Thursday, November 29, 2018

An Interview with Saul Turteltaub


Saul Turteltaub: I had met Shari Lewis at a summer camp when I was fifteen. Around ten years later, when I got out of the army, I was writing for nightclub comics. I turned on the television and there she was singing to a sock. A talking sock. I called her up, "Hi, I see you're doing this and I'm a writer." She said, "I don't need a writer, but if you want to talk to my writer about how to get started - go ahead." So I had lunch with her writer, Lan O'Kun. Out of gratitude to them I wrote a sketch for her and the talking sock. The next day she called and hired me for the show.


Kliph Nesteroff: Who were the nightclub comedians you wrote for?

Saul Turteltaub: Well, the first one I sold to was a team called Allen and DeWood in 1953. Mitch DeWood left and then it became Allen and Rossi. Have you heard of them?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, so it was Allen and DeWood. That was 1953. I had a partner then and we both went to law school together. He decided to stay with law and I decided to go with writing and we both succeeded.


Kliph Nesteroff: What were Allen and DeWood like?

Saul Turteltaub: It was fun. It was a first job and we were in showbiz going to nightclubs. It was an exciting thing for me. Marty Allen was very talented. He'd been a professional dancer. You wouldn't think it from looking at him, but he was a dancer. He teamed with Mitch and they did fairly well. They played the Latin Quarter in New York and the top hotels in the Catskills, but they broke up because they couldn't stand each other.


Kliph Nesteroff: Who were the other nightclub comics you wrote for?

Saul Turteltaub: Names you probably don't know. Allan Drake.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, yeah.

Saul Turteltaub: Allan Drake and then there were one or two others. Catskill guys who never made it big.


Kliph Nesteroff: Allan Drake had a horrible thing...

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, his wife was killed. That's what you're talking about, right?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, she was murdered by the Mob.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, not that she had done anything wrong other than sitting in a car with the wrong guy. The week after that happened I was walking down 48th Street and I bumped into Allan Drake.


I was talking and I was trying to get on the other side of him because my back was to the street! I didn't need to be killed! I hired Allan years later when Bernie Orenstein and I were producing Sanford and Son. We had a situation where Fred Sanford's sister married a white guy and we hired Allan Drake to play him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sol Weinstein also wrote for Allan Drake and he told me he was selling cocaine to Redd Foxx.



Saul Turteltaub: For what it's worth, I don't know anything about a drug habit with Allan Drake. There was nothing wrong with him. He was sweet. Kind of a hard guy, but sweet and charming. As far as Redd and his drugs, I was with him for three years and I never saw him doing any drugs at all. The other comic who I wrote for, I just remembered, was Archie Robbins.


Kliph Nesteroff: Right, didn't he do impressions?

Saul Turteltaub: Well, he didn't make one on me.


Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter the Mob when you worked for nightclub comedians?

Saul Turteltaub: I heard about it like everybody else, that the Mob ran this and that. Evidently they did, but I never worried about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Hanson's Drugstore? Many comedians hung out at Hanson's Drugstore in New York and many comedy writers would come there to pitch jokes to comics.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, I went through there. My future wife was working in the building upstairs. She worked for a booker named Jack Siegel. He booked club dates in the Catskills and all around. She was the worker in the office and so she knew all those people. I didn't even know that until after we got married many years later.


I had come to see her boss about getting a job as a social director. I didn't get a job from him, but I did get a social director job later from Henry Tobias. Henry Tobias and this guy named Goldstein were the deans of the social directors in the Catskills. But yes, I used to go into Hanson's because that's where the comics hung out. You'd try to sell them something if you had a joke. Selling a joke meant - yeah - they'll buy it and no - you'll never get paid.

Kliph Nesteroff: Comedy writer Jay Burton sued Marty Allen for non-payment at one point.



