Monday, November 16, 2009

In Memory of Edward Woodward, The Equalizer

This morning came the word that my old friend and colleague Edward Woodward had passed away. He was 79 years old. Over recent years our contact was pretty much limited to the exchange of Christmas cards. The one he sent last year carried the note that he was still working at 79 and wasn't that a wonder?

I didn't create the classic American television series of which Edward was the star. It was created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. Michael was a busy writer/producer and Dick was a top-level executive at Universal Television. After the pilot was written and produced, because of their commitments, neither could join the on-going staff of the show. It was turned over to others.

I came on board the team as the junior writer/producer in the fall of 1985. It was show eleven. I had worked on only one other series and that one had lasted for just eight episodes. When it ended I was offered an exclusive deal at Universal TV. I was thrilled to be there, but for months there wasn't much for me to do. Then came a call. Would I like to join the staff of a new series that was in production called The Equalizer? The concept sounded interesting so I said yes.

Almost immediately I ran into a false conception that plagued the show from beginning to end. When I told a woman writer friend that I was joining The Equalizer she looked disgusted. Why would I want to write for a show about a vigilante? To this day that's how many people perceive The Equalizer. But for those of us who worked on the series it wasn't about that at all.

When I joined the staff I discovered that things were in chaos. Most new series go through a painful first year, but this was particularly bad. The writing staff and the "showrunner" were in LA while the whole production team was in Manhattan. And there was war between the coasts. The New York team hated the scripts they were getting, while the LA team felt they were writing cutting-edge material that took the concept to a whole new level. I decided to be of help wherever I could and try not to make enemies on either coast. That was a challenge.

The writing staff was trying to deal with a number of scripts that had been done by freelancers. All of them needed major revisions to make them ready for production and deadlines were not being met. With my usual suicidal tendency I went into the showrunner's office and asked for the most difficult script he had. He gave it to me. It was a story about a street gang and it needed what we call a "page one" revision, basically a new script. And there wasn't much time to do it.

In the story the Equalizer had to stop a street gang that was terrorizing a neighborhood. For some reason I got it into my head to make that script an homage to the classic movie, "The Warriors." (When I see that episode today I just want to cringe.) But something strange happened as I wrote it. Here's the way it went down.

As always before taking any action, Robert McCall did his homework about the situation that he faced. In the episode his research took him to Spanish Harlem. One day on a street he passed a poor little barbershop. Glancing in the window, he froze. His eyes locked with those of the barber. Amazed, he walked inside. The barber and McCall stared at each other. They were old enemies from the days when McCall was a top CIA operative. The man motioned for him to come into the back room where they could talk.

McCall couldn't believe that his old enemy was here in New York cutting hair. When last they had met he was one of the leading Generals in Fidel Castro's Cuba. How in the world had he gone from that to this? The "barber" told him.

In a time of paranoia, Castro had ordered yet another sweep to cleanse the population of his enemies. Among the thousands pulled in was a little farmer, just a common man. But very quickly it became apparent that the best interrogators couldn't deal with him. He broke them. In frustration, the General took on the case himself. He tortured the man mercilessly, finally killing him. But that little farmer destroyed his life. And how had he done it? "...Because through all the torture no matter what I did to him he forgave me. What I experienced was the worst thing that could ever happen to a good Communist. I began to believe in the Love of God." This and other factors in the story led Robert McCall to do something that he had never done before. To win against the gang he had to lay down his gun and face them defenseless and alone.

After I wrote all that I had absolutely no idea how it would be received. Definitely it wasn't your garden variety vigilante story. I was certain of only one thing. In the history of American television never had such a scene been written for a hard-edged prime-time action series. I was in LA with no direct knowledge of what was going on in New York. I didn't know it, but later I was told that Edward was ready to walk off the show because he was so unhappy with his character as it was being portrayed. But when he read the script that I had written he said, "This is it."

Thus began a wonderful odyssey for me. The story of all we went through producing The Equalizer could fill a book. Beginning with the second year the writing team came together. A number of wonderful writers passed through the show adding their unique perspectives. Many of us are still close friends. For two of the four years the showrunner was a great friend who gave me amazing freedom to write whatever I felt. His name was Ed Waters and he passed away several years ago. Then there was Jim McAdams, the Executive Producer, who became a dear friend of decades. Jim died a little over two years ago. Supporting us were the executives at Universal TV led by Dick Lindheim. Without their encouragement nothing that I wrote would have been produced. I am grateful to them all.

