Last week, we were saddened to hear about the loss of writer Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana (1939-2019). We hope this interview, conducted by Stephen Bowie earlier this year, stands as a fitting tribute to Fontana’s long and varied career.
D. C. Fontana earned her place in history as one of the key creative talents on Star Trek – a writer and story editor on the original show while still in her twenties, she went on to contribute significantly as a writer and producer to some of the sequel series and other incarnations of the franchise. But in Shout! Factory’s catalog, Fontana is represented by her scripts for western series including The Tall Man, Frontier Circus, The Big Valley, Overland Trail, and The High Chaparral.
Fans of her Star Trek classics, which include “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “Journey to Babel,” will find much to admire in Fontana’s western work: the taut short-story premises of The Tall Man; the rich characters, like the spunky outlaws’ daughters (Jo Ann Harris and Heather Menzies) who set off on their own crime spree in High Chaparral’s “The Little Thieves,” or the insufferable, even-more-Scottish-than-Scotty patriarch (Denver Pyle) in Here Come the Brides’ “Bolt of Kilmaron”; and the impressive range of tones, as in The Big Valley’s “The Prize,” which has Heath (Lee Majors) both facing off against a scheming bounty hunter (Bruce Dern) and awkwardly tending to a newborn, or “Danger Road,” which has Victoria (Barbara Stanwyck) sparring with a dapper con artist (Maurice Evans) in the midst of a deadly chase.
Earlier this year, we spoke with Fontana about all of those shows, as well as some of the other non-Trek facets of her distinguished television career.
So, let’s set the stage here. Your first job in television was at Universal, right?
Well, it was Revue then, which had just taken over the Universal lot. Universal still functioned as Universal, but they didn’t own the lot any more. They bought it back later, of course.
That’s an important distinction, because Revue had become a big deal during the fifties.
Absolutely. It was one of the biggest television production companies at that time.
And what was your job there, to begin with?
I started in the typing pool. Oh, I had the wonderful experience of typing pages for Psycho, which was written by Robert Bloch, and Alfred Hitchcock was getting ready to shoot it fairly soon. But we were turning out the pages for Mr. Hitchcock and his production staff. I liked it so much that the head of the typing department let me read the whole script, which was very nice of her. Later I was asked to take the pages up to Mr. Hitchcock’s office, which I did, so I got a chance to see Mr. Hitchcock up close and personal.
Wow. What was your impression?
I mean, he looked exactly as he did on television. There was no distinction whatsoever. He was not even casually dressed. He was dressed in a suit, the way he always appeared on the show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I was very impressed, I really was.
I started in September of 1959, and shortly thereafter I saw a job on the production board for a production secretary to the producer of a new series called Overland Trail. And I applied. Now I had worked in New York, just a few months, in June-July of 1959, after I got out of college, I got a job as the junior secretary to the president [Ralph M. Cohn] of Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia. And unfortunately I only worked for him for about a month and a half, almost two months, and he dropped dead of a heart attack.
I had seen scripts coming across the desk in New York, and I thought, “This is interesting. This is a different form of writing.” I had been writing novel-type stuff, or short-story type stuff. Just for my own amusement, of course. I thought, you know what, there’s not a lot going on here in New York. The place to be is Hollywood. So I saved up my money over the summer, I worked temp jobs, and I told my mother, “I’m going to Los Angeles for two weeks. I’m going to apply for jobs. If I get a job, I’m going to stay. Otherwise, I had a two-week vacation in Hollywood.” And I did get a job before the first week was up, at Revue. About a month and a half, two months later, I landed the job on Overland Trail, working for Sam Peeples.
You’ve said that Samuel A. Peeples was a mentor for you.
Give me a sketch of what he was like.
He was originally from Utah, and his family was an old-time family. His mother had been a flier in a trapeze act in one of the very early circuses. I guess Sam was about in his early forties when he started Overland Trail. But he already had many, many screen credits, television credits, on other Westerns, on police shows. Overland Trail was the first show – to my knowledge and research – that he ever created himself, and was going to executive produce. That was for the Nat Holt company, which was doing other westerns, like Shotgun Slade, for instance.
