Monday, June 2, 2008

Vengance

Several years back, my pal Greg had to drop his mate off at work around mid-day. It was a Saturday and Greg had the day off. Not wanting to make himself lunch, he called a little Italian place near his partner's employer and ordered a calzone for take-out. When he arrived to get his meal there was some confusion before they realized his order had been lost. The girl behind the counter apologized and asked if he still wanted them to make it; it would be about fifteen minutes. Greg said sure. He would wander around the neighborhood and be back to get it. When he walked out the door though, he had a change of heart; screw them, he was going to get lunch somewhere else. He grabbed a burger and went home. As he was eating his phone rang. He didn't answer it - he knew who it was. The answering machine kicked on. The counter-girl's voice came through the speaker. "Greg," it said, calmly, correctively, maternally, "Revenge is an ugly thing."

She was right, of course. The list of horrors perpetrated in the name of revenge, both individually and socially, is endless. Still, it's what people do. They get even.

I have never been a big revenge guy. One of the few advantages of my emotionalism is that I rage and get over it. Though in the heat of it I may imagine some great comeuppance for my adversary, by the time it moves from the nebulous fantasy stage to actual planning I'm over it. Revenge just isn't an arrow in my quiver. I have been, however, its target.

Larry hired me to work for him at a cable television network. When he moved up to Executive VP, I went along with him. He mentored and protected me from the falling shit of office politics. I did his dirty work; fixing problems and keeping tabs for him on the other corporate officers with whom he did battle. He used that to great effect with the company president, Ms. Combs, (he referred to her simply as "the churn-legged woman") as she, for no reason I could ever understand, seemed intent on revealing her confidences to me. Our relationship - his and mine - was symbiotic and mutually advantageous. I learned a lot and we became good friends. He was very much a father figure to me.

When the network was sold we all lost our jobs. Larry, who had been a successful screenwriter before taking his corner office, opted to go back to that. I had decided to try my hand at it, as well, so we both ended up in Los Angeles. He again proved helpful to my career. He introduced me to my agent and various other folks that would help me along my way. I remained loyal to him for that.

He took a job as producer, or showrunner, of a tv series and hired me as the lead writer. It was an awful show and proved to be a dreadful job. No budget and a short time frame contributed to the problems, but the primary issue was Larry. He was in over his head and all his tap-dancing couldn't save him. As things began to fall apart he started to change from the funny, self-deprecating raconteur to a scrambling, blame-tossing, LA shark. It wasn't pretty and though I wasn't suffering for it directly, others were. It made me sad to see someone I liked so much and with whom I had grown so close show such a crass and undesirable side.

It all finally came to a head one night when he and I had a blow-out in front of cast and crew. It was 3:00 in the morning and no one could leave because we were shredding one another at the top of the only stairs that led to the parking lot. No one wanted to walk through a war that featured the producer and the head writer as combatants. After nearly an hour of shouting he issued his cliched ultimatum: "My way or the highway!" I took him at his word and gave him my resignation the next day. My departure opened the floodgates and others followed.

He felt betrayed. Those who stayed on bore the brunt of his rants and raves about my disloyalty; his claims that I had sabotaged him. His anger took on the form of paranoid delusions, even imagining I had monkeyed with the office phones before I left by placing gum in them to make the keys stick. It preyed on him night and day as my former colleagues received middle of the night calls from him wherein he raged about some just remembered (or imagined) slight he had suffered from me. The reports from my former coworkers were initially amusing, but eventually became quite sad. It was not how I had wanted it to end.

A year or so later I heard he had taken a showrunner position with a new syndicated incarnation of the Mike Hammer series. When I heard the news I hoped for the best for him, but I didn't expect it to go any better than the last. At that time I was dating the woman who would become my wife. She and I came home from dinner late one Saturday night and turned on the the television. Surprisingly, the Mike Hammer show was just starting as the screen came to life. My wife had heard a few stories about Larry and been filled in enough so that when I said, "Hey, I think that's Larry's show," she insisted we watch. It was as I feared: bad - top to bottom - very bad.

The plot of this particular episode involved Hammer seeking out a child pornographer/murderer. Hammer's job was to bring the vile slime down. As the plot unfolded and Hammer followed the clues that led him to the bastard, I winced at the writing and acting and lighting and everything else. But I really winced when we hit the reveal: the evil-doer, the molestor/killer, the slime Hammer was after was - Oh My God! - his old best friend. Hammer, of course, can't believe it, but he can't ignore the facts as he says bitterly, "I don't care what we used to be, Lex has to pay." Blast of music. Commercial.

My jaw dropped as I stared at the screen. My wife turned to me and said excitedly, "He used your name for the guy." "Yeah, for an internet child pornographer/murderer," I said. He didn't use my last name - that might be actionable. No, the character had my first name and the last name of our former, dreaded, network president. The slime was named Lex Combs.

The episode went on and on about how Hammer felt so betrayed by his friend and how could he have not seen how evil Lex was in the first place. It ends with a shoot-out in a warehouse. Hammer closing in on Lex, cornering him, and shouting the whole time, "It's all over Lex, you're done. There's no reason for you to go on, Lex. There's nowhere for you to go. Like a rabid dog you have to be put down. You're a monster, Lex" The villian, in that brutal final act, finally succumbs to this verbal barrage and blows his own brains out, much to Hammer's satisfaction.

It was remarkably disturbing for me. While my future bride laughed both at its badness, and at the idea of my name being used for a character, I felt freaked out. It was revenge of the highest order and though relatively discreet, it nonetheless sent me a message. Even though he was not credited as writer for that episode, as showrunner he wrote the season's bible (plots for all that years eps) and rewrote most of the scripts. It was his work.

Throughout history writers have used their quills to stab their enemies; it's a time-honored tradition. I should have been flattered by it, but its vitriol undid me. I could only hope it had helped him, and be grateful all that hatred flowed out through his words and not his deeds. We have not spoken since the day I left and I doubt very much we will ever cross paths again, but if we do I will try to laugh it off the best I can and wish him well.

His message has little weight, anymore, but it resonates. It proved once again, revenge is an ugly thing.

3 comments:

mama o said...

That makes me sad that he would do that. I never heard that part of the story. I remember the parting, but didn't know about the show with your name. Shame on him!
Mama O

Baywatch said...

is this MH episode out on criterion yet?

like hipster says, writing well is the best revenge -- i tend to think that if you can't veil the name in a clever fashion (e.g., anagram), your poison pen is pretty poor.

Anonymous said...

You think thats bad? Wait til' those mustard tossing gunslinging kids from Denver find out where you're at!

Pete