Inside man

Screenwriter Melville Shavelson recalls the industry's glory days on the eve of his 90th birthday

Although he has made his living as a screenwriter for more than 60 years, Melville Shavelson can't even read his own writing. For that reason, he used the same portable typewriter to bang out 35 produced screenplays since 1944 -- that is until his late wife, Lucy, had it bronzed. Needless to say, Shavelson was not thrilled, and Lucy quickly bought him a replacement model.

He's since moved into the digital era and will occasionally write on a computer, but Shavelson's passion for doing things the old-fashioned way no doubt dates back to the earliest years of his career, which began with him working as a joke writer for comedian Bob Hope. Shavelson went on to work with everyone from Cary Grant to Lucille Ball and has directed 12 films and produced more than half a dozen more.

"I'm a writer by choice, producer through necessity and director in self-defense," the veteran writer and filmmaker says of his career decisions.

Now, he's offering up the secrets to Hollywood longevity with the release of his autobiography "How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying, P.S. -- You Can't!" It will be published by BearManor Media in late April, closely timed with his 90th birthday.

During Shavelson's seven decades in the business, the most important lesson he's learned: "There are no rules." He rolled into Hollywood in 1938 at age 21 with Hope. "Neither one of us knew what the hell we were doing out here, but Bob had been here before," Shavelson recalls.

On Shavelson's first day in town, Hope asked to borrow his apartment key, promising to return it by midnight. The naive writer says in his autobiography that he agreed, puzzled as to why the successful comedian would need to use his place, as Hope already had a rented home in the Valley. When Shavelson returned home that night, his obedience to his new boss was greeted by two sets of slippery footprints leading from the shower to his already-warm bed. Hope was gone but had left the key in the mailbox as promised.

Shavelson spent the next five years hammering out punch lines and wisecracking asides for Hope's Pepsodent radio show.

After adding a few screenplays to his resume, the writer got a call from Paramount, asking him to write a TV show. The studio owned a TV station called W6XYZ that was to be reborn as KTLA, and Shavelson penned the first commercial TV broadcast west of the Mississippi River to commemorate the KTLA inauguration in 1947. With it, he gained entry into the new world of television, as well as a 10-inch RCA TV set.

A few years later, WMA approached Shavelson to create a family-centered program for Danny Thomas. The agency wanted him to write a pilot. "'I said, 'What's that?'" Shavelson recalls. WMA didn't know either but promised Shavelson half of his regular salary. A deal was brokered in which Shavelson would receive his money owed if the show stayed on the air for 13 weeks. "Make Room for Daddy" hit the airwaves in 1953.

"It stayed on for 11 years, and I didn't have to do a thing. I got paid every week, and that's where this house came from," says Shavelson, referring to his current residence, a three-acre homestead dotted with lemon and grapefruit trees in Studio City that he shares with his wife, Ruth.

A decade later, the house would help save a show about seven island castaways from drowning. Sherwood Schwartz, creator and executive producer of "Gilligan's Island," had pitched the series to CBS but needed a theme song. With all recording studios closed on that Sunday afternoon, Schwartz remembered that Shavelson -- being a gadget lover -- had recording equipment at his house. Shavelson agreed to bail out his friend. The song was recorded with a group called the Wellingtons in Shavelson's living room while his late wife, Lucy, and a full crew of waiters attempted to prepare for a charity event to be hosted in the room that evening.

"Without him, there would not have been a 'Gilligan's Island,'" Schwartz says.

Mort Lachman, executive producer of "All in the Family," remembers Shavelson always had the latest technology. The two wrote 1968's "Yours, Mine and Ours" and 1974's "Mixed Company," often working at Shavelson's house. "He worked on a computer -- a huge computer. He worked on the first computer ever invented," Lachman jokes. "I could go right out the door to the driving range while he was working, and he wouldn't even know I was gone. ... Helped my game a lot."

Shavelson's peers agree that humor contributed greatly to his success, which includes two Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay (1955's "The Seven Little Foys" and 1958's "Houseboat") and a WGA Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement in 1984. Shavelson's got a "very sharp and kind of cynical sense of humor. And then you find out that he's really a softy," says Roger Mayer, former president of Turner Entertainment Co.

In addition to the Shavelson-Webb Writers Guild Foundation Library to which he contributed, Shavelson conceived and funded a closed-circuit TV network for the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills. Thomas Sarnoff, former chairman of the Television Academy Foundation, credits Shavelson for his creative funding efforts on behalf of the many foundations on which he serves as a board of directors member.

"He has more energy than anybody I've ever met in my life," says Angela Kirgo, executive director of the Writers Guild Foundation. During the past four years, Shavelson also has lent his energy to the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC, teaching screenwriting to the Mels of the future.

The three-time president of the Writers Guild of America, West, now prefers the tranquility of writing books (his upcoming autobiography is his seventh book -- his fifth nonfiction effort). "I write books for pleasure because you don't have to book actors to write a book," he says. "Except with movies, you have people around to give a little company. When you're writing a book, it's you, yourself and, in my case, the typewriter."

The American Cinematheque will help Shavelson blow out his birthday candles next month by hosting a tribute screening of "Yours, Mine and Ours" on April 25 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

"I don't know whether anybody is creating as much laughter today as we used to in the olden days," Shavelson says. "I understand now that if you laugh more, you'll live longer."
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