When I first met Bill Persky, I didn’t know who he was. All my less than stellar agent knew was that he “…has something to do with Kate & Allie,” a CBS sitcom at the time.
From today’s vantage point, it may seem absurd that I wouldn’t know anything about a writer/producer/director associated with some of TV’s all-time classics, had a shelf full of Emmys, and was, at the time, executive producer, usual director, and frequent writer for an award-winning Top 10 prime time TV show. But that was in the mid-1980s before “google” became a verb for when you went online to find out everything about everybody, from scandal-dogged celebrities to the reliability of your dog walker.
I was a screenwriter wannabe and had yet to run up much of a score. My first time out I had gotten bounced off the project, and my second effort was shelved when the studio head got axed. The only reason I got to meet with Billy was a fluke.
My agent had been peddling sub-rights for a publishing house’s backlist. Billy had come hunting the rights on a comic Y/A novel – M.M. Parker’s Big Phil’s Kid – about a New York teen who finds out his dad is one of the biggest Mafiosi in the city. When she and Billy started talking about film rights, she pitched me, and Billy, for God knows what reason considering my lighter than air track record, agreed to meet me.
We met for lunch at a cozy midtown restaurant; nothing flashy, nothing glitzy, nothing power-playery about it. My agent and I arrived first. From where I sat, I could see out the front door. After a bit, I saw a guy pull up on a bicycle. I thought This can’t be him: a middle-aged guy with two wildly out-of-control eyebrows, dressed in a sweater and cords. He looked like the most-liked college professor on campus, the you-gotta-take-this-guy’s-class kind. But, indeed, it was Bill Persky.
He asked if I could handle comedy. My agent – doing what agents do – jumped in and said there was a lot of humor in the last script I’d written which was not only untrue but unbelievable: it was an adaptation of a novel about a post-nuked U.S. occupied by the Russians. Yeah, sure, a laugh riot.
And then he turned to me. “I’d hate to hire you and find out you can’t write comedy.”
“I’d hate you to hire me and we both find out I can’t do this.”
“So, what do we do?” And he let that hang.
I thought for a moment, then made a suggestion: I would pick a scene from the novel, script it out, and he could make a call based on the results.
“That’s what we’ll do then.”
And that’s how I got to work with Bill Persky.
We would work on Big Phil’s Kid, off-and-on, together and he on his own but running his pages by me, for a year or so. He paid me more than I was contracted for “Because you did more work than you should’ve done,” and even though the end product was mostly Persky and hardly Mesce, he insisted on a shared writing credit. Over the course of that year, he only ever treated me as a peer, although I hardly rated that status, and always introduced me as his co-writer.
Sadly, we never placed that script, and as frustrating as that remains to me, I still came out ahead. I have now known the man for somewhere around 35 years. We went from collaborators to friends to addressing each other as “Big Bill” and “Little Bill” to — … Well, let me put it this way. We address our respective emails to each other as “Pop” and “Son.”
If Billy had been more of a self-promoter – in fact, if he’d made any effort to enhance his visibility – maybe I would’ve known his name for that meeting, maybe he would’ve been referenced in TV histories along with a lot of the greats who came up at the same time: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and the man to whom Billy says he owes his career, Carl Reiner. Even as our relationship began toting up years, there were things about Billy I didn’t know because he didn’t namedrop, he didn’t brag. I didn’t know about the Emmys until we were working together and saw them in his den. I didn’t know he’d once worked with Orson Welles – yes, the Orson Welles!!! – on a TV adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner until I was typing up his memoir.
Billy met Sam Denoff while the two were working at WNEW radio in New York in the early 1950s. They quickly became friends and collaborators, writing jokes for the station’s DJs, and then graduating to writing material for stand-up comics on New York’s now-long-gone outer-borough nightclub circuit. They worked their way up from – in the parlance of the trade – “toilets” to places like The Elegante run by Joe Scandore who also managed rising club star Don Rickles, and who was also rumored to have ties to the New York Mob, an element which always brought a subliminally unsettling edge to certain conversations.
Billy tells the story of a junior league Martin & Lewis-like team who died one night on The Elegante’s stage performing Persky/Denoff material which resulted in the night club equivalent of being called to the principal’s office: sitting in Scandore’s office, the owner behind his desk backed by two hulking lurkers both named Rocco. “There didn’t appear to be any laughter,” Scandore said quietly. “Did anyone hear laughter?” While there was nothing in Scandore’s gentle approach that seemed threatening, the presence of the two Roccos seemed to imply there had better be some yuks by the next show.
