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Screenwriter, playwright, and author Michael Druxman appears as part of the 4th Annual Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When he was running his public relations company in Hollywood in the mid 70s, Michael Druxman devised an Oscar campaign for a couple of his clients that for many years served as a textbook example in the business of what imagination and a little hustle can achieve.
The clients were the songwriting duo Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain. Together and with other collaborators, Webster and Fain had racked up a long list of Academy Award nominations, and as a team had won for “Secret Love” and the very well-known “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.”
In 1976, Fain thought they had another Oscar contender in a song called “A World That Never Was.” The problem? It was attached to a low-budget movie called Half A House. “No one had ever even heard of this picture,” Druxman recalls. “It had played for maybe week or something in Beverly Hills, just so it could qualify for an Oscar.”
So, Druxman took out an ad in the show business papers, inviting people to listen to Sammy Fain’s new “Oscar contender” song “A World That Never Was” by calling a number. Druxman put the recording on two answering machines in his office, and held an invite-only screening for the movie. “Thank God no one showed up to the screening, because the picture was terrible, and the song was butchered,” laughs Druxman.
But the campaign did the trick. “A World That Never Was” was nominated for Best Original Song, and Eddie Albert sang it on the show (though in the end, it was “Evergreen” from A Star Is Born that took home the prize).
That’s just one story from Druxman’s career in show business, and with 45 years in Hollywood, Druxman has lots and lots of stories. But the outline serves pretty well as a metaphor for his long career as a screen writer, author, and publicist — an unconventional approach against unfavorable odds that, with tenacity and imagination, worked out in the end.
Druxman appears in Fort Wayne as part of the 4th Annual Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival from May 31 through June 2. He hosts the workshop “Writing for the Stage, Screen, & Television” on Sunday, June 2.
Druxman’s one woman play Lombard, about (you guessed it) hometown girl Carol Lombard is also being staged as part of the festival (Jessica Butler takes on the title role).
During his time in Hollywood, Druxman directed and produced films, wrote screen plays, stage plays, novels, biographies, film histories and surveys. He moved to Austin, Texas in 2009, and the next year published his memoir My Forty-Five Years in Hollywood… and How I Escaped Alive. “I’ve done everything in the business I wanted to do except win an Academy Award,” he says. “Everything else is gravy at this point.”
But the road to doing what he wanted to do in show business was a long one for Druxman. Born and raised in Seattle, Druxman moved to Hollywood in 1963 right after college. He wanted to be the next Orson Welles, he says, but he didn’t really know how to go about it. The closest thing he had to a contact in the business was a second cousin he had never met — Fred Ziv, a TV industry giant and one of the pioneers of the syndicated drama. But unfortunately, Ziv had retired and moved to Cincinnati three years before Druxman’s arrival (Druxman wouldn’t actually meet Ziv for another 20 years).
Druxman kicked around town for a few years, directed some plays, made a movie that didn’t go anywhere. But then he had a business idea. “In those days, the big public relations firms cost an arm and a leg, and your average actor could not afford it,” he says. “So, I thought ‘why not do a low-price public relations business?’ Not only did I start attracting your average working actor, but after a few months I started getting some big names who were just tired of paying the huge fees.”
As a publicist, Druxman got to experience what many people would consider the “Hollywood Dream,” going to premiers, hanging out with VIPs, visiting studios several times a week. But all the while, Druxman was writing scripts and stories and trying to sell them. “I was living my dreams, but I wanted to be part of the creative side of things,” he says.
Druxman wasn’t “just” writing scripts. In the 70s, Druxman began to publish a series of biographies on famous show business figures. His 1975 book on actor Basil Rathbone (Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Fims) is considered one of the best on its subject, and is recently back in print. He also wrote a biography of Merv Griffin, which landed Druxman a guest spot on the show.
Then, in the early 80s, Druxman started writing one-person plays. “Back then, there were these one-person plays about Harry Truman, Clarence Darrow, Mark Twain… great writers, great politicians and public figures. But no one had done great movie stars.”
Clark Gable was Druxman’s first subject. It was a big success, and Druxman eventually went on to write nine more one person plays — grouped these days under the title “The Hollywood Legends” — on figures such as Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, and Errol Flynn. Jolson, Druxman’s play on Al Jolson, is performed often, and Druxman calls it “one of the best scripts I had written.”
