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Posts Tagged ‘Murray Schisgal’

The writer that probably first comes to mind when you think about the modern classic film Tootsie is Larry Gilbert. But the co-writer of the script was Murray Schisgal. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Schisgal was born in Brooklyn and turns 90 in November. He had his Broadway debut in 1965 with a play he’d written called Luv.

I tracked down an interview he did in 1992 for the theater collection of the American Jewish Committee Oral History Library. Ruth Simon asked Murray this question; “Mr. Schisgal, you are as prolific as any playwright today. What brought you to the theater?”

“Frustration, bitterness and hate for my fellow human beings. I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published and so, out of frustration, I started writing plays, being ill prepared to do so, having taken no classes or doing anything other than reading plays, reading every play I could get my hands on. I didn’t even go to the theater that much. But nonetheless, the first plays I wrote included The Tiger and The Typist and I was able to get them produced within a short period and so my future was cast.”
Murray Schisgal
NYPL Digital Collections

I’m not sure how long Schisgal toiled in writing novels and short stories, but he said he began writing plays in 1958, and his Oscar-nomination for Toostie that hot theaters in 1982—so put that down as a 25-year dramatic writing journey to hit that plateau.

He also spent time in the South Pasific after he joined the Navy as a teenager during World War II. And he attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer for a couple of years before realizing he couldn’t practice law and commit enough time to writing. So he quit law and got a part time job to “pay the bills” and found he was able to write three or four hours a day.

His approach to writing was instinctual and self-taught so he shunned learning from teachers or books on writing. He admitted that lead to some sloppy work, but added “I would rather write and throw it away than go through all the steps that are asked for in some of these books I’ve read about how to go about writing a play.”

He was 31 when his first play was produced, but he didn’t start making a living until he was 35 or 36 year old. Find what path works for you. And when you get discouraged remember Schisgal saying “I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published.” But he kept writing—and switched to writing plays—and eventually people started noticing his work.

But thanks for the inspiration Mr. Schisgal, because you’ve shown you can be “ill prepared” for the writing task (not even taken a writing class) and still find a way to capture the magic. And his personal story also shows that it can take a little time.

P.S. And as a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How to Get an Agent), UTA agent Peter Dodd said in the Scriptnotes podcast that he does read plays looking for that unique voice that he can rep for TV and film projects.

Related post:
Tootsie at 30

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Although the storyline of Tootsie was simple and straightforward enough, the script history of the film was anything but.”
Susan Dworkin
Making Toostie

Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital M that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs.”
Roger Ebert

Thirty years ago this month Tootise was released into the world and finished number one in the box office Christmas weekend of December 17-19, 1982. It went on to be nominated for nine Oscars including Dustin Hoffman as lead actor, Sydney Pollack’s directing, and best picture. Jessica Lange won the Oscar for her supporting role.

And if you would have asked me before I read Making Tootsie written by Susan Dworkin who wrote the Tootsie screenplay I would have answered Larry Gelbart. But like most films there were a few hands in the pie. In fact, Toostie is another great example of the collaborative process of filmmaking really working well. The Tootise screenplay was also nominated for its screenplay, but along with Gelbart on the nomination were Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire. (But there were at least three more writers who had a hand in rewrites.)

makingtootsie

Dworkin does an excellent job in her book of showing how the script and movie can together. The original seed for Tootsie was a screenplay titled Would I Lie to You? written by McGuire. McGuire was born in Chicago in 1919 and according to IMDB had come to Hollywood in the 40s and had a background a in journalism and worked as a press agent and an actor. In the 50s he started writing film scripts and his credits include Bad Day at Black Rock starring Spencer Tracy and Meet Danny Wilson starring Frank Sinatra. Many changes were made in his script Would I Lie to You? and he ended up with a story credit on Toostie—and it would be his last film credit.  He died in 1999.

McGuire’s script attracted the attention of Buddy Hackett in 1978 who took it to his friend Charles Evans. The rights to the script were owned by Henry Plitt and two other and Evans had to buy the property from them and even negotiate a different deal with McGuire. In 1979 Evans hired Bob Kaufman to do a rewrite of Would I Lie to You?

“I put Kaufman is a hotel room and  harassed him into writing and we cracked each other up.”
Tootsie producer Dick Richards

According to Dworkin, “Finally they had a new script. It was an out-of-work actor who gets a job playing a nurse on a soap opera.” Kaufman then departed the picture and the script landed in the hands of Dustin Hoffman, who was interested in playing a gender-switch role, and brought on playwright Murray Schisgal to rewrite the script. With Hoffman on board Evans was able to get a deal with Columbia and Hal Ashby was brought on to direct. Ashby would be replaced by director Sydney Pollack. And finally Larry Gilbart was brought on to do another rewrite of the script.

There will be a test on this later. According to IMDB Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, and Elaine May did uncredited work on the screenplay. And both Pollack and Hoffman also spent much time at Pollack’s beach house crafting the story. And that doesn’t even touch on what the other supporting actors (Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Lange and others) brought to their roles. I bet more than a dozon people could lay claim to at least some part of the script.

And the results? A film that made $177 million, is listed on the National Film Registry, and in 2000 was named by AFI as #2 funniest American film in the last 100 years. (Some Like it Hot was #1. Also, a gender-switch film.)

A fitting end to looking back at Toostie is to remember a key scene between Hoffman (as Dorothy) and Charles Durning (who just passed away a few days ago).

P.S. Speaking of Christmas 1982, I recently came across a picture of my studio apartment in Burbank when I was a film school student in 1982. Man, I was living large. (I don’t have that TV or the box it sits on, but I do still have that director’s chair.) Toostie still looks great after 30 years, but my that apartment at 1200 Riverside Dr. really got a major facelift in recent years. Probably more than a couple film & TV people living there. I always loved the location—just down the road from Disney Studios.

BurbandApr

Scott W. Smith

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