Made It Moment: Lenny Kleinfeld
Congratulations to Karyne & Arthur who have won hardcover copies of Lenny’s novel, SHOOTERS & CHASERS!
As soon as I saw Lenny Kleinfeld’s incredible book cover I knew I had to ask him to write a Made It Moment. It’s a bonus that Lenny turns out to be funny, gracious, and warm, and that his book looks well worth a read. (My Pile is the size of Pittsburgh, a wonderful thing overall, and Lenny’s is on it). What I didn’t realize is that Lenny has had so many tantalizing carrots dangled that I would read his Moment with my heart in my throat. I think you will, too. And then you’ll probably get back to writing–Lenny is that kind of inspiring guy.
I specialize in Made It Moments that turn out to be trap-door moments.
It’s December 1971. Chicago. My first professionally produced play has just opened.
A friend from school who founded a theater company had called and asked if I’d co-author a sci-fi trilogy. He’s a director who has great ideas but doesn’t write. So we outline the shows together, and I write the scripts. Or, so far, script; there’s no guarantee we’ll get past Episode One.
The opening night parties are over. It’s about 5 AM. My wife and I are in a booth at a diner having breakfast. There’s a news stand outside. It’s drizzling; the pavement is glistening. A Sun-Times truck pulls up and dumps bales of newspapers on the sidewalk. It’s an anachronistic image, something out of a black and white Warner’s gangster movie. I half expect the headline to say DILLINGER SHOT. Probably because we’re across the street from the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was shot.
But apparently no one’s dug him up and put another bullet in him, because there’s no Dillinger headline. There is a rave review for our show. First of many.
The trilogy is a huge, coolest-show-in-town, must-see hit. Cover stories in the arts sections of the Sunday papers. A year-long sold-out run.
It’s headed for New York. Off-Broadway.
There are no suitable Off-Broadway theaters available.
But Broadway is having a dismal season; half the Schubert theaters are dark. The Schuberts love our show. They offer us a theater for half-price.
We fly to New York to look at the space. I walk out on the stage and have a literal gut reaction, a falling-elevator sensation in the stomach: It’s too big.
But we are young. As in, ridiculously impatient.
Plus which we’ve been making about $150 a week. Our royalties in this barn would be north of two grand a week.
And, even better: We are 24 years old and will have three plays running on Broadway. Imagine that.
Oops. Our raucous, physical, luridly lit production, which cascaded over the audience in a 140-seat theater, becomes a bite-sized gulp swallowed by the combination of a huge stage and a minuscule budget. And my commedia-on-acid script is nobody’s idea of a traditional well-made play. It closes after six performances.
We return to Chicago, broke. Our producer claims rights we say the contract clearly says he hasn’t earned. He sues us.
We learn civil suits have less to do with factuality than with one fact: Whoever throws the heaviest bricks of money wins. Or at least produces years of stalemate.
I dashed off another couple of plays. They failed, partly for different reasons, but with a shared underlying reason: I wrote them too fast. I decided not to write another until I could carve out at least 6 months of undivided, undistracted time. I began freelancing magazine pieces, and reviewing theater for a weekly paper.
After four years we ransomed our way out of the lawsuit by giving up a slice of future earnings.
We revived the trilogy at my friend’s theater. Another hit. We moved it to a slightly larger theater, as a commercial production. It did well at first but some bad business decisions were made. It closed. And some money disappeared.
We sued our new producer. I got super busy. Put it this way: I was making 100 dollars a review. My lawyer was making 100 dollars an hour.
One new way I got busy was writing the theater column for Chicago magazine. After three months it had the highest readership of any front-of-the-book item in the magazine’s history. Mainly because it was the de facto humor column in a humor-challenged publication.
I received unsolicited offers to review theater in New York. Non-starters; I wasn’t up for spending my life writing about other peoples’ writing.
We settled the suit. I quit my column and stopped reviewing. The Chicago Tribune called to do an interview. I told them my retirement from the reviewing biz wasn’t news. They insisted it was. So that was a Made-The-Wrong-It-And-Walked-Away-From-It Moment.