What was the relationship between Nat Holt Productions and Revue?
The Holt company had a deal with Revue to produce through them, and then Overland Trail became part of the Nat Holt company. Sam, technically, was producer and Nat Holt was executive producer. But Sam was there every day, as was Frank Price, the associate producer, working with writers, working on scripts, rewriting where necessary, getting all the holes plugged on any story elements. They were very active with the writing of the show, and then Sam oversaw the production, casting, hiring the directors, hiring the actors. That was what a producer did. And while he was relatively new at it, he did it very well.
So what were your first impressions of seeing television being made?
To me it was very interesting, because the whole thing had to come out of the producer’s office. Nat Holt had several of his series in addition to Overland Trail, so he was busy overseeing the whole thing, whereas Sam was concerned with just Overland Trail, starring Bill Bendix and a very young Doug McClure. We had seventeen episodes, that was all we had.
That was a mid-season replacement. Do you remember why it didn’t get renewed?
I think it wasn’t pulling ratings as much as they wanted. This was an outdoor show. You were out with the stages and the horses and all this other stuff. So they ran a little more production time then, say, a show inside on the stage.
Sam had Tall Man on the back burner. He was ready with that to go, which was bought in 1960. They went back to back. Except! There was a Writers Guild strike in 1960.
That was one of the big ones.
Yes. So nobody could write anything for live television, or filmed television, until the strike was settled. It was settled in, I think, early June, and at that time it was like: Let’s go.
Sam already knew that I was interested in being a writer, and I was there when he brought Tall Man to fruition. He said to me, “When the strike is over, if you bring me a good story, I will buy it.” And I did and he did. That first one for me was “A Bounty For Billy.” It was just the story, but I had my first sale. And what a lot of people don’t know, although I’ve told this story many times, was the guest star on that Tall Man was Leonard Nimoy. He was just getting his career rolling too, and I went down on the stage and chatted with him a little bit. He was very nice to a newbie writer, and we were friends from 1960 on, he and his then wife and I, and it was very nice to follow him. I literally was not following him! But whenever I saw that he was going to be in something, I watched the episode.
But Nimoy came to Star Trek through a different route, right? Not at your recommendation?
He had guest starred on The Lieutenant, which was a Roddenberry-produced show, and at the end of that show, when we knew we weren’t going to be renewed, Gene Roddenberry called me into his office and handed me about 15 pages of written material. He said, “Tell me what you think of this.” And of course it was Star Trek. I said, “I really like it. I think it has a lot of possibilities. Who plays Spock?” And he nudged a picture of Leonard Nimoy across the desk at me and I said, “Okay.” Leonard Nimoy was always Mr. Spock. Always.
So how did The Tall Man come about? Was it Sam Peeples’s idea to do a show about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid?
Yes. In fact, I think he already had it in his pocket as backup to Overland Trail. Because it was very well-developed when he first brought it out to show it to Nat Holt and to the network. Sam knew his western history, so he knew about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He wanted to develop not the usual “okay he’s a gunslinger, he kills people, here comes the sheriff or the marshal and we’re going to get him.” He wanted to have a relationship between these men. I thought The Tall Men worked very well, in fact. The actors were wonderful. Barry Sullivan and Clu Gulager were really good.
It’s a bit more thoughtful than your average western. That idea of Billy the Kid being sort of outside the law but still one of the heroes was a bit more complex than you’d expect for a TV western. Was that aspect of the premise hard to write for?
Well, I didn’t find it difficult, because I had been on it from the beginning. I read all the material. Occasionally I was asked to come into a writer’s meeting to take notes. So I was kind of there while the stories were being developed, and of course I read them all, and when Sam wrote or Frank wrote I had to type up their scripts. Well, Sam’s, anyway. It was a learning process. Especially since I had started on a one-hour, and now I had to learn this half-hour form. So it was a learning experience for me, but I just took it all in. Any time I wanted to I could take the scripts home to read. I didn’t have time in the office, because we were busy.
