By Dan Berkowitz
I knew I wanted to interview Sam Bobrick when I heard him proclaim, “I'm more proud of my worst play than my best TV show.”
Now, to realize the import of that statement, you have to realize this is a guy who's not talking public access cable here. The first television script he ever wrote – for The Andy Griffith Show – won the Writers Guild Award; he went on to win two more Guild Awards, and an Emmy nomination. He wrote or wrote and produced episodes of many of television's all-time classics: Get Smart, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Gomer Pyle USMC, The Flintstones, Bewitched – the list goes on. He created the long-running series Saved By The Bell, currently in worldwide syndication.
And there was more than TV. His feature films include Jimmy the Kid, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, and Norman, Is That You?, the movie version of his first play.
And the first song he ever composed was recorded by Elvis Presley.
So what's all this about being proudest of the least of his plays?
“Plays are personal”, he says, sitting in the kitchen of his home. “I write what I want to write. It's exciting. It's lonely. But I love it. You know the saying, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life!”
Bobrick's life as a writer began in the 1950's. There were a few false starts. “My mother wanted me to be an accountant. So I joined the Air Force and worked in accounting for a couple of years until I told them I'd become psychotic if I kept doing that. I guess they looked up the word psychotic because they immediately transferred me to the base library where for the next two years I read a lot of books.” After the service and a B.S. from the University of Illinois, he wound up in New York, working in the mailroom at ABC. A friend was an office boy on the Ray Bolger show, Washington Square, and when the friend left, Bobrick took over the job.
“George Shapiro hired me – he later became Executive Producer of Seinfeld – and I would write sketches, which never got on the air. One day, they were going to use a gag of mine and I was so excited I called everyone in my family back in Chicago. Well, of course, my one joke got cut. Welcome to television!”
His first “real writing job” came when Robert Q. Lewis met him at a party, thought he was funny and hired him to write for Lewis's radio show, one of the last of the network radio programs. From there, “I floated into game shows. You know when the host asks a contestant something like, ‘How did you meet your wife?’ Well, everyone usually meets their spouse in a pretty boring way, so my job was to make up outrageous things they could say that would be more interesting for the audience.” He laughs. “I couldn't believe it! To be on TV, everyone was willing to lie!”
Eventually, he landed on Captain Kangaroo writing two to three shows a week. “It was the nicest job I ever had. The people were so nice it depressed me. I quit after six months. I never liked staying with anything too long - I didn't want to keep writing the same things over and over.”
At a party, Bobrick met songwriter Beverly Ross and they decided to write a song together. When Elvis recorded it, Bobrick had a new career, at least for a few years. And life was good. “In New York in the 60's, my rent was $45 a month and unemployment was $45 a week. So I'd work a little, than take some time off. It was great.”
But he also wanted to break into TV. Shapiro, who hired him for the Bolger show, was by then an agent at William Morris. When he suggested Bobrick move to California and write, it didn't take much persuading. And, with that first script for The Andy Griffith Show winning the Writers Guild Award, Bobrick was on his way.
Though he was successful, Bobrick never looked on TV as an end in itself. “TV was the ‘scholarship’ that enabled me to write plays,” he says. “I had three kids, so I had to keep working and making money. But I always had a play going.”
The playwriting started when he and his writing partner Ron Clark were hired to write the Kraft Music Hall program which originated in New York. “It was so easy,” he smiles. “The show taped every ten days and Ron and I could write two shows in a single day. So we figured, ‘We're in New York, let's write a play.’” Clark was friends with the actor Lou Jacobi, so the men decided to create a play for him. The result was Norman, Is That You?, which opened on Broadway, directed by the legendary George Abbott.
“Although the audiences loved it, unfortunately, we had a producer who didn't know what do when the New York Times didn't like a show and we closed after two weeks.” Despite its abbreviated Broadway run, the play has done well over the years and enjoyed a five-year run in Paris.
Since Norman, there have been a slew of plays, including four more on Broadway (No Hard Feelings, Murder at the Howard Johnson's, Wally's Café, and the rewrite of The Wiz) and many more in regional theatres and stock. In 2001, he and his wife, Julie Stein, wrote Lenny's Back, a one-man show about Lenny Bruce which was nominated for Theatre LA's Ovation Award. This year he premiered a murder mystery – The Stanway Case in Los Angeles; had a new comedy – The Crazy Time – produced at a regional theatre in Canada; and was surprised to find his Tolstoy in Jersey had become a hit in Germany. “It's so American, I really don't understand what it's doing there. My plays get done a lot in Europe,” muses Bobrick.
In October, he'll be in New York for backers' auditions for his new play Annoyance in which comedian Steve Bluestein plays “an annoying man who goes to a therapist to not be annoying. It's a comedy.” And next year in Canada, he and Ron Clark will try out their new three-character rock musical DeeDee and Danny.
Obviously, Bobrick is a man who likes to write. And his advice to other playwrights? “First, marry someone who's got a good job. And then remember always write for yourself, not for critics. On our second play we worked with a very famous director who made us re-write the play, insisting that he knew what the critics wanted. We believed him. We did as he said. We closed in one night.”
Sam is represented by Ron Gwiazda at the Abrams Artist Agency. His plays are published by Samuel French.
Reprinted from The Dramatist, © 2003 The Dramatists Guild of America. All rights reserved.