Saul Turteltaub: Oh, did he? I knew Jay very well, but I didn't know that. When I wrote for him my name was Stan Taylor. Henry Tobias, the social director at Totem Lodge where I was doing this act,  said to me, "You've got to change your name. I'm getting more laughs introducing you than you are with your act." I was doing an act with Lenny Koropkin and we changed out names to Taylor and Corbett. I was Stan Taylor when I met Marty Allen and he still calls me Stan.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for Shari Lewis for quite a while.



Saul Turteltaub: I wrote for Shari Lewis forever. I started writing her show in 1958, when it was a local show. After a year and a half we sold the network show. It ran from 1960 to 1963. Then the show went off. I ended up writing a million shows since, but whenever she needed anything she would call me and I would always do it for scale. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The show won a Peabody Award in 1961, which is pretty impressive.



Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, it was exciting and nice to have. She was a terrific girl.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote on That Was The Week That Was. Vastly different from Shari Lewis.

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, it was a grown up show. That Was the Week That Was was a satirical look at the world's events as they happened. It started in England and was very successful. It came over here and was slightly successful, but it could have been much better if it had a better producing team.


It ran for two seasons. I only did it one year. Between writing and producing I did thirty-eight different series over the course of my career. The first was the local series with Shari. It was called Hi Mom. It was like a little talk show with comedy. Josie McCarthy did cooking and Nurse Jane talked about baby rash. The next show was Candid Camera. I went from Shari to Candid Camera and did that for about thirteen weeks and got offered That Was The Week That Was in 1964.



Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the other writers working at Candid Camera?

Saul Turteltaub: There was a guy named Jim McGee. The producer was Bob Shanks, a lovely, lovely man. Allen Funt was the super producer. When I left I recommended Bernie Orenstein. He was a guy I met at a party when I was moving here from Canada. Bernie got my job and about four years later we teamed up to produce The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.


Kliph Nesteroff: Going back to That Was the Week That Was. You mentioned, "If they had a better production staff..." What do you remember about Leland Hayward?

Saul Turteltaub: That's what I mean. Leland Hayward was a terrific guy and I liked him a lot, but he really didn't know from this kind of comedy. Leland came from Broadway and he brought the show over from England, but they just didn't seem to do the right kind of stuff. They had a great staff of writers, but the stuff they went with wasn't as good as it could have been. One of the writers was Gerry Gardner and he had written a book called Who's in Charge Here? It was a book of news photographs that he put funny captions on. It was a best seller.


Bob Emmett was a writer. Tom Meehan who wrote Annie was one of the writers. Tony Webster who was one of the great comedy writers from Your Show of Shows was on the show. That's a good enough staff.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was a great assemblage of comedy talent, and yet it did not succeed.

Saul Turteltaub: When I left, Herb Sargent came in to write. He had worked on Steve Allen. They had basically the same writers without me, but it just never got funny enough. I don't know what they were looking for, but it wasn't good comedy. You know who else was writing that first year? Although I never saw him - Goodman Ace. He was considered the daddy of all television comedy writers.


Kliph Nesteroff: The dean.

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, the dean. I personally didn't see it. You are right about the cast. It had Alan Alda, Henry Morgan, Nancy Ames, Pat Englund, David Frost.

Kliph Nesteroff: And appearances from Steve Allen, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Woody Allen... Was there any kind of struggle trying to get satire on network TV?

Saul Turteltaub: No, it was just bad decisions made by the producer and the director. All I know is it just wasn't good enough. That's a shame. Saturday Night Live picked up on it and did it correctly years later.

Kliph Nesteroff: You left voluntarily?

Saul Turteltaub: Basically. I had a week to week contract. I was put on for thirteen weeks. If they picked me up for the next thirteen they would raise me a hundred extra dollars. When it came time they said, "Well, we'll pick you up for the next thirteen, but we're not going to give you the increase." I said, "That's not right. That's the deal we made." "Yeah, well, we changed our mind." I went to Leland Hayward and said, "Leland, somebody insulted you. I heard there was a writer on this show who was promised an extra hundred dollars and they won't give it to him. Everyone is saying Leland Hayward is a cheapskate." He said, "Who said that?" I said, "Me."