I wound up having four credits on it. I sold another story, which was “The Parson,” and then I developed “Tiger Eye,” [the protagonist of which] was an Apache, and I told Sam, “I’m going to give you a full story, but I want to go for the teleplay.”
He said, “Well, if I like it, you got it.”
And he liked it and he gave me the teleplay assignment. That was my first full story and teleplay credit. Then I did another one, “The Cloud Busters,” [in] 1961, and that one went very well. I didn’t do any more, because it was pretty busy. I mean, I had to find time to write, between the production day, and then we didn’t always leave at six o’clock, although we were supposed to. We had weekends free. But I was pressed to get words on the page.
Do you remember how you came up with those original pitches for The Tall Man?
Honestly, no. Generally, and to this day, I get an idea and I start to block it out. I built out my outline first because I always felt, that’s my map, that’s how I get from the beginning, the opening teaser, which is usually a surprise or a mystery or some fun thing sometimes, and get to this ending here. The outline lays out that route for you.
So was The Tall Man the first time you wrote dialogue?
Did that take any getting used to?
No, I have a fairly good ear for dialogue. And of course, I usually went to dailies, again to take notes on what was needed, so I could hear it all. Even if it was a little lopsided or lumpy on the first cut, then you’d see how it smoothed out and how the actors played it. I would later consult the script and say, oh, I see how he did that. Okay, fine.
Like some other Revue shows from that period, Frontier Circus does not have an on-screen producer credit. Samuel Peeples created it, but did he also produce it?
I know he supervised, he watched over the scripts. But he did not actively produce it, as I recall. I don’t remember who did.
You ended up selling just one story to that show.
One story, correct. And I did a rewrite on a Shotgun Slade, which was not connected to Sam Peeples, although he got me the job. He suggested to Nat Holt that I be given an opportunity to rewrite a Shotgun Slade script, and I did. It wasn’t a rewrite big enough to get a credit. But I got paid.
Was there a point during that period before Star Trek when you wanted to quit and try to write full-time?
Oh, no. There wasn’t enough work out there yet as a writer. I was making a steady salary as a production secretary for Sam Peeples. In late ’62 and into ’63, Sam left Universal/Revue, and went over to MGM to write a script for a film. I went with him and we worked on that, and the film didn’t really get made.
Sam said, “You know what, I’m getting out of here, I’m going to go over there” – I forget which studio it was – and I thought, “You know what, I want to stay here for a while.” And he said okay. We always kept in touch; I saw him personally. He and his wife Arlene had me out to the house so many times for dinner and to watch a movie or watch TV. They were really nice to me. But I stopped working for Sam and I went into their typing pool. That was interesting. There were a lot of nice shows being done at MGM at the time. Then I saw this thing up on the job board: The Lieutenant, Gene Roddenberry, hour-long television series. They were looking for a production secretary. So I had some credentials, I went in there, and I landed the job as production secretary to the associate producer, Del Reisman, who later became president of our Guild. I had a good time working for him. Gene Roddenberry had another secretary. I worked for Del, mostly, and again it was in line with scripts and stories and working with writers and all of that stuff. I also worked a little bit for George Lehr, who was our production manager.
Now here’s a totally different kind of show I was on. Military. We had the help of the Marine Corps, and they fairly often shot down at Pendleton. Gary Lockwood, Robert Vaughn, wonderful cast. We were doing an hour military show, but it was contemporary military, about how is a young officer going to find his way in the world. We weren’t in Vietnam yet.
Peacetime military, but there was still a lot of action to be had. I think it was November [when] Gene’s secretary suffered a terrible appendicitis attack that put her in the hospital and kept her out for like two months. So Gene said, “All right, you’re going to be my secretary. We’ll get somebody to fill in for you, working for Del and George, and you’re going to be my secretary.” In that two months I got to know Gene Roddenberry a lot better. I never particularly wanted to write The Lieutenant, because I didn’t think I knew enough about that sort of world. But I read every script, and when we had production notes or writer notes or whatever, I was right there.
