I believe that writing is just as much a craft as it is an art. You can’t become excellent unless you practice religiously. One of my mentors, the poet Richard Kenney, says that expecting to write a good book without practice is akin to attempting to play the Philharmonic without ever having picked up a violin. The only way to become a great writer is to commit yourself to the craft of writing.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harris Katleman and his grandson and co-author, Nick Katleman. Harris is the former president and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Television and has experienced a long record of successes as a television studio head, a producer, and a talent agent. In addition to overseeing production on the final four years of M*A*S*H*and Trapper John, M.D., Katleman cultivated notable projects including the award-winning and highly acclaimed series LA Law, The Simpsons, Anything but Love, In Living Color, NYPD Blue, and Picket Fences. Nick Katleman is a screenwriter, novelist, and memoirist who grew up alongside a stock of entertainment professionals. Nick followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by starting in the mailroom of WME Entertainment. He is currently spearheading Storyflect, a private memoir service that offers custom, interview-based story albums from the perspectives of its clients. Their book, You Can’t Fall Off the Floor: And Other Lessons From a Life in Hollywood is out now.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
For the past several decades, I’ve held two family dinners at my house every year: one for Passover and one for the December holidays. At some point during every meal, my grandchildren turn to me with lights in their eyes and ask a flurry of questions about my career in the entertainment business.
“How did you get your start in Hollywood?”
“How many famous people do you know?”
“Did you really run Fox Television?”
For years, I dodged their questions, not wanting to bore anyone with stories of a bygone career. But these questions caused me to reflect on my own experiences representing talent at MCA, developing shows at Goodson Todman Productions, and serving as President of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox Television. The lessons I’ve learned not only reflect Hollywood during the dawn of television, they apply to the industry as it stands today. They’re also pretty damn entertaining. So I resolved to craft a book not only for my family, but for the future generations of the industry that I love so dearly.
I’ve been obsessed with writing the right words in the right order ever since I learned the alphabet. The writing process gives you the chance to truly express the essence of a person or an idea. I’ve always thought of books as our best tool in preserving and spreading knowledge. Talking might be more efficient than writing — it’s certainly less time consuming — but crafting a book allows you to communicate with precision and accuracy. There’s some magic in that.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred in the course of your career?
When I was twenty-six years old, my mentor Lew Wasserman put me on the team of his most temperamental actors and actresses so that I’d be incentivized to sign new clients. The most notorious of that group was Marlon Brando, Hollywood’s favorite mumbler. Marlon had a heart of gold, but he couldn’t sit alone in a room for five minutes without posing harm to his career. Along with my colleague Jay Kanter, I had to babysit Marlon at his house in the Hollywood Hills every night after work. My wife wasn’t thrilled about me staying out past my bedtime, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
Marlon, Jay, and I spent one evening — like most of the others — drinking mineral water and watching football. Around nine o’clock he decided to turn in. I figured that I’d wait a half hour before hitting the road, just to be safe. Within fifteen minutes, Marlon’s house line rang. Lew Wasserman was at the other end of the line.
“Do you know where Marlon is?”
“Sleeping like a baby,” I replied.
“Unless he’s got a long-lost twin, I think you’re mistaken. He just stumbled into Chasen’s piss-drunk, with three women on his arm.”
Jay and I bounded up the stairs and found a warm breeze pulsing through Marlon’s bedroom. It was a scene out of a prison break movie. Marlon’s bed sheets had been woven into a rope, secured to radiator, and dropped out the window into the hedges below. I poked my head outside to find Marlon’s vacant parking spot. When I thought about the wrath I could expect from Lew, I contemplated jumping from the window. But it was only the second story — I figured the fall would break my legs without killing me.
My first job out of college was working at WME Entertainment, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. I had less than zero interest in becoming an agent, but the company worked with some of the best writers in the business and I figured that proximity to talent couldn’t hurt my career. After a short stint in the mailroom, I started working for one of the toughest agents in the building — a guy who crushed me on a daily basis. After nine months of hell, a position opened up working for a partner in the Motion Picture Department. The nerves that I felt when I walked into his corner office turned into utter panic when he asked his first question.
“You’re not a writer, are you?”
I didn’t have any choice but to lie…I was desperate to get off my current desk. I ended up getting hired, which gave me more free time to write in the evenings and on the weekends. About six months later, one of my screenplays started getting passed around Hollywood. The good news was that people liked the writing; the bad news was that I needed to fess up to my boss.
