WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Hessler's pitch to Levenson was intriguing. “You and I have a chance to make a series of one-hour documentaries about new medical breakthroughs,” he announced. “Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, then who knows what else.”
As good as it sounded, for Levenson there was a catch. Though Dr. Barry Hessler, chief medical expert for a local L.A. TV station's news department, continually referred to Levenson as one of his nearest and dearest friends, the feeling was far from mutual. Due to Hessler's tendency, even on his better days, to be full of himself, snide, and overbearing, Levenson tried to restrict time spent together to an occasional coffee or lunch, with work or family matters serving as his go-to excuses.
“Tell me you're on-board,” irrepressible Hessler urged when he called Levenson again the next day.
“Think of the good we can do,” Hessler texted the following day.
“We can make a difference!” Hessler exclaimed upon barging into Levenson's editing room the day after that. “What's your hesitation?”
“How many assistants have you been through this year?” Levenson asked.
“What's that got to do with anything?”
“And how long do line producers usually stay?”
“What's your point?” demanded Hessler.
“Are you easy to work with? Or fun?”
“With you, bubbala, it'll be different. You I respect.”
After discussing the offer with his wife once their kids were in bed, Levenson strolled into the den to reflect. The upside, as Hessler pointed out, was that the films might indeed make a difference, which was not true of Levenson's two most recent efforts, which he considered amusing despite a nagging sense that they were little more than fluff. Also there was the fact that commissioned documentaries provided entry into realms to which Levernson would never otherwise have access. Plus, if Hessler's words were true, there was the chance for something elusive due to the vicissitudes of the movie business: continuity. A series of documentaries would provide a welcome respite, creatively and financially, to a path that Levenson, only half-in-jest, termed ad hoc and often in hock.
Early the next morning, having tossed and turned much of the night, Levenson ambled into the kitchen as his wife was making breakfast for their son and daughter. “Will you be mad if I say yes?” he asked Judy.
“Only if you drag me to dinner with him.”
“You consider him that bad?”
“Worse,” said Judy. “But I understand your reasons.”
Judy pondered for a moment, then nodded.
Instead of reaching out to Hessler, Levenson waited for the call he knew would come sooner rather than later.
“So?” wondered Hessler while Levenson was reading the sports section.
“Tell me how you see things working,” Levenson responded.
“You and me, bubbala. The terrible twosome.”
“With who doing what?”
“It'll be a team effort.”
“You don't trust me?” asked a wounded-sounding Hessler.
“I prefer when things are defined.”
“Tell me how you see it.”
“You produce, I direct,” stated Levenson.
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“All in the hope of clarity.”
“And if my feelings are hurt?” Hessler asked, affecting a whiny tone.
“You'll get over it.”
On his first official day on-board, Levenson was given a desk in the team's production office in Burbank, then introduced to Daisy Chan, who would serve as his assistant. Additional get-acquainted sessions followed, first with Pete Rumsey, their film editor, then with a cameraman named Jose Fernandez.
“Now I need a favor,” Hessler stated.
“Uh-oh,” teased Levenson.
“Somebody doesn't trust me.”
“Since these films will technically be under the aegis of the News Department,” stated Hessler, “we need to meet with the guy who runs it.”
“So why's that a favor?”
“Bill Guthrie can be brusque, dismissive, and short-tempered.”
“Which means?” asked Levenson.
“Let me do all the talking.”
As the two members of the new production team approached Guthrie's suite, Hessler turned to Levenson. “Remember, I do the talking.”
Moments later, one of Guthrie's assistants led them into the boss's inner sanctum.
Before Hessler could introduce his new colleague, Bill Guthrie strode toward Levenson and, to Hessler's amazement, gave him a hug.
“Good to have somebody intelligent around here at last,” said Guthrie. “You and Judy coming to Harold and Dorothy's for Thanksgiving?”
Levenson nodded. “Judy's planning on making her Indian pudding.”
“My favorite sinful dessert,” exclaimed Guthrie. “Sally's thinking candied yams, so forget lo-carb. Let's talk shop. Which disease or medical disaster is first?”
“Diabetes,” offered Hessler, eager to get a word in.
Guthrie immediately faced Levenson. “You okay with that?”
“It gives us a chance to address the epidemic caused by childhood obesity,” replied Levenson.
“That'll help sell it to the O & O's,” commented Guthrie.
“The Owned and Operated stations within the network,” interjected Hessler.
“He didn't just fall off the turnip truck,” snarled Guthrie, referring to Levenson.
“Plus we can deal with the breakthroughs using stem cells,” Levenson added.
“Sounds good to me,” said Guthrie. “And I can have it next week?”
“Why not tomorrow?” joked Levenson.
“Take whatever time you need,” assured them. “But hopefully not too much.”
“Why didn't you tell me you knew him?” demanded Hessler once he and Levenson stepped into the hallway.
“And miss the look on your face?”
“Know what this means?”
“I just lost most of my leverage.”
“I thought we're in this together,” said Levenson.
“So,” mused Hessler as he and Levenson lunched on ersatz Mexican food in the commissary. “I guess it's time to decide who we want to go after, and when we'll start shooting interviews.”
“Not exactly,” countered Levenson.
“Am I missing something?” wondered Hessler after picking at his burrito.
“You'll set up the people, I'll do the interviews.”
“Should we define producer? Then director?”
Frowning, Hessler took a sip of iced tea before speaking. “As for stem cell therapy, I've got a problem.”
“Please don't say religious scruples.”
“The only things I worship,” said Hessler with a smile, “are sex and money, and not in that order. Ever seen people who've had stem cell therapy?”
“They're anything but photogenic.”
When Levenson sighed, Hessler leaned forward. “What's that mean?”
