I can explain.
And I think I’d better.
Let me begin by telling you, Gentle Reader, that the book you just read, the script and production diary of the 1970s film Different Strokes, is nothing but a pack of lies. No such film was ever produced, and all the engaging characters, the acts they perform and the sparkling conversations they conduct, are wholly fictitious, the products of the fertile if warped imagination of one person.
Uh, that would be me.
I could leave it at that, but in this instance there’s a story that goes with it, and it’s arguably as good as the one you just read. Maybe better.
In the early 70s I was living with my three daughters and my then-wife in a Revolutionary-era farmhouse on fourteen rolling acres in New Jersey, just across the river from New Hope, Pennsylvania. I had a pied-a-terre in New York as well; I came to town once a week to play cards, see friends, and get into trouble, and spent longer stretches at the apartment when I had a book to write.
A founding member of our weekly poker game, and a friend since college, was Jim Fenton. He’d gone the corporate route, and worked for years for either American Can or Continental Can; later he moved to Pepsico, spent most of his time in the Far East, and stayed there after he left Pepsi’s employ. (I’ve tried without success to track him; Google’s no help, throwing up endless references to a prominent English poet with the same name. If anyone reads this and knows how to reach Antioch’s Jim Fenton, please let me know.)
This was around the time when films like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones were appearing in theaters all over America. The flickering black-and-white images of Elks Club smokers were going mainstream, with good production values and big audiences. And Jim reported that a guy he knew, a businessman kind of a guy, wanted to make a porn film with a real script and a good cast and wide distribution. They guy, whom I’ll call Vincent Riordan, had already hooked up with a director, whom I’ll call Claude Borgward, and the next thing they needed was a writer. Would I be interested?
I met with Riordan and Borgward, and we worked out some sort of a deal. If I remember correctly (and I don’t see why I should) I was to get $1000 for writing the script, plus “points” in the production; if it made money, I’d make money.
Jim would get points, too, in return for raising money for the production. I have no idea what its putative budget may have been, but I know Jim was selling shares for $1000 apiece, and several people at Dell wanted in.
Yes, that would be Dell Books. My publishers.
Here’s how that happened. While I wasn’t going to be getting much actual cash for my efforts, and while I didn’t have a lot of faith that my points were going to make me rich, I saw an opportunity for some subsidiary income. As John Warren Wells, the name I intended to use on the script, I had published several books with Dell, including The Wife-Swap Report, Wide Open: The New Marriage, Three is not a Crowd, Sex Without Strings, and Beyond Group Sex. So why not sell Dell on the idea of publishing the script, along with a production diary from the film, interviews with the leading actors, and a few still from the film itself, carefully chosen to slip past the censors?
I sat down with Bill Grose, my editor at Dell, and pitched the proposal. He loved it, and brought in Peggy Roth, and before I knew it they’d both expressed eagerness not only to publish the book but to invest in the production. I know Bill and Peggy both bought shares, and I believe there were a couple of other investors at Dell as well. I gave all the checks to Jim Fenton, and he tucked them into an escrow account.
And my agent made my deal with Dell. We signed a contract, and I was to get an advance of $7500 for writing the book. (Plus royalties, to go with my points in the film. Right.)
I had a couple of meetings with the two principals. I didn’t really get to know Tony O’Rourke, who struck me as rather a slick character, but saw more of Claude Borgward, who in fact played a couple of times in our weekly poker game. On the first such occasion, he volunteered to host the game, and we played at a long refectory table in his Upper West Side apartment, in a room lined with bookcases. He had a pet margay, a small wildcat rather like an ocelot, and the creature hung out on the bookshelves and prowled around gazing balefully down upon the table.
This was unsettling, and made no less so by the room’s all-pervasive pong. One’s nostrils left one in no doubt that one was in the presence of a wild denizen of the jungle. So that was the last time we had the game at Claude’s place. But the next week we played at somebody else’s apartment, and Claude came, and we realized we’d been remiss in assessing blame for the stench. It wasn’t the margay that ponged. It was Claude.
Never mind. Somehow, at home or in the city, I got a screenplay written, and I believe it was pretty much the version you just read.
Then came the most singular experience of all. The casting session.