Sidebar story: On The Lieutenant, November 22, 1963, I was on the phone getting some notes from our marine sergeant, some technical notes on a script, and he said, “I’ve got to hang up now.” I said, “Why, what’s wrong?” He said, “The president’s been shot.” I said, “What?! The president’s been shot?” And he hung up and I went dashing through Del’s office into Roddenberry’s office yelling, “Turn on the television set. The president’s been shot.” We were glued to the set for the rest of that day, with all the things that happened. The ironic note was it was a rainy day, and The Lieutenant was shooting a funeral scene out on the back-lot. It really got to people that day.
The Lieutenant was over in the spring of 1964. We knew we weren’t going to do any more, so that’s when Gene presented his fifteen pages to me, and I said, oh, hey, I like this. I had never been that drawn to science fiction, although Forbidden Planet was one of my favorite movies. The original The Thing was one of my favorite movies. There were some that I really liked, but on the whole I didn’t read that much in the science fiction world, and I didn’t see that many [science fiction] movies. So it was a new world for me to enter.
To what extent were you familiar with or influenced by westerns? Did you watch a lot of them?
Oh, all my life. Because there were always westerns on. Even as a kid, there was Gene Autry, there was Roy Rogers, there was Hopalong Cassidy. Those kinds of shows, whether they were movies or they were serials or they were on television. I’m not exactly sure when they began, but there was Rifleman and shows of that ilk, and Wagon Train was out. I remember being on the Revue lot and Wagon Train was filming. If we were company people, we could go onto the stages. I went onto the stage one time of Wagon Train and watched Ward Bond and Bette Davis do a scene. It was amazing! I just thought: Oh my god, these are movie actors!
So you felt attached to Star Trek at the outset? Gene Roddenberry was clear that he intended to hire you on the show if it sold?
Oh, yes. Because he had liked the work I had done for him in those two months when his regular secretary wasn’t there. Gene said, “You want to work for me?” and I said sure. One of the jobs he gave me: He got about 25 or 30 books of science fiction short stories by noted writers, and he had me read every one of those stories and break it down as to whether it might be a possible story for Star Trek that they could buy. They didn’t, but he did use some of those writers.
Yes, I know that you sought out science fiction writers like Theodore Sturgeon, who hadn’t written much television.
Oh, yeah. Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson. Isaac Asimov was not a writer on the show, but he became friendly with Gene and was a great source of information for us.
Did you ever talk about asking Ray Bradbury to write for Star Trek?
Not that I know of. Ray pretty much was his own man and did his own thing.
The phrase “Wagon Train to the Stars” was used in connection to Star Trek, to kind of get the idea across of what type of show it would be. Since we’re talking about westerns, do you think that Roddenberry actually thought of the show as a kind of western in space? Was that just a sales hook or was Wagon Train influential on the storytelling at all?
A little bit, because you had largely – well, it was an Earth crew, but a lot of them were American, you could tell, and they had a western background. They would’ve been well aware of westerns, and our history. I think it did influence the storytelling to a certain extent because we didn’t want people just standing around talking. We wanted them doing, moving, creating, being “let’s get the job done here, we have to do something on this planet, let’s take care of it.” A lot of westerns were like that: we’ve got a job to do here, let’s clean up this town, let’s get those bank robbers, let’s get that stage through the Indian attack. In a way, that kind of science fiction was a little bit western-based. Whereas Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea didn’t usually do that, and Lost in Space didn’t either, really. I mean, they had adventures, but they weren’t like our adventures. They were different.
We sold the first pilot, and that was written and filmed at the Desilu lot. Desilu got behind Star Trek first, and of course sold it to NBC and that had to become a working relationship. The two usual places for us to be shooting when we didn’t have to be out on location, which we seldom were, was Desilu Gower, which is right next to Paramount, and Desilu Culver City.
Where were the standing sets?
