In 1971, Warner Bros. released a dark, edgy movie about a small-town detective who gets involved with a prostitute over the course of his investigation in the big city. This film, Klute, was Alan J. Pakula’s second feature working as director. It also featured strong performances by Jane Fonda (who won a Best Actress Oscar) and Donald Sutherland, received excellent reviews, and was both an artistic and commercial success. But who were the writers Andy Lewis and David Lewis, who seemed to be relatively unknown at the time? Sure, they each have their share of credits on IMDb, but where are these brothers now? Where did these Academy Award-Nominated writers end up? After some digging, we learned that David Lewis had passed away but that Andy Lewis was now living in New England. With some help from our friends at No Film-Film Festival in Vermont, we connected with Andy. We sent him questions and he emailed us back. Here’s how it went:
The Next Reel: First off, thanks for agreeing to chat with us about Klute and your life as a writer. We’d like to know more about how the film came to be, how you and your brother, Dave Lewis, worked together, how you got your start – everything.
Andy Lewis: We’re a little odd, aren’t we, to rummage in material like this from more than forty years back? But you guys are scholars and teachers of this stuff and it was part of my life, so why the hell not?
TNR: How did you get your start? When and where were you born and how did you end up in the film business?
AL: Born 1925. Massachusetts. A Yankee. I wanted to be a writer from early on (along with other things like quarterback and President). In those times, a "writer" did short stories and novels. If he was real hot, he'd get published in the New Yorker. Show business was somewhere way – way – far off. Fred Astaire? Esther Williams? Off my radar.
Shortly after WW2, I got married, started a family and had to start making a living. I could only write part time. But I got a story into the Saturday Evening Post. And at about the same time, Bob Saudek was setting up the Ford Foundation TV-Radio Workshop. [He was creator of the weekly public television precursor “Omnibus.”] I applied to Bob and got hired. (Actually, Bob was an old family friend. Nepotism, maybe. But I gave him some years of good service.) I wrote all kinds of stuff for “Omnibus”: documentaries, originals, whatever. One light piece, "Hilde and the Turnpike," got some attention and turned me toward commercial TV.
TNR: Your brother, David, was also a screenwriter and TV writer. Did you two often work together?
AL: Dave was my older brother by ten years. He was a wonderful older brother and man. Late in WW2, he commanded a rocket artillery battalion on Okinawa. He came home with a virus – encephalitis – that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It was after that that we started writing together. It wasn't his natural talent, but Dave had a keen and skillful mind. We'd swap story ideas and pieces. We both listened and adopted. We didn't fight.
TNR: TV writing is very much a team job, at least it is today. What was it like then?
AL: You’re talking about "writing teams?" Not in my experience. I wrote with Dave or alone. Mostly alone. Except, of course, for producers, editors, directors, business managers of stars, cleaning ladies, podiatrists and whoever the hell else happened by and had the enthusiasm or authority to offer guidance.
TNR: What were some of your favorite moments as a TV writer?
AL: I didn’t get many. Look, TV is – or anyway it was back then – a species of mass production. I was an assembly worker, turning out entertainments in quick time on short notice, to be carried out – usually without rehearsal – by actors who could be trusted at minimum to get on and off camera without missing their marks or blowing their lines.
Or – let me go at it this way. A writer in show business is a worditute. Like his sisters in sin, he may sometimes experience a fleeting pleasure. But these occasions are rare and always, inescapably, there’s someone else in the act.
But, well – OK – not to be grudging, I have to admit to tweaks of pleasure or pride now and then. For example, I recall a couple of “Profiles in Courage” scripts as reputable work. I recall a “Dr. Kildare” episode with Dick Chamberlain and Gail Kobe (real professionals). Or here's another. I wrote a comedy for CBC's show "Encore" called "The Last of the Hot Pilots." This was very, very early in what would come to be called the "Space Age" at a time when rockets were mostly just falling over and exploding. The story was about a scoundrel of a guy who gets chosen, much to his frantic dismay, to be the very first human launch. As I say, this was very early – it was almost the first space story [on TV] ever – and it gave me a wonderful chance to take a few shots at “space travel.”
