond duck.”

“Almond what?”

“And midnight corned beef.”

Shelley thought for a moment, then burst into laughter.

“And you’re pissed?”

“You bet.”

“Because I was making you the ‘beard?’  Or because I didn’t tell you?”

“Both.”

“Mr. High and Mighty!” he exclaimed, shaking his head.  “You know what kind of company you’re keeping?  I ‘m the one who used to beard for Frank and Sammy!  And they did the same for me.”

“Frank and Sammy who?”

“You know damn well, Frank and Sammy who!  Life’s a battle, kiddo, and nobody gives you nothin’.  You wanna get somewhere in this world?  And especially in this town?  Then lemme give you the best lesson money can buy.  You gotta take what you can, when you can, and not let anyone ever stand in your goddamn way!”

Shelley walked to the bar and poured himself a glass of the Meursault he drank each and every night.  Downing it in one gulp, he lit a Gauloise and took a puff, then stared at me with eyes that were suddenly like lasers.  “Want to leave, boychick?   Want to check out and be one more lame, one more nobody, one more gawker on the other side of the velvet rope?  There’s the door.”

When I made no attempt to move, Shelley had the decency not to gloat.

“Okay,” he said, “since this is the Honesty Hour, have a seat and give it to me straight.  Since you know so goddamn much, at this stage of my career — and my life — what kind of movies do you think I should be making?”

Treading carefully, since Shelley was ever so sensitive about his advancing age, I pointed out that instead of continuing to do what he’d always done, it might be time to try something not just different, but bold.

“Like what?” Shelley bellowed.  “Shakespeare, for Chrissake?”

“If you can find a way to take people by surprise.”

“And who in hell ever did that?”

“Lubitch,” I replied.  “With Jack Benny.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’ve got an assignment.”

“To do what?”

“To watch a great film called ‘To Be Or Not To Be.’  And while you’re at it, take a peek at another one with somebody who’ll surprise you.”

“Namely?”

“Andy Griffith.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“And you say that you know movies?” I asked, rubbing it in.

“What picture we talking about?”

“One that you might have seen if you hadn’t had Frank and Sammy bearding for you.”

“Called?”

“A Face In The Crowd.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

Shelley paced for a moment, then pointed a finger at me.  “If I didn’t love you, boychick, I’d be really pissed right now.”

“Guess I’m lucky, huh?”

“You’re still sore about the bearding.”

“Can’t put anything past you.”

“But these two films, they’re good?”

“No.  They’re great.”

 

For the next two weeks the constant refrain from Shelley was, “I’m gonna surprise you, boychick” and “I’m gonna knock your socks off,” to which I paid little attention, not because I didn’t believe him, but mainly because I was busy with other things, not the least of which was an impending trip to Jersey to attend a friend’s wedding.

It was on the evening of my departure that an excited call came from Shelley.  “Get your ass out here, buddy-boy!” he shouted.

When I explained that I couldn’t — that I had things to do before catching the “red eye” — he demanded my flight info.

Knowing that asking why would be an exercise in futility, but that something was clearly in the offing, I wasn’t entirely surprised, when a friend dropped me off at the airport, to discover that people were gawking at the celebrity in their midst.

“Hope you’re not planning to sleep,” Shelley said as he approached then handed me a script.  “I’m expecting a call the minute you get there.  And you can make it collect.”

“Anything else while we’re at it?” I asked only half in jest.

“Sure,” said Shelley.  “Expect to be proud.”

 

It’s still not clear to me why I was apprehensive.  Whatever his shortcomings, Shelley was decidedly not stupid.  Self-important, certainly.  Under-educated, no question.  Guilty of living in an almost hermetically-sealed world, no doubt.  But when it came to gray matter, native intelligence, and innate smarts, Shelley was anything but deficient.  In fact, in many ways he was arguably brilliant.

Perhaps my misgivings owed less to a lack of faith in Shelley, or even to my doubts about the ability of those around him — his agents, his staffers, and his hangers-on — to recognize or come up with material that was bold or interesting, than to the gnawing sense that it was my prodding that might have been a catalyst for something I would come to regret.

On the plane, I held off taking the screenplay out of my carry-on bag for the first half of the trip, then yielded to a sense of responsibility that far exceeded either curiosity or hope.

Immediately my stomach began to sink, and not due to turbulence or changes in altitude.

 

In those days before iPhones and Androids, avoiding calls was infinitely easier, especially when my travel accommodations often meant crashing with an old girlfriend or couch surfing.  As a result, it took a day-and-a-half before Shelley tracked me down in the East Village.