So what did you use Culver City for?
When we needed bigger sets sometimes that we couldn’t accommodate. The second pilot was shot down there.
I don’t think I knew that. I always think of Star Trek’s home as what became the Paramount lot. Did you ever encounter Lucille Ball at Desilu?
Well, I saw her doing her show, because we could be in the audience. She did it live in front of an audience. That was The Lucy Show. But that was the only, quote, encounter that I had with her. Hogan’s Heroes was also shooting on the lot at that time; I got a chance to go see Hogan’s Heroes. [And] Ben Casey, which was the one script I sold in between Frontier Circus and Big Valley (and Star Trek, of course).
Also Slattery’s People, right? Which, like Ben Casey and Hogan’s Heroes, was from Bing Crosby’s company, renting space at Desilu.
Yes. It was a story, and then I wrote the script and then the show was cancelled before they got a chance to shoot the script. Unfortunately.
But I had six credits, right? I had the four Tall Man, “Lippizan” [for Frontier Circus], and the Shotgun Slade rewrite. So I had six credits. I had an agent representing me, and he kept coming back and saying, “Well, they [are] saying that they don’t think Dorothy can write this.” Because I always used Dorothy C. Fontana. One was about a high school [likely Mr. Novak] and I said, “Hey, I went to high school. C’mon, give me a break.” I never did get to pitch that show.
So that’s when I decided, okay, I’m going to write a Ben Casey – because they were shooting on the lot, and I knew the show – and I just put “D. C. Fontana” on it. Because then they can’t judge it if they don’t know I’m a woman. And, sure enough, I sold it. Irving Elman was one of the key people to say, “I like this script. Let’s buy it.” Then they found out I was a woman and they didn’t care, because they liked the script. It was called “Does Your Mother Come From Ireland, Ben Casey?” [The premise] was Ben Casey’s always been the doctor. I had him have an appendicitis attack that brought him into the ward, but he had to share a room with three other men. One was Cesar Romero, one was Tom Bosley, and one was the child actor, Bill Mumy. Basically the story was about Tom Bosley being somewhat of a slightly off-kilter Irishman who believed there were leprechauns out there. Casey, that’s an Irish name, so he was forming a relationship with Casey. It was a nice personal story about a man finding his way back to reality, while Ben Casey couldn’t insert himself as a doctor, because that would have intruded on the person who was tending these four people in the room. It put him in an interesting position that Ben Casey had never been in before. I think that’s why they liked the story.
The only time that I used Dorothy again was on one Streets of San Francisco, the first one that I wrote. Quinn Martin said, “I want you to use your full name because I want people to know that I hire women on this show.” I said, “Okay, fine. Just one, though.”
Right, that was right at the moment when the industry was first taking a lot of heat for not employing many women behind the camera. After you left the Star Trek staff, that’s when your full-time freelance writing career really began. Is that right?
Well, I was on the show of course through the two pilots, and the first two full years of the show. I was the production secretary, and I had written two full scripts for Star Trek, “Charlie X” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday.” It was about September-ish when Gene Roddenberry came to me. He was about to get rid of our second story editor. John D.F. Black left to go to Universal to do a movie, I think, or another series; another man was story editor, and Gene wasn’t that pleased. He came to me and gave me a script that was called, at that time, “The Way of the Spores,” and he said, “If you can rewrite this to my satisfaction and NBC’s satisfaction, you’re going to be my story editor.” So I looked it over. It was a love story for Sulu, and the spores, which influenced people to feel their emotions; were in this cave, and unless you went in the cave you weren’t infected. Easy answer: Don’t go in the cave. So I came to Roddenberry and I said, “First of all, these spores have to be all over the planet. You can’t escape them. And this is a love story for Spock. Because this will reveal the human side of him that nobody’s seen.” And he said, “Go write it.” It was “This Side of Paradise.” He liked it, NBC liked it, and I became the story editor. That was 1966, along about November. I stayed through the end of that season, of course, and through the second season as story editor.