TNR: You won a Spur award from the Western Writers of America for an episode called "Zee" that you wrote for "Lancer." Can you say anything about that episode?
AL: Westerns, yuh. When I started writing, that's what they were making. Let me say something about the script you mention, "Zee," and then, quite separately from that, speaking of those old Western scripts, let me tell you about the best line of dialog I ever wrote and what happened to it.
Zee, the woman character of Zee in the “Lancer” episode – what should we call her? – the "gamine" – was a contributory element actually to the character Bree in Klute. Intelligence. Strength. Quirkiness. Wit – especially wit. You, as students of these matters, surely take note of the conventional role of women in "dramatic works," both then and even now. What the woman, the heroine, does is to react appropriately to whatever the man does or has going on. Her life or characteristics may get a little passing attention, but mostly not – they're not the main male story. Count it up for yourself – how many movies, even now, center around the individual temperaments of their women? I can remember only one forerunner to Klute (surely there must be others, but beyond my ken), and that was a movie called Petulia [1968 with Julie Christie]. Remember it? Anyhow – what I'm getting at – I like to write smart, individualistic women, and I like to think I was good at it.
Now for – as I promised – my best dialog line ever. My pinnacle moment as script artist. I brought this forth in another of those many westerns. I can’t remember the name of the series or the producer, but here’s the start situation as he, the producer, set it forth to me:
"There's this town, see, that has this sort of harmless, crazy guy living on the outskirts. Kind of a whacked-out, flower child type. But this town, these people, they're scared of him. So what happens? This kid up and shoots him. And everybody's good with that; he becomes the local hero. But what these people don't know, see, is that this really tough Indian tribe that lives nearby, they really grooved with the crazy guy. He was, like, kind of sacred to them. So what do they do? They come and surround the town and they say, ‘Give us the kid that shot him and we will maybe burn him or bury him in sand or, anyhow, do something real naughty to him, or--- or--- we will come in and kill every one of you deader than oatmeal.’"
So there you have it as conveyed to me as writer. The moral issue. So here, now, I approach the scene wherein resides my all-time best line. The town's board of selectmen have called a meeting to consider this crisis – turn the shooter kid over to the Indians or not. The shooter kid himself is there attending and he sees where the discussion seems to be trending. And he becomes very upset and breaks in with something like this: "Look – wait – look! You liked me shooting that crazy guy! You’re gonna give me to those Indians!? You said I saved the whole town. I was a hero. I saved this whole town!”
Whereat – here it comes, guys, my best line ever – the Head Selectman turns to him and says, "Well, look at it this way, son. You've got a chance to do it again."
Now you may well ask, did I ever get justly celebrated for this line? No. The actor just quickly mutters his way through it, and they go on to shooting the next scene, whatever it was. I live with the regret.
TNR: According to IMDb, you wrote for quite a few TV shows in the 50s and 60s as well as two TV movies in the 70s. Do you recall any specific instance of your writings that turned out exactly as you saw it in your head?
AL: The IMDb list is incomplete. I've never seen everything listed in one place, and I doubt that I could recall everything myself. As to whether any show got made the way I visualized it: as I’ve said, I can recall a couple of episodes of “Profiles in Courage” bunch that got performed and shot pretty carefully. I'm sure there were other occasions but I can't right now bring them to mind. But that’s how it goes – went. You work with a whole range of others. By and large they’re good people, but their degrees of talent are all over the place.
But to come to the main point of this – my writing life, start to end – the brute fact is that the sort of things that have always interested me – the real gritty facts of the American Revolution, for instance, or how it must really be to live in Burkina Faso – things like that – are things that almost nobody but me ever wanted to put on camera.
TNR: How did you make your big break into writing feature scripts?