I wrote a screenplay. On a typewriter. The night I finished the rough draft I went to a bar and knocked back a few with friends. Came home and found a message on my answering machine from a woman who said she was Michael Douglas’ director of development.
I called the next day. They were looking for someone to adapt a tricky black comedy novel. I told her to send the book and I’d whip up a treatment. She said sure, and asked if I’d ever written a screenplay. I told her I’d just finished what wasn’t even a rough draft—more like a Rorschach draft—torn pages, cross-outs, hand-scribbled dialog, coffee stains. Thing didn’t even have a title page.
She said send it.
A month later I was having my first movie meeting, at Michael’s estate in Montecito. After lunch we went for a swim in a large black tile pool. There was a pair of goggles. I put them on, dove to the bottom, and scooped up three small objects. Swam over to Michael. Said, “Now I know you’re a real producer—these were in your pool.”
I handed him what I’d found: two pennies and a screw.
I didn’t get the adaptation gig, but he bought my screenplay. Turned out he was a real producer, but despite that an honest, consistently stand-up guy.
The script went through three more drafts, then was announced in a front page Variety story as the debut production of Michael’s new company—a Hollywood Made It Moment. Then the project fell apart. But that’s a whole other story.
My next five scripts were never filmed either.
One day producers stopped buying scripts from me to not produce.
I didn’t have a good idea for a play. Wrote a novel.
It was repped by a serious agency. Novels by this agency’s Seriously Made It authors are in airports across the globe. I believe a couple of them own airports.
My agent believed Shooters would be the next summer’s big beach book. An About-To-Make-It Moment.
One morning in 2004 the agency simultaneously messengered manuscripts to a dozen mainstream publishers, hoping to provoke an auction.
It provoked a rejection tsunami—even at four places where editors wanted to acquire the book, and were overruled by their superiors.
In 2009 Shooters was published, by a small little tiny publisher. A Made It Moment? Nah. More like a Just Barely In Print Moment. 1500 copies. And no publicity.
But nearly every copy sold, due to a handful of good reviews and the efforts of my wife, who’s a reformed actor, and some unreformed actor friends who showed up and did readings. Which was a treat for the audiences. And a mercy, considering how lousy I am at that.
We were also immeasurably aided by Leighton Gage, author of the superb Inspector Silva series. Leighton was on the Edgars nominating jury for best first novel. He was displeased when Shooters received only one vote, so he started some online brushfires.
These days the book is a modest Kindle creature, who mainly naps, but wakes up from time to time when there’s a new ebook review.
I’m writing a sequel anyway.
Lenny Kleinfeld began his career as a playwright in Chicago, where he was also a columnist for Chicago magazine. His articles, fiction and humor have appeared in Playboy, Oui, Galaxy, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. In 1986 he sold a screenplay; he is now twenty-five years into a business trip to Los Angeles. Shooters And Chasers is his first novel.
What a great history.
Comment by Arthur Levine — June 17, 2011 @ 8:38 am
Jenny, you found a diamond in the not-so-rough in Lenny. He’s terrific. I remember when I first read Shooters–on Leighton’s suggestion–I laughed so hard that I had to keep checking the name on the cover. Yes, Kleinfeld, not Seinfeld. Bottom line he’s a great guy too, and as they say in French, a real mensch!
Comment by Jeffrey Siger — June 17, 2011 @ 9:57 am
I laughed, but I can still sympathize. Very nice post, Larry. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading Shooters.
Comment by Ellis Vidler — June 17, 2011 @ 10:17 am
Okay, sorry. I got your name wrong (Lenny, not Larry), but I got the book right. Just downloaded it.
Comment by Ellis Vidler — June 17, 2011 @ 10:21 am
After buying the book you can call me whatever you want. After reading it, you probably will.
