Sunday, November 7, 2010

Strike Buddy Struck

Last Saturday I heard a brief news item on the radio: some unidentified person had leaned over a subway track to see if the train was coming, and got struck by one as it entered the station. I shuddered, shook my head and promptly forgot about it. 

Two days later, a writer friend in L.A. emailed me: "Isn't Will Rokos a buddy of yours?" Yes, I wrote back, why? He wrote back: "You didn't hear what happened to him on the subway?"

I still didn't put it together. Part of it was my brain didn't want to go there. But also, it didn't make sense:
as far as I knew, Will was in L.A., writing for Southland -- his first staff job, at an age when most TV writers are sent to the glue factory. (Many brownie points for his boss, John Wells, for hiring him.)

I read this email on my phone while was walking down a street. With one of those horrible foreboding feelings I googled "Will Rokos" and "subway," and what I read made me sit down on a nearby stoop. Will was indeed the accident victim, and he was in Bellevue Hospital, unconscious.

Despite having an Oscar and Writer's Guild nomination for best screenplay (he co-wrote 2002's Monster's Ball), Will is completely unpretentious, one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet -- family man, generous, salt of the earth. And a great writer. 

I got to know Will when he was on my hodgepodge Writer's Guild "Strike Team" for three months starting in November of 2007. After Colbert and Stewart went back on the air while the strike was still on, my team was assigned to circle outside the W. 54th street studio where Colbert tapes, holding signs and occasionally chanting while ticketholders were filing in. (It's otherwise a pretty desolate block, pedestrian-wise.) 
Writers are not the bullhorn-toting, screaming sloganeering type. Occasionally we'd rally around a momentary cause, like when then-candidate Mike Huckabee crossed the line to be on Colbert.

But mostly what we did was socialize. All these writers from different backgrounds and in different fields spending time together instead of home on their computers or locked into writers' rooms all day.

Occasionally some big-name writers joined in, like Robert Benton (Bonnie & Clyde) and Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool).  But most of the time it was an increasingly frostbitten handful of soap writers, screenwriters, and TV writers, all of whom had somehow dogged it out without being forced by work and agents to relocate to Los Angeles (at least not full-time.) And Will was one of the most gracious, reliable and impassioned ones. 

Going on strike wasn't easy for any of us middle-class (or unemployed) writers. I hadn't been on a show in nearly a year, and my mom had just died -- but we were striking because the Internet was bearing down on us like a DVD/VHS Mack truck and we couldn't stomach the studios' claim that they weren't going to make any money off it. 

Will was one of the hardy souls who showed up day-in, day-out. And as we walked in circles, I learned of his fascinating career path: he grew up in the fake-sounding Hickory Flat, Georgia, went to Ohio State, and ended up as an actor in New York. He wrote (and appeared in) an off-Broadway adaptation of "The Ox-Bow Incident", played small parts on soap operas, and -- according to an internet search I just did -- wrote a movie about a Korean-American vampire that got made. (No sign of it on DVD.)
January 22nd, another cold day on the picket line, the news spread through the ranks that Heath Ledger had been found dead. Will looked shocked and devastated. I had forgotten: Ledger had played Billy Bob Thornton's son in Monster's Ball. Will knew him. 

Monster's Ball, a dark, controversial movie about the affair between a prison executioner and the widow of one of his victims, is one of those scripts that wins respect but often never makes it to screen. Will talked to me about his collaboration with an actor he'd been in a play with, Milo Addica. (I just read an interview with Addica to remind myself of some of the details.) 
They wrote it in Addica's tiny Santa Monica studio apartment in eight months in 1995, originally as a vehicle for them to star in themselves. But then it got "hot" in that alluring/infuriating Hollywood rondelay: Sean Penn wanted to direct himself and DeNiro, then Oliver Stone was interested....they gave producer Lawrence Bender the option for free, then wrote seven drafts and three polishes for free. It eventually wound up getting made six years later on a miniscule budget, directed by Marc Foster, with Thornton, Ledger and Halle Berry (who also got an Oscar nomination).

By the time it was released, Rokos and Addica were no longer a team. 

When I met Will, he had written an amazing pilot, originally for Christina Wayne when she was at AMC, called Copper, about police in New York City during Abraham Lincoln's administration. 

It's completely original, filled with genius period details -- primitive forensics, pigs wallowing in garbage-strewn streets, kerosene lamps. The copy of the script I have is October 2006; I am sure he worked on it long before then, and I know that he and Tom Fontana were asked to develop a "bible" for an entire season's worth of episodes. The idea was to shoot it in Dublin, which apparently looks like New York in 1865. 

When Wayne left AMC in Feb. 2009, and Nikki Finke ran an item on her website, Will posted this, using his actual name, in characteristic heartfelt style: 
"Working with Christina Wayne at AMC was one of the best experiences in my professional life. As a writer, I found her to be an extremely supportive, respectful, and creative executive. Wherever she lands, I hope to have the opportunity to work with her again."
Last I heard, Wayne was lobbying Starz to make it. She has been something of a patron saint of long-gestating scripts: when she picked up Matt Weiner's Mad Men, it had languished unproduced for nearly 7 years, despite David Chase himself exhorting HBO to produce it. [Disclosure: I am developing a script with Wayne.]

Luckily for Will, this past June, the Copper pilot got him his first staff job, on Southland. I found out only in September, when he sent out a mass change of email address email. When I wrote him for details, he wrote back that the job was 
"intense but everyone is great and i'm extremely grateful to have the work. Will be in LA for the rest of the year, though.... not getting to see much of the family." 
So when I heard about him being struck by the train, having been a TV writer who spent three different seasons in LA, 3000 miles from my own kids, I immediately imagined what might have happened. He probably came in for Halloween weekend to see his wife and teenage son. Maybe he took the redeye -- that's what I used to do -- and he probably was just a half-step off because of it. 

A mutual friend tells me that in recent days Will had emerged from unconsciousness and is getting better every day. I'm not religious but I'm putting out as much positive energy as I can.  

The last thing Will emailed to me was about the fate of Copper. He wrote:
"Think Copper at Starz is more a long shot than close.  But it's still alive.  I'll keep hoping." 
Amen, brother.  


Robert said...

And more positive energy from this direction, too!

Anonymous said...

This is heartbreaking. Wishing your friend a full recovery. - Bonnie

David Handelman said...

I have heard that Will's recovery is coming along, slowly but surely.

hellskitchen said...

Have you heard how Will is doing? I also got to read the Copper script and can't believe it hasn't been made yet.