AL: I had been prodding my agents about this for years. At length, they got me a job with an outfit called Levy-Gardner-Laven to work on their film Underground. This was what you’d call a "B" production, a mission-behind-enemy-lines WW2 sort of action-potboiler. B-pictures were what these guys did, one after another. I worked for them some months and got paid a nickel. But they were good, unpretending people, all three, and I liked them a lot personally. I don’t remember how much of my writing got used – probably not much – and I’ve never seen the film itself. But to this day, oh my God, I get wee residuals from its getting recycled through Lagos and Bangkok and New Delhi and wherever. American culture enriching the world.
But, to return to the point, I liked these guys. And a quality they shared was an extraordinary instinct for what was marketable. And as things went, a couple of months later on, in a casual conversation with Levy (I think Levy), he dropped a comment that he thought the American audience was ready for a film about a prostitute. Promptly – promptly – I swiped that notion into a corner of my mind.
TNR: And that is how Klute came to be?
AL: Partly. Klute was/is an artifact. A deliberate outcome. I wanted to get out of TV. I knew I had to write for the market. That almost automatically meant "thriller." I put that together with Levy's passing comment and with the gamine female character I spoke of before, and then, to complete my thievery, I pulled out a plot situation I remembered from years before – when I was literally a child – from an ancient Saturday Evening Post serialized story about a farmer/rancher-type who journeys to the big city to look at an empty yard where his brother was murdered long ago to figure out who actually did it.
This is one of two resonant American themes (I'll get to the other in a moment): the rube who turns the tables on the city slickers. There is an entire tradition – you may well be familiar with it – of the Toby Show. Toby is the rural duffer who turns out to be smarter than the slickers all around. (Klute, right?)
The second theme is paranoia. I'm sure this afflicts people all over the world, but I somehow think of it as typically American. The hidden pattern of things. The darkness. The people out there watching you, plotting against you, waiting to hurt you. Sounds you hear at night. Silences on the phone. All that stuff. I figured I would write this thing, however it went, to take the fullest possible advantage of this – what should we call it? – instinct. Deliberately.
TNR: Paranoia’s always been a key part of it. Interestingly, Klute is the first film of what some people refer to as Alan J. Pakula's “paranoia trilogy,” joining The Parallax View and All the President's Men. Speaking to the nature of paranoia, how do you feel it plays into this film?
AL: To illustrate, you may remember an early scene in Klute where Klute spots that he and Bree are being watched from the skylight above. He goes busting up to the roof in pursuit. Now, when Alan and I were working together, his version of how it should play out – and as you'll recall it playing actually in the movie – is that we, the audience, should glimpse a shadowy figure scampering away and that Klute should go rampaging after him unsuccessfully. That plays. And that plays to the kind of fear we’re talking about. (Though actually, myself, I always sort of thought it might have been better to have Klute come sprinting out and find no one. Just the dark. Keep the thing there but hidden, that is.)
Alan and I had the same instincts about a lot of things, and certainly he welcomed, in this instance, the theme of paranoia. For all I know, he may have given it much thought before, but in this particular instance, in our script, it was there waiting for him.
So here anyhow, summing up, here we have an environment: big city prostitution. We have our heroine: beautiful, smart, articulate, in terror for her life but witty about it. We have our hero: the rube in the city. And we have our overriding atmosphere of paranoia.
TNR: This film deals heavily with the nature of trust, and how we give and grant trust in our relationships. The message ends up being quite powerful both in the context of personal/professional relationships (Bree/Klute) and power/industrial relationships (Klute/Cable). Was this message intentional or emergent?
AL: I think this motif – the love and distrust part – is/was implicit from the start between Bree and Klute. I could never claim that Dave and I invented or deliberately enhanced this element. It was just always there. And Alan felt from the start, and quite rightly, that this was the carrying element of the story and what we had to focus on.
TNR: The 70s stand out as a period in which production design turns from stately stage work of the 40s and 50s to a gritty, dirty, even aggressive view of "real life". Was this a trend you were specifically aware of in writing the script? How did the resulting design of the film fit your vision of it, and how did that vision contribute to (or distract from!) your vision for the film?
