Janis Ian

May 5, 1979

May 5, 1979

This was one of my very first meetings on the first of my spec screenplays to be optioned – in this case by the late Steve Friedman who ran King’s Road Productions in ’79. The script was inspired by Janis Ian’s brilliant song “At 17” although I doubt anybody involved actually acquired the rights to the song (I know as a fledgling writer, I couldn’t afford it.)

Me, the fledgling writer
Me, the fledgling writer

Ultimately, the script got optioned three times by different companies and/or producers but – alas – never produced, at least not as of this writing. It did, however, launch my career. It was the sample script that got me hired to adapt S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders.

Page 1 - "At 17"
Page 1 – “At 17”

Over the years, I rewrote it many times – incorporating notes from various producers and directors.  Although almost every line of the script Steve optioned has been changed – hopefully, for the better – the original characters, theme and the crisis Steve and I added remain.  Every time I completed another draft, I’d think I can’t possibly do more only to discover that if I set it aside for a year, the next time I looked I could easily spot room for improvement.

Caught in the act of re-reading
Caught in the act of re-reading

The lessons, for myself and anyone who aspires to a writing career?

  1. You’re never done. No matter how wonderful you might think your current draft is, it can be better.
  2. Take a break – as long as possible. My most recent break from this script lasted over twenty years. Talk about fresh eyes! It was like reading a script by somebody else.
  3. Cutting improves almost anything. In particular, look for flab in the first act.
Writing frenzy - Day and night
Writing frenzy – Day and night

February 20, 1978

February 20, 1978

 The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).

Jani and I when we were both close to At 17 in real life
Jani and I when we were both close to At 17 in real life.

My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.

Most of my time and energy went into containing CD
Most of my time and energy went into containing CD

Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it.  I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.

Janet and I
Janet and I

The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”

"I'll show you. I'll do a great re-write and prove you were wrong to dismiss me."
“I’ll show you. I’ll do a great re-write and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”

 Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.     

No one was better than Molly Ringwald when it came to playing complicated teenagers.
No one was better than Molly Ringwald when it came to playing complicated teenagers.

That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux.  The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted?   Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses.  The only way to fail for good is giving up.

May 13, 1966

















A Catholic priest created the Wutzit Club to keep teen-agers off the streets. In 1966, it was on Newhall Street. It was open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights and featured a ballroom, stage, game room, television lounge and snack bar.  Dances were strictly chaperoned and a dress code was enforced. No alcohol – and nobody 21 or older – was allowed. Live mostly local bands performed; Buckingham and Nicks played there in ’68, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac. Dues (admission) was fifty cents – a small price to pay for the chance to meet the love of your life.

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Wutzit Card Back








For people like me and my friends, who weren’t part of the Wilcox High “In Crowd,” the Wutzit offered an opportunity to meet non-Wilcox guys who didn’t know we were dorks.  Males massed on the right side of the room. Girls milled on the left and waited for some brave boy to cross the great divide and ask us to dance. Our popularity – which in those days meant success – depended on how many times we danced.  Higher mathematics were not required in my case since it is hard to miscalculate one (1).

Truth at seventeen

At the Wutzit, beauty got you asked to dance. (I suspect being under 5’9” helped but I can’t prove it.)  While it’s true other values – intelligence and persistence – are rewarded in the real world, it’s equally true that real life tends to be easier for those born beautiful.

Today, girls don’t need to wait by the wall. No social stigma attaches if they dance alone or with their friends. I applaud their freedom but can’t help wondering if underlying values changed too.  I hope I’m wrong but I suspect more than a few millennials dancing alone still relate to the words Janis Ian wrote in 1975.%22The valentines....%22

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