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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Carson’

“[Robin Williams] was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”
President Obama on the death of Williams whose first starring role was as an alien on the TV show Mork & Mindy

“Robin signing on definitely was the linchpin for [Good Will Hunting] getting made.”
Producer Chris Moore
Good Will Hunting: An Oral History
Boston Magazine article by Janelle Nanos, January 2013

“We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die…Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society (1989)
Screenplay by Tom Schulman

Related posts:

Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)
Where Do Ideas Come From (A+B=C) Whenever I give a talk on creativity I always mention Robin Williams.
“The Greatest Gift” How the much loved movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a story rooted in depression, disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. 
Don’t Waste Your Life Screenwriting (2.0)

P.S. When comedian and actor Freddie Prinze (Chico and the Man) shot and killed himself at age 22 in 1977 I started to understand a connection between creative talent and depression, and sometimes depression mixed substance abuse.  And that even comedic ability didn’t not make one immune to suffering from depression and/or substance abuse problems. Johnny Carson, Jim Carrey, and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody have all talked about their struggles with depression. Not all who suffer from depression take their lives as Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, or (apparently) Robin Williams—but I really believe there is something going on in the brains of some (many, all?) artists that helps them reach great heights, but also causes them to experience tremendous— even debilitating— lows.

Final thought: “All humor is rooted in pain.” —Commedian Richard Pryor

Scott W. Smith

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“Everybody wants to be funny.”
Jonathan Winters

“In 1981, my sitcom ‘Mork & Mindy’ was about to enter its fourth and final season. The show had run its course and we wanted to go out swinging. The producers suggested hiring Jonathan [Winters] to play my son, who ages backward. That woke me out of a two-year slump. The cavalry was on the way.”
Oscar/Emmy/Grammy-winner Robin Williams
New Your Times article A Madman, but Angelic
4/16/13

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #61 (Jonathan Winters)

Scott W. Smith

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Prairie Home Companion

Saturday afternoon & evening in the Twin Cities I was able to pack enough fun into about a six hour period to last me for the rest of the year. I was in Minneapolis to attend Emmy Night for the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. But I also saw over in St. Paul that  A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor was kicking off their season opener and I thought that would be great to see live after listening to the show a long time before I moved to Lutheran territory here in the Midwest.

The show was sold out but I was hoping to get a couple rush tickets. Worst case scenario, they were piping audio of the show live outside in a street celebration that included a meatloaf supper and a street dance. I literally got the last seat as the couple in front of me generously passed on account that they both couldn’t get in and my wife was already inside.  (They call it Minnesota nice for a reason. Yah, you betcha. And what a great seat it was as it’s where I took the above photo.)

So I was able to see The Sam Bush Band, Connie Evingston, Sarah Jarosa, and Garrison Keillor and his gang perform. Complete with a Guy Noir skit, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a Powedermilk Biscuit Break. Good stuff. And the 1,100 seat Fitzgerald Theater, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010, is beautiful and a great place to watch Keillor work his magic.

Fitzgerald Theater Sign 0443

Overall the show and the venue reminded me of the Grand Ole Opry which I was able to catch years ago while traveling through Nashville.  I remember hearing Keillor once saying that the Opry was an early inspiration for his show.

Yesterday was also significant in that it was Keillor’s first show since he suffered a minor stroke just a few weeks ago.  I don’t know how much Keillor has written over the years (and I doubt he does) but the 67-year old began his broadcasting career while a student at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in English. He’s written everything from radio programs, short stories & novels, poems & sonnets, songs & essays and a screenplay.

He appeared in the Robert Altman directed film version of  A Prairie Home Companion and was the voice of Walt Whitman in 9 episodes of the Ken Burns PBS film The Civil War. And on top of all that work Keillor also hosts The Writer’s Almanac, a daily radio program and podcast. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. He’s had quite a career since being born in Anoka, Minnesota in 1942. (So all you creatives outside New York and L.A. keep that in mind. Great things from small places is what this blog is all about. I never get tired of telling people that Bob Dylan was from Hibbing & Duluth, Minnesota.)