Comment by Lenny Kleinfeld — June 17, 2011 @ 10:26 am
I just awarded you the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award. You can see all the details, and join in the fun here: http://spunstories.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/spun-stories-gets-noticed/
Comment by Cynthia Haggard — June 17, 2011 @ 11:30 am
If there’s one consistent thread in the Made It Moment column it’s that no one ever makes it forever. Every “Made It” lasts only a moment and then there are all those other moments to fill with losing ground, screwing up, getting screwed up or over, and, of course, writing. Then, maybe another Made It Moment–or not.
Thank you, Lenny, for taking me from an auction-turned-tsunami to the bottom of Michael Douglas’s swimming pool. I’ll look forward to your next Made It Mo.
Comment by Sara — June 17, 2011 @ 11:41 am
Dang! Yeah, I’d be laughing if not for the tears. Sadly, today this story is more common than one might think (oh, and thanks for the memorable and quotable “Whoever throws the heaviest bricks of money” line! That’s the story of my life right now…and I am not the one with the bricks). You’re talking about my neighborhood; I felt the cold spot where Dillinger died, right down the street from where I lived (Belmont & Lincoln), and will never forget Malkovitch coming back to his hometown to perform at The Steppenwolf Theater. I had like 10th row seats. He’s every bit as brilliant live. Gotta love Chicago!
Comment by Savvy — June 17, 2011 @ 1:04 pm
Lenny, your long career in writing shows us that it’s more than the Made-It moments that define us (including as writers). The way in which you handled all of the downs, and kept pushing ahead is a true lesson in what perseverance is about. Besides, you’ve racked up an amazing number of anecdotes that are engaging to read. If you ever write an autobiography, sign me up for a copy! ^_^ In the meantime, I’ll be looking to pick up a copy of your book once I finally get an e-reader (I’ve been holding out up till this point, but there’s too many great books only available that way, so it’s about time to bite the bullet and buy a Nook Color). Thanks so much for sharing your career highlights with us, and best of luck with writing the sequel to SHOOTERS & CHASERS.
Comment by Becca — June 17, 2011 @ 2:08 pm
Wow, what a story Lenny. Keep writing. I’m inspired. Best,
Comment by Pamela DuMond — June 17, 2011 @ 2:58 pm
Wow! Talk about ups and downs. What mind-boggling excitement on the upside parts though. I’ll have to get Shooters and Chasers for my Kindle.
Comment by C.K.Crigger — June 17, 2011 @ 3:23 pm
Like so many things, it’s perseverance that counts. Sounds like a great book.
Comment by shirley nienkark — June 17, 2011 @ 3:26 pm
Jeff—Strange that you mistook me for Jerry Seinfeld. People usually mistake me for Johnny Depp, or Dirk Nowitzki, or Denzel Washington.
Becca—Thanks for the kind words, but I believe I’d have to accomplish what Depp, Nowitzki and Washington have, and not just look like them, before publishers would be interested in my autobiography.
Sara, Pamela, C.K. & Shirley—Thank you!
Savvy—An anecdote about Malkovitch that goes with the blog: When we were holding auditions for the revival of the trilogy in 1979, Bruce Young was running away with the competition for the lead role. Bruce was multi-talented, six-three, handsome, ripped, had a beautiful voice, was funny, and a sci-fi fan who totally got the script.
The call-backs looked like they’d be a formality, until Russ Smith, the Steppenwolf’s manager, called and asked if John could read for the role. The shows were a parody of Marvel superhero comics, and John wasn’t exactly the physical type. But I’d reviewed every Steppenwolf production beginning with their debut in a Highland Park grade school basement, and knew he had fearsome chops.
The two of them went head to head for a couple of hours. They were doing very different, fabulously entertaining interpretations. John was just lethally witty.
What it came down to was costuming. The characters wore skimpy, skin-tight outfits. We decided we couldn’t in good conscience charge an audience money to watch John run around with his shirt off.
Six months ago I ran into John outside Chez Jay, the best, the only, truly old school saloon in Santa Monica. John introduced me to his companion as a former Chicago playwright and critic. To which I added, “Yeah, the only Chicago playwright who declined to cast John in his show.”
I didn’t mention the reason why.
Comment by Lenny Kleinfeld — June 17, 2011 @ 3:35 pm
Wow. What a story! Please put my name into the hat for the book drawing.