The third season I told Gene, “I kind of want to go out and do something else.” But I had a deal to do four Star Trek scripts. I wrote one, and then I came in to talk to Fred Freiberger, who was producer. Had never produced science fiction before in his life. I was pitching a story about Dr. McCoy’s daughter, Joanna, who has just become a registered nurse and was joining the Federation because she wanted to catch up to her father, who has been on these five-year missions and she hasn’t seen him and they had kind of lost touch. Freiberger looked at me and said, “Dr. McCoy can’t have a daughter that old. He’s Kirk’s contemporary.”
I said, “Ugh, they don’t know the show.” Because they always played it the actual ages of the actors, where Leonard and Bill were about ten years younger, in their mid-thirties, to Dee Kelley’s mid-forties. It was written that way and it was acted that way. I said, “I’ve got to get out of here.” So I just turned in the stories. Joanna was turned into Chekov’s Russian ex-girlfriend. The other two stories were made, but I didn’t have anything to do with them. I went on to The Big Valley. That was 1968, I did “The Prize,” and 1969 I did, “Danger Road.”
There’s a cluster of Westerns that came very close together after Star Trek, between 1968 and 1970, along with your episode of Then Came Bronson. But you remember writing for The Big Valley first?
Yes. Of course on Big Valley, you had Barbara Stanwyck. “Danger Road” was practically her and the guest star through the whole thing. She was key. I remember I was in the office one time, meeting probably with Lou [Morheim, the associate producer], and she came in and she was talking about – she was a little delayed getting to the office because she had stopped in Santa Monica to fill up her gas tank. Lou said, “Barbara, why would you pump your own gas?” She said, “I want to show people that a 65 year-old woman can still do it.”
Did you talk to her about your script?
Not really. I talked to Lou. I worked primarily with Lou.
Tell me about High Chaparral.
I probably worked mostly with David Dortort. And on Bonanza it was John Hawkins. John was a really good producer – excellent story sense, good knowledge of what his series had done already and needed to do in future stories. He was very fine to work with and I enjoyed the times I did.
What do you remember about the scripts you wrote for The High Chaparral and Bonanza?
I tried to get as many women in as possible. Key characters. On High Chaparral, “North of Tucson,” it’s our leading lady [Linda Cristal], and she’s pretty much by herself. It was a survival story, but it was one of those ones that the woman is not necessarily weak or has to be helped by everybody or protected by everybody. She would stand up and do her own thing.
The same, I think, with “The Little Thieves.” The director on this particular episode was Phil Rawlins, who was the first assistant director on Star Trek, and he was getting into directing at this point. At one point Cameron Mitchell turns and says, “I don’t understand this line,” and Phil Rawlins says, “She knows what she’s talking about. Just say it.”
I want to ask about humor in your writing. There’s a slapstick scene in “North to Tucson” where Leif Erickson and Henry Darrow steal two of the villains’ clothes and then you see them trussed up in their underwear. Was that a thing you were fond of doing, or did it just sort of happen…?
No, but when I saw an opportunity to get a little character in there, I’d like to try and do it. And if the producer and director allowed it, fine. Let the actors play it. Sometimes I didn’t quite get away with it, but fairly often I found some aspect of the character that worked.
In one interview I looked at to prepare for this you said that you never had any interest in writing for situation comedies, or any comfort level with that type of writing –
No, I never have. I can write some funny stuff in – I can always find funny situations and things like that, but I cannot write a situation comedy.
One thing I’m curious about, with shows like Bonanza or The Big Valley that tended to focus on one member of an ensemble in each given episode: were you generally asked to write a script for, say, Hoss Cartwright or Heath Barkley? Or were you able to make that choice when you pitched stories?
We pretty much made the choice. At least I did. It was a matter of, what’s the best story I can tell? On Bonanza, “The Stalker,” Candy was just kind of really coming into the show, David Canary, and he hadn’t had a chance to do a whole lot. By bringing in the stalker, which John Hawkins liked a lot, they’ve got – you know, Candy kills someone in self-defense, he was an outlaw, then he finds out that there’s a widow and there’s a child and there’s a farm that’s struggling because he killed dad, as it were. And he decides to help them. But it was showing the more human side of this character, who hadn’t had a chance to do that yet, because he was more of an action kind of guy.