So he told the business guy. He was Jack Lord's brother. I forget his name. He told him, "Give him the hundred a week." So he gave me the hundred and he said, "Okay, you got your hundred but you're not guaranteed the thirteen weeks. Now you're working week to week." According to the Writers Guild, if you have week to week you can take another job. So I did. There was a show called On Broadway Tonight with Rudy Vallee. Irving Mansfield was the producer. He hired me to write that show. When Leland heard about it, he felt like he was backstabbed by the kid who got an extra hundred dollars. So that was the end.


Kliph Nesteroff: On Broadway Tonight's premise was that it was a new talent thing, like an amateur talent discovery...

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, but it wasn't really amateur talent. Rudy Vallee was the emcee. He had been a star in the thirties and forties and then had a comeback on Broadway with How to Succeed in Business. Irving hired him. He would introduce new talent and at the end of the show would bring on his or her favorite young talent. So here's who these new acts were - and to this day I enjoy thinking that I wrote their very first TV spots - Rodney Dangerfield...

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.


Saul Turteltaub: Richard Pryor...

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Saul Turteltaub: (silence) Richard Pryor doesn't get a wow?


Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I already knew that was Richard Pryor's TV debut.

Saul Turteltaub: The big stars that brought people on were Ethel Merman and Judy Garland and people of that stature. So I really had a good time meeting these people.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of the young Richard Pryor?

Saul Turteltaub: Sweet kid. He was fun. He had a little routine and I gave him a couple of jokes and he was sweet at hell. That was 1964 and when I met him again in 1967 in Los Angeles, I was writing the Pat Boone talk show and he was guest on it. It was like old friends meeting, but he wasn't a big star yet.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about dealing with Rudy Vallee?

Saul Turteltaub: Rudy Vallee was a strange guy. I wrote something like, "And now here are the people who..." And Rudy said, "It's not people - it's persons! You don't say people, you say persons!" So Marilyn Michaels came on. She was doing an impression of Barbra Streisand, and I wrote as a joke, "And now here is Marilyn Michaels to sing Persons who need Persons." The girls typed it up and it went to cue cards like that and he read it like that! When the show was canceled, Rudy blamed me


Kliph Nesteroff: You also wrote a little for the Hollywood Palace.

Saul Turteltaub: No, that was my writing partner Bernie Orenstein. He wrote for the Hollywood Palace. We were both writing at different times for Les Crane in New York and then Nick Vanoff took over the show and moved it to California. It wasn't called The Les Crane Show, it was called Nightlife or something like that. Bernie came to California with Les Crane. That show went off the air, but Nick Vanoff started the Hollywood Palace and Bernie stayed with him. Nick produced it with Bill Harbach.


Kliph Nesteroff: What was Les Crane like to work with?

Saul Turteltaub: He was a nice guy. That's about all I can tell you. My job was to interview the people who were coming on the show and try to come up with a comedy remark that Les could say. I did that for thirteen weeks and that was okay. He was nice enough. It turns out he was a genius. When the show was canceled he was out of a job and he came up with a computer game way back then. That was about 1966-1967. It might have been computer chess or whatever. It was a big success and he became very wealthy because of that.


Kliph Nesteroff: His TV show was known for controversy. It was sort of manufactured to be controversial.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, we had William Buckley on with Norman Mailer. Muhammad Ali was on the show. I bumped into Howard Cosell in the dressing room. I was introduced as the writer and he said in that Howard Cosell voice, "I'm the only one who can talk to Muhammad Ali." I said, "I know, Howard, you're wonderful, but on this show the host talks to the guests." "I'm the one who talks to Muhammad Ali."  I said, "Fine, go talk to him."



Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, which had on its writing staff, before anybody knew him, Lorne Michaels.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, Lorne Michaels. He had a partner named Hartley Pomerantz. They came down from Canada. When we were staffing the show, Phyllis gave us a pile of jokes that different writers had sent her. We went through them and there was one written by Michaels and Pomerantz: ‘I was driving through the Catskill Mountains. I knew I was in a small town when I saw a sign that said, Sam’s Hospital . . . and Grill.’ We hired them on that joke alone. When the show was canceled, I called George Schlatter and I said, "I have a couple of guys here you might enjoy." I sent them over and he hired them for Laugh-In. To this day I don't think Lorne knows I made that call.


