It was that same sophomore year that Danny took that photo of me that two deluded childhood fantasies crossed paths and changed the course of my life.
My father had had a huge career in the record industry, but he had just recently attempted a new artistic path … author.
The book he wrote was a young adult novel, Ronnie Finkelhof Superstar. And like pretty much all things my father attempted, it proved to be a successful endeavor. The book got published by Fawcett Juniper, a division of Random House, and almost instantaneously, there was interest in making it into a feature film.
The story was about a nerd in high school who surreptitiously writes and records songs in his parent’s basement and winds up getting discovered by a down and out record producer who sees a chance at a comeback. There’s only one problem, the kid has stage fright like nobody’s business. He literally can’t get up in front of people and perform. The record producer’s solution? A double life.
Two of the biggest producers in Hollywood, Zanuck & Brown (Jaws, The Sting) saw the potential in the book and optioned it to be made into a feature film at Warner Brothers.
Now you may think this concept sounds familiar. That’s because it is. Disney created an entire series around it, Hannah Montana.
Let me make two things very clear. 1) Ronnie Finkelhof Superstar came out long before Hannah Montana. 2) The book was repped by CAA and EVERYONE in town was exposed to it, including Disney.
Not implying anything. Just stating the facts.
Anyway, Ronnie Finkelhof, the nerdy kid in my Dad’s book, is a boy, not a girl, and he wears a mask on stage. The most beautiful girl in school falls in love with his rock star persona, all the while, never realizing that the rebel of her dreams is sitting next to her in science.
I fell in love.
Something stirred when I read that book. Something deep. The blue and red colors of Batman and Robin, the rainbow colors of Up to Date, they came crashing together with vengeance.
To say I was seduced, would be an understatement.
It so happened, I had also just recently written my first song. It was written on the piano (as opposed to a guitar), but it wasn’t half bad, and it dawned on me that I might have an opportunity in front of me. If I started taking titles from my father’s book and turning them into songs, I might have a shot at getting a song in a film.
And so I began to write. Until …
I became Spiderman ….
Actually, it wasn’t a spider that bit me, it was an lxodes scapularis, more commonly known as a tick.
And, I didn’t develop super powers. I just got really sick.
I had been traipsing around the woods of Connecticut with my girlfriend junior year of college when I first noticed the night sweats. By the end of the year a mild fatigue had set in.
I wasn’t concerned about it until I got home for summer.
I had just started working a job at William Morris in the mail room when I started having trouble catching my breath. I’d go up a flight of stairs and almost pass out.
Something was wrong.
Then it got worse. At night, I couldn’t catch my breath lying down to go to sleep. My mom insisted I go see the doctor, which by this point, I wasn’t arguing about.
My doctor took an EKG and told me I needed to see a heart specialist.
“A heart specialist?!”
The next day, I went to see a different doctor and he took another EKG. He said words I’ll never forget. “If I had seen your EKG yesterday, I would have put you in a hospital with a pace maker.”
I was floored.
He then told me that my EKG had improved in one night’s sleep and he ordered me to go home and go to bed.
“For how long?” I asked.
If you can imagine being 20 years old, home for the summer from college, wanting to hang out with your friends and being told to go to bed for a month ...
“Can I do any activities?”
“You can use the bathroom.”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
He took an echocardiogram of my heart (an image based on bounced sound waves), and he told me I had what he thought was a myocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of my heart. Apparently, the signal from my brain telling my heart to beat was being blocked, and my heart was never getting the message. It beat only as a reflex action to keep me alive.
I had to quit William Morris.
I went from cool summer job to lying horizontal in my childhood bed being taken care of by my parents.
What nobody knew at the time was that I had Lyme Disease and the heart issue was one of a number of possible symptoms the disease could bring on. It definitely humbled me. I got a quick lesson in how precious life is by having the very mechanism that keeps me alive under assault.
Still there was another matter at hand. What the hell was I going to do for the next month? With nothing to do but lie in bed, I had to find something to occupy my time, and so I made the fateful decision to read my father’s screenplay, based on his book, Ronnie Finkelhof Superstar. I had always fantasized about making movies, but never really thought of it as any kind of reality.
The moment I picked up the script, I was hooked. INT. EXT. CUT TO: DISSOLVE: FADE UP: FADE OUT: There was an entire language to writing a script, I had no concept of.
As I read, I realized my dad’s script was good, but somewhere, I felt the script could be better.
And so I made the fateful decision to ask my dad if I could make some changes.
To my surprise, and to my father’s great credit, he said yes.
Four weeks I sat in bed with a legal pad and a pencil. I penned out a blueprint for the changes I wanted to make. When I was done, the four weeks were up, and I went back to the doctor hoping to resume my life. He said, “go back to bed for another 2 weeks.”
By this point, William Morris had replaced me, and to be honest, I was not entirely upset about another two weeks in bed. It meant I could write more.
The changes to the script were getting more detailed as I continued my quarantine from activity, and by the time I was ready to see the doctor again, I was itching to sit down at a typewriter.
Fortunately, the doctor told me I was ready to spend significant time upright. He said, “absolutely no physical exertion.” I asked if tapping keys on a keyboard qualified as physical exertion. He said, “that would be OK.”
And so I started typing in my changes to my dad’s script.
By the time September rolled around, I was cleared to go back to school, AND I had finished a re-write of Ronnie Finkelfhof Superstar.
My father gave my re-write to Zanuck and Brown, and a few weeks into my senior year of college, I received a phone call saying Zanuck and Brown liked the work I had done, and they were going to continue forward using my changes.
“Holy shit!” I had started the summer as a mail clerk at William Morris, and ended the summer with a project repped by CAA!
The truth is, as I’m sure most people reading this know, the “holy shit” moments in life are usually only “holy shit” moments because we are deluded. And of course, looking back on it now, I can see that what I thought was good fortune, was just another stage in the evolution of a series of escalating delusions designed with a single purpose in mind, to help me grow up.
It was right around this time that a friend of mine, Jon Turteltaub, who was a year older (and ironically now a successful director), told me about something I had never heard of.
He was going to USC for the graduate program.
“Film school? What the fuck is film school?”
“They teach you how to make movies.”
Now I was sure of it. God was leaving a trail of golden breadcrumbs for me to follow. And they were leading me straight to my dreams …
I was in for a rude awakening.