When the Keillor show was over I had to zip over to downtown Minneapolis to the Pantages Theater for Emmy Night. The Pantages Theater was built in 1916 and renovated in 2001/2002. I was up for two Regional Emmy Awards and ended up winning one for location lighting on a commercial I produced and shot. What a thrill to accept the award on the same stage that used to stage vaudeville performers when it first opened and in a theater that used to play movies starring Rita Hayworth and a host of other Hollywood movie stars over the years.  Thanks to Teresa Vickery and all the people working behind the scene who moved the venue and helped pull off the Emmy Awards this year. And congrats to all the winners.

Scott Emmy 09 0445

Yes, Saturday September 26 goes down in my book as one nice day in Minnesota.

(Apparently there was a little magic still in the air Sunday as 40-year-old Bret Farve tossed a 32-yard game-winning touchdown with just two seconds remaining in the game to give the Minnesota Vikings a victory in Farve’s debut regular season game in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Is someone writing scripts for the NFL?)

And just a word of caution for those working on writing screenplays— Keillor had said around mid-summer when asked if he was going to make another movie, “I’m working on a screenplay now, a fragile love story set in Lake Wobegon, and want to finish it before Labor Day.  And then we shall see.” I don’t know if he finished that screenplay on time, but he did have his stroke on Labor Day.

Update 9/28/09: One regret I have in my years of living in Burbank was never going to see a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Keillor has that kind of iconic clout and if you enjoy his program this would be a good year to buy tickets for A Prairie Home Companion. (For the ’09/’10 season they will record the show live from St. Paul, MN, Bismarck, ND, Des Moines, IA, New York, NY, San Francisco, CA and Atlanta, GA.)

Scott W. Smith


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Ed McMahon played many roles as a spokesman and announcer in a show biz career that spanned more than 60 years.  McMahon, who died yesterday, was best known as the sidekick for Johnny Carson for more than 30 years on The Tonight Show. His trade mark  “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny” has not been forgotten and probably never will thanks to Jack Nicholson borrowing the phrase for his character in The Shinning.

But as I have done so often for writers, I’d like to show McMahon’s roots and what prepared him for the work that would make him a house hold name.

He was born in Detroit Michigan and raised in Michigan, New Jersey, New York City and Lowel, Massachusetts and began his career as a bingo caller in Maine when he was just 15. I’d put him in the camp of “Dream  big, start small.”

McMahon was also a carnival barker, a pitchman for vegetable slicers, and worked in radio before working his way up to a TV game show emcee. He was also a decorated pilot in the Marines who also served in Korea and  was a late night TV host in Philadelphia. An eclectic background that prepared him for meeting Johnny Carson in 1959 when he would have been 36-years-old.

He never stopped being a pitchman and along the way he also appeared in movies and TV shows along with his work on Star Search, TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes and with the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon’s.  I thought it would be good to find a quote from McMahon that would provide a little inspiration for life’s journey.


”Honesty is the single most important factor having a direct bearing on the final success of an individual, corporation, or product.
                                                Ed McMahon 

 

Scott W. Smith

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When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.

The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today. 

These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.

Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back  in 1937.

It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor. 

His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?

And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.

Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.

I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.

And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set  seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.

And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
                                                                                                        Willa Cather
                                                                                                        My Antonia

 

In other posts we’ve looked at screenwriters from Iowa and some surrounding states- Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota, but today let’s head to the west and take a look at Nebraska. 

Before we get to the screenwriting part of that state let me say that Nebraska has produced four giants of cinema on the performing end of feature films; Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

Toss in producer Darryle F. Zanuck, TV personalities Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett as well as other actors James Coburn, Nick Nolte, Janine Turner and most recently Hilary Swank and you have a nice roster of entertainment talent from this Midwest state.

But no list of creatives from Nebraska is complete without mentioning Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather whose novels O Pioneers! & My Antonia have had lasting success.

As we look at screenwriting from Nebraska there is one name that stands out in bold, Alexander Payne. The Academy-Award winning writer of Sideways grew up just over the Iowa border in Omaha, reportedly on the same street as Warren Buffett. His films Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth were all shot in Nebraska.

Payne earned his master’s degree at the UCLA where one of his teachers was Lew Hunter. Lew’s also from Nebraska and his resume is more of a creative journey. He earned two master’s degrees, worked as a radio DJ, an NBC page, story executive and wrote the Emmy-nominated script Fallen Angel, before going on to be the co-founder of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA. His book Screenwriting 434 flowed out of that class. 