Kliph Nesteroff: What about the experience of doing The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show...

Saul Turteltaub: It was wonderful. It was the first producing job Bernie Orenstein and I ever had. We had only been writing up until then. We made a terrible mistake on that show. We hired a director who was well-known but had been banned by NBC. God knows why. We stuck up for him for no good reason.


We hired him and it was his idea to have these stands for the audience to sit in and they would move around on air pressure from one part of the set to another. It cost us an hour every taping, which was terrible. And his concept was, rather than having people walking from the dark into the spotlight, to start at the spotlight and walk into the dark. Like idiots, we said okay. Production wise it was bad. Then we had a spot on the show where Phyllis would just sit and talk to somebody like a talk show, which was mistake.


Bernie and I agreed to all these ideas that really weren't t good. We agreed with them because we were new. We had a superior on that show, an executive producer named Bob Finkel, who was wonderful. He had produced Perry Como and Andy Williams and a lot of great variety shows.


He just let us do what we wanted, but we didn't do well at all. We hired Norm Crosby to be the announcer. He was famous for his malapropisms. We hired Rip Taylor. He played her stereotypical gay hairdresser. It was all funny comedy people and the sketches were good, but all that extra time consuming boring stuff was awful and that was my fault as much as anyone.


Kliph Nesteroff: It was also up against Mission Impossible in the time slot.

Saul Turteltaub: It was a mission impossible. The first show got a thirty-four share and people wanted to see her, but they just disappeared.

Kliph Nesteroff: That first episode had Johnny Carson, Sonny and Cher, and Rowan and Martin as guests. Do you remember anything else about the young Lorne Michaels?

Saul Turteltaub: No, he was just another young writer and he was good. We were friendly. I've only talked to him once since that show. I called him in New York when I was doing Sanford and Son around 1975. I called him to get some friends hired at Saturday Night Live and that was that.

Kliph Nesteroff: An old Jack Benny writer worked on that show - George Balzer.


Saul Turteltaub: George Balzer. Well, we had a couple Jack Benny writers. Hal Goldman and Al Goodman were Jack Benny writers and they were on our show. Keith Fowler, I think, also had worked with Jack. All good writers, all nice people.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote a Mama Cass special for Chuck Barris featuring the crazy combo of Buddy Hackett and Joni Mitchell.

Saul Turteltaub: And Martin Landau and Judy Collins.

Kliph Nesteroff: A strange amalgamation.

Saul Turteltaub: It sure was (laughs). We produced that special, Bernie and I.  We weren't part of that Mama Cass generation, but Bernie knew them. He was always familiar with the young music and I wasn't. I knew who Joni Mitchell was, but I wasn't really familiar with the genre. I said, "And we'll bring in Buddy Hackett and Barbara Bain and Martin Landau..." But it was a mistake.


Kliph Nesteroff: You had young writers on that show like Carl Gottlieb.

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, Carl Gottlieb who became very active in the Writers Guild - and still is. There were good writers on that special. The one who died was the youngest of them all.

Kliph Nesteroff: Christopher Ross.

Saul Turteltaub: Chris Ross. That's the guy.


Kliph Nesteroff: He and Carl Gottlieb were both been in the sketch troupe The Committee. You were also writing things for Stanley Myron Handelman?

Saul Turteltaub: I wrote a pilot for Stanley Myron Handelman and it was a good one. I think we made him a dentist. It didn't sell, but it was funny and he was very bright, and very Catskilly. I forgot about that pilot.


Kliph Nesteroff: You also did these Super Comedy Bowl specials...

Saul Turteltaub: That was a cute idea we produced for Persky and Denoff. We had the assignment and they turned it over to us to produce. That was fun. For two years we used all the big stars from the NFL who weren't playing in the Super Bowl the following Sunday. That show was sold initially by John Wayne's son - Pat Wayne. The network said they'd put it on if we got five A-list players and got John Wayne to do it. We had Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball and George C. Scott. I think Paul Newman. All the big stars agreed and all the stars from the football teams.