Billy and Sam graduated to TV writing for The Steve Allen Show, a variety show that was one of the big roll-outs for the 1960 season. Despite the opening fanfare, five weeks after the duo had moved to L.A., the show was cancelled.
And then came Carl Reiner. To this day, Billy cannot say enough good things about Reiner. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard him say something like, “I owe my career to Carl.” Here’s Billy writing in his 2012 memoir, My Life Is a Situation Comedy, about Reiner’s hiring of he and Sam in 1963 to join the writing staff for the third season of The Dick Van Dyke Show, even then considered the gold standard in TV comedy:
“…everything really good in my career started at that moment. Carl would be my mentor, my hero, my role model and for the next fifty years my friend. Everything I write, and much of how I live my life, is a reflection of his integrity, fairness, decency, and, yes, his fearlessness.”
Billy would win the first of his five Emmys writing for Van Dyke, and his association with the classic series would kick off a decades-long career.
Eventually, he and Sam would move up to producing their own material and turn out another TV classic, That Girl (1965-1971). In its day, the series was considered novel, catching the rising wave of the Women’s Lib movement with its lead character, played by Marlo Thomas, as a single woman in New York chasing a career as an actress. Its portrayal of a young, independent woman making her way in the big city was, arguably, the long-ago ancestor for a line of strong women-anchored shows from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the likes of Sex and the City and Girls. Persky would later write of the show:
“[That Girl] was the first time a young woman was the star of the show and didn’t have to be living with or working for a dominant male character. [Marlo Thomas’s character] wanted to be her own person and had a dream which no one could discourage or take away…[The show] had such great impact on young girls in their teens who, until then, hadn’t thought there were options beyond getting married and being a mother. Marlo was a feminist before there was even a word for them.”
Even up through the last episode, the show’s home network – ABC – kept trying to get some conventionality jammed into the show and wanted the series finale to be Thomas’s character getting married. Thomas, who was also executive producer for the series, refused, feeling it would be a betrayal of everything the show had accomplished.
Billy and Sam had moved up from writers to writer/producers, and in the years that followed That Girl, Billy began to take a seat in the director’s chair. Having seen his material interpreted – and sometimes misinterpreted – by others, Billy would later tell me, “I know I became a director to make sure my stuff was as I intended it to be.” He once told me one of the reasons he wanted to be the executive producer on Kate & Allie was so he could hire himself as a director. He would direct nearly all of the episodes for the series’ first four seasons, winning himself an Emmy for directing as well as for the show as Outstanding Comedy Series, and also a nomination for the Humanitas Prize for an episode dealing with homelessness.
The key to Billy’s work – hell, the key to Billy – is in that last.
There’s a great life-sized humanness to all of Billy’s work. There are no “high concepts,” no jokes for jokes’ sake. On a discussion panel at NYU, Billy told students that almost every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show began with one of the writers coming into the writers’ room on Monday saying, “Guess what happened to me this weekend?” Billy’s shows, in a rather subtle way, plugged directly into the everyday/everyman heart of their respective times. The Dick Van Dyke show was set in that new social environment that had come about after WW II: commuter suburbs. That Girl caught the wave of Women’s Lib. As the marriage failure rate hit 50%, Kate & Allie featured two divorced women partnering up to forge new post-marital lives. And Billy’s last show, Working It Out, also dealt with divorce; a man and woman, neither young, tentatively and cautiously trying out a new relationship after their respective years-long marriages had failed.
Billy’s shows were always life-sized and filled with the same fumbling, missteps, and compassion of the man behind them. And maybe that’s why Working It Out was cancelled after 13 episodes. By 1990, when the series was pulled, people didn’t want to see people on TV anymore. They wanted to see characters.
Read Billy’s My Life Is a Situation Comedy, and he can be a ruthless self-critic. His career may have had its ups and downs (there are as many failed shows as hits), and so has his personal life (one of his assistants and I used to joke that since Billy always assumed guilt for a failed relationship and gave his exes a house in the breakup, he was on the verge of starting a franchise chain of Ex-Billy-Women-Houses to rival McDonald’s), yet he is merciless in his self-evisceration. Whether it’s fending off a late-night burglar with a Ralph Lauren pillow while naked or trying to impress his new bride with an architecturally impossible chocolate wedding cake (the bride and groom figures sank up to their noses in the soft chocolate), if Billy is in the story, he’s almost always the butt of the joke.
