Last week I wrote about my time writing for the late director Robert Alrdich. I received a number of emails so, under the heading, “Mamas, don’t let your babies become screenwriters,” here’s one about my first paid screenwriting job. Whereas Aldrich was class, my first producer, we’ll call “Glen,” was crass.
Glen hired me to write a comedy about Jesse, a cowboy from Montana, who falls in love with and “rescues” a Playmate of the Year, from Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire. (A narcissist, Glen wasn’t a cowboy and was raised in Brentwood, but he did somehow woo 1978 Playmate of the Year, Debra Jo Fondren, away from Hef. In our script the magazine was “Centerfold” and the owner was Harold Hunter.) So that’s how I came to work with Debra Jo who once gave me a very memorable kiss.
Glen, Debra and I were driving to dinner to discuss the script. He stopped at an ATM, leaving me and Debra. Suddenly, she confessed she was just a waitress from Lumberton, Texas and was desperately nervous about starring in a movie but I couldn’t tell Glen.
Feeling for her, I had an idea. “Debra, I’ll write your ‘country girl’ character as nervous as you are, so just be yourself.” Corny, yes, but it apparently sounded good to Debra who gave me a big kiss. (My one and only from a Playboy Playmate.)
How crass was Glen? An accomplished golfer, during “story conferences,” he would incessantly putt golf balls on the carpet into a device that would spit them back. I felt demeaned. Getting paid would be even worse.
Months later, I finally finished a script I was happy with. The title Glen chose was “Sincerely, Debra Jo,” which was how Debra signed fan mail. In our script, one such letter was in response to one from Jesse. What he didn’t know is that Debra got so many fan letters, Centerfold had a lonely female employee write the letters and Debra only signed them. Meanwhile, the employee developed a crush on Jesse and encouraged him to come to California.
On the day I was to turn the script in and get my hard-earned $10,000, Glen showed me a book filled with photos of vintage cars. (Collected from other movies he had produced.) He offered me any car as my writing fee. Insulted, I responded, “Glen, I’m a writer, not Cal Worthington!” He wouldn’t budge so, script in hand, I walked out. Ironically, any of those cars today would be worth five times the 10k I was owed.
The next day, Glen phoned to say it was Debra Jo who had a problem with the script. (Debra was using a portion of her “Playmate of the Year” cash prize to fund her half of the production.) I always got along great with Debra, so I gladly agreed to a meeting.
When I walked into Debra’s office, the walls were covered with posters of her in various states of undress. Debra had incredibly long blond hair that went below her knees and, in some photos, would be artistically placed to cover her nudity. But in others, she was completely bare. In fact, one of her bent over putting on high heels was directly behind her as she sat at her desk. You’ll see why I mention it.
Distracted by the photo, I listened as Debra voiced her complaint. It involved when Jesse kidnaps her from the debauched life of Centerfold and drives her back to his Montana ranch. “Jack, you have me and Jesse spending the night in the motel, but we’re not married. My mother’s going to see this movie.”
Frankly, I thought I was on “Candid Camera,” Allen Funt was going to jump out of the closet and the joke would be on me. I explained, “Debra, kidnap victims generally don’t have control over sleeping arrangements in a motel.” Immediately, she responded, “Well then he just kidnapped the wrong girl, didn’t he?”
I agreed to rewrite the scene. Actually, I got a kick out of Debra’s feisty, “He kidnapped the wrong girl, didn’t he?” and used it in her new dialogue to Jesse. Totally exasperated, he storms off to the truck, gets some rope and strings it between the two beds. Debra was happy with the change and I finally got my $10,000. (I also got my name in Variety when Hefner sued Glen.)
The lawsuit was dropped when the movie didn’t get made. I was disappointed but at least no more having to watch Glen putt. He’s 77 now and I’m told he often shoots under his age. Debra Jo eventually moved back to Texas where she lives happily. In 2013, Cal Worthington died at 92. All due respect to Glen, why do the good ones die so young?
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org.