Kliph Nesteroff: One of them had John Wayne with Art Metrano doing a thing together. You produced The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Was that a success or a failure?

Saul Turteltaub: It ran four years. Two years with us and then we didn't want to be in Arizona anymore. I think they did another year there and then they moved back to California with other producers and a whole other format.


It was not a big success because it wasn't the first show. He wasn't Rob Petrie anymore. He played a talk show host in Phoenix. Carl Reiner hired the cast. He had Hope Lange playing his wife and Marty Brill was in it. They were all good performers, but I guess the scripts weren't good enough, and I'll take the blame for that.


Kliph Nesteroff: The reason I ask if it was a success or failure is because it seems to have been a failure and yet it stayed on the air.

Saul Turteltaub: Yeah, it was on for four years.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about this oddly named show you worked on called This Week in Nemtin?

Saul Turteltaub:  I have a friend... well, you know him - he's the reason you called me - Ron Clark. While we were doing the Van Dyke show in Phoenix, Ron and Sheila Clark came out to visit. We were sitting around at the house kibitzing and he mentioned his friend Steve Nemtin. I said, "Nemtin sounds like a country." We started kibizting about Nemtim and made jokes about Nemtim that were like Polish jokes. 


We thought it might be a good idea for a show so we went to Alan Wagner who was programming at CBS under Fred Silverman and he loved the idea. I wrote it with Sam Bobrick and Bernie Orenstein. Everyone in town read the script and wanted to be in it. Carl Reiner played the wise old Nemtin who sits at the top of the hill in a robe. He sits on the hill answering the questions. We had the Nemtin drill team, which was Barry Levinson, Rudy DeLuca and whatshis name the tall guy...


Kliph Nesteroff: Craig T. Nelson.

Saul Turteltaub: Craig Nelson, my God, how you knew that... You're very good. They put the pilot on the air in the summer. Well, it sold. Alan Wagner and Oscar Katz and the whole gang at CBS bought it. Freddie came back from his honeymoon and said, "No, I don't want it. I want to put on a different show called Me and the Chimp." The me part was great. Me was Ted Bessell, but the chimp was a bad actor and the show stunk. 




That was in 1972. Five years ago I bumped into Freddie and he said, "Geez, that show was the biggest mistake I ever made." I said, "A little late, Freddie." After he had been successful with his own company he said, "You still got the script for This Week in Nemtin?" I said, "We got the script, we got a copy of the pilot, we got everything." He said, "I think we can sell it." We formed a company and shopped it around, but nobody wanted it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ed Asner was on it.

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, Ed Asner, McLean Stevenson, Marcia Wallace, Carl Reiner.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Eagle.

Saul Turteltaub: Yes, Jack Eagle was a friend of Ron Clark's. 


Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet Redd Foxx?

Saul Turteltaub: It was in 1974 when we were hired to do the show. He was in Mexico on a vacation. We were writing a bunch of scripts waiting for him to come back and then he announced he wasn't going to return unless he got a raise. It was the second year in a row that he did that. Norman Lear gave him a huge, huge raise the first year. Lear said no and Redd said then he wouldn't come back. 


Norman Lear called us, "It's up to you. NBC says they'll put it on without him. It's up to you. Should we cancel it?" I said, "Are you kidding?" To me it was money. I would have done it if Hitler came back! It was a job! Of course, we'll do it. So we wrote three scripts and shot three shows without him before we went on the air. He realized he was losing the battle so he came back - really pissed. 


He had fired the previous producer, Aaron Ruben. Nobody knows why. There was no one sweeter and nicer in show business than Aaron Ruben, a great writer and producer. Who knows what he did to piss off Redd. One of the stagehands thinks he walked in wearing a sweater that reminded Redd of his brother. God knows. So now we figure he's going to come into the studio and say, "Get the fuck out. You produced three shows without me? Go to hell."


