Sunday, August 28, 2011

Swimming With Sharks




My paternal great grandfather – William Anton Rank was Conrad Hilton’s partner in the very early days of Hilton Hotels.  He was also a distant relative.  After Conrad and my great grandfather went their separate ways, my great grandfather started a chain of hotels in California and El Paso, Texas.  My grandfather – Bill Rank took over the family business after his father William died but unfortunately was mugged and killed in El Paso as he was delivering payroll for the hotel; the killers were never caught.


My grandfather had been a very wealthy man and as a result of his murder, my father inherited millions of dollars in the mid 60’s for his 18th birthday.  My father took his millions and moved to Los Angeles where he got into the television and music business, just after I was born.  Unfortunately, he’d not have much to do with me again until I was 13.  My father enjoyed some success, producing a few TV shows and one record that hit the top 20.  My father too was killed while he was still young in a hot air balloon accident; I was 14.

In my early 20’s, I felt like I needed to learn more about my father and his life since I didn’t have much time with him, so I began looking up his old friends and partners.  One of my fathers’ partners was a very successful television producer in Los Angeles by the name of Sam Riddle.  Sam had produced shows such as Almost Anything Goes and Star Search, he was also featured in the Elvis Presley movie “Clam Bake”.  At the time I met Sam, he was the Executive Producer of Star Search, he was on top of the world.  I arranged a dinner with Sam in Beverly Hills and little did I know just how much my life would change that night.

Sam took me to what was the fanciest restaurant I’d ever been to in my life.  It was beautiful, there were celebrities, the food was amazing and very, very expensive.  I was young, Sam was successful and famous and right there and then I made a decision, I was going to become a Hollywood Producer like Sam Riddle.

I didn’t see Sam again for several years but I had my plan in place and I’m here to tell you that I executed it perfectly.  I called Sam constantly asking him for a job, I was relentless.  I had no experience, no idea what to expect but I was going to get a job with Sam Riddle if it killed me.  Finally, after over 2 years of pestering him, Sam Riddle called me.  He was preparing to produce a new kids’ show in Orlando, Florida called “Out of the Blue”.  Sam told me that if I could find my own way to Orlando, find my own place to stay, work for free and do everything he told me to, that I could have a job.

At the time Sam called me offering me the non-paying job, I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  In record time, I had my pickup truck loaded with my stuff and was on my way to Orlando, Florida!

My stay in Orlando was absolutely amazing.  My plan was to work my fingers to the bone so that Sam Riddle would offer me a permanent "paying" job and that’s just what happened.  I’d go to work before the sun came up and return home late at night, seven days a week.  Within a short period of time, I went from being the guy who got coffee and shuttled laundry to the dry cleaner to an Associate Producer on “Out of the Blue” and working on shows all over the United States.  This was easily one of the happiest times of my life.  I felt pride and confidence like I’d never experienced before.

One of my most memorable experiences producing TV was a show that I did at the Apollo in Harlem.  This was way before Bill and Hillary Clinton set up their offices in Harlem, it was still very rough and not many white folk spent time there.  We were producing a show called “The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars”.  This was a telethon benefitting the United Negro College Fund.  We had dozens of great acts and celebrities; Will Smith, Shaggy, Naughty By Nature, Boyz to Men and President Clinton – to name a few.

When I flew into LaGuardia Airport for the show, it was my first time in New York City.  My only knowledge of NYC was from the movies “The Warriors and Fort Apache the Bronx”.  In my mind, it was a rough city with dangerous gangs, burnt out cars on the side of the roads and abandoned buildings; I was a little nervous. 

As I got off the plane and headed out of the terminal to my limousine, I was welcomed to New York with a surreal fistfight between two cab drivers.  I just stood there looking at these two men kick the shit out of each other right in front of me and thinking to myself, what the hell have I gotten myself into?

The night of the live show came, it was a Friday night and we were about 20 minutes out from going live.  It was a sold out show and it was time for me to let our host know that we needed him on stage.  When I walked into his dressing room, I was greeted with a plume of marijuana smoke.  Our host, who I’ll leave unnamed, was stoned out of his gourd and to make matters worse, he looked it. Our host had 2 women in his dressing room who were both equally as stoned.  When he asked the girls to give him some Visine, they both started to giggle; they didn’t have any.  This really pissed off our host who became very angry and started arguing with the girls. 

