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Writer, director and producer Ed Zwick, co-creator of the TV series “thirtysomething,” and who was behind such films as “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Blood Diamond,” recounts four tempestuous decades in the business in his entertaining new memoir, “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood” (Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster).

In the excerpt below, Zwick discusses the creation of his Emmy Award-winning TV drama “Special Bulletin,” which was presented as a fake newscast in which a terrorist group’s nuclear device is detonated in Charleston, S.C. Not everyone at the network was thrilled about it.

Don’t miss Luke Burbank’s interview with Ed Zwick on “CBS News Sunday Morning” March 3!


“Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions” by Ed Zwick

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From Chapter Three: The Year of Loving Dangerously   

The year I turned thirty everything happened at once. Love, illness, success, tragedy. Throw in marriage, friendship, pregnancy, and therapy and you begin to get the picture. The problem about opening yourself to the improvisation of life is having to admit you aren’t in control. Especially when life is coming at you head-on like a speeding truck in the wrong lane and there’s no way to avoid the collision.

I almost forgot the fatal car accident. That happened too.

It was 1982. My career was going nowhere. After the ridiculous good luck of getting the chance to produce a network TV series at twenty-seven, I had spent the next four years writing scripts no one wanted to make and directing TV that wasn’t worth seeing. It was as if there was this chasm between what I intended and what ended up on the page and screen. No matter how determined I was to be daring and original, the work came out ordinary and inauthentic. In the years since film school, Marshall and I had become inseparable. As we struggled to assimilate what they had tried to teach us in class, we became each other’s scourge as well as best friend. If you find one person in your life who can always be counted on to tell you the truth, you’re lucky. If you can find him in Hollywood, you’ve won the lottery. We were then and remain each other’s first reader. After finishing a new script of mine, he would get this compassionate yet anguished look in his eye, and I knew he agreed that it sucked. To this day, fifty years on, his casually withering criticism occasionally makes me want to murder him. He’ll look up from a page and say, “This part makes me tired.”

Flushed with early success on Family, I had bought a little house I could no longer afford and desperately took whatever work I could to pay the mortgage, such as a low-budget indie about the Kentucky Derby where I never got to attend the race, nor go to Kentucky for that matter. Meanwhile, Marshall wasn’t doing much better writing for such unchallenging fare as CHiPs (California Highway Patrol) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He finally had to borrow money from his father to write an original script, promising to pay him back with interest, should it sell. It didn’t. Every afternoon, when we could no longer tolerate another fruitless day of writing, one of us would call the other and we would meet at a video arcade and pour quarters into a road-racing game. Afterward we would lie on the living room floor of the house I was about to lose, whining and moaning. During one such sob session, I told him about a terrifying dream I’d had the night before about seeing TV news of imminent nuclear annihilation, and how I woke up, sweating and unable to breathe, still believing it to be real.

“We should do it!” he said.

“Do what?”

“Pitch it as a movie!”

“I’m talking about an anxiety attack, not a development deal!”

“I’m serious,” he said. “What if we were to tell a story on TV but we did it only through what you would be able to see on the news.”

“You mean, like Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds?”

“Except not about aliens. We’ll choose something more plausible and terrifying.”

“Like nuclear annihilation, you mean.”

“And we’ll create all the news footage ourselves.”

“Like The Battle of Algiers?”

“Never heard of it.”

And so it began.

I won’t try to describe the labyrinth we had to navigate before getting NBC to agree to pay us for a script. Had they not been languishing at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings, I’m convinced they would never have given us a chance. The moment we began writing, though, it was as if fortune’s wheel had turned, and our names spun to the top. We couldn’t believe our luck. I imagine the movie gods gazing down on our giddy optimism, chuckling, So they want to disrupt the universe? Let’s see how much disruption these two geniuses can handle …

Here are some of the things that happen that year, 1982:

The day after we begin writing, I meet a girl in the parking garage of the old Santa Monica mall. My battered car is in the shop. I’ve borrowed a friend’s car and can’t remember where I’m parked. She is driving a beater from Dave Schwartz’s Rent-A-Wreck and can’t remember what it looks like. We chat as we wander from one level to another. I manage to get her number before she finds her car (which has a copy of Pascal’s Pensées on the front seat).

I tell Marshall about the girl in the parking lot, rhapsodizing about her beauty, wit, and intelligence and that I think I could fall in love with her. He says, “What else is new? You say that every other week. Let’s get back to work.” The next day I call her, only to learn she is living with someone else. I have no choice but to get back to work. Days later, Marshall learns his now-wife Susan (yes, they had gotten back together, for now, at least) is pregnant with their first child. He’s too distracted to work. The following week, the girl from the parking lot, whose name is Liberty, calls to tell me she has left the man she’d been living with. Now Marshall and I are both too excited to work. We all spend an idyllic summer watching Susan’s belly grow. I ask Liberty to marry me. She says yes. Marshall and I finish a first draft.

