Jul 26, 2013, 07:30AM

They Were Taking Away Eppinger's TV Show

Fiction: Everything was going wrong and he didn't know why.

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Producers Bennett Eppinger and William Feidelman say they have something special in mind. “Not to sound the trumpets, but the series could make history,” declares Eppinger. —Variety, “‘Think Tank’ Nabs Spot,” February 7, 1961

Also sagging is Think Tank, now under pressure to gussy up its cerebral offerings. —Variety, “ABC Sked Ails,” September 18, 1962

What Eppinger didn’t think about was yesterday afternoon. No time for that. The office had been slumping lately and needed his guiding hand. It was a question of attention and where you directed it. Eppinger saw himself as an instrument that could be turned this way and that. No question, he liked the speculative stuff—times like this, he loved it—but slicing through the day-to-day suited him too. Right now that was definitely in order. A small pulse of anger ticked at the back of his skull.

“Leslie. Who’s calling?” That was as he came in the door, first words of the morning. Nothing unfriendly, just showing he meant business. But his eyes couldn’t help giving a roll: because for a full moment there was blonde little Leslie, a birdlike woman, staring back at him like he had entered speaking Greek. And so the day began. Eppinger felt that a little bounce, some awareness and snap, was not too much to expect from a face looking his way, a face that belonged to his team. Leslie’s gawping there made him feel like a swimmer without enough water. What did he have to work with?

“Calling me,” he said now. “People. On the phone.” And he pushed open the door to his sanctum and slid behind the big chestnut desk.

There he rested an entire minute. The chair’s leather was a little cracked, which felt nice against the butt.

He got up again, stood in the doorway. “William,” he said into the air. “Let him know the door’s open.” He leaned back into his office and stepped in a small circle, slapping at his pockets as he thought.

He looked out the window, which could pass for a plate glass number. The view, nearly eight feet across, showed Cahuenga Boulevard and smeared-over blue sky.

Leslie dropped the calls on his desk and he started rummaging. The paper seemed to resist him, the little bits of paper; they wouldn’t curl right and he had to scrabble. And what he turned up, in the end, was the usual. The network had called—Parkins, to talk about the ratings. But it wasn’t ratings Eppinger had in mind. He wanted his show back on course, returned to its mission. The reins were hanging loose, his fault, and he’d get them back in hand.

He dumped out the in-box. Not enough memos for, what, a quarter after eleven. They lay in a pile, creamy white because his office bought the top-line paper, and with a fine letterhead: the name of the program marched across in letters half the size of a thumb. Their contours were angled in a way Eppinger had picked out, one that reminded him of Europe’s new buildings as shown by Horizon magazine—daring split-level museums, cultural centers with multiple stages and curving walls. So the pile looked good, it looked handsome. But it wasn’t too much bigger than the very modest heap of phone-call slips.

“All right,” Eppinger said to himself. Then, louder: “Noted.” Seeing the proof stark bare like that, lying there, gave you a burn. The operation’s pulse was low.

He rolled up the dubbing report for “…And Elders of the Tribe” and the cost breakdown for “A Matter of Relativity.” He clubbed them lightly against the desktop, chin bobbing, lips bunched up like they wanted to crowd his nose. He was looking at the morning’s Nielsen, the figures for the episode last week (“Solomon Regrets”). They jumped off the page and caught you like BBs: 17.2, 28 share. Up above, of course, was not his show’s letterhead but the network’s. They had sent it over.

Eppinger whipped the dubbing report and costs memo on the desk, once, smartly, and looked directly up at the ceiling. He summoned himself. He would get the day under control. He would find focus and deliver it to those around him, his team. Because, for starters, people would be paying attention. Speaking of which…

Head out the door: “William?” Leslie summoned her thoughts back from Timbuktu. “No,” she said at last. Eppinger cursed.

Didn’t know where the guy was. He hadn’t shown up yesterday, back at the house, and... Standing over his desk, Eppinger poked some more at the memos. Nothing from Jerry, the associate producer. No report from Jerry on the Montessori episode and the overruns. He shuffled the memos some more. At some point, not registering the moment, he flipped the Nielsen memo facedown; at another he dropped the costs breakdown atop it.

Story, Eppinger said to himself. The word made him feel better. He placed his coffee mug atop the Nielsen memo and the costs memo and pushed the three of them away. He had been dealt a bad hand—the network, slack staff—and now he had to play it. Get the crew moving, of course; anyone fit for command could understand that. But you had to set your destination. Quite simply, he didn’t like the stories they’d been telling, and there he saw the need for a long chat between himself and young William.

