No matter how endearing you might find Frank South to be, spending two hours with him is a real ordeal. He paces, he twitches, he rages, he apologizes, he laments, he speaks in non-sequiturs, and he fights with his personal demons. In short, he displays vividly the ailments that have afflicted him for a lifetime: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hypomania (part of the cycle of manic depression), alcoholism, short-term memory loss, and issues with authority.
South brings all this to the stage of The Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse in a one-man show called “Pay Attention: ADHD in Hollywood, On the Rocks with a Twist.” The “twist” is that, between episodes of working as a waiter, South was one of the most successful television writers in Hollywood. Among his hit shows were “Melrose Place,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “Fame,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “General Hospital.”
To demonstrate his typical behavior, he begins his story in 1964, when he quixotically signed up to appear in his high school’s spring talent show. Which was unfortunate, he tells us, because he had no particular talent. But, unfazed, he decided he could teach himself to play guitar in time for the show. And then he reveals one of the major components of ADHD: “If something is really important, I don’t pay attention.” So he never learned to play the guitar, but he showed up for the talent show anyway, delivered a rambling rant, and totally humiliated himself. In that experience, he says, he learned that “shame and pain are great teachers.”
He introduces us to his “crazy,” the demon with clawed fists who urges him to do outrageous things and helps him to his first mental breakdown in 1969. This breakdown he treats with Paxil, Ritalin and gin. Then, apparently because he can match auteur Robert Altman drink for drink, he becomes Altman’s bosom buddy and protégé.
Altman had contacted him originally because he had liked two one-act plays that South had written. South, who was a waiter at New York’s Windows on the World at the time, let Altman move him to L.A., where he lived in the Malibu Colony with Altman and his wife and became part of the celebrity set of the 1980s. Altman subsequently directed his plays, titled “2 by South” in L.A. and off-Broadway, and then filmed them for presentation on ABC Arts. For a time, South seemed to have achieved his dream of “being accepted at the grownups’ table.”
Following his time with Altman and another meltdown, he was enlisted to write for television mogul Aaron Spelling. For Spelling, he says, he wrote “crappy, brain-dead TV shows” and turned “arty farty TV shows into a must-see crap pie.” Admitting to having “a severe reaction to cute,” South claims that with Spelling he earned a PhD in lame and a black belt in B.S.
His bitter commentary on Spelling, whom he claims “does not even pretend to stick up for you when things go bad,” was obviously fueled by the fact that he, South, became the fall guy in a notorious lawsuit filed by an actress whose role as the lead in a series had been recast when she became pregnant. South, who had fired her at Spelling’s direction, was blamed for what was termed “exploitation of a woman.”
South, who resembles the late Jim Backus when he smiles, eventually found a woman who could put up with him and calm him down. She is Margaret South, a producer who has developed films and television shows for Disney, Fox, and Tri-Star Studios. With her, he moved to Hawaii so that he could write and produce “Baywatch Hawaii.” They are still there.
The Souths have two sons, both with ADHD. How Margaret copes with the three of them boggles the imagination. But, as Frank points out, “Three percent of American adults have ADHD,” so there must be many such copers out there. Margaret produced her husband’s show and their friend Mark Travis, a prominent director of solo shows, directed it. Kathi O’Donohue provided the colorful lighting effects.
“Pay Attention” is a grim tale, discomfiting and tension-filled and not easy to sit through. But as South notes in conclusion, “We are all inventing our lives as we live them.” His life has been as inventive as can be expected from someone with his challenges. One can only hope there is a light bulb at the end of his tunnel.
“Pay Attention” will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. for six weeks only, May 2 through June 7, at The Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. Call 323-960-7738 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.