AL: Your observation interests me. You speak of the change of character in dramatic culture from "stately stage work" to "real life." You place this change in the 70s. It seems to me that it came, or at least started, a good deal earlier, and came as a result, to my mind, due to WW2. That war was the occasion, after all, when a whole generation of us got a whole firsthand faceful of "real life." And this started to get reflected in what we'd see and do on screen. Bit by bit, we began to watch what we could consider real people doing real things, or somewhere close. I'd say that this started as early even as the late forties, and had become available as a dramatic mode by the time of Klute. And, yuh, I wanted to make Klute as nearly "real" as I could. And so did Dave, and so did Alan. But the trend had started well before us.
(Digression. It's funny to me that this "realism" we're talking about came about as a result (I claim) of WW2, but we never saw it applied to the movies about that war that were made during and immediately after it. They continued to be overblown and heroic. We – my infantry colleagues and I – used to sit and laugh at this crap. It's only recently – very, very recently in the past few years – that WWII has been dramatized in ways that partly catch the real feel of it. Curious. I've never been able to figure the why of this.)
TNR: Backing up a bit, describe the writing process for Klute. How did you and David move from the birthing of the idea to writing it?
AL: It was written entirely on "spec." As I've indicated, I swiped the topic, the female character, the environment, and the general course of the story from one different place or another. I did most of the actual scripting, but in the early stages there was a whole lot of back-and-forth between Dave and me of opinions, events, particulars of character and scene, and everything else. This went on mostly by letter and via phone – a prodigious amount as Dave was located in California and I in Massachusetts. I'd have trouble attributing any part of the original script to one or the other of us solely.
The outcome was just as I'd hoped. Partly out of the elements I've listed and partly out of simple good luck, I had hit on a real audience appetite. My agents were greatly pleased. In effect, they put it up for auction. It sold literally overnight to Warner Bros. as it turned out.
As I remember, from my first dealings at the time with Warner Bros., Alan had expressed an interest in the script as producer/director but was passed up. A little bit later, he reinserted himself in the proceedings and got locked into the project.
TNR: Klute is a fascinating film because it plays as a thriller but also is a fascinating character study, both of Klute and Bree (and to some extent Cable).
AL: I've already spoken of my pleasure in the character of Bree, the female "gamine," and my sense of competence in writing this character. And since she's a prostitute and city girl, it makes an interesting contrast to offer Klute as, essentially, a country man with a set of country virtues.
There was a whole lot more of Klute in the original script than what survived in the film. It's my besetting fault as a writer that I get wound up in my characters and want to explore their conflicts and atmospheres, and that as a result I chronically write overlength. A lot of this length always has to come out. That was the first chore Alan and I had to undertake, and as he maintained and I had to agree Bree was our core charismatic element. So what had to come out came out almost entirely from Klute’s part.
TNR: Cable is such an interesting character for us. Beyond being the bad guy, what does this character represent to you in terms of the overall dramatic mechanism of your story? If this film is a mirror representing your interpretation of our culture at the time, what does Cable represent in that reflection?
AL: Geez. I've never thought, and don't think, of Cable as a character at all. He was a necessary mechanism. Klute had to be a thriller. A thriller needs a bad guy. The setup of the story, its location and logic of events, led rather directly toward a business executive sort of bad guy, an associate of the missing victim, located in a countryside headquarters of a large company but having occasion for trips and wickedness in the big city. That's just about all of Cable, apart from Alan's and my few added fillips. And Alan and I used to have fun talking about him as our all-purpose pervert. Our "interpretation of culture?” C'mon. Really. You and I have just finished talking about "realism." How real, do you really think, is the figure of a responsible business executive (important enough to ride around in his own helicopter) who himself, personally, firsthand, conducts three murders and tape records himself doing it? C'mon.
TNR: True enough. So with all these great characters in your script, do you remember any other bits that had to come out? Any specific bits of additional stuff from Klute or someone else?