It could have been yesterday, of course. If William had stopped by. Eppinger drew back a corner of his mouth. No question, the young man had been having some funny moods lately. And yesterday, when normally he’d stop by Eppinger’s house so the two of them could talk… Started as emergency conferences during the show’s early days, during the bumps, but Eppinger found that really they could talk about anything, no question. Science, events in the world… Eppinger considered himself a teacher at heart. But William had been having some moods lately.

Yesterday Eppinger had waited until 3:30 before leaving the front of the house to help Joan with the brambles. All done, she thought to ask what had happened to William. “Not this week,” Eppinger said, shrugging.

Matters had to be set clearly in mind; Eppinger would set them. The show’s mission: strong stories. He and William were going to explore that point thoroughly.

Jerry… Jerry. The Montessori overruns. Pick up the phone. “He around? Then where?” Curse in frustration. “Yeah, well, tell him his boss called—pretty please.” What else? Memo from the story editor: he wanted to know about the second treatment for the Green Revolution episode. Case in point, Eppinger thought. Not the kind of story we should be telling. All right, he didn’t have his eye on it before; now he did.

“William?” he said, then crossed the room to the outer door. Voices came from the hallway. Sal DelBianca, the story editor, was telling Feidelman about his girl’s preparations for the high school musical. “Fellas,” Eppinger said. “Great, let’s get together.”

William came in after DelBianca, who settled into a chair and smiled back at Eppinger. “I want this to get started,” Eppinger said, then realized he hadn’t said what they were talking about. He held up the relevant memo. “All right?” He paused as William found a seat. “Thank you, William,” Eppinger said. His hand hadn’t dropped; he was still holding up the memo. “Before this goes to the next stage,” Eppinger announced, “it has to be pointing the right way. That’s something I want.

DelBianca leaned forward; he was trying to see the memo. “Which one is that?” he asked. “I wrote you about Montessori and about…”

“‘Sows the Seed,’” Eppinger answered quickly. He did not appreciate being backtracked. “‘Sows the Seed,’” he said again, and added, “I want this to get started.“

"All right,” DelBianca said, straightening in his chair. “‘Seed.’”

Eppinger looked at him, then proceeded. “We’ve got a soft mattress here,” he said. The image had occurred to him that morning, in the car, and it comforted him. “When the foundation’s soggy, no bounce.” He cast an eye at DelBianca, at William, to see if he was being listened to.

William sat low in his chair. He had pasted a weary half-smile on his face and he kept it there. Oh, he was bold.

The story problem. “Seed” was about a man getting found out because years ago he had faked evidence for a breakthrough experiment. Lives were at stake—the research was into methods of grain production that could revolutionize food supplies. So the topic had just the right heft. (The Green Revolution was transforming India. Eppinger had laid out the clippings for William during one of their Sundays.) But the premise was still some way off from working. Instinct had told Eppinger as much; he should have listened.

Leslie in the doorway. “It’s the network,” she said. “Parkins.”

Eppinger’s hand floated by his ear as he decided what command to give. “Out at the moment,” he said finally, pointing. “Will call back.” First he had this to get right, then the network could jazz him about ratings. He gave his mug and the Nielsen memo an extra nudge.

Out of nowhere Feidelman started up, shoulders set. Something eating him, God knows what. He gave voice to pretty much of a recitation, stilted as hell. “…and recognize that maybe somebody else’s perspective is—” His mouth just moved along under his nose—his little beak of a nose, Eppinger thought, noticing it for once.

“Yeah,” Eppinger said. The story’s premise bothered him. In the gut it was a little hard to connect lost lives with grain research. Still, wasn’t that what they were about? His mind edged away from the Green Revolution toward a vaccine, then flew back like filings to a magnet. He thought of the clippings.

DelBianca leaned forward, his brown eyes confiding. “I think what William is saying,” he began, “and maybe what you’re saying, is that—”

Eppinger nodded pleasantly, his mind still at work. DelBianca was a good fellow.

“Okay,” Eppinger said. He sat up straighter and clapped his fingers on the desk. “Here’s what we have to do. Build up the story element, that side of things. If necessary, if necessary, inject some immediate peril. But that’s a last resort. I want us looking at a clearer premise.”

“That’s what I’m saying.” From Feidelman. “Make this a disease and then you have lives at stake, just in the nature of the set-up. You don’t have to stick in—”

Eppinger looked at him. Oh my, but William must give voice. And where had he been yesterday? So far not a word about that.

“I mean,” William said, face pink and his little smile puckered, “if we’re stuck with grain production as our premise, all right, you’ve got a story about grain. But a story about a disease—”

Silently, Eppinger prayed that heaven give him strength. Still, here was the key: mission clarification. “That’s where we come in,” he said levelly. “We find the drama in this stuff. We can’t run from that by changing a topic. That’s hiding. I want you to move this treatment around, see if you can help the guy find a direction.”

