Along the way to getting our show green-lit. I have to mention perhaps one of the funniest/saddest business lunches I’ve ever had. It was at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. My business partner had lost a front tooth a week or so earlier, came out in a sandwich or something like that. I noticed he had something in the space where his tooth used to be as we sat down for lunch.
But first I must digress..
As I alluded earlier, when the legal requirements of the television deal were at hand, I found my business partner had not been very upfront about funds. This is my fault. This TV sideline of mine was instigated on such a whim that I was treating it as an “Alice in Wonderland” rabbit-hole roller coaster ride, with me as a bemused high-concept/observer/creative type. But I didn’t do proper due-diligence as I would later regret. My partner had quiet a rap sheet. Literally. Four Marriages, 18 months in white-collar prison (Cocaine), three failed businesses, and a functional alcoholic. He’d also produced over 200 hours of television, run some of the largest media outlets for network radio, invented the concept of “extreme sports” television for ESPN, and was the best pitchman I have ever seen. He also had friends in very high places in the entertainment world, including (and these are just the ones I know of) Joe Roth, Mel Karmizan, and Walter Cronkite at the heavy hitter level, and Maurie Povich, Heraldo Rivera, and host of other news talents like Bill Curtis down a level or two, whom he’d discovered and developed as talent decades ago. And they all seemed to like him. Think of him as a cross between Jackie Gleason and Ron Popiel. Looked like Gleason, pitched like Popiel on late night infomercials. A real iconoclast. Tons of talent, no restraint.
The fun is over when legal steps in the room and starts making everything official. My partner insisted on forming a corporation to handle our business end of things. Not knowing all of the above, my feelers still went up. I declined. I was willing to treat this as a joint venture, but not a partnership. Then I found out later my partner had asked the attorney for funds, or at least a float, until this whole thing was produced. They had a deal about percentages and first-cut of proceeds worked out and asked if I had a problem with it. This was not good news. Bottom line, my partner was broke. It was pathetic because he put on such a good show. I had other clients, and was quite busy in the main part of my business, but this turned out to be all my partner had going. Lucky for him, things seemed like we were going to get a great order for a series if all went well with the pilot. Then his few hundred thousand dollars would make it all better. This was the hope.
I mention all this, because these revelations were still in the future as we had lunch at the Algonquin Hotel some time before legal was settled, and this lunch was one of my first clues that something was amiss.
I was regaling my partner with details about the legendary poker games upstairs at the Algonquin with George Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx and Dorothy Parker as detailed in one of my favorite biographies, Harpo Speaks!, in which Harpo Marx chronicles his involvement with the Algonquin Round Table crowd during the roaring twenties.
My partner didn’t smile much during my hilarious recounts. This was not like him. “You feel alright?” I asked. “Yea, I’m just practicing not smiling on account of my tooth.” At this point, he flashed a smile. It looked like he’d jammed a Halloween corn candy in his empty tooth space.
“What’s that?” I inquired.
“That’s my new tooth”, he said.
I quipped, “Give me a better look, it stands out pretty strong.”
“Did you notice?” he wondered aloud.
“I noticed there was something yellow in the space where there used to be nothing,” I said.
“&%#*”, he said.
“Why, what’s up?”
“I can’t meet with the orthodontist until next week and I’ve been looking into alternatives so I don’t go to pitch meetings with a tooth missing.”
A this point his produces a small pill bottle, rattles it and places it on the table.
“My buddy down at NYPD is high up and he scored me some teeth from the morgue” he said, smiling full-on so I could see the large yellow tooth jammed into the slot where his own tooth had once clung for dear life.
He spilled the contents of the pill bottle on the table saying, “I’ve tried all of these, but the one I have in is the only one that will hold for any kind of duration.” He smiled again, as if to say, “Is it really that bad?”
My drink, in response to this sight, came up through my nasal cavity before I could get a napkin in place. I turned my head quickly, but was unable to stop the seltzer from spraying. Then came the stifled, uncontrollable, gut wrenching heaves of laughter. Then the tears. I totally lost it. My partners calm delivery was the best part. He had just describe something unthinkably vile in a wonderfully normal deadpan demeanor. I was a gonner for a short time.
Just as I caught my breath for the first time, he slipped in, “my buddy said it belonged to one of the most notorious Madams of the 1960’s.” He smiled again, displaying the prostitute’s pearly yellow, long dormant incisor,
I folded again. The maitre di came over to see if I was alright. I was choking, my nose was running, and I couldn’t breath. I held up my hand and waved him off as best I could, but I got the message. The whole restaurant was watching. As I straightened up and gazed upon the spilled teeth across the table cloth and my partner threatening another smile. I employed Lamaz brething techniques learned from the birth of my first child. I begged him not to smile again. I was able to keep from going off again by pondering what it must have taken for his friend to secure the selection of teeth. Sneaking into the morgue, knowing where the teeth were kept, choosing the largest sizes, noting the place from whence they came. What a friend. And a NYPD officer to boot. Who did this guy not know.
We ended up finishing lunch. I paid.
I asked if I could use his tooth story somewhere, sometime in the future. Which I have just done.
This was an omen. It was also a symbol. The old gaurd in Television was falling apart, literally. Bit by bit. I was watching it happen, biting my tongue, and hoping I had not made a big mistake becoming associated with this lot.