Back in the late 1990s, I was a writer on an tremendously forgettable sitcom that was filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank (the show was Roseanne). Our soundstage was right next to the soundstage where they shot the NBC hospital drama, ER. I had an assigned parking place with my name stenciled on it, right next to one of the actors on that show, George Clooney.
I used to see Mr. Clooney playing basketball outside the stage when I drove to my parking place. And I liked to think that every day, he pulled into his parking spot next to my Volvo station wagon and thought to himself: “Wait a minute! I’m parking next to David Raether’s beat-up Volvo station wagon/fishing car! How lucky am I?”
Our offices were next door to a bungalow that housed the offices of Malpaso, Clint Eastwood’s production company. Every once in a while, I would see Mr. Eastwood out for a stroll, walking past our offices. And I just knew Clint Eastwood was thinking, “Man, I sure hope I see David Raether while I’m out for this walk. That would be so cool.”
One day, I was sitting on the stoop to my office, reading that week’s script and having a smoke when a small car drove up and the passenger rolled down the window. “Excuse me,” the passenger said, “I’m looking for Clint Eastwood’s offices.” I walked over to the car and saw that the passenger was Francis Ford Coppola. I pointed out Eastwood’s offices and they drove off. I’m pretty certain as they drove off, Francis Ford Coppola turned to his driver and said: “Holy crap, was that David Raether I just talked to? He’s the coolest guy ever.”
The point of all this is that okay, sure, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and Francis Ford Coppola were in the vicinity, which was pretty cool and all, but then I heard something that really made my eyes widen and sent shivers down my spine. A guy who worked on the lot told me that the office I was in was once the office of the Epstein brothers. Whoa. Philip and Julius Epstein. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
I’ve mentioned this thing about my office and the Epstein brothers to many people, and the universal reaction I have gotten is: “Who?” (Actually, when I told my kids this, the reaction is: “Okay, whatever.”)
Here’s the Who? on the Epsteins, along with several more of my screenwriting heroes.
Julius and Philip Epstein
These twin brothers wrote Casablanca (1942). Well, they started on it, then left to work on another project and Howard Koch came in, added another 30-40 pages, and then the Epsteins returned and rewrote pretty much everything. They wrote just about every memorable line from this film, one of the most memorable movies ever. “I’m shocked, shocked there’s gambling going on in this casino.” Or: “What’s Rick like? He’s like any other man, only maybe more so.” Or: “This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” The Epsteins were an inseparable pair until Philip died suddenly in 1952. They were investigated as possible Communists. During their questioning, they were asked if they had ever been members of a “subversive organization.” Yes, they replied, “Warner Brothers.” Be sure to also check out The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). Just brilliant. And I once had their office. Imagine that. Now that was much cooler than parking next to George Clooney.
Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz
Another pair of brothers. Herman, the older of the two, was once called “the funniest man in New York.” Herman is a titan of American film. How about these two credits: he co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941), and did a major—but uncredited—rewrite on The Wizard of Oz (1939). The bulk of Herman’s career was in rewriting work. The late film critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker claims Herman rewrote more than 40 movies, “most of which are my favorites.” And then there’s his baby brother Joseph. Joseph Mankiewicz who wrote such incandescent films as All About Eve (1950), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Quiet American (1958), and A Letter to Three Wives (1949) among many others. Between them, the Mankiewicz boys won four Academy Awards, three for screenwriting and one for direction. If you see a Mankiewicz name after the “written by” credit, you are in good hands.
In a Preston Sturges script, people talk fast, talk a lot, and they are really, really funny. His stories are always incredibly amusing, but what sets a Sturges script apart is the quality of the dialogue. Everyone sounds just so darn clever. Just about any one of his movies is worth watching, but my two favorites are Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and The Lady Eve (1941). Heads up on both of these: you won’t be able to lie on the couch and watch them. The dialogue is so snappy and bracing, you’ll be sitting on the edge of the couch, leaning in and smiling. At least I always am.
A pretty solid argument could be made that Billy Wilder had the greatest career ever in Hollywood. He was nominated for an astonishing twenty-one Academy Awards, including six wins for Best Director, Best Screenplay, or Best Picture. And my favorite fact about Billy Wilder—he was at one point an illegal immigrant. After a successful career in Germany, Wilder, an Austrian Jew, fled to the U.S. as the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. His screenplays include: Ninotchka (1939), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). If you spent the next two weekends just binge-watching Billy Wilder movies that would be time well-spent.
Not all of my screenwriting heroes are dead. Aaron Sorkin is very much alive and a bit of a national treasure. There are few screenwriters out there who write sharper or more incisively for the screen than Sorkin. And his movies frequently have some of the most quotable lines you’ll ever hear. There’s “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men (1992). Or this line from The Social Network (2010): “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” Or from Moneyball (2011): “All of Jeremy’s nightmares were coming to light. But Jeremy’s about to realize the ball went 60 feet over the fence. He had hit a homerun.”
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.