From the E-Mailbag…
Gene Whyte writes to ask about something I don't think I've ever mentioned here or in anything I've written…
I was interested to note that when you mentioned the DVD set of the Superboy TV series, you didn't mention that you were one of the writers for that show. Would you care to write about your experiences? I always assumed you got the job because you were then one of the few writers around with credits in both comic books and TV shows. Did you enjoy the experience? Why did you only do one episode?
Ah. Well, there isn't a lot to tell so I might as well put it down here and be done with it. In 1988, the Writers Guild of America found itself in a very long, ugly strike that ran 155 days. It didn't affect me that much because I was then in heated production on the Garfield and Friends Saturday morning show. Animation was not affected by the strike and my agent took to referring to me as "The sole support of the agency." But he was also scrambling to get his clients whatever work was available.
The producers of the then-forthcoming Superboy TV series had signed what is called an Interim Agreement, meaning that they agreed to the terms that the WGA was then demanding so the strike on their particular project was lifted. Such deals always include a clause that says the contract will be modified later to match whatever bargain the guild makes with the rest of the industry. I did not attempt to get work on the series because I had plenty to do and because every other WGA member was trying to get on it.
So I was surprised when my agent called and told me he'd set up an appointment for me to meet with someone there about writing for it. I assumed he'd submitted me and they'd agreed to see me because of my comic book background…but when I went in, the person I met with was surprised by that. I'm pretty sure I was the first writer he'd met with who'd ever had anything to do with comic books and when he found out I had, he spent half the meeting asking me questions about DC and the people there with whom he was just beginning to deal.
He was Fred Freiberger, a very nice man whose name I'd seen in an awful lot of credits. I'm a little fuzzy on whether he was the producer or the story editor, or how long or in what capacity he remained with the show but at that moment, he seemed to be running things. I liked Fred and he told me about the project and asked me to go off and come back another day with ideas for episodes. At this point, he was some months from the commencement of filming and I'm not sure they'd even cast any actors yet. If any sort of pilot had been shot, I sure didn't see it.
I went off and soon returned with three or four plots. Fred liked two and assigned me to go off and write one of them. He impressed upon me that the show would have a great special effects budget and that I should let my imagination soar. Whatever I wrote, they'd find a way to shoot.
I went off and proceeded to not do this, at least to the extent he wanted. This was a syndicated series for what they then called "prime-time access." In other words, a pretty cheap show. I guess I got it in my head that it would have the look and feel of the old George Reeves Superman series and wrote accordingly. I flew Superboy a few times and had him crash through a wall and lift up something impossible…but that was about it. Fred told me he liked the script but it needed a lot more action and effects. He was amused that of all the people he had writing it, the one who'd (so far) handed in the script with the least of those things was me, the guy with experience in comic books and animation.
He told me to go off, "forget for now about what things cost to shoot," and just write what I'd want to see on the screen. We could always cut things later. I did as told this time, handed it in and he said he liked it a lot and wanted me to do that other idea of mine he'd liked…but not right away. He was working on scripts for the first half of the season and not yet authorized to start on the second half, so he'd call me when he could start me on the next one. A few days later, he contacted my agent to inquire if I'd be interested in coming on as a story editor. The money would be low and the job would involve frequent commutes (and perhaps several months of relocation) to Florida, which is where the series would be shooting. Since I was already contracted to write and voice-direct Garfield and Friends here, I was not available…and that was the end of my involvement with the Superboy TV series.
A month or two later, I ran into Mr. Freiberger while doing volunteer work at WGA Strike Headquarters. He informed me that now that they were about to start filming — or maybe they'd already started by then — they had a better sense of budget limitations. Very little that he'd thought would be possible had turned out to be possible. All the scripts he'd developed to that point were being extensively rewritten to "take out the money" and also to trim them significantly in length. I said, "What you're telling me is that when I see the finished show, I'll be lucky if I recognize a semi-colon on page eleven." He chuckled and told me to expect a little more of what I'd written to survive than that…but not a lot more. He added that he was neither doing nor supervising these rewrites and was not as "in charge" of the show as he'd expected to be. I am not sure how much involvement he had in the show after that.
I'm also not sure I even got that semi-colon on page eleven. The week that episode aired, it was pre-empted in Los Angeles for a news report and I managed to miss any reruns. I didn't actually see it until a few years later, by which time I'd somehow managed to lose my only copy of my final draft…and they never sent me their final draft, which they're supposed to do under WGA rules. As I recall, I didn't recall. The basic plot was more or less what I'd written but I didn't remember writing much of that dialogue…and of course, all those elaborate action scenes I'd been told to write were absent. A few years later, I found a copy of the shooting script at a convention and it was around half the length of my first draft, which was the page count I'd been told to write in the first place.
I'm trying to think if there are any other details of the experience that I can recall…
Nope. I think that's it. Never met the cast. Never went to the set. The great actor-director Jackie Cooper directed my episode but years later when I met him, he didn't remember the episode and barely remembered Superboy. Other friends of mine wrote on the series later and I gather they had much to do with developing it into a rather successful program. That's the story.