“Thought you could duck me, huh?” he asked after introducing himself to my friend Nancy, who was too stoned to do much but giggle as she handed me the phone.

“I wanted to wait until I wasn’t busy or jet-lagged.”

“You just didn’t want to tip your hat.”

“Can’t put anything past you.”

“But admit it.  You were surprised.”

“I was surprised.”

Emiss, okay?  Ever think yours truly would come up with something like this?”

“Nope.”

“Oscar time?”

“What do I know?”

“How about the critics?”

“How about we talk when I get back?”

“You’re still ducking.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it now.”

“Perfect!  The nudnik dares me to find something different — something out there — something bold.  But when I surprise him by coming up with a killer, guess who doesn’t want to know.”

“Shelley…”

“Did you or did you not read it?”

“I read it.”

“And is it amazing, or what?”

“It’s amazing.”

“But?”

“Shelley, please…”

“Enough horseshit.  Do you or do you not think it’s great?”

With Nancy watching me grow more and more exasperated with each passing moment, I felt something inside of me snap.  “No, it’s not great,” I blurted.  “It’s not even good.”

“It’s powerful.”

“Fine.”

“Meaningful.”

“Sure.”

“Important.”

“Why not earth-shattering?  Devastating?  Overwhelming?”

“It’s all of those and more.”

“Whatever you say.”

There was a moment of silence before Shelley spoke again.  “Know what I bet?” he asked.

“What?”

“I bet you think you can do better.”

“That’s right.”

“So when do I see your masterpiece?”

“When it’s finished,” I said, instantly regretting my words.

 

I didn’t contact Shelley when I got back to California.  Nor, knowing that the repeated calls coming in morning, noon, and night were almost certainly from him, did I answer the phone for the first few days after my return.  So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised one afternoon when, while trudging back, tired and sweaty after an hour of full-court basketball at a playground nearby, I spotted an incongruous-looking black Mercedes parked in front of the ugly stucco building in the ghetto-adjacent neighborhood where I was living.

“Guess one of us hadn’t made it yet,” was Shelley’s acerbic greeting as he gestured toward the surroundings.

“Nice to see you, too.”

“So what’s wrong with the script?”

“Nothing.  It’s wonderful.”

“Says who?”

“Says you.”

“And my agents.”

“Great.”

“And all the guys in my office.”

“So why’re you bothering with me?”

“You don’t think it’s meaningful?”  Shelley asked.  “Profound?  Moving?”

“How come my opinion matters?”

“Because it does.”

“Then try these adjectives:  insipid… treacly… exploitative.”

“Give me that in English.”

“It made me want to puke.”

“You don’t think the subject matter is important?”

“A stand-up comic who finally gets acclaim –”

“I’d call it fulfillment –”

“By doing schtick in a concentration camp?”

“Think what he’s doing for morale.”

“Morale, my ass.  It’s tasteless grandstanding.”

“Says you.”

“Yeah, says me.  And by the way, aside from being horrendously written and hopelessly on-the-nose, the script is arguably the most offensive thing ever written.”

“But how do you really feel?” Shelley asked, clearly rattled but still managing a semblance of a smile.  “Listen, can we go inside?”

“So you can look around then tell me again that I haven’t made it?”

“Somebody’s feelings are hurt.”

“Somebody’s tired of this conversation.”

“But when do I see it?” Shelley demanded.

“See what?”

“The script you’re working on.”

“Who said I’m working on a script?”

“You,” Shelley answered.

 

Ten Shelley-free days ensued:  no calls, no evening gab-athons, not even an appearance on my part at his weekly class.  The respite was surprising, novel, and not the least bit unpleasant, though I can’t deny an ever-increasing awareness of the phone not ringing.

The feeling was akin to the silence and emptiness after a break-up, or the death of a close friend, in that the absence seemed somehow abrupt, unnatural, and, frankly, weird.

Each and every new day brought with it a strange kind of suspense, as though something inside of me expected Shelley to pop up when I turned a corner, or to accost me at a coffee house, or to surprise me on a visit to the taco joint nearby.

Though I assumed the estrangement would come to an end at some point, what I could not have anticipated was the way that it happened:  a courier showing up at my doorstep, packet in hand.

Inside I found a round-trip ticket to Washington, D.C., an engraved invitation to an event at the Kennedy Center, plus a hand-written note from Shelley that said simply, “Hope you’ll join me.”

No sooner did I read the invitation — which listed the public figures who would be honored on the evening in question, among them Duke Ellington and Shelley Robbins — than the phone rang.