By the way he dropped his face into his palm, I was certain that he was going to fire me. But instead, he told me to slip the script into his reading bag. The next Saturday morning, he called me at 6:00 AM to tell me that I should start looking for a replacement…he was signing me to the agency. That was the push I needed to become a full-time writer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had the terrible fortune of working as an office boy in the MCA mailroom when Jack Warner banned all MCA agents from entering the Warner Bros lot. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of paperwork circulates when a studio bans an agency conglomerate, I can tell you. The Business Affairs Department has to issue cease and desist letters to each of the agency’s clients. How many clients did MCA represent, you might ask? Well, considering that notices needed to go to each band member that MCA represented, about 10,000. And as the office boy, guess who had the pleasure of licking each stamp?
After eight hours of slobbering over stale adhesive, I decided that enough was enough. Coincidentally, I had a loose affiliation with the agency’s treasurer Karl Kramer, as I had dated his daughter Louise. So I sidled up to Kramer and asked him if the mailroom had a Pitney Bowes stamp machine. He looked at me as if I was speaking French.
“What’s the matter — is your tongue worn out?”
My error was well-taken; complaining wasn’t an option at MCA. I wet my mouth with a sip of water and got back to work.
When I was first starting in the memoir business, I got hired to ghostwrite the life story of an attorney from Texas who had prosecuted a number of criminals on death row. His stories were fantastic, but his vocabulary was at a first grade level. I’ll never forget his feedback after reading the first chapter.
“This is great and all, but I need someone who can write in street language.”
He was totally right — when you’re writing from someone else’s perspective, you need to mirror their way of speaking. A great chapter to me may sound disingenuous to someone else, and authenticity is king in the world of memoirs.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
HK: Though my memoir is completed, I suppose you could say that I caught the author’s bug. My next project tells the story of me enrolling in a culinary school outside of Florence. While I went there to cook, I left with as many stories as I acquired throughout my career in Hollywood. Some of the characters include the heiress to Coca-Cola and two mafiosas from New Jersey who were more interested in Italian discos than Italian cuisine.
NK: Co-authoring the book inspired me to found Storyflect, a private memoir-writing service that allows everyone to be the author of their own book. Offering face-to-face interviews, premium writing services, and custom book design, Storyflect is a one-stop shop for the modern memoirist. Whether it be capturing a couple’s love story or preserving the experiences of a family member, Storyflect is equipped to create heirlooms that will last for generations.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer (or storyteller)? (I.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
HK: Learning from others. Telling stories is one thing — writing them down is another beast.
NK: I believe that writing is just as much a craft as it is an art. You can’t become excellent unless you practice religiously. One of my mentors, the poet Richard Kenney, says that expecting to write a good book without practice is akin to attempting to play the Philharmonic without ever having picked up a violin. The only way to become a great writer is to commit yourself to the craft of writing.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
When I was working out of MCA’s New York office, The Jackie Gleason Show was the number one live event on the air. The President of CBS, Jack Van Volkenberg, had a close-circuit feed to his apartment so he could watch every rehearsal. That Saturday, his wife decided to turn on the feed while entertaining her bridge group. Now, Jackie was known for his colorful language, which would put a longshoreman to shame, and Mrs. Van Volkenberg nearly fainted when she and her high society friends heard the junk flowing from Jackie’s lips. She dialed the control room and ordered Jackie to clean up his mouth. Krakatoa was second to Jackie’s explosion. Unaware of being surveilled by the powers of CBS, he walked up to the camera and looked it square in the eye.
“Mrs. whoever you are — go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on. You tape the show tonight — I’m out.”
By the way, this was Labor Day weekend and no executive was anywhere close to the city. Even if they were, they sure weren’t coming back to face Gleason. The only executive in town was yours truly, and I was dispatched to convince Jackie to return. Did I know Gleason? No, and he sure didn’t know me. So off I went to the CBS soundstage where I knocked on the door of Jackie’s dressing room.
“Get out of here,” Jackie barked. “I’ll only talk to Lew Wasserman.”
“He’s in LA and can’t be reached,” I responded.
“Then you’ll have to get the bitch to tape the show.”
“She wouldn’t generate an eighth of the ratings you pull in,” I said. “I’m Harris Katleman,
the head of the TV Literary Department.” There was a sustained silence.
“Are you Jake Katleman’s son?”
“He’s my uncle,” I said.
Jackie cracked the door and gestured towards a cushioned chair in his dressing room. Apparently my uncle had forgiven a gambling debt that Jackie had incurred at the El Rancho before becoming a star. Jackie said he’d return to the stage if I disconnected all cameras and had Mrs. Van Volkenberg personally apologize. When she refused, I had no choice but to tell Jack Van Volkenberg, one of the most powerful men in show business, that Jackie was hell-bent on suing his wife. I was flying by the seat of my pants, as I had no authority to make this threat. But Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy to walk softly and carry a big stick worked; Mrs. Van Volkenberg apologized and Jackie graced the camera with his presence.