As time passed it seemed that I had a kind of symbiotic understanding of the unique character created by Michael and Dick and portrayed so brilliantly by Edward. Consequently, most of the episodes that dealt with McCall's deeper background and relationships fell to me. By virtue of the fact that I stayed on the show longer than any other writer I wrote more episodes than anyone else. And what a wonderful opportunity it was. Never again on any series even those I created was I allowed such freedom.

What makes a television series successful? Of course, you need good scripts and good production. But most of all the audience has to love the main characters. They have to want them to come back into their homes week after week. That's why casting is such an art. Casting Edward Woodward as The Equalizer was brilliant and unpredictable. Think of it, a British actor virtually unknown in the US to play a CIA agent on a major network series. The world can thank Michael and Dick for such a choice.

I've thought often about what Edward brought to the part. In my opinion it was great strength, resolution and energy, coupled with an underlying sorrow. There was tremendous honesty in his performance. The character he played was a brilliant and brave man who had done terrible things for which he carried a heavy burden of guilt. The series was about the costliness of redemption. Robert McCall brought redemption to others, but to do so always cost him. And while he brought that redemption, he could never quite find it for himself.

I don't think you will ever see another series like The Equalizer. There are specific reasons for that. First, Robert McCall was the ultimate father figure. He would kick your butt when you needed it, but when the chips were down and life was fading away he would be there to save you. When he came you knew that if it was necessary he would give his life for yours. Hollywood is not a fan of those kind of fathers. Lovable, stumbling buffoons are much more popular. But there's another reason you'll never see a series like this again.

Over the years there have been a number of attempts to copy The Equalizer. They have failed because Hollywood misunderstands the meaning of redemption. Hollywood's definition of redemption is found in the wonderful movie, "The Shawshank Redemption." As excellent as it is, it isn't about redemption at all. It's about revenge. Redeem yourself by making somebody else pay. And therein lies the fatal flaw. With true redemption someone is willing to pay the price to save your life even if you don't deserve it. If The Equalizer had carried Hollywood's definition of redemption it would have been just a vigilante show.

Why did I have an understanding of the mysterious character of Robert McCall? Was it my experiences in war? Maybe in part. But there is a deeper reason. I too am a man who has done terrible things in my life. But unlike Robert McCall I found redemption because Someone else paid the price for me. Because of Jesus Christ I know what redemption is and the burden of guilt is gone.

People always want to know how much of the character that an actor portrays comes from inside. They want to believe that the real person is a lot like the character they love on the screen. Edward both was and wasn't the Equalizer. First, he was a whole lot funnier than Robert McCall. And he could sing. A number of years ago Carel and I visited Edward and Michele in their home near Portsmouth, England. It was a delightful time. We had great meals and went antiquing. Our gracious hosts showed us the area with its fascinating history. And Edward kept us in stitches. Not only was he a consummate actor, he was one of the greatest raconteurs of his generation.

Edward was much like Robert McCall in at least one way. He cared about people. The star of a series controls the tone of a show on the set. Too many series are chained with stars who are narcissistic spoiled brats. And some are truly evil. They bring agony on all those around them. That was not Edward Woodward. Our production team, that had to work with him day and night, all loved him. He was a true gentleman. Though we never talked about it I'm sure at a deep level Edward understood Robert McCall in the same way I did. If he hadn't, never would he have accepted the scripts that I wrote for him.

I was a grown man when my father died. Even so a strange sense of vulnerability came at his passing. Someone I trusted deeply wasn't there anymore and the world was a lonelier place. I think Edward portrayed a father very well. Our prayers are with Michele and all the children.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Varieties of War

Last Wednesday was Veteran's Day. Each year when it comes around I feel quite detached from the celebration. Fresno, a city of half a million that's an hour from where I live, has a big parade. I just can't imagine myself staggering down a street with a bunch of old dudes decorated with bits and pieces of my ancient uniform. I'm glad they do it I just can't bring myself to participate. As worthy as they are, I've never been involved in veterans' organizations.