“Can I count on you?” Shelley asked immediately.

“It’s not my kind of thing.”

“But even so, why wouldn’t you want to be there for me?”

“Really want an answer?”

“Yup.”

“I get embarrassed when you start with the malaprops.”

“I know big words, goddamnit!”

“Sure.  But the only one you get right is delicatessen.”

While I can’t be certain, I actually think that despite himself Shelley laughed.

“And if I promise to behave?”

“Shelley, please…”

“Give me one good reason why not.”

“I don’t own a suit.”

“How could that possibly be?”

“Easy.  So thanks, congratulations, and give my best to Jeannie.”

With that I hung up.

 

Three days later another courier showed up at my apartment.  But instead of handing me a packet, this time what he gave me was my very first Italian-made suit.

Again the phone rang as if on cue.

“Now you’ve got no excuse,” Shelley proclaimed proudly.

 

Trapped, I searched for a way to minimize the potential awkwardness of the evening and somehow maximize the fun until at last I conceived of a plan.  After dutifully attending the ceremony, I would rush to the hotel and change into a pair of jeans.  Unbeknownst to Shelley, I would then rendezvous with an American girl I used to see occasionally in Paris, hopefully spend the night with her, and finally meet up with a friend from my hometown for breakfast before grabbing my suitcase and heading to the airport.

 

Though long-winded, the ceremony was far from excruciating.  I admit that it was a kick to see Duke Ellington accept his award.  And a couple of the other honorees were pleasant surprises, in that their moving words seemed genuine and heartfelt.  As for Shelley, it was clear that he had decided it was appropriate to be dignified rather than funny, which made him seem a bit arch.  But I was pleased that nothing he said was awkward, ill-advised, or embarrassing.  And I couldn’t help but be flattered by his one joke, which came at the beginning of his acceptance speech when he gazed at the audience and, with a wink in my direction, said, “Something tells me I’m not at my favorite delicatessen.”

At the reception that followed, I waited for what I took to be an opportune moment, then told Shelley I was heading to the hotel.

“Wait,” Shelley responded.  “Wait a little bit, then we’ll go back together.”

When what Shelley promised would be a “little bit” proved to be anything but, I approached him again, making it clear I wanted out.

“Five more minutes,” Shelley said.  “Then we’re definitely gone.”

Needless to say, it was substantially more than five minutes before Shelley finally was ready to depart.

“Somebody’s hoping to get lucky tonight,” he then said, reading my impatience.  “We’ll head back, we’ll talk a little, then you’re off.”

Several more hugs, air kisses, and assorted other farewells interfered with our journey toward the exit, then still more as we slowly made our way to the waiting limo.

 

“Surprised you, didn’t I?” Shelley asked me as the limo driver got us out of there at last.  “No mishaps, no grandstanding, not even any of those — what do you call ’em?”

“Malaprops.”

“Think some of those goyim even know what a delicatessen is?”

“It got a laugh.”

“From people who’d order corned beef with mayonnaise.  But you know what counts?” he asked.  “You helped me.  And I want you to know I’m grateful.”

Not another word was said on our trip back to the hotel.

 

Though Shelley repeated his pledge that our time together would be brief, I couldn’t help but cringe, upon entering his suite, when I spotted several chilled bottles of his favorite Meursault as well as a full carton on Gauloises.

“Time for a little heart to heart,” Shelley said as he gestured toward a sofa, then reached for a corkscrew and started to open one of the bottles on ice.

Silence ensued as he filled two glasses.  But once we toasted, and I watched Shelley nearly empty his in one gulp, he fixed his gaze upon me.

“Am I wrong in thinking that people don’t like me?” he asked.

“I don’t think this is the time.”

“Why not?”

“Because you just were honored.”

“Not because you’d rather be elsewhere?”

When I didn’t answer, Shelley lit a cigarette, took a deep puff, then paced for a couple of moments.  “I’m a nice guy,” he said.

“Yup.”

“Aren’t I?”

“Who am I to say?”

“Level with me.  Do people like me?

“Some do.”

“Not everyone?”

“No one’s liked by everyone.”

Shelley poured himself more wine, which he again downed rapidly.

“Okay, hit me.  Why don’t people like me?”

“Shelley, this is awkward.”

“Please?”

“Can’t we save it for when we get back?”

“I really need to know,” Shelley said beseechingly.

Instead of answering right away, I stood, stretched, and walked over to the window so as to look out at the city below.  Then, after taking a sip of the Meursault, I got up the gumption to face Shelley.

