- Historic Sites
It was a great life being a contract writer for a major studio during the high noon of the American movie industry—but it could also be a nightmare. A survivor recalls the pleasures and ardors of working at 20th Century-Fox forty years ago.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
A few days after LeBaron sent the script to Zanuck, I picked up my office phone to make a tennis appointment and found it dead. Using my next door neighbor’s phone, I reported that mine was out of order. The studio operator told me to hold on. Another female voice came on and said, “Mr. Schrank? Your phone isn’t out of order. It is temporarily shut off for outgoing calls. Please stand by for a story meeting with Mr. Zanuck.”
“Oh! When is that?”
“No telling,” she replied cheerily. “Just stand by until further notice.”
At Bob’s office the situation was the same—he also was standing by with his phone shut off. We learned from other writers that when you were on call for a story meeting with Zanuck, there was no advance notice of the time or even the date, but when his secretary summoned you, there must be no delay, not a moment lost due to your phone being busy. So now we were in a state of suspension, living in a void of time, waiting for our hour of judgment. Days went by. The word having got around, other writers dropped in as though for a last visit, bearing fearsome tales of Zanuck’s story meetings.
“This fellow,” said Zanuck, referring to the hero, “thinks his wife has become a milestone around his neck.”
One of the writers, recently out from the East, said, “Millstone, Mr. Zanuck.”
Zanuck stopped in mid-stride and stood stock still, looking at the rash writer. There was an appalling silence. Moments dragged heavily by. Then Zanuck turned abruptly on his heel and went into his private toilet, banging the door shut.
“Now why did you have to do a thing like that?” someone asked.
Becoming aware of the enormity of his act, the writer stuttered, “I—I—well—it just slipped out. He did mean millstone, you know.”
The others chimed in: “Yes, but why did you have to say it?” “Don’t you know any better than that?” “What’s going to happen now?”
No one knew. A sense of doom pervaded the room. After an eternity Zanuck emerged from his toilet and said, “All right—millstone. ” He resumed his pacing. “This fellow thinks his wife is a millstone around his neck. …” The meeting ended, the group dispersed. Moments after the writer returned to his office, his phone rang. He was asked to please report to the cashier’s office. There he was handed a check covering the balance of his contract, which still had several months to run, and was asked to leave the studio immediately.
Recently I came across a piece of information that throws light on a puzzling point in this story: Why did Zanuck go into the toilet? Mel Gussow’s biography of Zanuck, “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking,” quotes Zanuck speaking of his early days working as a gag writer for Charlie Chaplin: “Chaplin would love to use words he looked up in the dictionary—to crush us. Words like outré. He would say something was ‘uttra,’ and then say, ‘You understand what I mean?’ Very superior, you know. But if Reisner [Chaplin’s chief gag writer] deliberately used a word Chaplin didn’t know, Chaplin went immediately to the toilet. He kept a dictionary there.”
Another story told of a writer whom I will call Mike Katz. Having spent an entire week on call, Mike reported for the usual half-day on Saturday and hung around waiting for the phone to ring. He had a much-prized ticket to the big football game of the season that afternoon. When noon came without a call, Mike decided it was safe to leave the studio: the meeting had doubtless been put off. He went to the game. As fate would have it, Zanuck’s busy schedule had finally permitted him to get around to the Mike Katz meeting that afternoon. The secretary called Mike’s office. No reply. She called the commissary and had him paged. No luck. She called his home. No answer. Frantic, she called his agent, his lawyer, his psychoanalyst, his dentist. None of them knew where Mike was. An irate Zanuck meanwhile had called her a couple of times demanding to know where the hell that lousy writer was. On the edge of hysteria, she canvassed the writers’ building by phone and ran into a bit of luck. One of Mike’s friends, working late, told her who Mike’s current mistress was. The secretary called her and at last learned where Mike was. Thereupon, to the astonishment of fifty thousand fans, and to Mike’s dismay, the loudspeaker boomed out: “Attention please! Attention please! Mike Katz! Report to Mr. Zanuck’s office immediately!”