I once interviewed him about this:
“I am always cautious about revealing anything that might hurt others (but) I am fair game and outside of things that would hurt a future presidential run, I feel free to reveal all…I live on two levels: one where I am doing what I am doing, and the other watching myself doing what I am doing. It is the observing me that is my voice. That ‘me’ is constantly amazed, embarrassed, and amused at my behavior…”
His habitual self-effacement, his ruthlessness in knee-capping himself in his recountings…that’s why I didn’t know the name “Bill Persky” when I met him. I often wonder if those admirable, enviable character traits might not also have walled in his career.
After Working It Out had been cancelled, I would sometimes ask Billy what he was pitching to networks, what he was working on. “Everybody I know in this business,” he once told me, “is either retired or dead.” But in his more down moments, he would give me the impression that beyond those facts, he felt irrelevant; that he had nothing to say that anyone wanted to hear.
Which was horribly untrue. Billy should have had a third act as a feature writer/director. I wrote two screenplays with the man, among the best pieces of work I’ve ever been associated with, lovely blends of the comic and the poignant in dramatic dimensions that went beyond what the sitcom format could have allowed him to explore.
He never said it, but I sensed that while we were working on Big Phil’s Kid, he wanted that graduation to features. He’d frittered around the edges of the big screen arena, directing 1980’s Serial, a gentle poke at the self-help fads at the time, and supplying the story for the 1985 Robin Williams feature, Water, and he left Kate & Allie after four seasons when the show was still hot, so he said to me, “Because I’ve done everything with it I wanted to do.” But despite the prowess, he’d displayed behind the camera on TV – including a number of TV movies, among them the Billy-did-this? true crime tale, Trackdown: Finding the Goodbar Killer (1983) — that next step never came. My sense was he’d been typed as a TV guy, and perhaps even narrower, a TV sitcom guy.
There are times I’ve felt that when Billy saw that that next turn wasn’t coming, it took something out of him, the feel that he wouldn’t get his third act.
But what Billy didn’t know was that he’d been building his third act through most of his career. I know because I’m part of it.
Despite his sometimes self-indulgent nobody-likes-me-anymore moods, he can’t stop creating. He can’t!
There are the stories he wrote – his usual mix of laughs and a raised eyebrow at the sillinesses of the human animal – which he performed in readings at The Greenport Theatre and at WNYC and ultimately put together as My Life Is a Situation Comedy. There are the writing programs he organized at Sloane Kettering, I presume to be the positive fallout from his own bout with prostate cancer. There was a radio show he had on Sirius XM he did with his daughter Liza. He claims he’s not doing much and would probably dismiss all this – and more – as puttering, and I know he would balk at being described as an “artist,” but he has the heart of an artist, the inability to turn off his creative machine.
But this is not his true Third Act.
Billy collects people. He especially collects young people. I don’t know if it came out of his relationship with Carl Reiner – trying to do for other aspirers with Reiner had done for him – but for as long as I’ve known him – more than half of my life – he has been a constant supporter, booster, promoter, and mentor to young talent that crosses his path. His greatest creation will not be any one thing, but in those dozens (I exaggerate not) of young writers, performers, who-knows-what-else’s, who have, at the very least, gotten a push if not a start in their chosen fields.
Those connections are more than just a trade mentorship. In the “Acknowledgments” section of his memoir, Billy lists his “Almost Daughters,” his “Almost Sons,” “My Grandchildren, Real and Acquired.” Billy doesn’t make friends; he expands his family, he expands the very definition of “family.”
Out there, scattered around the country, is Billy’s final, ongoing, endless project: all those young people and the work they turn out, and, perhaps, the new talent they, in turn, will influence. For myself, I know that if I’m any kind of writer, it’s because of the years I’ve spent in Billy’s orbit, as one of his Almost Sons. I know that I have learned to conduct myself as a professional from watching how he conducted himself. And as he took the torch of mentor from Carl Reiner, I have tried to take it from Billy and help the talented young writers I find in the classes I teach get their start. Hopefully, they will do the same. They may never know that in doing so, they’re carrying on the legacy of a man they never knew.
This Third Act production won’t win awards, it won’t top the box office, it won’t ignite any water cooler conversations, and is so subtle and incremental, that even the man responsible may not be aware of what he’s accomplished. It may be more a closing grace note than a climactic crescendo, but the world can always use a little more grace.