A couple years ago I was reading a screenwriting book by Skip Press and saw that Lew Hunter now lived part of the year in Superior, Nebraska. Since I was heading from Cedar Falls, Iowa in a few days for a shoot in Colorado Springs I found Superior on a map and decided I could make a slight detour and pass through there. (Superior, by the way,  is called the “Victorian Capital of the Midwest.”)

I tracked down Lew’s email and sent him a note. He was in town and welcomed me to not only stop by but to stay the night in his writer’s house that he uses for workshops. So I was able to not only spend some time talking with him about his various experiences in the industry but stayed up at night watching old tapes from his UCLA classes of various people like Billy Wilder talking to his class. 

I later interviewed him for this article that appeared in Create Magazine.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm outside the small, 392-person village of Guide Rock, Nebraska.

How did growing up on a farm prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
I was given a sense of a work ethic when I was five years old. I did all the things kids do on a farm.

Was there any expression of the arts or creativity in your home?
My mother was quite a different farmwomen. She was a graduate of the University of Nebraska, in music generally and violin specifically.And she went to the New England Conservatory of Music. My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was 3 years old. And she read Shakespere, “Beowulf” and Greek legends with me on her knee. My father was sort of a Will Rogers character in terms of humor and style.

What lead to your Hollywood writing career?
I went over to the story department at Disney Studios. After two years of reading scripts and books trying to get the material into the studio, I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury about doing the “Martin Chronicles,” and we were talking and I said, Ray I’m really thinking about being a writer, and I’ve read about 2,000 scripts and about 90 % are feces. And I think I can be in that top 10 percent of feces. And he gave me two books to read, One was “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts and the other was Dorothea Brande, “Becoming a Writer.”

So how did you actually make that transition to becoming a writer?
I had saved up enough money to focus on writing for a year and wrote six feature-length scripts. The more ponies you pick in the race, the greater your chances of winning. After the year was up my money had run out and I needed a job. My agent called and said that ABC and Aaron Spelling wanted my script, “If Tomorrow Comes” (about Japanese/Americans held captive in California during WWll) and that started my writing career.

The American Screenwriters Association awarded you with a Lifetime Achievment Award a few years ago. But you paid your dues. That’s a valuable lesson for young writers.
Everyone pays their dues to become successful. I’ll give you a perfect example. Screenwriter Brian Price is sitting in my UCLA graduate 434 class and I hold up a Variety (magazine). And on the front page it says first-time writer sells script to Universal. And I said to Brian, “How many scripts did you write before you became a first-time screenwriter?” and he says, “Ten.” I joined WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and came to Hollywood in 1956.

It seems like more people than ever are writing screenplays. What is your advice anyone wanting to be a screenwriter?
The most important thing I would tell anyone in terms of writing of any kind is when I was at Northwestern, John Steinbeck came and gave a talk and afterwards I went up to him and asked, “What must I do to become a wonderful writer?” Mr. Steinbeck twitched his beard a little with his thumb and forefinger and he said, “Write.” And turned and walked away.

Graduates in the UCLA M.F.A. program are required to write between six and eight screenplays before they graduate. That’s a lot of writing.
It astonishes me when someone telling me they’re a writer and I ask how many screenplays they’ve written and they say, “One.” You’ve got to do the process. Somewhere between four and six scripts is the equivalent of getting up on water skies.

Is it simply talent that separates UCLA Alumni writers David Ward, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth, Alan Ball, David Capthem and former student of yours Alexander Payne from other writers?
It’s three things. Tenacity, focus, and there is an element of luck involved. Of course, there is the street phrase, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I don’t think they’re smarter than anyone reading this transcript. I believe everyone has the opportunity to be a wonderful screenwriter.

Do you think with the digital technology there is going to be a new style of writing emerging or a revolution in storytelling outside of New York and LA?
I don’t think there will be a new style of writing, but I think it will be easier opportunities for people to knock people off their socks if they have a good story. It will always come doen to story and character and character and story. With a computer editing bay, a DV camera, very little money, and some talented friends and a good script, you’re going to be able to come up with something that’s going to knock people’s socks off. It’s very exciting to think of some boy or girl in some ghetto around the world will get ahold of a computer and tell a story like “Salaam Bombay.” 

