Relay: The Road Taken

Sometimes in life you take a wrong turn, but it usually feels right at the time

On August 1981, Judge Shepard Frood married Christa and me under the big oak tree in front of East Hampton’s Town Hall. We moved to Los Angeles two months later to break into the movie business. 

Sometimes in life you take a wrong turn, but it usually feels right at the time. It started in 1978 with Frank Andrews, known in New York City as the “psychic to the stars.” Christa gave me a session with him for my birthday, and I sailed out of his SoHo brownstone on his premonition of me as a future movie mogul. 

At that time I hadn’t thought of a career change. I was working at the Whitney Museum and Christa was a video artist. We had never discussed making movies, but a few months after that session we gave up our careers in the art world to make an independent film in New York. We read Syd Field, wrote the script, but didn’t know the first thing about raising even a modest amount of money. So we flew to L.A. with a dozen copies of our screenplay. Four days later, we returned empty-handed — except for the scripts.

We wrote another and again flew to L.A. to peddle it. That did not go any better. Perhaps because they were recommended by a successful screenwriter friend of ours, the agents tried to let us down easy. For a while we called it the land of encouragement. After two years it became the land of disappointment, and eventually the slough of despair.

Our third script drew a call from an agent at William Morris, who said she loved it. I told her we wrote it with Goldie Hawn in mind. She chortled at my naiveté and explained it wouldn’t fly as a feature, but maybe as a TV movie, and she promised to route it to one of the TV agents. 

Fired by a jolt of optimism, we headed west in my yellow Toyota Tercel with two bicycles on the bike rack, a trampoline on the roof, and the rest of our belongings jammed into whatever space there was inside the car. We rented a typical Hollywood bungalow with a lemon tree in the backyard, a block south of Sunset Boulevard near Fairfax. We liked the weather, we liked the palm trees, we liked the beach. We never heard from the TV agent.

Soon after we arrived, I contacted a cousin. It had been 10 or 12 years since I had last seen him, but we had been friends. When I called him, he didn’t know who I was. When I explained, he reluctantly agreed to come for dinner.

Now, this cousin had already produced one movie and was to go on to be a partner in Castle Rock and a big-time producer. He told us how it happened. While he had a law degree, the only place he practiced was as a pro on the tennis court, where he volleyed with people like Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, and Charlton Heston. 

The evening was excruciating. It was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to be there and was obviously dreading that we would make a pitch — which we did over dessert. He looked as if we had poisoned him and made for the door.

I had one more contact — another cousin who was a top executive at 20th Century Fox. When we finally reached the inner sanctum, after waiting for an hour, she dismissed our screenplays and suggested we read “Butch Cassidy” and “Chinatown” to learn how it’s done. Strike two!

The rest of our time there had a clear arc, even if our screenplays didn’t. Things slowly improved until one script had a producer and director committed and another was optioned by a production company. That was the closest we got. 

The production company folded, the other script withered on the vine of almost-but-not-quite projects, and we gradually slid down the other side of that parabola. We had written 11 scripts in four years and had nothing to show for it, not even an agent. 

I was finished, demoralized, but Christa wasn’t ready to call it quits. She had a screenplay she had written about a green card marriage that was still in circulation, and she wanted to give it a fair chance. 

What finally brought her around was literally a near-death experience. She had a little problem with food. Once at a Studio City sushi bar with an all-you-can-eat special, the chef kicked her out because he caught her dumping the rice into her napkin and eating only the slivers of fish. By then, she was so thin you could almost see through her. 

In the summer of 1985, she developed a pain in her abdomen. Our doctor diagnosed a pelvic abscess and immediately checked her into Century City hospital, where she was put on intravenous antibiotics and nutrients. After a couple of days he told us she was too thin to survive surgery; our only hope was that the antibiotics would be effective. It was a long two weeks at that hospital.

Since you know we made it back to East Hampton, you know she survived. We were relieved to be back on the East Coast but unsure what was next. I was halfway through a novel but had no idea what I would do with it when it was finished except undertake the sure-to-be-futile search for an agent. Christa was still recovering, mentally and physically. We were in a kind of limbo: too long away from New York and the art world, but with nothing concrete on the horizon. 

Then one day soon after we returned, we drove by Town Hall and saw the oak tree was gone. So was Los Angeles. We were home.

Mark Segal is an arts writer for The Star.