Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Story Behind The Story

By Pat Browning

Ask a simple question and get a surprising answer. I asked Thomas B. Sawyer why he wrote THE SIXTEENTH MAN, his novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and he sent me an excerpt from his unpublished memoir.

That stunning day in Dallas is the defining story of the raucous 1960s. The Vietnam War was an ongoing horror but JFK’s murder overshadowed everything else. THE SIXTEENTH MAN is the best piece of writing to come out of it, fiction or otherwise.

The following excerpt from Tom Sawyer’s unpublished memoir is a fascinating look at how a creative mind works out an idea originally pitched for a Gideon Oliver TV show. Instead, it went into an episode of "Murder She Wrote" and finally became a full-fledged novel, with a nod to novelist Susan Isaacs for its structure.

(Quote) The idea for what would eventually become my first novel came just about as spontaneously as the MOON project, JACK, and others – a facility which by that time I was beginning to appreciate as one more fortunate life-pattern. Asked to pitch episode ideas for a new, not yet on-air series, I found myself once again at Universal Studios, where the show’s co-executive producer, respected veteran Bill Sackheim, welcomed me warmly and quickly explained that Gideon Oliver was to be part of an ABC "Mystery Wheel," rotating with two other whodunit series, each airing a ninety-minute movie every third week (the others were the already long-running "Columbo," and the more recent "B. L. Stryker").

Based on a character created by novelist Aaron Elkins, and portrayed by the imposing Louis Gossett, Jr., Gideon Oliver was a Columbia University Professor of Anthropology who solved murders. Sackheim offered that he hoped to put me into work on a script ASAP.

“…And, since we have a script in its final editorial stages just now, that we plan to shoot in the southern Utah mountains, around Moab, it’d be great for us, budgetwise, if you can come up with one we could do there simultaneously. Matter of fact, my co-exec, Dick Wolf, is on location just now in Mexico where we’re shooting show number three, and we need a script from you so badly that – well, I’m not gonna let you out of here until we’ve got a story.”

So, pacing around Bill’s office, I asked questions about various series-and-character nuances – did Gideon drive, did he have an assistant, any tics or phobias? And when he started pacing, too, tossing out answers, I stretched out on his sofa, hands behind my head – and began articulating a what-if – without much editing – almost as it was forming:

“Okay, there’s this dig taking place in those mountains, some sort of ancient burial chamber. And Gideon Oliver’s called in because there are a bunch of really old skeletons in there – maybe something he’s an expert about – except one of ‘em isn’t old. It’s got a bullet in its wingbone, say – and – and these bozos start coming out of the woodwork – and killing people – and going after Gideon. Because that skeleton – it’s connected to the JFK Assassination – to some hidden truth about it? And Gideon’s about to solve what really happened that day in Dallas---”

Which was as far as I got. “Great. I love it. Let’s go with that.”

Heading home a few minutes later, I began thinking about what I’d just sold. And while I had thus far not a single thought, beyond my pitch, about how to tell the story, it excited me, the best part being a chance to deal with Jack Kennedy’s murder in a fiction piece – a crime that I had never for a minute believed was the work of a single gunman. It became more intriguing when I began playing with the notion of just who the modern-day skeleton had been, and what he might have had on whoever was behind the JFK Plot that was serious enough to get this fellow killed back in 1963.

I suppose my short-lived PI, Charlie Moon was still near my thought-surface, because by the time I got home my dead-guy had taken the form of a similarly seedy investigator. This one was on a domestic surveillance job that had taken him to Texas in November 1963, where he’d shot clandestine evidence photos of his client’s adulterous wife and her cowboy lover. And several of those snapshots inadvertently contained some sort of proof that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. I was stoked by the possibilities, and eagerly began outlining the teleplay.

Then, a few days later, I received an odd phone call from Sackheim. He seemed tentative, ill-at-ease: “So – how’re you coming with the story…?”

I told him I was just getting into it, laying out the overall shape. “It feels good...” It also felt like one of those next-shoe-about-to-drop conversations. “Is there a problem?”

Bill’s response came after a brief, awkward silence: “Tom, the thing is, we might have to shitcan it.” Then, he quickly added: “But if that happens we’ll work out a different premise for you to--- Listen, before you do any more work on it, why don’t you come in tomorrow first-thing, and talk me through your story – you know, in detail? And then we’ll see.”

Weird. I had never before encountered such a request, not one put in that way, or even close. The following morning at the studio, Bill greeted me with the news that we weren’t going to do the notion I’d sold him. “But don’t worry, you’ll get your story money. So – let’s get going on another one. How about…?” And an hour later, with a lot of plot-suggestions from Sackheim, we’d hammered out a story which was okay, though not as interesting as the first one.

I was never told the reason for the cancellation, nor did I press the obviously embarrassed Sackheim for it. Maybe it’s the conspiracy-nut in me, but I’ve always suspected that the topic had frightened someone at ABC, so they told Bill to kill it, and that his first brief phone call was an attempt by him to buy time in hope that he might appeal the decision to a higher-up at the network, and/or maybe between us find a twist that would cause them to change their minds.

I had come away from the experience a bit wiser – and, far better, I had the intriguing notion that what I’d sold to Bill Sackheim that day several months earlier was – maybe – the germ of a pretty good idea for a novel.

A form I’d yet to try, though it was getting to be that time. And tantalizingly, even at that early thinking-about-it stage, it presented a nagging, major challenge that, with my customary optimism I figured would quickly sort itself out. It did not. Until one day several years hence when, quite by accident, I saw how another writer had solved a similar problem.