AL: Lots of stuff. In the original script, just for one example, there were scenes of Klute closing up his Pennsylvania house and driving toward New York (and listening to the early morning local produce report on his car radio – I always liked that bit). Somewhere along in the story – another example, I forget just where – there was also a flashback scene back at Klute’s home previously – where he comes upon his wife in outright adultery and they part bitterly. And later in New York, we see a good deal of his working relationship with the black cop Trask and with the psychiatrist figure (whom Alan turned from male to female, and why not?). Another sequence that was in there in some detail: Klute had a relationship with Tom Gruneman's widow. She was drawn to him and comes to New York to see him, and runs smack into his situation with Bree – a tough sort of face-off.
Another quite considerable example: I had written in some of the growing trust, even a sort of domesticity, between Bree and Klute, and their first occasion of genuine sexual intimacy (starting when they lie on a rug together reading the comic strips – I liked that part too). And then there were a whole series of events having to do with Bree's ambition to be a real actress (this is the only sizeable incident where Bree material had to be discarded). She gets a part in an off-Broadway production and then gets fired – with the emotional repercussions you might expect. (Included in the course of all this was a really dandy scene of Bree finding herself, after rehearsal, suddenly alone in empty theatre.)
Stuff like that. All gone. Had to go. But it saddened me then and even a little bit now.
TNR: Talk about the transition from script to film and what it means in the context of the story you were trying to tell. Did Pakula's version work? Were you happy with the changes?
AL: I'll seize on the occasion to refer back all the way to Dave's and my very first writing, and this will fall into two parts: changes that were made in collaboration between Alan and me, and the few changes he made himself subsequent to that in the course of production.
I've already previously noted that Dave's and my original was considerably overlong, that by force of circumstance a lot of length had to come out, and that most of that was stuff about Klute himself. Similarly, as I said, Alan and I took out episodes of Bree's aspiring-actress life, though Alan gave a nod to that in one brief scene where she does a reading for an off-Broadway director. (Alan, as I recall, had some disdain for the off-Broadway tribe.)
Alan and I worked in company for several weeks. That's the total of it, and in fact my total experience of Alan. (Other people, other writers, surely knew him better.) Alan was a splendid editor, one of the three best in my whole writing memory. He and I found that our minds ran together to an extraordinary degree – details of script that we found interesting or important, etc. We made a lot of changes and swapped a lot of ideas. I don't remember any idea coming from him that I'd consider dumb.
Case in point. There was the matter of the "establishing scene" – how to kick the story off. Dave's and my prologue, as I've described, was full of color but lengthy. We had to get things going differently. Alan's solution, as finally filmed, was to open with a short scene wherein we observe a dinner party in progress with Klute attending, then have a quick cut – or maybe pay away and back, I don’t remember which – to an empty chair where the host, Gruneman, had been sitting. Alan himself didn't much admire this solution, and to my mind it didn't work very well either.
Not a whole lot else comes to my mind. I do remember that we chopped out a scene between Bree and her pimp that served to elucidate an aspect of the general whore/pimp relationship. An "inside" bit, but just, after all, a bit.
In general, the result of Alan's and my working-through (very thorough on both our parts; I liked his appetite for detail) was to narrow the focus on the Bree-Klute emotional relationship and to render it less thorough but somewhat harder edged than in the original. At every point, we aspired to preserve the paranoid atmosphere of events. More importantly, we wanted to preserve the sense (to a degree illusory) that we were offering the real "inside story" of high-class prostitution.
Now these are changes that came about in the course of Alan's and my efforts jointly. There remain changes that Alan subsequently made by himself without our consultation. Some were minor and within the usual course of things in the transition from script to the much more complex business of production. Examples: a scene in a grocery store becomes a scene at a fruit stand, inserted visuals, Cable and his helicopter, etc. Things like that.