In September we hear the network likes it. The next day Marshall gets a call that his father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The prognosis isn’t good. He flies to Philadelphia to see him. Afterward, he joins us on Liberty’s farm in rural Pennsylvania to be my best man. The day of the wedding we hear the network wants us to come to NYC to observe NBC News. After the ceremony, Susan returns to L.A. while Liberty, Marshall, and I head to Manhattan for our honeymoon. The next morning, we begin observing at NBC News.

By mid-November, the rewrite is done. Two weeks later, the network gives us the go-ahead, and everything speeds up. We begin prep in L.A., casting unknown actors since the premise only works if the audience doesn’t recognize them. (This is how we first get to know David Clennon, later to become the infamous Miles Drentell on thirtysomething.) During rehearsals, I operate the video camera myself as if I am the news cameraman in the scene. When I review the footage, for the first time in my life the work is exactly as I imagined it. That night I am too excited to sleep, believing I might have a future as a director. The next day at the production office, my sister calls to tell me my mother has been killed in a car accident. I collapse in Marshall’s arms.

That night I fly home to Chicago to help my sisters prepare for the funeral. Their lives had already been buffeted by my parents’ messy divorce, but now they are shattered. I’d like to be able to give them the support they need, but the truth is, I am a wreck myself. On the morning after my mother is buried, I fly to Charleston, South Carolina, to meet Marshall and scout locations, burying my grief in work, not the last time that charming habit will serve me. We begin production in January. It’s a grueling shoot with challenging material made even more emotional by the tumultuous events in our lives. On the first day of shooting, something is wrong with the lead actress. Whether it’s nerves or a medical condition, she has a vocal problem that makes her sound nothing like a professional news anchor. Marshall and I huddle in a corner. We realize we’re going to have to fire her. I’ve never fired anyone in my life. So, while I continue shooting, knowing everything we do will have to be redone, Marshall is on the phone with the casting director frantically looking for a replacement. We decide on Kathryn Walker and send her a script at 7 p.m. She reads it by 9 p.m. Arrives on set the next morning at 4:30 a.m. Goes on camera at 6 a.m., letter perfect and brilliant. Kathryn Walker is a goddess.

When we finish production, the network informs us they need our movie— now called Special Bulletin—on the air in six weeks. There is no such thing as a video editing system that allows for the kind of elasticity used in film editing, nor are there any film editors trained on video editing systems. That means we must cut the movie online, with little help from a news editor unfamiliar with narrative. Marshall and I hunker down in a facility in Burbank, essentially making final decisions about each sequence, one cut at a time, in sequence. And then tearing it apart when it doesn’t work and beginning again. Midway through the process, Susan goes into labor. Two days later, sleepless beyond recognition, the proud father of a baby girl, Marshall stumbles back into the editing room to do the offline cut of the “news packages” to be dropped into the final cut I am finishing.

The show is due to air in two weeks, but before that can happen, Reuven Frank, the head of NBC News, insists on seeing the movie and goes berserk. He calls Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, demanding that it not be aired, fearing the depiction of a nuclear event, shot as if it were really happening, would not only cause widespread panic but also bring the news division into disrepute. When we get word that the network is seriously considering not putting it on, we call Howard Rosenberg at the L.A. Times and John O’Connor at the New York Times to tell them what the network is thinking of doing. They ask to see the film. Following Werner Herzog’s adage to ask forgiveness and not permission, we send it to them without the network’s consent. All hell breaks loose. The controversy plays out on the front page of every entertainment outlet in the country. Everyone wants to see the movie the network won’t air. Tartikoff has no choice; he must air it. But to pacify the news division, he agrees to run a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen coming out of each commercial break. We aren’t happy about it, but nobody seems to notice them when they air because they were too busy raiding the refrigerator during the commercials.

The velocity of events is relentless. Rave reviews are followed by six Emmy nominations, including best movie, writing, and directing. Two days before the ceremony, Marshall’s father dies. He returns from the funeral in Philadelphia barely in time to put on his new tuxedo and accept an armful of Emmys. Days later, Liberty tells me she is pregnant. I am undone with happiness, but also stupefied. Dazed after yet another acceptance speech—it could have been the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Peabody, we won them all—Marshall and I find ourselves sitting on the curb outside the Beverly Hilton, clutching our little statuettes. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I turn to Marshall, or maybe it was Marshall turning to me, and affecting a comic Yiddish accent, “So, nu … ?”

It was more dark than funny, but soon we are laughing so hard that tears pour down our cheeks. Passersby stop to stare at the two bearded guys in ill-fitting new tuxedos doubled over in paroxysms of hilarity and grief. For an entire year, no sooner had we managed to internalize one overwhelming event than we were overwhelmed by another. Was this what adult life would be like from now on? It was Newton’s third law of motion made flesh: For every success there is an equal and opposite trauma. We were learning that in life it is never one thing or another, it is always one thing and another. That phrase would soon become a kind of mantra for our creative lives.

From “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood” by Ed Zwick. Copyright © 2024 by Edward Zwick. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.      


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