“We think we’ve found our leading lady,” Riordan told me. (Or maybe it was Borgward.) “She’s made a batch of films, and we think she’s really good. So we’d like to know what you think.”
“What I think?”
“There’s going to be a private screening of a rough cut of her latest movie. It hasn’t been released yet, but you can go to the screening. And you’ll meet her, and you’ll see her work, and we’d like to know what you think.”
They showed the film at a small midtown screening room, and of course I attended, along with maybe two dozen other people. I sat on one side of a young woman named Andrea True, who was in fact the film’s star, and on her other side was a friend of hers, a guy in the business in one capacity or another.
The word surreal gets bandied about a good deal, but I’d be hard put to find a better use for it. I was sitting next to this attractive young woman while we both watched her perform sexually on a huge screen with every imaginable partner short of barnyard animals. And throughout it all she supplied a running commentary, delivered to the friend on her other side: “Oh, that came out better than I thought it would…I never thought he’d wind up using that shot…it’s awful the way the camera shows every blemish…”
Afterward the three of us went out for a bite. I seem to remember that we went to Wienerwald, but that seems too good to be true. I remember that she drank apple juice, and talked about Stanislavski and the Method.
The next day one of them called me, Borgward or Riordan. Well? What did I think? Very personable young lady, I allowed. Attractive, pleasant.
Yeah, yeah, but what did I think of her as an actress?
“Well, that’s hard to say,” I said. “It depends on elements I have no way of knowing.
“Let me put it this way,” I said. “If she doesn’t enjoy performing fellatio, then she’s the best actress since Sarah Bernhardt.”
Somewhere along the line, everything seemed to stall out.
I don’t know what went wrong, and didn’t spend enough time with Borgward or Riordan to watch the wheels coming off, but it became evident after a while that nothing much was happening, and Jim Fenton smelled a rat. It was time to turn over the escrow account to Riordan, and he didn’t think this was a good idea; instead, he returned everybody’s investment in full.
This was fairly remarkable. Nobody I knew, and certainly none of the folks at Dell, had broken open the kid’s piggy bank in order to buy a share in
Different Strokes, nor had they expected much of a return, if any, on their investment. While they’d hoped to attend a premiere and know that they’d played a small part in everything they saw up there on the screen, the fact that they got their money back was more than enough to make them happy.
I remember sitting in Bill Grose’s office. He’d just received his refund, and agreed that we all owed thanks to Jim Fenton, for his watchdog role. But he’d rather looked forward to the movie.
“No more than I,” I said. “And what really hurts is that it scuttles our book deal.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’d so looked forward to publishing that book.”
And our eyes met, and I wouldn’t be surprised if little light bulks formed in the air above our heads.
“You know,” one of us said, “just because there’s not going to be a movie—”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean there can’t be a book,” said the other.
“Of course we’ll have to forget about the stills. If there’s no movie, there won’t be stills.”
“Or photos of the actors.”
“Or that. Of course that makes the book less expensive to produce.”
“There’s that. And the production diary doesn’t have to be limited by what really happened. It can be a much better story if it isn’t tied down by facts.”
And so I finished the book. Did I make any changes in the screenplay? I have no idea, but my guess is that I used it exactly as I’d written it. Then, of course, I had to write the production diary, but that was easy enough. It was fiction, and I’d been writing fiction for years. I liked fiction. You weren’t tied down by facts.
By the time the book came out, sometime in 1974, I had separated from my wife and moved to another apartment in New York, on West 58th Street. I don’t recall the book’s having any impact on my life or anybody else’s. It didn’t sell enough copies to go into a second printing, and by then I had less interest in John Warren Wells. I’d decided to stop writing books under that name, and pretty much forgot about that whole aspect of my career. And probably hoped the rest of the world would be equally forgetful.
Late last year I had occasion to remember Andrea True when her obituary appeared in the newspaper in the New York Times. Sometime in 1975, a curious set of circumstances led her into a singing career, and she had several hit records under the same name she’s used as a porn star. (Her birth name was Andrea Marie Truden.) Her story’s interesting enough to commend to your attention, but too long to recount here; the Wikipedia article is well worth a look.
She was 68 and living in New York when she died of heart failure in November of 2011.