Alan also invented and added (and I believe wrote by himself) a scene during the search by Klute and Bree for her former and addicted call girl colleague. This scene offered a glimpse into a small, rundown brothel setting. I recall it to mind as the "Janie Dale" scene, if I have that right. Anyhow, I remember objecting to it when Alan first proffered it to me, but I was wrong and he was right.
More significantly, and distinctly part of Alan's reworking from script to film, was his use of tape recording as a dramatic device. The first instance of tape recording, to be sure, occurred in Dave's and my script – Klute bugs and tape records Bree's phone conversations in order to get a handle on her. I guess this took Alan's fancy as he extended the topic in the film version. We see that Cable tape records Klute himself in an office scene. This, in effect, discloses Cable as a possible suspect and occurs earlier in the story than I would have put it. But then – more importantly – Alan used it again in the final Cable-Bree scene where he has her captive. He actually plays her the tape of himself killing his previous prostitute victim. And this scene – apart from a smattering of my previous dialog – is entirely Alan's invention. I'm not sure I would ever have written it his way: it would seem to me too wide a departure from reality. But – it is dramatic, and so far as I understand it works just fine to the audience. So why not?
And now, at last, I get to the final Bree and Klute scene. Dave's and my original version compared with the final film version as devised by Alan:
Dave's and my version was as follows: Klute's about to leave. He proposes to Bree. It's more of a deep, sudden, threatening commitment than she can handle. She makes a succession of panicked wisecracks ("How can I leave the Mets?,” etc.). Klute listens stolidly and then just picks up his suitcase and heads out to his car. And then – she runs after him.
In Alan's version, and as it got filmed, we find the two of them, finally, in an emptied apartment with a packed suitcase. Bree gets a phone call and informs the caller that she's unavailable. She's going away for a while. Her tone is ambiguous, uncommitted. Then she hangs up, Klute picks up the suitcase and they just walk out.
Now, I still enjoy Dave's and my original version. In broad terms, it's true to Klute's and Bree's characters and the course of their relationship. And hey, it's tricky and it feels good. But you know what? Alan's version is less cozy and somewhat closer to the "real life" that we've been purporting to show. Ambiguous. Uncertain. And to get artistic about it, I think Alan's version is probably better.
TNR: After working on rewrites with Alan, what happened? Were you involved in the production?
AL: That’s a story by itself. Some of what happened next is illustrative of the screenwriter's role in life. The kitchen work of film biz.
Alan took the script and headed West after our several weeks of collaboration. There ensued a long silence. On my part, I immediately got involved in other things – and into a mire.
Warner Bros. had offered me the stump of someone else's script. A comedy. As written, it was centered in the late 1800s around the greatest horse rider in the west who was, at the same time, a complete wastrel. I forget all the plot of the script as written, but I turned it about in such fashion that this champion, besides being a wastrel, was the ardent enemy of everything in the dawning modern age – everything from indoor plumbing to lawnmowers. And the story was going to center around his epic confrontation: a three day cross country race against the "Bristol Tiger," a British motorcar – one of the very first – and its inventor, a wedge-faced Henry Ford-type who was just as much a scoundrel as our hero. Even now, this notion beguiles me. It could have been a fine, funny movie.
But Warners, besides offering me this assignment, had clasped me together with a producer and a director. These two didn't like each other much, and with good reason. They were both, each of them, inflated and devious. I labored between. Between that and some personal issues, this project went down the chute. And with it went the small momentum I'd just previously gained.
But now, during the long time that this stuff was going on, I heard nothing – not a word – from out West. I supposed that Klute might be nearing production but I was busy with these other things. But then this long silence got broken abruptly by a phone call from my son in New York that Klute had opened!
To this day, I don't know why Alan had sequestered the production in this fashion – why I'd heard nothing all along – or whether this was just his custom. You'd have to ask others, but I confess to being a little startled.
TNR: So you didn’t see it at the premiere then?