On November 9th of 1967 I arrived in Vietnam. I was a second lieutenant, a graduate of the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, trained to be a combat rifle platoon leader.

Your first week or so in Vietnam was spent at a reception station getting acclimated to the heat and awaiting orders. Mine came late one night. My assignment was to a combat battalion that was flying out the next morning. The 4rth Infantry Division was in a major battle in the Central Highlands and we were going to back them up. As officers must do I had to report to the battalion commander. It was after midnight when I arrived. I found him and all the officers of the unit in their private club, a very large tent with a bar. And all of them were getting drunk. I could have hoped for a better moment to make my introduction.

So I came in and saluted Colonel Baldwin. That was his name. Now when you're the newbie junior lieutenant in a battalion you expect a certain amount of harassment. It just goes with the territory. You learn to take it and give it. After I reported to Colonel Baldwin (who was well into his cups), he invited me to have a beer. Now this was a problem. Having grown up in a conservative religious community, at that time I didn’t drink alcohol at all. My previous experiences with military drunks did not incline me to begin, so politely I asked for a Coke. The good Colonel did not appreciate this request.

Now there are three kinds of drunks. First, you have the guys who just get quiet and sink into themselves. Second, there are the party boys who think everything they do and say is screamingly funny. Last, and most dangerous are the belligerent SOB's. Very quickly I discovered that Colonel Baldwin fell into that category. He demanded to know why I wouldn’t accept a beer. Without going into detail I told him that I just didn’t drink. He proceeded to stand me at attention in front of all the other officers and gave me a direct order to drink a beer. At that point I would have drunk acid first. Politely I refused. For the next hour he proceeded to berate me: 1) for not drinking beer, 2) for being a second lieutenant, and 3) for being married of all things. Drunks are such pleasant people. The louder he got the more quietly stubborn I got. Clearly, the man was a buffoon, but put this into context. In a few hours he was going to lead us into battle. It was like entering the Twilight Zone. Thank God we didn't confront the enemy the next day. Later some of the other officers told me that they admired the way I had stood up to him. Of course they didn't have the guts to say a word that night. A week later came my birthday. I turned 22.

After several months Colonel Baldwin was reassigned. The man who replaced him was even worse. Not a drunk, just an arrogant egomaniac out to make a name for himself as a battalion commander. I will never forget his last day with us. We were operating as part of the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta. Our rifle companies were on a search and destroy mission and as usual the Colonel was flying overhead in a helicopter. I was leading a rifle platoon. That afternoon my platoon was holed up in a bombed-out Catholic church, so I didn’t see what transpired. But I heard it as it happened over the battalion radio net.

By then a much older captain had joined the battalion. (Probably around the ripe old age of 42.) He was very experienced and he was leading one of the rifle companies. Well he wasn't moving his men fast enough for the Colonel in the helicopter. All of us moved slowly because we were up to our waists in rice paddy mud and the temperature was about 120 degrees. He ordered the captain to get his men up onto the dikes so they could run where he wanted them to go. The captain refused, telling him that the dikes were all booby-trapped with mines. His soldiers would die needlessly. The battalion commander grew furious. Ordering his helicopter to land, he screamed at the captain that he would show him how to lead. Then he proceeded to rush down a dike all by himself. He didn’t go fifty feet before he was blown to pieces. All of us listening on the battalion radios cheered. The reward for his arrogance and stupidity was a trip home in a body bag.

I have always said that my time in the army was excellent preparation for Hollywood because I learned how to fight and how to deal with idiots. The army has its share of bullies but there are far more of them in Hollywood, little martinets who rise up and strut for awhile making everyone's life hell. Then, they vanish away. I discovered long ago that you can do your very best to live at peace with these people, but if they feel you are not properly intimidated there's going to be trouble.

Years ago I had a deal with a production company at MGM. I had been brought in to write the pilot for a TV series and be the showrunner guiding other writers in the development of episodic scripts. The company had several series in production so there were a number of writers at work. The man in charge of it all had a reputation for being a bully, but my relationship with him had been fine.