But you don’t recall any of them asking for stories tailored to specific characters or other needs?
Nope, not really. Generally speaking, if we’d looked at the show and seen what the show was, or we got to see the pilot and read some scripts, then you’d come up with your own story. If they liked it, they bought it. It was pretty much the way it worked then. It’s different now, of course.
It sounds like there weren’t a lot of restrictions on what kinds of stories you could pitch.
Not really. There were the usual ones, the swearing or nudity or sex. But, you know: let’s just tell a story. Let’s just tell a good story about people and their problems and what do they do to solve them. How do they get out of this mess? And of course, usually I’d have some action going too. But not necessarily always. Sometimes you got away with a quieter script.
What do you remember about Lancer?
Sam [Peeples] created that.
But Alan Armer, who had just done The Fugitive, was the producer?
Yes, I believe that’s right.
Did you have a strong impression of him?
Not really. Not that I remember now. Most of the producers I worked with – they were all men – they knew what they were doing. They knew what they were doing, they what they wanted, they knew how to communicate. They were writers themselves. They were able to get across what it was they wanted, and you just delivered.
“They were all men” is an interesting observation. There’s been a lot of criticism about lack of diversity in television recently, but you were even more outnumbered then.
Mostly it was men, and I got along pretty well with the men, because I could understand what they were trying to tell me, and they put it down in story terms. “This is what you want? I’ll deliver that. How about this?” “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. You do that.” So you had a dialogue with them.
Given how much we’ve learned about over the last few years, I have to wonder if you were ever a target for any kind of misconduct during your career.
Not really. Probably because I wouldn’t stand for it. I made it very clear: I’m here on business, here’s my story, like it or not. It was all very businesslike. I never had any kind of problem. Never had any real kind of problem.
Did it occur to you that some of the people you worked with, some of the producers who had power, were like that, even if you weren’t subjected to it yourself?
I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it. [Pause.] Well, I saw it with Gene Roddenberry, but that’s a different story.
Frankly, he is someone I was thinking of when I asked the question, given some of the things that have been alleged about him.
But you didn’t see it yourself?
Well, not – you know, not to me. But he was going out with Majel Barrett and he was cheating on his wife. Although they did get a divorce, and he married Majel.
I hope it doesn’t sound prurient that I’m asking about this, but I think it’s valuable to get a sense of what that climate was like in the industry then, especially since we know how toxic it still can be today. I would say you were fortunate not to be subjected to anything inappropriate.
I didn’t have any problem. Maybe just because I made it quite clear I was here on business. And I dated a few guys in the business, but they were not producers or people like that. It was somebody more behind the scenes.
Can I ask for an example?
But, I mean, my husband [Dennis Skotak] is visual effects. We hit it off right away because he respected my brain. A lot of men don’t like smart women. He liked the fact that I was smart. But I was smart about things that he wasn’t and he was smart about things that I wasn’t, so we made a great combination.
Well, that makes sense. So was that a dynamic that you encountered professionally, of men having problems with you because of your intelligence?
Sometimes. Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes it showed up. But you know, you say, “Okay, well, that’s the way it is. I’m out of here.”
Do you think it’s better now, for women?
I do. I do think so, yes. At the time that I was coming along writing, there weren’t that many women writers. Well, let me rephrase that. The women writers that mostly were credited were either working with a husband or male partner; they were writing rom-coms or romances; or they were writing daytime television. They weren’t writing action adventure stuff. I was. Another person that I greatly admired, Margaret Armen, wrote a number of Star Treks and other shows. She was known as an action writer, and she wrote cop shows, and action adventure shows, and westerns. Maggie was just a darn good writer and a really nice person. Her husband was a teacher. She loved the fact that when her son was old enough to go to school, and her husband was teaching, she had all morning long to write!
