Ever since I got my advance copy of Susan Silver’s new book Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, I have spent every spare moment reading it. Talk about a page turner!
At her book party last Wednesday, hosted in the Garden Room at Michael’s by Susan’s “closest platonic male friend” John Demsey, she wowed the crowd (which included The New York Post’s Richard Johnson and author Ed Klein) by sharing a few tasty tidbits from her hilarious, touching and sometimes shocking memoir. The book chronicles her years as a trailblazing comedy writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Maude and The Partridge Family. Susan is something of a female Zelig, having had encounters over the course of one helluva an interesting life with everyone from Steve McQueen to Shimon Peres. All of these episodes are described in the book in delicious detail, so when she invited me to rejoin her at Michael’s to celebrate the official April 27 publication date, I jumped at the chance.
At the book party, she told an eyebrow-raising anecdote at one point about Bill Cosby. It turns out that back when Susan was a wide-eyed co-ed at UCLA, where she hung out with “sweet, preppie” Jim Morrison (yes, that Jim Morrison–more on those days later), she met Cosby when he was shooting a show on campus called Hootenanny. Ever the gentleman, Bill offered to drive Susan home so he could give her advice on launching her career as a comedy writer. Imagine how shocked we all were when Susan said Cosby lunged at her when they pulled up to her house. In order to escape his unwanted advances, she fell out of the car, landing with her legs in the air. Luckily, Cosby was nowhere near them.
Today, I barely knew where to begin when Susan arrived all smiles in the dining room. With a writers’ strike looking and ongoing talk in Hollywood about pay parity and the double standard that plagues women behind the camera, I wanted to get her thoughts on comments made by Jennifer Lawrence and Reese Witherspoon.
Writers, she explained, are part of the Writer’s Guild and as such, “They have to pay everyone the same.” The bigger issue for her, she recalled, was ageism, which was taken on by the Guild during a long, protracted lawsuit some years ago. When it was over, said Susan between bites of her softshell crab, “I got a very nice check.”
The main issue for writers today, she continued, is that there aren’t enough jobs. Back in her day, Susan and her writing partner Iris Rainer Dart (who wrote Beaches) would sell individual scripts to shows as freelancers. “Now shows hire seven people to write the whole season,” she told me. “There was no Writers’ Room when I was writing for Mary Tyler Moore. And when there were rewrites, you were called back to the table. That’s just not done anymore.”
It was none other the late and legendary director Garry Marshall who got Susan her gig with MTM. “He was my manager and my best friend until he passed away,” she noted. Susan told me that her last exchange with Marshall was right after the Republican National Convention, when she told him, “I don’t blame you for Scott Baio.” She was in Aspen last summer when she got the call he’d passed away. “He was the nicest person. I still talk to him in my head.” There are so many people touched on in Susan’s book that was I eager to ask her about as many as I could. I decided in the end to just run down the list.
First up–Mary Tyler Moore. “Mary was a very private person,” recalled Susan, who told me Moore was very close to the character she played. “She was just that person on the show–just Mary. We lived next door to each other on Fifth Avenue until she moved to the country.”
As for the show co-stars: “Valerie [Harper, who played Rhoda] was very open and Cloris [Leachman, who played Phyllis] was just nuts. She drove them nuts, because she never landed on her mark.” When The Mary Tyler Moore Show started, Susan said the writers had no choice but to make Mary Richards, Moore’s character, a single girl. “She couldn’t be divorced, because people would think she was divorced from Dick Van Dyke [who had played her husband on Moore’s first sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show] and viewers wouldn’t like that.”
Susan and writing partner Iris almost altered the course of television history for another famously single girl. “We sold a script to That Girl where Ann Marie [played by Marlo Thomas] married Donald [her longtime boyfriend played by Ted Bessell]. But Marlo didn’t want to do it, because she didn’t want to let single women down.”
Jim Morrison: “He had one of those bowl haircuts and was really sweet when I knew him at UCLA. He was so shy. We met this guy named Max who wore black leather and rode around on this motorcycle. It was his persona that Jim adopted when he became a Door. I still cant believe they are the same person. Max became a well-known Beat poet in San Francisco”
Elvis Presley: “I was a showgirl in Viva Las Vegas. He always had six guys around him and one of them said Elvis wanted to invite me to a party. When I got there the gate opened and there was only one car in the driveway–his. I backed up and left.”