As the weeks passed I brought in writers and we began to develop stories for the series. Finally I felt that one was ready to present for approval. I sent the detailed story over. A day or so later the man called for a meeting with the writer. The meeting took place in my office. To my surprise this little bully walked in, sat down and literally threw the story at my writer. Then he began berating him.

The writer was an old friend of mine. Years later he loved to describe what happened next. He said that my eyes grew wide, then they narrowed. I rose up and almost came over my desk. He thought I was going to grab the man and strangle him. In a quiet voice I informed him that he could yell at me and throw things at me all he wanted, but never again was he going to treat one of my writers this way. Like all bullies he shriveled. Well, the word got out to everyone in that company. From that moment the man was terrified of me. Apparently no one had ever stood up to him. After that I tried to be friendly and professional, but our relationship did not blossom. A month or so later he did some unethical things that forced me to leave. I was glad to be gone. Later he was fired from the company for illegal activities.

As a Christian I have discovered that when I am attacked I have a hard time defending myself, but when others are attacked I have an absolute responsibility to defend them if I am able.

When soldiers returned after a year in Vietnam so many confronted total rejection. In large part this was a result of the traitors in the media and the insane radicals in the streets. But it got very personal. Men came home not only to be spit upon by strangers, but to wives who had left them and families who didn't care whether they were home or not, to old friends who rejected them as "baby killers." It is one of the greatest disgraces in the history of America and it went on for years.

But I was blessed. I didn't face any of those things. The week I came home I was asked to speak in uniform at a chapel service at the Moody Bible Institute. After my talk, which was well received, the students were about to leave. My sweet wife was in the audience sitting with an old friend who was a professor. They decided to clap which was something that just didn't happen in those services. Suddenly, all 1100 students were clapping and cheering. That was my welcome home, that was my parade, and I will always be grateful.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Terror That Comes In The Night

When you are a mentalist doing shows and programs you've got to be prepared to deal with some high strangeness. I found that out when I was a young man performing in the mid-west. Beyond the craft of mentalism, I had do know something about the occult and the supernatural because many people were having disturbing experiences that they were afraid to share with anyone else. At the very least a mentalist should offer an understanding ear. The beginning of my research was with the writings of a man named Dr. Kurt Koch. Most of his books are still in my library, his magnum opus being a work entitled "Occult Bondage and Deliverance."

Dr. Koch was anything but a sensationalist. Most people who write about the occult come across as loons. That was not Dr. Koch. He was a German theologian and biblical scholar who had found himself thrown into situations for which he was not prepared. In the process of dealing with those situations over many years he became an expert. I heard him speak in the early 1970's and I remember him as being a stolid old German with a thick accent and a presentational style that was distinctly underwhelming. But he knew his subject.

There are those who believe that the supernatural or preternatural does not exist at all. They are materialists of the Old School who cling desperately to an outmoded view of reality based on a 19th century faith in the scientific method. How they can cling to such a view is beyond me. Even a shallow understanding of Quantum Mechanics and its weird implications should lead the most dedicated rationalist to throw up his hands and think anything is possible.

I am almost 64 years old. Though I have studied the occult and the supernatural for many years I have not had an experience that I would classify as "otherworldly" or unexplainable...except once. It happened in February of 2005 and it lasted less than fifteen seconds. But those few seconds were amazing. What I saw was not frightening, rather it was weird and wonderful and awe-inspiring. At some point in the future I will write about it in detail, but not now. While my life has been virtually devoid of high strangeness, there are people close to me who have had many preternatural experiences many of which have included an element of terror.

In 1992 the Roper Group took a poll to determine how many people in the United States were having what they believed to be frightening supernatural experiences. Among a series of questions, the respondents were asked if they had ever awakened from sleep paralyzed – unable to move or speak – with the sense of a Malevolent Presence in the room. Eighteen percent replied, “yes.” Based on their randomly selected sample of 5,947 respondents and with a margin of error of + or – 1.4%, it was projected that at that time, over 33,000,000 people in our country were having such experiences. That's a lot of people.