I didn’t have time for this nonsense so I said I’d go get some.  Our host told me to go out the front door of the Apollo, take a right and go down two blocks to the drug store.  I was running out of time and tunnel visioned, I needed to get to the drug store and back ASAP.  I was oblivious to my surroundings as I ran down the street.  I entered the drug store, found the Visine and stepped up to the counter.  This is when I had a serious moment of clarity.  There was a large black woman behind the counter.  She was staring right at me shaking her head.  She said “Uhh, uhh, uhh, Crazy White Boy”.  I stood there staring at her, realizing something was very wrong.  As I stepped out the front door of the drug store, it all became crystal clear to me.  I was the only white guy on one of the largest boulevards in Harlem on a Friday night; absolutely everybody was staring at me.

I quickly walked back to the Apollo, very aware of the attention I was drawing; it was frightening.  As I walked up to the Apollo, there were about 5 NYPD officers standing there.  Ironically enough, we’d hired them as security for our production.  One of the officers walked up to me and said in a thick NYC accent “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”.  He then told me to get my ass inside and never do something so stupid again.  This became quite the joke for everybody in the production company and I’ll admit, it scared the shit out of me.

During part of the time I was producing TV, my fiancĂ©e at the time lived in Albuquerque where she was attending the University of New Mexico.  I’d commute from Los Angeles to Albuquerque as often as possible to be with her.  During one trip to Albuquerque, I had a bad case of the flu.  I was stuck in bed, no chance of getting out.  We were very tight on money so we didn’t have cable TV.  I had a choice of watching a PBS sewing show, 2 soap operas or the game show Family Feud with Richard Dawson.  So there I lay, wheezing and shivering while watching Family Feud; I wasn’t a happy camper.  Halfway through the show, I found myself horribly bored and wishing for something better to watch.  I began to imagine how much more exciting Family Feud would be if Richard Dawson was actually playing with his own money!  Then it hit me; this was a great idea for a TV game show.  I grabbed a pen and pad and went to work outlining my show.  By the time the weekend was done, I had the entire format of the show in place and ready to go, all I needed was a host and a sidekick.

My timing couldn’t have been better to have come up with a TV game show like this as the Writers Guild of America was talking about a strike so the networks were looking for shows that wouldn’t rely on the union writers.  Because of this Writers Guild strike, the mid 90’s was the origination of the “Reality TV” phenomenon.  When I returned to Los Angeles, I immediately got together with a former friend and legendary producer – Al Burton.  Al produced numerous famous shows like Charles in Charge, The Boob Tube, Silver Spoons, Diff’rent Strokes, The Jefferson’s, Square Pegs, The Facts of Life and One Day at a Time.  He was very connected and always willing to listen to new ideas.

I told Al that I had a great idea for a new TV game show.  I shared my treatment with Al.  I explained the concept was that the host of the show was given a per episode fee of $5,000.00.  He would then take on 3 contestants each show.  Whatever money the contestants won came directly out of the hosts $5,000.00.  The meant that the host could conceivably go home after an episode with no money!  Al was very excited about my idea; he cleared his schedule and began reaching out to the networks. 

We first pitched the show to Fox Television.  This was very interesting as Al and I were sitting in one of the executives’ offices at Fox preparing for the pitch when 3 well dressed people from the legal department came into the room with recorders and legal pads.  They sat there and scribbled every word we said; it was unnerving.  I finally asked them what they were doing, they told me that Fox had had a bad time with people accusing them of stealing ideas so they were documenting everything at pitch meetings.  Looking back, I should have realized that I too needed to do the same.

My show eventually landed with Buena Vista (Disney).  Our first meeting at Buena Vista was very exciting; their facilities are absolutely amazing.  We met with a man by the name of Andrew Golder.  I’ll never forget Al Burton proudly introducing me to Andrew as “The Golden Boy”.  Andrew loved my idea and wanted to move forward with the show.  I literally had to pinch myself and Al and I left Andrew’s office.  I’d come up with an idea that was going to actually be on television!