“Ask you a question?” I asked.

“Fire away.”

“How do you think you treat people?”

“I have fun with ’em.”

“But do they think it’s fun?”

“Frank does.  Sammy does.”

“Whoopie-do.  Or should I say ring-a-ding-ding?”

“Not funny.”

“But what about other people?”

“What other people?”

“Regular people.  People who are just trying to go about their business and do their job.”

“How do you think I treat ’em?”

“Honestly?”

Shelley nodded.

“Like shit.”

Shelley glared for a moment, finished what was in his wine glass, then lit another cigarette.

“You’re killing me,” he said.

“Then let’s table this for another time.”

Shelley poured out what was left in the first bottle, then opened another.

“Okay, Mr. Know-it-all.  Who exactly am I rotten to?”

“Waitresses.  Valet parkers.  Shall I go on?”

For a moment, Shelley looked like he was about to cry, but then suddenly he glared.

“How come you can say this shit to me and the guys in my office don’t?”

“Don’t?  Or won’t?”

“What’s that mean?”

“What do you think it means?”

While Shelley poured, then drank, another glass of wine, I thought about my plans for the night, which were rapidly and, it seemed, definitively, going up in smoke.

“What makes you so different from Joe and the guys?” Shelley demanded.

“For them you’re a meal ticket — the last stop on the subway.”

“And you?”

“A point of departure.”

“You mean when you sell that script you’re writing?”

“Whether or not I sell it.”

Shelley studied me for what felt like an eternity, then lit yet another Gauloise.  I watched him pantomime a couple of golf swings, pour and down another glass of wine, then sigh.

“And the telethon?” he asked.

“What about it?”

“The people you’re talking about.  They don’t give me credit for it?”

“You’ve heard the rumors.”

“What goddamn rumors?”

“They think you steal the money.”

“But I don’t take a dime!” Shelley shrieked.  Like a child throwing a tantrum, he punched the wall, knocked over a chair, then disappeared into the bathroom.  When he returned, drying his face with a towel, he looked petulant.

“You really don’t like that script I gave you?” he asked softly.

“Right now I don’t like anything.”

“Including me?”

“Including myself,” I answered.  “I’m gonna go now.”

“Please don’t.”

“This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“You’re wrong,” Shelley stated emphatically.  “I’m gonna change.”

I said nothing.

“Don’t believe me, do you?” Shelley persisted.

“C’mon –”

“You’re gonna see a new man.  A new Shelley.  A guy who’s gonna make you proud.”

“Whatever you say.”

“And to celebrate, I’m gonna buy you breakfast.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“You don’t want to keep me company?’

“All I want to do is go to my room, burn these cigarette-smelling clothes, jump in the shower, and get some sleep.”

“C’mon –” Shelley insisted.

 

In the elevator I was told for the umpteenth time that I would see the new Shelley, and the same promise was repeated both as we trudged through the hotel lobby and as we crossed the street.

Miraculously, as Shelley voraciously devoured black coffee and poached eggs on rye toast while I, green at the gills, pushed blueberry pancakes back and forth on my plate, he restrained from making jokes or flippant remarks at the expense of the elderly waitress, the weary-looking busboy, or even a pin-headed diner who must have weighed three hundred pounds.

“The new Shelley,” the award recipient intoned proudly as we got up to leave, then again in the street, then once more as we reentered our hotel.

Across the lobby we went, then into an elevator, where Shelley’s pledge was repeated anew.  But before our ascent began, the door sprang open, and in stepped a young, cute, Midwestern-looking blonde.  Mechanically, she pushed the button for her floor, watched as the door closed, then turned and did a double-take as it dawned on her whose company she was keeping.

Knowing that for Shelley this shiksa would be the ultimate test, I hoped that somehow he’d manage to be good to his word.  But my prayers were to no avail.

“So tell me, sweetheart,” the new Shelley said with no hesitation.  “Ever go down on a Jewish movie star?”

As the girl turned beet red, I did my best to be invisible.

 

The next few weeks my life were largely monastic, with teaching, playing basketball, and late afternoon runs for rice pudding ice cream cones providing virtually the only respite from marathon sessions with the script-in-progress.  Except for an occasional note to say he missed me, Shelley gave me what was for him considerable room, which I suspect owed more to an awareness of my hurt feelings than to graciousness or even a sense of embarrassment on his part.

