Press play for some mood music
It was around 1970. I was called into Saul Rubik's office on Monday morning.
I had a bungalow on the studio backlot and safe money was that the big man wanted to talk about a picture I'd been writing. All weekend I heard him in the back of my head. "Where's my script you pencil-neck little kraut?" or "I paid for a drama, not this weepy soap opera crap!" Whatever the case, I heard his voice and pictured those bloated sausage fingers pointing at me from behind his obnoxious leather desk.
Monday came and I could tell that fat prick forgot my name. He started the conversation by buttering me up. I know a decent butter-up when I hear one.
"You..." Rubik said motioning towards me. "You know what I like about you?"
I shook my head.
"You have a way with words." I gotta admit, when the chief of a studio says that, it feels pretty damned decent. But then he stopped and turned towards me. "I need you to do me a favor. Silly work but it needs to be done."
"Anything, sir. You name it."
So there I was thinking he pegged me a great idea man and needed someone to rework a fledgling TV show with some slam-bang telescripts. After all, someone had to whip those TV hacks into shape. Right?
No such luck.
* * *
I was headed to the commissary to meet studio founder Sammy Stahl, who at around 87, was really nothing more than a figure head of a bygone era. Sure, he still kept his office but he had no real authority at Pinnacle Pictures and hadn't greenlit a real movie since the days of Ike.
I saw a buddy scribe of mine and before I sat down he said, "Just let him talk. I was on 'Stahl Duty' last week."
"Stahl Duty?" I was confused.
"Yeah," my buddy snapped back. "They keep us writers around the lot for a reason. They don't want our scripts. We're furniture to occupy the old man. They rotate us to make him feel important."
"No way! I don't believe you," I said. "I have a script due at the end of the month."
My buddy nudged me in the ribs. "Like I said, just let old Stahl talk..."
* * *
I sat down. "Mr. Stahl?"
Stahl grunted. "You here to pitch me a story?"
I choked. "Um, Yes... Sure."
"I don't want any more wrestling pictures. We're done with them."
I made up a fake pitch about some Midwestern bank heist gone wrong. So wrong in fact that all of the crooks were double-crossing each other in the safe house. Actually, it was a pretty decent pitch.
"Just make at least one guy likable," Stahl advised. "Bogart... Now he was likeable. Women wanted to schtup him and guys wanted to be him. Channel Bogie, kid."
Stahl asked if I had an idea for my lead. I answered maybe Eastwood or McQueen.
"Bums..." He laughed and fluffed my suggestions off. "They won't last five years."
His soup came. Because of his incessant hand shaking, most of the chowder was splashing onto the floor and his lap. I felt that I had to help him.
"Do you need help Mr. Stahl?" I figured he didn't hear me. Little did I know that I was just being ignored.
Leaning in, I said, "I can feed you your soup if you'd like, sir."
Dropping the spoon into the bowl and staring right through me, I'll never forget what he said. "I didn't fight to get out of fucking Poland and build an entire industry from scratch only to have you feed me soup like an infant. I can feed myself. Now go write me a goddamned movie."
Walking back to my small bungalow, it hit me. Stahl displayed the proud moral fiber most of my work had been lacking. And even though the revelation may have come in the form of a silly bowl of soup, I found enough spark to eventually deliver that heist movie after all.
Rubik loved it and instantly greenlit it. When I accepted my Oscar a couple of years later, I thanked the late Samuel Stahl and had a cup of chowder before the Governor's Ball.