“The great thing about these plays is that they sell themselves,” laughs Druxman. “You either want to see a play about Carol Lombard, or you don’t.”
Lombard had its premier in 1992, the 50th anniversary of her death. Though he’s a Hollywood historian and movie fan, Druxman admits that he wasn’t familiar with Lombard’s work until later. “I had heard the name, of course, but I never saw a Lombard picture until the 70s,” he recalls. “Before home video, the only way you could see movies at home was by 16mm. Everyone in Hollywood had 16mm prints, bootlegs, nobody talked about it. Somebody gave me prints of a couple of her movies and I fell madly in love with this woman.”
Lombard’s short but eventful life, her easy transition from “silents” to “talkies,” her marriages to William Powell and Clark Gable, and her… we’ll say “liberal use of salty language” proved great material for a one-person play.
But around the time Druxman was writing the “Hollywood Legends” plays, he also started to sell film scripts. His different projects in the industry and his PR business — which he kept going up through the early-90s — had given him what he considers one of the most important factors for success in Hollywood: contacts. “You have to network. You have to find what they call a ‘motor’ — someone known in the business that people listen to — who wants to do your movie.”
In Druxman’s case, that “motor” turned out to be actor Abe Vigoda, a client of his. Druxman wrote a movie with a part for Vigoda, and Vigoda got it into the hands of a producer in Texas. “Frankly, the movie turned out to be a piece of crap,” says Druxman. “Don’t see it. It was terrible. But it got made. This producer got the money together, and it got made and it got a national release. I still get residuals from it.” (It’s called Keaton’s Cop, by the way).
But after years of shopping scripts, Druxman began getting more work as a script writer. Famed low-budget producer Roger Corman — who gave countless notable actors and directors a “break” early in their respective careers — took an interest in Druxman’s work, buying two scripts and then hiring Druxman for assignments. “As a writer in Hollywood, that’s how you make a living— not from selling scripts, but assignments. A producer says ‘I want to make a movie about X,’ and so they assign a writer. I did some things for Corman, and started getting assignments from other people, too.”
“My career as a writer didn’t really start until I was like 50,” Druxman adds. “I didn’t care. I got to do it.”
Druxman also got to direct one of his scripts for Corman — a movie called The Doorway (2000) with Roy Schneider.
Druxman left Hollywood in 2009 and moved to Austin, Texas. He continues to write books and review DVDs for his website (once a newsletter) “Best Bets for DVDs.” He also teaches and talks to groups who are interested in screenwriting and the movie business. Druxman says that the business is obviously much different than when he first went to Hollywood in 1963, but still believes anyone who is serious about being a part of the industry needs to be in Los Angeles.
And once you’re there, you’ve got to be willing to stick it out. “About a month after I arrived, I went to a seminar, and Jack Lemmon was the speaker,” says Druxman. “And one thing he said that I’ve never forgotten: don’t try to make it in show business. He said the only people who should try to make it in the business are the young, because the young are stupid — they cannot conceive of the fact that they can fail. And that’s what you need to make it in this business.”
“I guess I was very, very stupid until I was 50 years old, because I thought ‘I’m gonna make it’,” he adds. “You have to have that tenacity. I frankly think if you have a talent, if you stick to it and take every reasonable opportunity that comes your way…”
And an opportunity that falls into the “unreasonable” category? “I always tell people, if you write, don’t write for free,” he says. “They’re always trying to get you to write for free. Even the first movie I sold, the guy wanted a free option. Remember, it’s show business.”
As a Hollywood historian, Druxman is looking forward to seeing Carol Lombard’s childhood home on his visit to Fort Wayne. And of course he’s looking forward to the production of Lombard. But Druxman adds that as a guy who once wrote a script for Corman called Dillinger and Capone (it was made into a movie in 1995), he’s also interested in the final resting place of one of the city’s less savory native sons — Homer Van Meter, an associate of Dillinger’s who was gunned down in St Paul, MN when he was 27. “He was born in Fort Wayne, and they buried him there,” Druxman says. “My two favorite genres are westerns and gangster, so I know all about that era.”
Writing for the Stage, Screen & Television
Sunday, June 2 at 2 PM
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Many of Druxman’s books — including his memoir My Forty-Five Years in Hollywood… and How I Escaped Alive — will be available at the workshop.
For more on Michael Druxman, visit druxmanworks.com
For tickets and event info, visit fwcivic.org or call (260) 424-5220