Today’s piece is written by Steven Peterman, Executive Producer of “Hannah Montana.”
I grew up in Milwaukee. Nobody wrote for a living in Milwaukee. You worked at Allis-Chalmers making farm equipment, or at one of the breweries making Pabst, or Old Milwaukee, or Schlitz. Or, like my dad, you owned a tavern, a bowling alley and eventually, the only Italian American restaurant in town operated by Jews. Be a writer? That was crazy. I was going to be a rock and roll god.
I remember songs since almost before I could talk. Perry Como and Brenda Lee. Elvis singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Roy Orbison singing “Cryin’” on Ed Sullivan at Grandma’s house, with Uncle Jerry laughing because Orbison looked so goofy with his bad toupee and his big black sunglasses and me wanting to hit Uncle Jerry with a folding chair from the dining room because maybe Orbison looked freaky but Jesus, his voice could break your heart.
I wanted to affect people the way Orbison did, or Van Morrison, or the Beatles. There was just one problem. I was short. And I wore glasses. And my fingers were too stubby to ever be able to duplicate Mark Knopfler’s brilliant live version of “Tunnel Of Love.” And that high tenor that made old women weep at my Bar Mitzvah went away, leaving a shaky baritone which would never again hit the high notes Tom Petty can reach after rolling out of bed and lighting a cigarette. Plus, when I grew my hair long I looked less like Jimmy Page and more like my Aunt Syl, who I loved and miss dearly but would still prefer not to resemble.
Okay, that’s clearly more than one problem. So I tried to be sensible. I graduated high school, went off to college, graduated, registered at law school, hyperventilated, ran away, lived on a kibbutz for six months, went back to law school, registered, went to three weeks of classes, hyperventilated and ran off to New York to be an actor, where, four months later, I was playing a law professor (!)…on Broadway (!) In the film of this, that last run-on sentence will be a very amusing montage, assuming it isn’t cut to move the action up.
After six years working and starving, I moved to LA where, amazingly, I worked more than I starved. Theatre, movies, movies of the week, guest shots, pilots and series that almost made it. It was fun, and exciting, and there were times when I lost myself in the character and it was almost as good as a guitar solo. But that didn’t happen often enough, and the series never came and I started to get too hungry and desperate and started sucking at auditions and knew I had to do something.
That’s when friends who had given up their own dreams of acting to become working writers, encouraged me to try it. I of course responded, “Why the hell would I want to do that?” From what I could tell it was lonely, ridiculously hard and most of them looked miserable. Especially the comedy writers. They looked awful. And it was no wonder. Actors were treated like shit until they got the job. Then it was great. Writers were treated like shit until they got the job, and then they were treated worse.
So I avoided it. Until I ran into Gary Dontzig at the gym. I met Gary doing a play at the Old Globe in San Diego. I thought he was boring and he thought I was over the top. Later, I realized he was much better than that, but had been stuck in a boring role. He still thinks I was over the top. I was, but I did it brilliantly, and the part demanded it. Anyway, I ran into Gary and bitched about life and said I was thinking of writing. And he said he was, too. Years later he confessed that he hadn’t been, but actors are so competitive he felt compelled to lie. He actually called me later and invited me over to throw ideas around. To this day he doesn’t know why he did that. I was so surprised I said…”uh, okay.” I hung up and told my wonderful, increasingly impatient wife, Susan, who I’d been smart enough to meet in between working and starving in New York, that I was going to piss away an afternoon at Gary Dontzig’s. Susan, the only one who was bringing in any income, reminded me that I wasn’t doing anything else the next day, since I’d already been to the gym that day and had to “rest my muscles.” (She failed to understand that as an actor I had to keep my body in the phenomenal shape it was. Fortunately, writing has no such requirement.)
So I went to Dontzig’s. And something clicked. Because we were different. Because we weren’t best friends. Or even friends (this was before we became brothers). We each brought something different to the party, but overlapped enough to meet somewhere in the middle. More importantly, he believed in putting something, anything down, where I would have stayed on our first sentence from that day in 1984 until…now.
We wrote a spec “Family Ties.” It was 75 pages long. Yet surprisingly easy to cut. Much like this piece. Our friends said it was good. So we wrote another. Just to make sure we could. And we got an agent, and then, our first job. And another. And then Diane English and Korby Siamis read us and we got on the original staff of “Murphy Brown” and now it’s twenty years later and I’m a writer.
And it’s still ridiculously hard, and I frequently look miserable. But I’ve grown to love it almost as much as I hate it. I still love hearing something I’ve written get a laugh. Or make people cry. Or think. I love that I can write characters I’d never have gotten to play. I love working with actors and directors to fix a scene. I love editing. I love walking onto a stage where 120 people are working on something that wasn’t there before writers put it on paper. And I love being stuck in a room with people so wonderfully funny they can make me laugh at two in the morning when minutes before I hated every one of them and prayed for an earthquake that would send the building crashing down, killing all of us if it meant getting out of the fucking scene.
That’s why I write. I’ve been unbelievably blessed. I’ve worked on shows that were considered important and shows that weren’t. Shows that were fun, and shows that weren’t. And now I’m doing “Hannah.” And a few months ago we were sitting in the writers room, staggering toward the thirtieth episode of the season, and someone at the table said, “You know, in twenty years people are going to come up to us and say, ‘I grew up watching your show.’”
It’s not quite being a rock star. But it’s close enough. I wish us all a speedy and successful end to this miserable but necessary and noble effort. Considering what Disney’s gonna make off “Hannah” I feel quite confident in saying we deserve every nickel.
WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers. Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond. If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.