I continued to write TV episodes on a freelance basis, mostly for "Murder, She Wrote," but with an occasional script for such shows as "Scarecrow & Mrs. King,"  "Zorro," and others. But again, on the seems-like-a-good-idea-front, my attempt at a first novel was stalled at the outline-stage, presenting a barrier I was finding insurmountable and maddening: how to tell the story without killing off my favorite character within the first few chapters.

In laying out THE SIXTEENTH MAN, based on the Gideon Oliver premise that had been axed by ABC, my present-day protagonist would be a young archaeologist, Matt Packard. He discovers the burial chamber full of ancient skeletons, plus the more recent one which turns out to be that of a Reno PI who in late 1963 had the key to who really killed JFK, and had vanished along with his secret. As mentioned, with my original pitch to Bill Sackheim, the ‘what-if’ was – what kind of people would suddenly emerge, willing to kill in order to conceal the truth about that long-ago conspiracy?

Obviously, Packard would carry the bulk of the story. But if, as logic dictated, I wrote the piece in linear sequence starting in 1963 and then taking it to present-day I’d have no choice but to quickly lose the player who, not surprisingly given my soft spot for rascals, had quickly emerged as the most fun: PI Charlie Callan. It just didn’t seem right to dump him so soon.

So, stymied – maybe permanently – and simultaneously beyond my eyeballs juggling other projects, including JACK and of course MSW, after struggling for several weeks, with regret but still fascinated by the problem, I temporarily laid the project aside.

Early in that first season as Showrunner, Angela, Bruce and I agreed that too many recent episodes had involved extensive, rather tedious backstories. So I came up with several premises that would take place mostly-to-entirely in the present and, with Bruce at my side in his sister’s dressing-room/trailer outside the Cabot Cove soundstage, I ran them past Angie and her husband, Peter. She didn’t much care for any of them, and asked if I had any others.

I did not. But the next thing that popped into my head was a sudden vision -- a way to write a very abbreviated version of my Gideon Oliver/JFK stalled novel as a "Murder She Wrote" episode. And impulsively, I offered that yes, I did have one. “But you probably won’t like it…” I quickly, waggishly added: “because it’s got the mother of all backstories.”

Which of course hooked her, as well as Bruce and Peter. Angela grinned: “Let’s hear it.”

Continuing on my mini-roll, and giggling inwardly, I delivered part two of my tease. “Okay, let me give you the TV Guide logline: "Jessica Fletcher solves The Murder of the Century – almost…" After a suitably dramatic pause, I admitted that the murder case was the JFK assassination. All of them loved it, and that was that – they needed no further details.

As I began outlining my story, I figured it would be cool to bring in Jerry Orbach to once again portray Harry McGraw. So I phoned him at his apartment in Manhattan to check on his availability and learned to my disappointment, but delight for Jerry, that he couldn’t do it: “I just signed on to co-star on 'Law & Order'.”

So, in writing the episode, titled Dead Eye, I created a new PI character not unlike the seedy, retro McGraw: Charlie Garrett. We cast the witty M.A.S.H. veteran Wayne Rogers in the role, and had great fun over the next five years employing him as Jessica’s recurring, exasperating bullshitter pal.

A joy to work with, Wayne, like Angie, always knew exactly where the jokes were. He also shared my affection for con artists, admitting that like me he felt more than a little of it in himself. I was proud of Dead Eye, pleased with the way it turned out to be an atypical but satisfying MSW episode.

The challenge of how to approach my mystery-thriller novel about the JFK assassination, telling two stories separated by decades without killing off my most entertaining character near the top, was solved for me unexpectedly – and with forehead-slap immediacy – early in 1996, by Susan Isaacs.

One of my favorite authors since her delightfully funny novel (and screenplay), COMPROMISING POSITIONS, Ms. Isaacs had just published a novel titled LILY WHITE. Another first-rate read, in this one Ms. Isaacs told parallel stories taking place thirty years apart.

She accomplished this by employing a simple, hardly original but totally effective device. Ms. Isaacs had laid out her two yarns in alternating chapters, employing a different, distinctive typeface for each thread. Bingo! I saw within a few pages that she’d given me the key to keeping my 1963 Reno PI alive until the end, while still telling my archaeologist’s tale in present-time. Thus, I eagerly began outlining THE SIXTEENTH MAN. (End Quote)
© 2010 Tom Sawyer Productions, Inc.
My notes:
Tom is co-librettist/lyricist of JACK, an opera about John F. Kennedy that has been performed to acclaim in the US and Europe. It’s described on his web site as a personal drama, an “almost Shakespearean story of a complex, deeply conflicted yet loving relationship – between an obsessed, profoundly driven father, and his near-textbook second son – and how that young man, in overcoming those and other challenges, would ultimately provoke his own assassination.”

When I asked about its current status, Tom e-mailed: “And about JACK, the latest from Michael Butler (producer of HAIR) is that he intends to mount an equity-waiver production in LA late this year or early next. I'll believe it when it happens.”

The episode of “Murder She Wrote” referring to JFK’s assassination is titled “Dead Eye” and features guest star Wayne Rogers as PI Charlie Garrett, a recurring character. “Dead Eye” is Episode 13 of Season Nine (1992-93) and a CD of the complete season is listed at for $30.99. A detailed summary of the episode can be found at
Tom’s web site is

Tom’s mug shot and book cover from his web site.
Cast picture and original title picture from Wikipedia; cast pictured: William Windom as Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, Ron Mazek as Sheriff Metzger.

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