Not condoning or in any way celebrating the Governator’s victory, but it does seem an appropriate moment for…
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
When you abandon Manhattan for Los Angeles, the only way to justify the move is to find a residence near the beach, and back in the early ‘90s, I was no exception to this realty rule. With all the possessions from my former Bleecker Street digs crammed into a storage bin in Chelsea awaiting an imagined return, I settled four blocks from the maelstrom of roller-bladers and body-builders populating the Venice Beach boardwalk. Within a few months I was jogging on the beach three times a week, and with this new regime came the obligatory diet. Soon I was checking the scale after every run and had an official L.A. jogging outfit: new running sneakers, socks, running shorts, tank top, plus one of those stopwatch/calorie-counter doodads, crowned with a sweatband for my then-long hair.
Perhaps all of this sounds a little extreme, but bear in mind the psychological pressure that I was under (along with maybe oh, half a million other people in the vicinity). I had moved to L.A. because I’d heard rumor they were actually paying writers out here—something relatively unheard of in New York’s theatrical circles—but had yet to sell a script. Though I’d taken my share of meetings and gotten nothing but encouragement out of them, I was starting to understand that out here, encouragement is what people in the business give you before they stop returning your calls.
Meanwhile, every week the trades trumpeted another “first-timer lands multi-million dollar three-picture deal” story, often involving projects that sounded as intriguing as a pile of steaming turds. My obsession with exercise was symptomatic of what of I’ve since become convinced is the real reason Hollywood is so fitness-fixated: given that the business is unfair, competition is intense and coping with failure is a way of life, in Los Angeles, people work on their bodies to keep from going out of their fucking minds.
I had no control over, say, the production company executive I was then reading scripts for, who kept promising to read my script and never did. But I could, through sustained perseverance, sweat my way back into my now too-tight favorite jeans. Control over my waist-size was uppermost on my mind one Wednesday afternoon as I fixed my newly-bought headband on my head, prepared for my mid-week run. I was in an upbeat mood, having that morning gotten a script to a lower-echelon exec who might actually read it. And according to my scale, the new regime was paying off; I’d already lost two pounds this week, so if I kept up the good work… Heading for the Rose Café to use the bathroom before hitting the beach, I got lost in calculations involving numbers of runs and estimated weight loss, and nearly collided with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Such is the law of the L.A. jungle: just when you’re starting to feel like a spry and promising little monkey, you smack right into an eight hundred pound gorilla.
Arnold and his entourage (a couple of guys in expensive suits), had probably concluded some power lunch that involved crunching seven-digit numbers, and he was walking out the front door of the Rose as I was about to walk in. At five feet four inches, I found my eyes about level with his chest, which was capably filling out a lime green Polo shirt. In that momentary stand-off which always occurs in these you-first, no-you-first social encounters, I looked up into the Terminator’s face.
His expression was perfectly amenable, even friendly as his gaze briefly took me in: running shoes, doodad, headband and all. I wouldn’t presume to guess what was going on behind those steely orbs, but though there wasn’t a judgmental aspect to his look, I couldn’t help projecting: I am… this, he seemed to be saying, and you… are that. And then, with just the faintest hint of amusement in his eyes—I half-expected him to suggest I’d be better off visiting his gym—Arnold graciously stepped aside to let me pass, and his suits followed suit.
It did take some wind out of my mid-day jog, being forced to see my physical being and my show biz fantasies in such dramatic and sobering perspective. But when I think on it now, I can identify another, more positive Celebrity Usefulness in the encounter. Inferred in our few-seconds confrontation was a sort of validation. Arnold wasn’t built in a day. He was a living testament, his celebrity super-hero perfection an excessive but effective ode to hope, saying: You can be a better you.
That would have been the whole of my Ah-nuld experience, were it not for a coda that transpired some 7 years later. I was by then a studio story analyst, giving Universal's execs diplomatic reasons for turning things down, and occasionally, when faced with a stinker, I had to be frank.
Such was the case one day in 1998 when I read a script that struck me as terminally dumb: the Devil comes to New York City for the millennium, to claim his bride and spawn the Anti-Christ, but a heroic security specialist saves her and the world from damnation. There were many apocalyptic millennial scripts making the rounds at the time, and this one was poorly executed, despite its writer’s bankable track record, so I didn’t think twice about calling it as I saw it and giving it a "pass" in my coverage. A week later my studio bought the script for close to a million dollars, and Variety’s front page headlined the reason why:
“ARNOLD TO DUEL DEVIL.”
To Universal’s credit, my negative call on the first draft of End of Days didn’t reflect poorly on me—nor on them. My superiors were only getting involved with the project because Schwarzenegger had become attached. If you’re a studio and a star of his then-stature comes to you wanting to turn a dirty limerick written on a napkin into a movie, your logical response is “how much will it cost?” But as it happens, Universal’s story department has a policy: whomever first reads a submitted script, becomes the reader to read all subsequent drafts of that script and do notes on them, should that script become a studio project. And so I became deeply involved in a movie I reviled.
I read and gave copious notes on six drafts before the thing started shooting. And throughout the process I became (as readers often do) a voice crying in the wilderness. The script was replete with problems, but whoever was in charge over in Arnold’s camp paid no attention to the reams of paper I was producing in my off-lot office, a few blocks from the Rose Café. If Arnold ever did read my notes, which I highly doubt, his probable reaction would’ve been: who is this Mernit guy and why should I care?
As I predicted, End of Days tanked, one of the first of Schwarzenegger's projects to majorly disappoint box office expectations. But oddly, Variety neglected a follow-up headline: “ARNOLD ALL TOO HUMAN!”
Ah, and if only the California voters of today had reached the same conclusion...
But really, given that this particular Republican victory amounts to an anomaly, how can one complain? In the light of recent developments (Getting back the House? Great; Getting back the Senate? Even greater; Getting rid of Rummy? Priceless!), I'm still basking in the red-white-and-blue banner I saw hung on a freeway overpass as I drove to work this morning. It read: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.