Sociologist David J. Hufford has documented this horrible phenomenon in his book, "The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions." Beginning while he was a professor in Nova Scotia and continuing when he became a professor in Arizona, Hufford discovered that on a regular basis a significant percentage of his students were experiencing supernatural “assaults.” These terrifying manifestations came during the night. The victim would awaken but be unable to move with the absolute awareness that an Evil Presence was in the room. This Presence would physically descend upon them, crushing down so hard that they were unable to breathe. The experiences were viewed as absolutely real by those who described them. Some became so fearful that they didn’t want to fall asleep. Why hadn’t they told anyone? They were afraid that people would think they were crazy. Based on his research, Hufford projected that as much as one sixth of the population may be experiencing such horrifying events.

My research indicates that this experience goes back for centuries and the Evil Presence has taken many forms depending on the cultural expectations of its victims. There is an arcane expression that has almost passed from the English language. That expression is "hagridden." It refers to being tormented and attacked during the night. In the past (and even up to the present), one form that the Evil Manifestation has taken is that of an old hag. But there are much more modern forms. In my opinion, the so-called UFO abduction phenomenon is nothing more than a modern version of this ancient attack syndrome.

But what could be the purpose for these attacks and who is the attacker? As far as purpose is concerned in my opinion there are many levels which I will not go into right now. At the very least, recurring terror creates chaos in a person's life. When there is chaos and terror the damage flows out affecting every relationship and situation. Chaos and terror also offer the opportunity for malevolent control.

Who or what is it that is doing the attacking? Read the following information and draw your own conclusions. Based upon what I have learned from many people including those close to me, no matter what form the Evil Presence takes there is only one guaranteed way to stop it. Whether it appears as a hag or a so-called "alien," it can be forced to leave by commanding it do so in the name of Jesus Christ and through the power of His blood shed to take away the sins of the world. Now this doesn't mean that there won't be a battle, but in every case I know of (and I know of many) ultimately the Presence cannot stand that Name and the application of that Blood and will vanish. Let me be clear, the Name of Jesus is not an occult incantation. Those who use it are calling out to a Living Person for help. If you're going to call on Him it would be good to know Him. When you begin to know Him you will understand why Evil is so terrified.

Does all of this sound insane? I'm sure for many readers of this blog it does. So be it. But for those who live in terror of the thing that comes in the night it could be nothing less than the beginning of liberation.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

All That's Left Behind

Back in the very early years of this new century I was involved with a group that attempted to turn the best-selling Left Behind books into a TV series. For many reasons it was a horrible experience. In addition to the insane lawsuits between rights holders and all the related nightmares that they created, I ran into a surprising difficulty. It may seem trivial, but I think that it is symptomatic of a much larger problem.

The Bible teaches that in the Last Days a man of great evil will arise to rule the world. He has been called the Anti-Christ. This character is central to the Left Behind books. In the course of preparing to write scripts based on those books I had discussions with Dr. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. To my surprise I discovered that Dr. LaHaye does not believe that the Anti-Christ will have supernatural powers. In his opinion, he will be simply a very gifted man who becomes filled with the spirit of Satan. This elicited an extensive dialog between us both in person and in letters. The letters are stored in my collection in the Wheaton College Library Archives and are available for examination.

It was and is my opinion that this Great Evil Leader will be from his earliest days an individual of consummate supernatural power, the Ultimate Hierophant, an initiated adept into the most ancient of mysteries. I presented my case and Dr. LaHaye presented his. With all due respect, I found his arguments to be both biblically weak and, sad to say, dangerously naive. In my opinion they represented a strange kind of materialism, perhaps an echo of so-called Enlightenment skepticism that has infected a large segment of the Church of Jesus Christ.

I am a mentalist. As such I am a firm believer in the amazing power of illusion and physical trickery. The simplest of deceptions can fool the masses, deceptions that have nothing to do with supernatural abilities but appear to be miraculous. I have spent both time and treasure to learn many of these secrets. While having a strong experiential belief in the gullibility of humans, I have also spent almost 40 years studying the occult and the supernatural in its various manifestations. Through that research I have become convinced of its reality. My next novel, Dagon's Illusion (the first of The Mentalist trilogy), focuses on the collision of supernatural realities in these Last Days.

I hate blogging. I hate the idea of blogging. From a literary perspective it seems to me to be a form vomitus. Reluctantly however, I have become convinced that there is a place for it. In the days ahead I will be sharing with you some of the thoughts and research that have brought me to my strange opinions. So hang on for the ride.