Now it was time to really get to work.  I felt that my show needed to have a “Monty Python” feel and suggested we approach John Cleese about being the host and possibly contributing writer.  Al told me that John would never consider this type of show; he was untouchable for a project like this.  I then suggested David Lee Roth of Van Halen, he had been the first person I’d thought of as a host when I came up with the idea for the show.  I knew that he was very smart and witty.  I’d hoped that we could pare him with Pamela Anderson; she’d make a perfect sidekick.  I had been communicating with David’s’ manager at that time about another project.  Al loved the idea of David Lee Roth and suggested we approach him immediately. 

David Lee Roth was offered the position and to my surprise he accepted.  I couldn’t have been more excited as I’m a huge Van Halen fan and the thought of working with Diamond Dave was amazing.  Unfortunately, a few weeks after Dave accepted, he reunited with Van Halen and walked from my show.  I was really let down.  As fate would have it though, his reunion with Van Halen only lasted a couple weeks; he shouldn’t have turned me down. 

Our next potential host was Bobcat Goldthwait.  I wasn’t very excited about this, in my opinion he wasn’t a good fit for my show.  Luckily, he was offered another show and passed on my project. 

Even though I was happy I lost Bobcat, I was also very frustrated; I was back to square one.  Al and I sat down at his house to brainstorm about who could be our host.  We went through hundreds of headshots of known actors, nobody was a fit or they were untouchable.  Then Al Burton looked at me with a big smile and said, “I have an idea”.  He went onto tell me about an old friend of his who was brilliant and had been in a few movies.  The most famous movie he was in was “Ferris Buellers Day Off” and the character he played was the teacher who in a monotone voice said “Anybody, Anybody?”, it was Ben Stein.

We contacted Ben who at the time was teaching at Pepperdine University in Malibu. We asked him to come to Buena Vista Studios to do a “run through”.  A run through is when you do a mock up of a show to see how it flows.  Buena Vista brought in 3 mock contestants to compete with Ben, one of the contestants was a champion from the game show Jeopardy.  Ben didn’t know that this guy was Jeopardy champion; he thought they were just 3 regular people that Disney hired for this run through.  We proceeded to do the run through with Ben taking on the role of the host.  We had prepared a large quantity of questions from easy to very difficult.  Ben played the role perfectly and to our surprise, easily beat the Jeopardy champion; we had our host!

Al and I started fine-tuning the show with Ben Stein in mind.  At one of our meetings, we were trying to come up with a name.  I had found a photo of Ben Stein, cut out his head and pasted it onto a dollar bill.  I showed Al Burton the bill and said to him “Ben Stein’s Money”.  From that moment on the show was called “Win Ben Stein’s Money”.

We now needed to find the “sidekick” for the show, Ben was the perfect host but he was very “dry” so we needed somebody to counter Ben’s personality.  Somebody mentioned that they knew of a great comedian who might be a good fit.  This comedian was brought in, he was great and right away everybody knew we had a hit show; the comedian was Jimmy Kimmel.  Jimmy has since gone onto hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live.

As we were preparing for preproduction, we were also finalizing the contractual documents.  I was contractually supposed to be the “Creator, Developed For Television By and one of the Executive Producers”, I was ecstatic, in only a couple of years, I’d gone from being an assistant to an Executive Producer!  Being the Creator and Executive Producer on a television show is a big deal; it can mean huge money.    

One Friday night I’d gone out to dinner and decided to go by the office afterwards to get a little work done.  It was about 11:00 pm, I was the only person there.  When I arrived, there was a fax coming in, it was from Buena Vista.  It was the contract for Win Ben Stein’s Money!  I grabbed the contract and started reading, then I saw it, I was horrified.  Al Burton and another man by the name of Byron Glore Al’s partner had instructed Disney to remove my name as Executive Producer and Creator.  I don’t think I’m capable of expressing the betrayal I felt at that moment. 

The next business morning, I confronted both Al Burton and Bryon Glore.  They told me that Buena Vista wouldn’t allow anymore Executive Producers nor would they allow my Created By credit.  I knew this was absolute bullshit and I called them on it.  I pointed out that I’d created the show and I should be the last person who should lose a credit.  Shortly after this confrontation, I was told that they were closing the company so I’d need to leave.  My head was spinning, my moral was crushed and I had no idea what to do.