Happily, one of the guys who played in my weekly Saturday full-court game turned out to be what’s known in the business as a literary agent, and one morning after asking what I did, he inquired about the script I was writing.  Here I should mention that Hollywood basketball, like most gatherings in Tinseltown, is a world unto itself.  It was at a Sunday game, for instance, that another player inadvertently taught me about my new habitat when he asked, while we were at the water fountain, what I did.  After giving him a short-form answer, I, so as not to be impolite, asked the same of him.  “I’m Gene Hackman’s brother-in-law,” he replied, making me realize how much was left to learn, since until then I had no clue that a relationship could also be an occupation.

Though I assumed I was getting no more than lip service when the basketball-playing agent asked to see a draft whenever it was ready, he persisted in inquiring about my progress week after week, which served not as pressure, but as an additional incentive.

The first big surprise for me, having heard that alacrity was nonexistent in show biz, was the speed with which he actually read the script once I gave it to him.  Even more surprising, having being told countless times that “notes” often ranged from silly to idiotic, was that the couple of suggestions he offered were not without merit.

But the biggest shock was that after giving him the go-ahead to make submissions using what became the revised version, he called one afternoon to say there were producers who wanted to meet.  “With eyes,” he added, toward “maybe acquiring the script.”

So elated was I, especially when a series of meetings followed where my script and I were praised, that the nightmare that was Washington was all but forgotten, as was Shelley’s oft-repeated request to see the script once it was done.

But on the day that an actual offer came in — not a purchase, it was specified, but an option plus a fee for a rewrite — I found Shelley at my doorstep when I got home from a lengthy run.

“Nice fucking guy,” was Shelley’s opening gambit, making it clear he was in the know about the attention the script was getting.  “Way to remember and say thanks.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If anyone gets to make that picture, it’s me.”

“But you don’t even know what it’s about.”

“So I’ll find out.”

“Shelley, it’s about a rock & roller.”

“So?”

“You’ve told me a million times how much you hate that music.”

“So we’ll change it to Frank and Sammy’s stuff.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Shelley bellowed.  “Do I sound like I’m fucking kidding?  You owe me!”

“What did you say?”

“You heard me, boychick.  You owe me big time.”

I was sorely tempted to throw a punch, but somehow managed to restrain myself.

“If I owe you,” I said as calmly as possible, “it’s for one thing and one thing alone.”

“And what’s that?”

“For making this easy.”

To Shelley’s amazement, I took a deep breath, then turned and walked away, not for the first time, but definitely for the last.

 

While I’d love to say that my script got produced, was favorably received, and became a giant hit, such was not the case.  Instead it got optioned again and again, drawing repeated praise and getting me writing assignments that were occasionally good, but more often bad.  Ultimately some other projects I worked on did reach the screen, but always, to my mind, with an asterisk of sorts — if only the script hadn’t been watered down… if only they’d let us shoot in Harlem rather than Toronto… if only the director hadn’t had a tin ear… if only the actor hadn’t been a drunk.  In fact it was not until I finally got to direct — when I stopped being only-the-writer, merely-the-writer, just-the-writer, and often no-longerthe-writer — that I could finally watch projects with my name in the credits without cringing.

What did get made, ironically, was the script about which Shelley and I disagreed so acrimoniously, which proved to be not merely his next directing gig, but also his last.  Still unreleased to this day, it has over the years been the subject of much conjecture, with people near and far speculating as to why distribution has never materialized.  Though tempted on many occasions, I have never added anything to the various internet forums and chats, not about the script, not about Shelley, and not about our experiences together.

 

The closest we ever came to crossing paths again was when a screenwriter friend showed up at lunchtime at an office I had in a two-story building in an area with an abundance of restaurants.

“I saw Shelley Robbins going into the Italian place up the block,” she mentioned.  “Weren’t you two close?”

“Once upon a time.”

“Want to eat there?”

I thought for a moment, then shook my head.

“Let’s have Chinese,” I said.

Not another word was exchanged until the two of us reached our destination.  But as we were about to enter, my friend’s curiosity got the better of her.

“What was the link between you two anyway?” she asked.

“Honest?”

“Sure.”

“We were born in the same hospital.”

Not wishing to elaborate, I changed the subject immediately.

 

——————–

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and most recently boxing (www.elboxeothemovie.com).  His scripted efforts include “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and HBO’s “Rebound” with Don Cheadle, Forrest Whitaker, and James Earl Jones.  In the world of music, in addition to producing a Ray Charles album of love songs, he worked in various capacities with Solomon Burke, Billy Preston, and (gulp!) Ike Turner.  His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, and in several American publications.


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