However, stroke of luck, he got on the plane to come back and on the flight were Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Eydie, when she was doing a single, had broken the color line at a lot of nightclubs by insisting Redd be her opening act. So he was grateful to her and loved her. He sat next to her on the plane and she said, "Oh, you're so lucky! My best friend is going to be your producer! Saul Turteltaub!" Because of her he gave us a chance and that made it easy. He came in, wasn't wonderfully friendly, but professional. By the third show we were really friendly. We had three years with him and it was wonderful.


Kliph Nesteroff: It's nice to hear that because so many stories are the opposite.

Saul Turteltaub: The truth is that he was very professional. The good thing about doing that show is that we taped it Friday night. We did a show at six and one at eight-thirty, but we had to be out by 9:30 because he had to take a plane to Vegas. So we had to be done, which was wonderful, otherwise you have to work till two in the morning. But he had all kinds of illness - he had a bad throat, he had stomach, he had a bad knee. I used to take him to the doctor or I'd bring the doctors to him and that kept us close.


Kliph Nesteroff: And how about Demond Wilson? He also had a less than splendid reputation.

Saul Turteltaub: To work with he was fine. As a person, he was a piece of shit. That's about it. He was just not a nice human being. I understand later he became a preacher so maybe he had a change of heart.

Kliph Nesteroff: Or maybe he's a piece of shit preacher.

Saul Turteltaub: (laughs) Yeah.


Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, and Lorne Michaels before any of them were famous. And then in 1981 you did this sitcom - One of the Boys.

Saul Turteltaub: One of the Boys. Another mistake. Mickey Rooney was the grandfather whose son and daughter put him in a home. His grandson was played by Dana Carvey. He was an unknown. The grandsone takes him out of his home and brings him to live in his college dorm with his roommate. The roommate was played by Nathan Lane, who was also an unknown at the time. The pilot was wonderful. Then we went to series and decided to bring in Scatman Crothers as the buddy. Scatman was wonderful. He was a good actor and a nice man, but the show went from being about a couple of college kids to being about two old men and it was just awful.





Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about the young Dana Carvey?

Saul Turteltaub: He was terrific. He had won the San Francisco Comedy Competition. My wife had seen him up there and he was funny and a great impressionist. He was charming. We went to New York looking for the other college kid. Fred Silverman sent Nathan Lane to read for us. We hired both of them. Dana had at least done stand-up. Nathan had not done much at all, but he had a great talent. Mickey Rooney looked at Nathan Lane and said, "That kid is going to be a star!"


5 comments:

keller78rpm said...

Wonderful interview.

Mark Murphy said...

Thanks again. Your interviews are always worth waiting for.

I used to watch the Saturday morning Shari Lewis show when I was a kid. It was the first time I ever saw Dom DeLuise, who was doing a guest shot, playing a character who was dressed like Sherlock Holmes.

Bob Shanks is still around. He worked for Merv Griffin for many years and was a major source for a book I recently read about the Griffin show, written by Steve Randisi. Years ago Shanks wrote a couple of books, including a really good one about TV called The Cool Fire. It has one of my favorite quotes, something like: "I was once fired by Allen Funt, which was about as unique an experience as getting your hand shaken by a politician."

greg6363 said...

His son (John Turteltaub) is a big-time Hollywood director with credits like While You Were Sleeping, National Treasure and The Meg.

Great interview. Other Turteltaub/Orenstein credits include That Girl, Carter Country, What's Happening, Kate & Allie and Love American Style.

Jon H said...

He doesn't mention this on his own webpage, but Sam Bobrick is also the listed creator of SAVED BY THE BELL because he wrote its original pilot, "Good Morning, Miss Bliss", which NBC aired July 1987. I figure he's made good money off the show at least.

Jon H said...

Sorry, I posted my comment on Sam Bobrick to this interview instead. That's what I get for reading 3 interviews at once. Please delete this post & my previous post about Sam B., and I'll post it later if I see that Part 2 doesn't mention SBTB either.