More About Who You Know

There’s a myth about breaking into Hollywood that goes like this: “It’s not what you know but who you know.” I call it a myth because if that thesis was true, I’d have never been hired, nor would pretty much everybody I ever worked with, screenwriters, actors, directors, singers, dancers, people from Podunk that came to town with nothing but talent that complete strangers in charge of movie or television production had no choice but to hire. Certainly, being the son or daughter of the head of a major studio, or an iconic movie star, provides a leg up over a nobody fresh off the boat from Oshkosh. It’s unquestionably an advantage growing up in and around the biz, listening to inside shop talk at the dinner table, having Thanksgiving with one celebrity more famous than another. When a child of Hollywood is ready to toss his or her hat into the entertainment ring, it’s effortless to phone a favorite uncle to get a meeting or an audition. However, once inside the door, show business is pretty much a level playing field. Nepotism can turn into a quick dead end as the fairly talented sons and daughters are fast replaced by skyrocketing Podunkers soaring to stardom. Hollywood, unlike family-run businesses that pass down control from one generation to the next, is mainly interested in hiring people that can help generate colossal amounts of money, even if it means giving the axe to their own children. There are exceptions to the exception, Michael Douglas, Rob Reiner, Jane Fonda, it would be absurd to suggest that their success came via connections versus talent. Pure numbers prove that the vast majority of stars come from parents with no connections whatsoever in Hollywood, pharmaceutical executives, special ed teachers, garment pressers, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Martin Scorsese. Me? I landed in Hollywood knowing one person in the business, a writer/producer that read one of my spec scripts, thought it good, and promised me a spot on her writing staff the minute her new show was picked up by the network for the fall season. Breaking into Hollywood? Piece of cake I thought naively, until I learned that her show was not picked up, nor the one after that, and it would be four years before she was in a position to hire me. By that point, I’d already managed to land a feature film agent at International Creative Management, write scripts for Paramount, Universal, MGM, all attained by the age-old Hollywood tradition of pounding pavement, getting doors slammed in my face, flat-out rejections, broken promises, outright lies, desperation, hopelessness, poverty. Dissolve through a series of minor victories, major contracts, award shows, mega hits and, lo and behold, I became the uncle you’d like to have at Thanksgiving dinner, the one who with one phone call could launch you on your way to glitz and glitter. I had a huge office on the Warner Bros. lot, a smaller office for my private secretary, access to the executive dining room, parking space with my stenciled name, invitations to industry screenings, an enormous house in the Hollywood hills, state-of-the-art chef’s kitchen, hand-painted tiles, swimming pool fed by waterfall, bedroom suite with separate gym, bath with steam room next to Swedish sauna, and, highlight of highlights, an elevator leading from the ground floor to the main level, not a lift, a full-size elevator, Otis to be specific. Naturally, when my son said he wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter, I was all too eager to help in any way I could, open doors, introduce him to bigshots, and, most helpful, guide him as he shaped his spec script into professional perfection. There was only one problem with my nepotistic plot. My son never wrote his spec script, so there were no phone calls to make, no doors to open, no bigshots to introduce him to. Eventually, my son chucked the idea of becoming a screenwriter, moved back east, and began to write a series of books on the history of rock ‘n roll that were published and met with success. Fortunately, while I was in my heyday, I did use my connections to help Hollywood hopefuls. A young man whose dream was to work behind the scenes as a film editor, became an assistant to an editor I introduced him to, before rising through the ranks to cutting major studio movies. An out-of-work actor working in a bank took a role in an equity waiver play I wrote, won a Drama-Logue Award, was signed by an agent, landed a cool part in a movie, and quit his job in the bank. Yet, ironically, the only job I was never able help someone with was the one I’d become somewhat of an expert in, scriptwriting. I even tried to recruit a friend from my advertising days, a talented copywriter, smart, funny, someone I couldn’t wait to open doors for, doors I once had to kick down, doors now open to top agents, famous producers, powerful executives. I was stunned when the person flatly turned down my silver-platter offer. “Gary,” my friend said, “I appreciate your gesture. And I appreciate everything you’ve achieved. But you need to remember, I was witness to what you went through to get there. The late nights. The weekends in the studio. The total exhaustion. I once brought a friend to visit you at the studio. You were so kind to us. We were thrilled with the behind-the-scenes tour you gave us. The stars you introduced us to. However, in our ride home, the thing that stood out to my friend was how utterly weary you looked. Almost to the edge of collapse. ‘Gary Kott,’ my friend observed, “His skin is grey.” Grey skin. That’s what finally convinced me to bolt from Hollywood, sell the house with the Otis elevator, find a saner, healthier life. Years later, skin-tone normal, I was approached by a man I’d met at a dinner party. He asked if we could meet for lunch the next day. He seemed desperate. Curious, I went, only to discover the urgency or our meeting. The man had written a screenplay and felt confident that his big break had finally come. “It’s not what you know,” he exclaimed unabashedly, “it’s who you know.” He then proceeded to batter-ram me with requests to open for him the golden gates of Hollywood. It took all I had to convince the man that after my thirty-year absence from the business I knew nobody behind those doors and couldn’t even re-open them for myself. I withheld the harsh realities of what I’d withstood as an exalted Hollywood scriptwriter. Locked in a room. Hunched over a typewriter. Writing for the studio. Then re-writing for the executives. Then re-writing for the director. Then re-writing for the star. Constantly re-writing. Incessantly. Robotically. One day I found myself driving to Home Depot to buy ductwork pipes and strips of wood, assembling them in my workshop, mounting the final product on a chair hunched over a desk with a hand-made typewriter. The robot now sits next to my desk in my home office, with a bronze plaque affixed to its neck, “Gary Kott. Self Portrait. Writing Scripts in Hollywood.”

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