I find myself coming back to the story of Harris’ cousin Beldon Katleman kidnapping the actress Jackie Lane…
After dating him for several years, Jackie broke up with Beldon because he wasn’t willing to marry a non-Jewish woman. He expected her to come back to him, but Jackie called his bluff by marrying Prince Alfonso of Hohlenlohe, a monarch from Spain whose ancestors dated back to the Holy Roman Empire. Beldon was distraught that he’d been outdone, and he put together a plan to get Jackie back. Before the Cannes Film Festival, Beldon asked Kirk Kerkorian, the owner of MGM, if he could accompany Harris on Kirk’s private yacht, as they were planning to sail from Los Angeles to France. He showed up at the dock with Jackie’s two afghan hounds, which she had left with him after the breakup.
“I don’t allow cows on board,” Kirk said.
“They won’t come the full way — I need to drop them off with Jackie in Marbella.”
When they arrived in Spain, Beldon invited Jackie onto the yacht for a glass of wine. Moments later, Harris noticed that the boat was moving away from the dock — Beldon had greased the captain to cast off while he was distracting Jackie. Kirk’s yacht was headed for high seas with the princess aboard.
Needless to say, Jackie’s absence didn’t go unnoticed: the Spanish Navy sent a Destroyer after the yacht. Beldon nearly hit open water when the Destroyer sent a warning bombshell over the top of the boat. Kirk ordered the yacht to stop, Jackie was returned to her royal beloved, and Beldon suffered a second loss to the Prince.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
HK: Don’t give up.
NK: I hope that my writing empowers others to share their stories. Everyone has a story worth telling, and there’s no better way to do so than by writing a book.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that which other aspiring writers can learn from?
The writing process is a journey in itself, but I find myself going back to the challenges of my career. After all, those experiences gave me material to write about.
Without any studio experience to speak of, the enigmatic mogul Kirk Kerkorian hired me to become the next President of MGM Television. It suffices to say that I had no idea what I was doing. Out of the seven pilots that we shot in my first year, we sold a goose egg. While I figured that my career was over, Kirk was willing to take a second shot on me. This time, I knew that failure wasn’t an option. We went four for four, and MGM became a powerhouse in the television business. Kirk’s advice to me ultimately became the title of the book.
“You can’t fall off the floor.”
NK One of the best things about writing can also be the most aggravating: it’s subjective. One person may love your work while another finds it dull. When you get conflicting notes on early drafts, it can be difficult to determine which people you should listen to. The important thing is to take every note at face-value and try to respond as objectively as you can. If your mind doesn’t know the answer, revert to your gut.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
HK: I love reading tell-all stories about industry greats. My favorite has to be The Last Mogul, the definitive biography of my mentor Lew Wasserman.
NK: I can read any John Steinbeck novel on a loop and be continually delighted. As for writers who are still with us, I love John Banville and Lauren Groff. Their work proves that good stories aren’t determined by what happens, but by how things happen.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
HK: In some small way, I hope that the stories inside this book manage to entertain my readers. Amidst all the noise of today’s world, I hope that my recollections show that work can be fun.
NK: I like to think that my memoirs hold two distinct purposes. First off, they allow people to gain a better sense of themselves. Writing a memoir demands self-reflection, which forces us to become more self-aware. I also hope that my work empowers people to preserve their stories while they still can. The past is a major part of our identities, and if we don’t record it properly, we lose a part of ourselves.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
HK: That’s easy — be able to handle rejection.
NK: You have to love the process of writing. Not just the ideation phase or the finished product — you have to love the grind if you’re going to be fulfilled. If you have that raw passion, you’re in luck. If you can write 1,000 words a day like John Updike did, you’re bound to become a beautiful writer.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be ready for rejection.
2. Persevere in your beliefs.
3. Treat everyone with respect, including the office boy who could someday be your boss.
4. Never take no for an answer.
5. Don’t look back.
1. Set a daily word quota and never break it.
2. Never underestimate the value of observing. Keep a small notepad to jot down what you see in the world.
3. Don’t force dialogue…let conversations breathe.
4. Find someone whose creative taste you trust.
5. Be committed to the joy of writing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
HK: The homelessness epidemic in LA is a national disgrace. It’s devastating to see people suffering on the streets on a daily basis, and I’d love to seek out an efficient solution to the public health problem that’s unraveling before us.
NK: I’d love the opportunity to revamp the way that writing and literature is taught in schools. Reading is such a liberating avenue, and I think that curriculums put too much weight on arbitrary standards. There’s so much great, compelling literature being written today. I’d also love to empower students to write their own stories.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!