Comment by Carol-Lynn Rössel — June 17, 2011 @ 3:49 pm
Comment by Sue Mueller — June 17, 2011 @ 5:54 pm
I read Lenny’s book after Leighton Gage got the word out to people who were following his blog, Murder Is Everywhere. Leighton did not take Lenny’s loss quietly; he became a one man publicity machine. If you are a reader who has been fortunate enough to have discovered Leighton’s books, you know this is a man who knows a lot about good writing. SHOOTERS AND CHASERS was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog.
SHOOTERS AND CHASERS is a great mystery, a straight up police procedural that is anything but a fast read. Why? It is impossible to get through more than a few paragraphs without laughing till you’re crying. It isn’t easy to read when the eyes are filled with tears and your laughing so hard that you sound like you are in need of a rescue inhaler.
I’m laughing now writing about a book I read a year ago.
SHOOTERS AND CHASERS is a treat. Get a copy, find a corner where you aren’t likely to get more than a few weird looks, and enjoy.
Lenny, I am not waiting patiently for the next book; I’m just waiting.
Comment by Beth Crowley — June 17, 2011 @ 7:09 pm
I cannot wait for the sequel to SHOOTERS. Lenny is the living example of THE MADE IT MOMENT. In a pool with Michael Douglas……..
Comment by Lou Boxer — June 17, 2011 @ 9:13 pm
I love the comment about his wife, wives rocks. Thanks Lisa I would love to win.
Comment by Lisa Peters — June 17, 2011 @ 9:16 pm
Beth–You are my sunshine.
Lou–Being in a pool with Michael wasn’t nearly as much fun as being in an office with him after you turned in a new draft of a script. He’d open it to a favorite page and read all the parts aloud, something most producers are utterly unqualified to do.
Lisa–Glad you picked up on the kudos to my spouse. I have very few rules to live by. One is to always marry someone smarter, more talented and accomplished than I am. It works so well I’ve only had to bother with getting married once.
Comment by Lenny Kleinfeld — June 18, 2011 @ 1:31 am
Talk about misery loves company, Lenny! The whole middle part of your life is practically a mirror to my own. I spent fifteen years in the biz in LA and experienced much of what you did, though with different characters. Of course, Chicago is so much more grittier and old school picturesque. I truly wish you well and encourage you to keep writing. Since we roamed the same era, I know and well understand the challenges presented. And yes, I too will wedge your book into my reading timeline.
Comment by Stuart Land - author of Shadow House — June 18, 2011 @ 3:32 am
I guess I should add that I’ll read your book even if I don’t win it. Wait, since I left two comments, does that better my chances?…
Comment by Stuart Land - author of Shadow House — June 18, 2011 @ 3:34 am
I have to get this book. If you’re half as funny and ironic in full length as you are here, clearly you HAVE made it.
Comment by Karyne — June 18, 2011 @ 10:23 am
Your novel came out around the same time my last mystery for Five Star/Gale did as well, so I was well aware of it. Congrats on your good reviews!
Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — June 18, 2011 @ 8:07 pm
Hi, Jenny: Thanks for visiting my site. Your post on Lenny was very interesting. It’s interesting to see how a successful writer makes it. I’m glad he listed all his failures because in a way, those are more encouraging than his successes.
By the way, I used to live in NJ as well: Little Falls.
Comment by Gently Mad — June 19, 2011 @ 2:31 pm
Wow! It’s definitely on my to-read list. Thanks for featuring Lenny!
Comment by Jean Henry Mead — June 19, 2011 @ 4:19 pm
I read SHOOTERS & CHASERS on Leighton Gage’s recommendation, too.
I’ve read many books of crime fiction, and trust me, this one is special. A joyously energetic, witty, and creative book that defies classification: police procedural, hardboiled fiction, black humor, legal mystery, and thriller all rolled into one. Memorable characters. Terrific dialogue. Read it, and then join everybody else who’s tapping their feet and cracking their knuckles while Lenny works on the sequel.
Comment by Jan — June 28, 2011 @ 1:33 pm