“I’m your partner,” Feidelman said, now entirely at right angles with the conversation. “On, on the contract, that’s not just your name.”

“Okay,” Eppinger said. “Hi, partner, we have work.”

No. It’s not just your name on the writers’ bible. It’s not just, not—”

The pilot light at the back of Eppinger’s neck was really opening up. He fought it, but maybe some things had to be straightened out.

“It’s not just your name on the door,” William was saying, as if all of a sudden “door” had become a special word. “I’m your partner.”

“Hey, the two of you,” DelBianca began, his smile wider. “You’re the Two Musketeers. Everyone knows that. You’re—”

Not the right time, Sal. “Come on,” Eppinger said to him, his voice a little thick.

Turning back to William. “Now listen. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, and I don’t care. Yeah, you’re my partner. We’re in this together. I thought that was understood. What else have we been talking about every Sunday?” An odd choice of examples, but there it was.

“Clippings,” William said. “And your fossil collection, or whatever it is.” He meant the geodes. Something trembled inside Eppinger. They had spent a nice afternoon looking at the geodes.

William’s face swam into focus as if for the first time. Just three, five years younger, but petulant. A kid, right down in his soul. Eppinger shook his head.

“Maybe—” DelBianca said, but Eppinger’s hand chopped down. This guy’s timing did not improve.

Leslie was in the doorway. “Parkins,” she said again. William pushed past her and out.

Eppinger picked up the phone and waved DelBianca out of the room. DelBianca left quickly. “Bill!” Eppinger said when alone. “Yes!” Then he said, “Now hold on there. No, no. Will you just, just let me… Because there’s a point in your thinking that’s out of line and I want, uh, want to get us straight about that.” Eppinger almost said. “get you straight,” but he was a diplomat.

He subjected Parkins to several minutes of cool reason, or white-hot reason. “Yes,” Eppinger said at the end of it. “Sure, we’re going to talk to Donohue.” That was Parkins’ boss. “I’d be happy to talk to Donohue. You know me, I believe in communication.” Eppinger laughed because, in his view, he had been communicating very successfully these past few minutes. Parkins did not laugh back.

Hanging up, Eppinger looked at the ceiling. “Jesus,” he said. Actually he didn’t want to see Donohue, a hulking, impassive man whom Eppinger found highly resistant to reason. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he added. “Jesus.” Feidelman and his diapers, and now Parkins running off to the boss. This early in the day, but already Eppinger felt chewed on.

Eppinger picked up the phone, got Jerry, and gave him an earful about the Montessori overruns. Jerry, speaking louder than necessary, was reminding him that Eppinger had also asked for a rundown on how much a new, jazzier sequence for the opening titles might cost. “Put the intro memo aside,” Eppinger said, and then: “Here’s an idea, do both. All right? Too much? No? Good.” He hung up with a firmer sense that matters were moving forward.

Story, mattress. Some central notions were coming clear in his head, thoughts involving mission. “Leslie!” he shouted. Nothing. He stood up, went to the door. “Leslie!” he said again. She was on the phone, thin shoulders hunched and brows almost touching as she struggled to get down whatever message was coming over the line. Okay, Eppinger stood and waited. She glanced at him, tried scribbling faster. Eppinger willed the pilot light shut, but still… Everyone had their little direction they had to go in. Meanwhile he was left there worrying about mission.

Leslie put down the phone and half stood up, holding her notepad in front of her. “That was Mr. Heinz,” she said, meaning the studio’s assistant production chief. “He says he never got the figures on the costumes for ‘Visitor from the East’ or for, for—” She looked at her notes.

“Leslie—” Eppinger began.


“Leslie!” Eppinger said. “Steno pad. In here.” He jerked his thumb at his office. In doing so, he let out a sharp whistle to underline his command; it just came to him, a return from his Pacific days when boxes had to be unloaded and unpacked.

Leslie stared at him, face working. Then she threw her notepad on the floor. She had a pen in her other hand; she threw that too. She was a little woman with thin arms, but she got some force into the gesture. Then, shoulders low, she pushed her pocketbook against her chest and made the long walk to where her coat was hanging by the door—an unhappy small blonde woman, her chin tucked in, her face red. Dumbfounded, Eppinger watched her leave.

At that moment Feidelman was passing by. He had to pick right then. His eyes met Eppinger’s through the open door. Very slowly, mousy Feidelman smiled; not a friendly smile, either. A smirk, really. He had the nerve to paste it up there on his face. He acted as if some point had been proved.


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