AL: Nope. I wound up going to the local theatre and buying a ticket like everyone else. Well, OK. Sitting there in the theatre, I liked listening to the audience’s reactions. And here I felt, yes, here was Dave's and my story, and here were our characters, and here, in particular, was my dialog.
TNR: What did you think of the movie overall?
AL: I felt Alan had done a first rate job with it. I felt that he'd nailed the things he and I had felt important, and that he himself had added touches here and there that worked well toward our main purposes. (An example would be the two brief scenes he added of Bree's relapse into drug use.) Any quibbles I could feel, then or now, are entirely minor. (For instance I felt that he somewhat miscast the figure of the elderly garment district proprietor, Bree's main client. Alan brought him forth as a quite handsome, even rather elegant, man though this wasn't the way Dave and I’d envisioned him. But that, as I say, could only rank as a quibble.)
But I think I have to make note here, before we move on, of something that caused some degree of distress to Dave and me both. Around when Klute was still playing, I heard that it had become scripture here and there that Klute was a damaged script to begin with and that Alan had somehow rescued and transformed it. I don't know where this thesis arose or how it got spread, but it's fair to say that it didn't cheer me much. But after all, I'd already spent twenty years in showbiz, and this wasn't the first time I'd been sideswiped.
TNR: From this script, you and David received an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, an Edgar Allan Poe nomination, and a WGA award nomination. Congratulations! Had there been awards buzz leading up to the awards?
AL: To this day, honest to God, I'm not sure I heard of any of them in advance except for the Oscar, but I did feel a surge of pride in that one.
TNR: What were your thoughts when learning you were nominated for an Oscar?
AL: I felt that Dave and I had been valued by our peers.
TNR: What was your experience the night of the Oscars?
AL: I watched the ceremony with my kids back East on TV. We all booed when Dave and I didn't win, but it didn't shake us much. There was no disgrace in losing to Paddy Chayevsky [for The Hospital].
Dave's experience was less happy. He actually traveled from Palo Alto to attend the awards ceremony and, in the confusion of things afterward, his wheelchair got swiped and used to propel Charlie Chaplin. It took Dave most of the night to get it back.
TNR: After this, you wrote a number of specs that never were made then retired. What sorts of scripts were they? More thrillers? Did any of them get close to production?
AL: Lots and lots of ‘close but no cigar.’ The next fifteen years or so were extraordinary in that I was constantly employed, I made a quite reasonable living writing all kinds of stuff on assignment and on speculation: thrillers, comedies, pilot scripts for TV series, everything – and hardly an inch of it ever got made. I think I must hold a record.
But you've been kind enough to ask about these scripts and so, by golly, I'm going to take full advantage. There's no point in this to be sure, no profit for anyone, but it'll make me feel good. So here, at great length, are some of my better samples:
BRANT – about a Maine lobsterman in Prohibition times caught up in the smuggling trade.
ALLIE – about professional dancers in New York. (I don't know how come I ever got hired to write about the dance world, but I did – twice, in fact – and Allie was a good, authentic job.)
THE ARMS MERCHANTS – about a major weapons deal gone bad in Thailand. Warners bought this one for (at that time) big dollars, but never actually got it done. (I've sometimes wondered if it got squished by overlapping corporate interests.)
THE 9TH LEGION – Comedy. I'm going to explain this one at length. Bear with me. To set it up: the 9th Legion, as I'm sure you recall, was one of four legions sent by Caesar to conquer the British Isles. They sort of did, and remained in occupation until AD 120, at which point the 9th Legion vanished! Dropped from all Roman records, that is. Never mentioned again. In the centuries since, as you might imagine, this mystery has been exploited in all sorts of ways – histories, novels, even a film – and all humbug. Bogus.
What really happened, you see, is that the 9th, stationed in Londinium, was under fierce attack by a bunch of Celts – at least they looked like Celts. And things went badly, you see: the Legion kept having to fall back and dig in. And, well, one thing led to another, and how it ended up is that they're still there! Clustered there underground in their secret caverns trying bravely to preserve their Roman life, living in uneasy symbiosis with modern London up above.