I guess we could debate about whether Here Come the Brides counts as a western. But either way, let’s talk about the episode you wrote.
That was a fun experience, it really was. They were shooting up north somewhere. I was trying to think, well, what story am I going to tell about this family up in wherever the heck they are, Washington or wherever, and they’re logging, and … I liked the actors very much, but what am I going to do? And then, oddly enough, I was out at Sam Peeples’ house. He and his wife had me to dinner, and they ran a Laurel and Hardy that was actually before they were Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel has to be fitted out with this Scottish outfit for some family thing, and Oliver Hardy is the tailor who’s trying to fit him. It was such a funny thing. It was not a feature, it was a short film. I thought, wait a minute, “Bolt,” that sounds like a Scottish name. How about we have this guy come in, he makes a mess of their lives? It triggered off a comedy, but I wasn’t doing a comedy. I was doing a serious story about a man who was trying to not make a mess of things, but he was still making a mess of things. Because he didn’t know how to not be a chief.
Didn’t you say in another interview that you hadn’t planned to pitch that? That it came to you in the room after some other ideas weren’t connecting?
Yes, I think so. I don’t recall what they are now, of course, because they didn’t work. A couple of other stories. I usually went in with more than one. I started running out of time and I said, “Wait a minute, how about this…?” And they bought it. [Story editor] William Blinn was really great to work with. I really loved Bill Blinn.
You speak highly of most of the people you worked for.
Well, if I didn’t respect them, I didn’t work for them.
I’ve known writers of your generation who I think felt obliged to take any writing job they could get. But it sounds like you were able to steer clear of shows and people you had a bad feeling about.
Yeah. I wanted to write for shows that I liked, or that I was intrigued by. So if I didn’t like the show, I didn’t ask my agent to get me in there. So all these shows that I’ve been on, pretty well were shows that I was intrigued by and entertained by, and I really had a good time.
Did you ever write yourself into your scripts as a character, or draw on events in your own life to inspire your plots?
Really? There’s nothing autobiographical in any of your work?
I don’t think so.
No family names, no inside references?
No. Not that I can recall.
That’s interesting. Why do you think you never drew on your own life for inspiration?
I don’t know. I just felt that family is sacred, and they are themselves, and they all have different careers, and different ways of making their livings, none of which was writing.
Where there any shows you wanted to write for but didn’t get the chance to?
I have to think about that for a minute. I don’t know. Hmmm. Well, I guess I would have liked to have written for the newer Twilight Zone, which I never had a chance to do.
I remember pitching to Little House on the Prairie. John Hawkins invited me to pitch to Little House, and they were very anxious to see if I could come up with anything for them, but I didn’t quite have what they wanted. So I just accepted that and moved on to the next show that I might have a good idea for.
I did do a Lonesome Dove, you know. 1995.
I almost forgot that! It’s such an outlier, chronologically, in terms of the peak period for TV westerns.
Allison Hock, [who] did a lot of Cagney & Lacey, was the story editor on it. There were two story-lines. There was an on-the-road part of the story, and then the other part was our young hero who’s in town, and he has to keep the law, and of course things are going wrong, et cetera. But part of the journey with the Eric McCormack character was based on a real person in western history. I’m trying to remember what they call her, but I think it was something like the Pig Lady. She would lure people on the trail into her home [and] she would kill them and throw them to her pigs to eat. That was what she was planning for Eric McCormack and the three ladies of the evening, and of course he manages to save the ladies and knock the Pig Lady on her head. Eric was really, really good in it, and he liked it very much, because it gave him a chance to be a hero, when normally he wasn’t expected to be a hero. What was really nice on Lonesome Dove was that they were shooting up in Calgary. They flew me up there, and they showed me around, and then they sent me back to California and I did all the rest of my work here, and of course by then we could e-mail some back and forth, so it was easy to get material back and forth. And it turned out to be a nice show. That was the last western I wrote. So far, I should say.