Twice a year (June & September) Lew hosts 14-day workshops patterned after the UCLA M.F.A. screenwriting program.  Learn more about Lew and his workshop at lewhunter.com. Lew and his wife Pamela are gracious hosts and I think any screenwriter would benefit from spending a couple weeks in Nebraska learning from Lew.  

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriting from Iowa, huh?

No, it’s not a joke or an oxymoron. (Doesn’t the above photo I took today look like an ideal day to write?)

Screenwriting from Iowa isn’t really just about Iowa or limited to screenwriting. But that is the starting point. And I
 hope this on-going blog encourages writers who feel like they live in the middle of nowhere. And if you hold on a moment you’ll learn that the hippest and hottest screenwriter in Hollywood today has some Iowa roots.

It’s ten degrees below zero and snowing as I begin this first blog compounding the barren wasteland fears people have about the state of Iowa. But I think you’ll be surprised at the creative talent growing beyond them there cornfields.

On January 3, 2008 all eyes were on Iowa (at least for a quick glance) as the first presidential caucuses took place. Jay Leno joked on The Tonight Show, “Many people don’t know this, but the word caucus is Indian for the one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.”

Iowa may not be New York or LA but where else can you see 13 presidential candidates up close within a ten-mile drive of your home as I did in the last couple months? There was plenty of drama, and enough material for a couple screenplays.

Iowa is a metaphor for any place that represents life beyond Hollywood. (That could be West Virginia, West Africa, or even West Covina.)   Iowa is where I live and write and is also a state that most people in the United States would have trouble pinpointing on a map. Quintessential “fly-over country.”  What good can come from Iowa? Can you get any further from Hollywood? You’d be surprised.

Forget that six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon thing. Bacon was right here in Cedar Falls earlier this month stumping for presidential hopeful John Edwards.  Cedar Falls is also where Nancy Price wrote the novel that became the Julia Roberts’ film Sleeping with the Enemy, and where Robert Waller wrote the book that became the Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep film The Bridges of Madison County.

And since this is the first blog let me also mention that entertainment icons Johnny Carson & John Wayne were both born in Iowa. This site is dedicated seeing the depth of talent that can from a remote place and will provide you with practical advise on screenwriting and digital filmmaking.

As I write this, the independent film Juno continues its strong box office run and has already won the Critics’ Choice Award for screenwriter Diablo Cody.  (And I don’t think that will be the last award she wins.) Film critic Tom Long of the Detroit News wrote, “Juno’s the best movie of the year. It’s the best screenplay of the year, and it features the best actress of the year working in the best acted ensemble of the year.” Roger Ebert wrote, “The screenplay by first-timer Diablo Cody is a subtle masterpiece of construction…The Film has no wrong scenes and no extra scenes, and flows like running water.”

The 29-year-old Cody’s own life story of spending a year as a less than exotic dancer in Minneapolis is well documented, but to learn where she honed her writing skills we must go back a couple of years to when she was a college student in…you guessed it, Iowa. The University of Iowa  in Iowa City has long been sacred writing grounds and home to one of the richest traditions in creative writing. Tennessee Williams and John Irving are among its alma mater.

“They have the writer’s workshop there. They have an undergraduate workshop, and I got in,” Cody said in this month’s Written By. “I focused mainly on poetry. I laugh about that now. I actually think it wound up helpful because as a poet you develop a certain efficiency with language that I think you use as a screenwriter.” (The entire article by Matt Hoey can be found at the Writer’s Guide of America’s website: www.wga.org/writtenby/writtenbysub.aspx?id=2693)

Though Cody couldn’t wait to get out of college she did earn a degree in media studies and was known for her excellent writing. And I believe that excellent writing will always be discovered wherever you live.

So over the course of this blog I will offer insights gleaned from my film school days, various workshops I attended and given, over 100 books read on writing and the creative process, as well as more than 20 years of experience as a video producer/director/writer (www.scottwsmith.com), and most importantly quotes from successful screenwriters.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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