The core of the story is how one of their guys, the bravest Roman of them all, while on a secret mission aboveground (they have their agents and suppliers, after all) gets entangled with a visiting female tourist, an accountant from Milwaukee.
THEO – about a hapless sort of woman who gets savagely beaten by a boyfriend and how, afterwards, bit by bit she rebuilds her life and person and a profession in boat repair in Seattle’s Fisherman's Bay.
THE TRIUMPH OF LINCOLN CLUM – Here again I'll go on at length because I think this may be the best thing I ever wrote.
Clum is a failed sort of man, a florist, on the outskirts of a town in Northern Michigan. He wants to be some sort of role model for his middle school son. He gets embroiled in his son's mathematics assignment. You know the sorts of problems: "An eight foot ladder leaned against a wall...", "At what time after two o'clock will the two hands...", "A hydrant pours at the rate of...”, “A man invests in stock at an annual yield of...” and so on.
Clum, with a thrill of horror, discovers he can't do these problems – not on paper anyhow. But then it comes to him that, gee, he has a ladder after all, and clock, and a nearby hydrant and so on. And so – I'm sure you see where we're headed – he starts working these problems out in real life. And he never gets them right, of course, but through an extraordinary series of events, he gets vaulted into all sorts of notoriety then fame. He gets involved with a crooked New York tycoon, a delegation of hostile Russians, the FBI, his son's mathematics teacher Eliza, a massive stock fraud that may make him rich, and so on. Our climax finds him besieged by the tycoon, the Russians, the FBI, a helicopter pounding on his roof – I really don't have space here to explain everything – and a heavy major-machinery war between two contractors. Well, it all finally collapses, as you might suppose, but he has a new sense of himself as a man, content with his life, with his son, and Eliza.
There. You've been very patient.
As you may have gathered from these samples, the film world and I have not always run on the same track.
TNR: They’re great! Thanks for sharing them. And who knows, maybe one of our readers will discover your ideas here and call you up to option them. So now, with all these scripts and other projects, why retirement? Have you continued writing since?
AL: I finally, around 1985, in the classic fashion, burned out. Really and truly. I'd moved out to LA in hopes of reviving my progress, but too late. By then, I was just staggering for the finish line. So I quit. I've scarcely written a word since.
What I did do in the next twelve years or so was develop and patent a building design – a building system – that had engaged me from long years before. After I had it patented, I went ahead and built a prototype, a demonstrator house, here in New Hampshire. I then hustled it to everyone everywhere in the building industry, in hopes of licensing my design and becoming rich and famous.
As you may guess, it didn't happen. My design was radical and the building biz, like showbiz, runs on habit.
So here, on surface, I was faced with another nothing. What's more, building the house itself had been a real ordeal – I don't exaggerate – eating my money and confronting me at every step with likely disaster. But there was a major element here; a satisfaction that I hadn’t had for a long time before. And that was that from first to last, throughout all my fears and fumbles, I got to do everything my way. I was the one responsible.
So now I live in my prototype in considerable comfort with my mate, nearby to some of my grown kids. And now, as I sometimes look back upon this stuff I’ve told you of, I sometimes wonder what, maybe, I should have been instead of a script writer. Not a novelist surely – I don't have the right rhythms for that. Maybe an engineer, maybe an architect. Or maybe a crane operator. That's a skill I acquired in the course of building my house. Hoisting heavy stuff around. Wonderful sense of competence.
Gentlemen, I've been flattered by your interest. At the same time, as I said at the very outset, we're all a little peculiar to be poking through these obscure matters of a time gone by. And it's been interesting to me – and at times a little painful – that in reminiscence I can still feel some small, long-gone ambitions and hopes.
But things go as they go. I've had a lucky life.
My best wishes to you both at THE NEXT REEL.
Andrew K. Lewis
It really was a pleasure chatting with Andy Lewis about his TV writing, his life, his brother, and Klute. We wish him the best of luck.
Andy & Pete