Looking back, I could kick myself.  I was so young and naive, couldn’t imaging somebody would do something so bad to me.  A few days before I found out what Al and Byron were up to, I was sent an email from one of Al’s long time assistants.  This assistant warned me to look out for Al and protect myself.  I ignored his warning, I thought Al’s assistant was just pissed off at Al and jealous of me, trying to make trouble.  

I moved back to Albuquerque as quickly as I could. I couldn’t bear to be in Los Angeles another moment.  I’d realized that I’d been swimming with sharks and had just been chewed up and spit out.  Just after I got home, I consulted an attorney who by chance was the father of the actor and friend Neil Patrick Harris.  Neil’s father told me that I had a good case and should go after these people. 

By this time, I’d married my first wife, we were dirt poor and frightened to death about our future.  We knew we should sue the rats that had stolen my show from me but we had no idea how the hell we were going to afford an attorney.  Mr. Harris said he could help us but since he was based in Albuquerque, he highly recommended that we find an attorney in Los Angeles.  I was having no luck as all the attorneys I met with in Los Angeles wanted large retainers and charged incredible amounts of money per hour.  They didn’t want to take my case on contingency either as Win Ben Stein’s Money wasn’t going to air on a major network; it was going to air on a relatively new cable network called Comedy Central.  The money on Comedy Central wasn’t near what it would be on one of the major networks like NBC, CBS or ABC.  I was feeling completely defeated.

I was forced to negotiate with Byron Glore and Al Burton myself.  We wrangled over a settlement for a long time, into 1997 when the show first aired.  By this point I was completely worn down, I’d been stepped on and taken advantage of by two thugs.  Byron Glore had gone from blaming Buena Vista for my being stripped of my rightful credits and compensation to then claiming that I was “work for hire” for his company so my meager salary as an Associate Producer was actually compensation for the TV show.  Al Burton and Byron Glore’s partner Sam Riddle stepped up and acknowledged that I wasn’t work for hire and that I’d created the show but it was just too late; I had no more fight left in me, I walked away.

The day the show aired was crushing for me.  I knew I was to get a “Developed for Television By” credit so I had some friends over to see the show and watch my name on the credits.  When the credits rolled we were all glued to the screen.  The beginning credits were at a normal, viewable speed but when it came to mine, they flashed it across the screen so fast it was hard to read.  There was a long silence in the room, then one of my friends said “I’m so sorry Donnie”.  I sat there and just started crying.  I never imagined that anybody could be so evil and hurtful as Al Burton and Byron Glore.  I’d been baptized into the cutthroat world of business and I wanted nothing to do with it.

My show went on to win 5 Emmys.  At one of the Emmy awards shows, Al Burton and Byron Glore got up on stage to accept the award.  I watched in shock as these two men were taking credit for my idea and my show on national television.  A lot of people called me after this to ask me how this could have happened.  I wish they hadn’t, it just put me into a deeper depression.

The show lasted for many years, which didn’t help me to heal much as I constantly saw print and television advertisements for it.  I was relieved when the show was cancelled, I felt like I could move on.

Several times since the show was canceled, people who know me have run into Ben Stein and brought up my name.  Every time, Ben denies my involvement and reiterates that his old friend Al Burton created the show.  I doubt that Ben will ever acknowledge me because of his friendship with Al.

I just might have the last laugh though.  It’s now 2011, 14 years later and I’ve come up with an idea for a new show and it’s really creating a buzz in Hollywood.  I’ll soon go to meet with the networks to pitch the idea and possibly have a new show on a major network where I’m the Creator and Executive Producer!  And if that’s not enough, Sam Riddle, my mentor and only person who stood up for me through the whole Win Ben Stein’s Money fiasco will be my partner is this project.  Can you say Karma?



More on my father’s death can be found at: http://donniebrainard.blogspot.com/2010/05/el-global-grande-my-fathers-last-flight.html

My Grandfather & Great Grandfather at Their El Paso Hotel - 1950's


My Father - 1960's

Me and Sam Riddle at a Wrap Party - 1995 

Me with Shaq After a Lou Rawls Shoot

Al Burton With Cast Members




Here is a clip from Win Ben Stein's Money