James Garner: “A good kisser.”
Don Rickles: “He was impossible to write for because he was on all the time and would change everything.”
Richard Nixon: “We didn’t know [Laugh-In] head writer Paul Keyes was working with Roger Ailes for Nixon. It took him six takes to do, “Sock it to me!” We were both blamed and thanked for helping him win the election.”
Steve McQueen (who she taught how to dance ‘the twist’ for Baby the Rain Must Fall): “Years after that dance lesson, I was staying at the Regent Beverly Wilshire and was sitting at the pool when he came up to me. He had this very scruffy beard. He had just asked me out when I saw this guy I was madly in love with when I was in college. I said, ‘That guy over there is someone I was love with in college.’ He said, ‘Then why don’t you go out to dinner with him,’ and walked away.”
As for present-day stars, Susan gives high marks to: Amy Schumer (“Her show was brilliant”); the tandem of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (“They should host every award show–but I’m mad at Tina. After I read her book, I got her contact info and wrote her a fan letter but I never heard back”); and Mindy Kaling (“I love her!”). She also worships John Oliver. “He does the jokes no one else can do. The British are much tougher on their politicians than we are. He’s just so witty and he can curse–and that makes a difference. He’s exceptionally talented.” And then there’s Louis CK. “I think he’s so sexy. Call me!”
Asked what TV comedies she watches now, Susan demurred. “I don’t watch much television except for the news. I’m a news junkie.” If she could write for one show that’s on the air right now, she’d choose Veep. “It’s a brilliant series. And more reality than comedy now.”
Susan will be on Good Day New York tomorrow talking about the book, which you can pick up at Book Culture uptown or on Amazon. (It has already made is way onto the Top 100 Kindle releases) She’s doing a satellite radio tour with Premiere Radio and has a full slate of upcoming events and signings in California, as well as an appearance at Boswell’s Books in her hometown of Milwaukee. She’s also got her own radio show, Susan Says, on Robin Hood Radio, an NPR affiliate.
When the coffee arrived, I wished I had more time to hear Susan’s tales from Tinseltown and told her the book should be made into a Showtime or HBO series. When I confessed I had no idea she’d had such an extraordinary life, she replied, “I have two gifts–I always know where to stand in a room to run into a famous person and I can pack a suitcase with just the right amount of colors for every trip.”
Obviously, she was telling the truth. As I was saying my goodbyes, I spied Susan standing outside chatting with a man who looked strangely familiar. I opened the restaurant’s door after he’d walked away. “Was that Preet Bharara?” I asked her. “Yes,” confirmed Susan. I guess I’ll read about their encounter in her next book.
Here’s today’s rundown:
1. Steven Rubenstein and ICM’s Chris Silverman
2. Mickey Ateyeh
3. Terry Allen Kramer
4. Esther Newberg
5. Stan Shuman
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman
7. Barry Frey
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia , Blair Sobol and Maryann Harrison
9. Kate White and Pattie Sellers
11. Jerry Inzerillo
12. Denise LeFrak, Erica Jong, Molly Jong Fast
15. Vice’s James Schwab
16. Nick Verbitsky
17. Penske Media’s vice chair Gerry Bryne
18. David Corvo
20. David Rhodes and Preet Bharara
21. British Heritage Travel’s Jack Kliger and Nico Bossi
22. Linda Alexander
23. Martha Kramer
24. Jonathan Estreich
26. Nina Burleigh and Pamela Keogh
27. Susan Silver and yours truly
81. Town & Country’s Vicky Ward
Finally, a huge personal thank you to Michael’s own Danny DiVella, Robyn Wolf and Matt Carey who came to my aid when the Internet service conked out in the nearby office where I write each week’s column. They allowed me to return to 55th and 5th and crash in the restaurant’s back office to file this week’s missive. (It’s quite a sprawling operation, located a few floors down from the dining room!!) Man, will I be glad when the damn retrograde is over. Thanks guys!
[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.]