my life as a freelancer
by Burt Prelutsky
I just finished reading a book by a friend of mine, Lawrence Grobel’s “The Art of the Interview.” Larry, who teaches interviewing techniques at UCLA, has made a career out of interviewing celebrities, most notably for Playboy. Probably most of what you know about such people as Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Al Pacino, Bobby Knight and James A. Michener, you know because Mr. Grobel spent days, weeks, months and even, in Michener’s case, years, asking them questions, provoking extremely provocative answers.
It is not my practice to shamelessly plug anyone’s book but my own, but in this instance, it was his fascinating book that served to remind me of some of my own more memorable experiences interviewing notables.
When I was still at UCLA and writing for the Daily Bruin, I interviewed Tony Randall one day, at MGM, where he was shooting “Boy’s Night Out.” What made the occasion memorable was that Mr. Randall was the most foul-mouthed individual I have ever encountered. I suspect that when drunken sailors want to pay homage to one of their own, they say, “He swears like a sober Tony Randall.”
Many of his anecdotes were amusing, but they invariably ended with an obscenity or two, which made them unquotable in a college paper. At least a college paper in 1960.
I had a disappointment of a different sort that same year when I went to the Santa Monica apartment of Stan Laurel. The problem in his case was that he had, shortly before, been extensively interviewed for a book, “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Because the book hadn’t come out yet, he felt that it wouldn’t be fair to the author if he covered any of the same ground with me. Even though I explained that an article in the Daily Bruin would hardly hurt sales of a book that wouldn’t even be coming out for another six or eight months, Mr. Laurel remained steadfast. As I recall, in order to make up for his reticence, he played an LP of some English musical hall comedian he thought was hilarious, and I thought was abominable.
Things generally improved once I became a professional writer, but not on every occasion. Twice, even though I was on assignment for TV Guide, subjects simply refused to talk to me when I showed up. I guess the good news is that neither time was it anything personal. John Amos, the black co-star of “Good Times,” refused to let me interview him because I was white; Dan Rowan and Dick Martin wouldn’t even say hello to me because they so resented TV Guide. And why was that? Because in the magazine’s weekly schedule, they listed the show as “Laugh In,” and not as “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.”
My other unforgettable TV Guide experience involved Marlo Thomas. The interview, itself, went okay. However, afterwards, I got a quote from one of the people she had worked with on her series, “That Girl.” He reported that notable feminist Thomas was a tyrant to her female employees. He informed me that she had decided that yellow was her color, and would scream at any of the ladies who wore clothing with even a splash of yellow, threatening to fire them if it ever happened again.
Being a conscientious professional, I phoned Marlo, read her the quote, and asked her if she wished to comment on it. Instead of denying or confirming, she began yelling at me, demanding that I tell her who had snitched. I explained that I couldn’t divulge my source, but that I’d be happy to print her response. When she kept yelling her head off, I hung up. However, I did print her response.
When I contacted Carlotta Monti, W.C. Fields’ former girl friend, she suggested that she pick me up in the car that Fields had left her some 30-odd years earlier. It was her notion that while I interviewed her in the backseat, her nephew would drive us around L.A., and she would point out homes she’d shared with Fields, places where they’d attended parties, as well as parks where they’d picnicked. It was quite an entertaining way to spend the better part of a day.
There was only one problem. You see, my editor at the L.A. Times was always after me to stop taking notes and to start using a tape-recorder. I had grown accustomed to doing it my way, and hated the idea of introducing technology into the process. Besides, when I took notes, I was able to edit as I went along. With tapes, I would have to transcribe hours of conversation before I could even begin writing. However, to humor my boss, on this one occasion, I did it his way. And it worked fine, up to a point.The point came a few days later, before I’d gotten around to transcribing the four hours of material. My house was burgled, either by people on a scavenger hunt or by the Three Stooges. They swiped a tennis racket, a bottle of vodka, a napkin on which I’d jotted down a bet on the upcoming Academy Awards, and the four tapes!
Ms. Monti was gracious enough to invite me to her home in an attempt to recreate the interview, but I decided it had been a sign from God, and I never again employed a tape-recorder.
My proudest moment as a magazine freelancer took place when I was in my early 20s, and had gotten an assignment from the Sunday supplement of a Chicago newspaper. At the time, the TV networks were planning to dump a bunch of 30-minute and 60-minute shows, and, instead, go with 90-minute shows and two-hour movies. My instructions were to write a funny opinion piece, and not bother dealing with the financial impact on the industry.
A few days after mailing off the piece, I received a phone call from a very unhappy editor. He demanded to know where all the facts and figures were. I reminded him that he had very specifically said I was to ignore all of that dry stuff and to just write something amusing, which we both seemed to agree I had.
He not only denied ever having said such a thing, he said he expected me to write this other piece. I told him I’d be happy to oblige him just as soon as they paid me for the one I’d already written.
He said that a re-write was always part of a freelance deal. I told him I understood, but that what he was demanding wasn’t a re-write, but an entirely new article.
He was so angry that if it had been a movie cartoon, his hands would have reached out of the phone and strangled me. He settled for telling me I was off the assignment, and that I wouldn’t even be paid a kill-fee for my efforts.
I would have been tempted to confront him in his lair, except that I was in L.A., 2000 miles away. So, instead, I phoned the managing editor of the paper, and poured out my heart to him. But all he had to say was that his subordinate editors had the autonomy to run their sections as they saw fit. Then he hung up on me.
Seemingly, I was stymied. But, fortunately, both of those galoots had somewhat unusual names, and I still had relatives living in Chicago. I called up a cousin, gave him the two names, and asked him to look them up in the local phone books. The next day, he called me back to report he’d hit pay-dirt.
I then sat down and wrote two letters, spelling out my financial woes. I explained that I was a young writer just starting out, and I wondered how they would feel if their son was in my place, and were being treated as shabbily as I was.
Within a week, I received a check from the newspaper paying me for the article.
You see, I hadn’t written to the editors. I’d written to their wives.