“Is this a medical documentary or a fashion shoot?”
“You've got to understand the News Department.”
“No, I don't. This isn't a segment on the 7 O'Clock News.”
Hessler frowned. “So what do you see as my role on-screen?”
“You'll do the intro and, to coin a term, the outro.”
“Not serve as an expert?”
“This is supposed to be the first of several, right?”
“Every educational series needs what I would call a presenter,” Levenson continued. “David Attenborough on those British history shows, or Walt Disney once-upon-a-time. You'll prep the public for what they're about to see, then wrap up with helpful suggestions and advice.
Hessler cogitated momentarily, then smiled. “I like it.”
That afternoon, with Daisy taking notes, Levenson explained to Hessler the areas for which interviews were required. The first need, as he saw it, was a physician who could express the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, plus the health problems associated with each. Next, an expert or two to describe the ever-increasing crisis caused by juvenile obesity. Additionally, Levenson wanted someone to explain the role nutrition could play in combating the epidemic. Then a couple of scientists or physicians who could articulate the breakthroughs thanks to new stem cell therapies.
“That's quite a list,” said Hessler, shaking his head.
“And there'll be more. We also need people suffering from the different types of diabetes, plus some who've benefited from stem cells.”
“Do I have to soak you in Lysol?” became a running joke in the Levenson household each time Levenson returned home after working with Hessler.
Then one evening, while the kids were watching TV, Judy changed from playful to serious. “How's it going really?”
Levenson shrugged. “Now you can tell one.”
“When do you start shooting?”
“We've got two days of interviews beginning tomorrow, then a couple of days off before we shoot some more.”
“And you-know-who's actually behaving?”
“For now,” sighed Levenson.
Day One of filming took place at Children's Hospital in Hollywood, where Levenson's first on-camera interview was with Dr. Hannah Rose. “Though we won't hear or see me, this'll be a conversation between the two of us,” Levenson expressed, as he would do before subsequent interviews. “If you have a false start, or if something's not coming out the way you want, just stop, then start over. Okay?”
“Sounds good,” said Dr. Rose, a silver-haired woman who eloquently explained the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes once filming began, then detailed the disease's frightening rise among teens and pre-teens.
Next came a session with a nutritionist, Eve Havanki, whose assessment was even more chilling. “Imagine a kid in the 'hood or the barrio, living with a single mother working long hours, or maybe two jobs,” she said on-camera. “First, there's no Whole Foods in their neighborhood. And even if there were, there's no way the mom could afford their prices. Plus, by the time she gets home, she's exhausted. Meanwhile, because the streets are unsafe, the kid spends non-school time watching TV, where all that's peddled is junk food and worse food. So what's not only cheap and easy, but also palatable to the kid? Fast food laden with salt, sugar, and fat. The kid balloons, which means getting teased, making sports and other activities even less likely. Then comes diabetes, and the kid's destiny is set.”
After a non-fast food lunch with Jose and Daisy, two more successful interviews followed, then Levenson thanked his crew members for their assistance.
“Headed back to the office?” Daisy wondered.
“Nah,” said Levenson. “You'll text Jose and me tomorrow's itinerary?”
“Okay if I say something that maybe I shouldn't?” asked Jose.
“Anything said stays between us,” Levenson assured him.
“Things went a whole lot smoother without His Majesty.”
“You've worked with him before?”
“And have the scars to prove it.”
When, during his drive home to Santa Monica, a call came in from Hessler, Levenson considered ignoring it, then reluctantly answered. “Didn't want to see my handsome face?” Hessler promptly inquired.
“How honest an answer do you want?”
“Will I see you tomorrow before you head out?”
“No way I'm fighting traffic only to turn around once I get there.”
“And if I tell you I miss you?” asked Hessler.
“Somehow life will go on.”
“Jose was fine?” asked Hessler. “And the people you interviewed?”
“Call if you need me,” said Hessler.
“Just keep setting up the interviews.”
The second day of filming yielded four consecutive diabetes sufferers, each in a different age group, and each coping with the disease in a different way.
After wrapping the last one, Levenson treated Jose and Daisy to frozen yogurt, then addressed the cameraman. “See you Monday?”
“You bet,” answered Jose. Then Levenson turned to Daisy.
“And I'll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Happy with the stuff?” she asked.
“I think we're off to an excellent start.”
“Me, too,” added Jose.
“You're taking too much time!” Hessler griped the next morning when Levenson walked into the production office.
“What're you talking about?”
“I watched the two days of interviews. What's all the blah-blah-blah before you get down to business?”
“It's called establishing a rapport.”
“Rapport, my ass! It should be bang, bang, bang!”
To Hessler's astonishment, Levenson turned and headed for the door. “What in hell you doing?” he demanded.
“Stepping outside to give you a chance to speak normally when I reenter.”
Hessler watched Levenson do as promised, then spoke again. “Why the schmoozing even during the interview?”
“The camera loves personalities,” Levenson explained. “That's what I'm trying to bring out.”
Hessler gritted his teeth. “I know this shit really well.”
“Oh yeah?” replied Levenson. “So do I.”
Hessler glared for a moment, then took a deep breath. “What I'd like you to do now is sit and watch the interviews, notating the sound bytes we'll use.”
“I'm eager to see footage –”
“But as for notating –”
“Not a chance,” said Levenson.
“It's too early in the process.”
“Look,” insisted Hessler, “the way I'm accustomed to working –”
“Is not the way I'm accustomed to.”
Hessler grimaced. “I've got to prep my first news segment for the day.”
Daisy watched Hessler storm out, then turned to Levenson. “Somebody doesn't like not having his way.”
“I noticed,” said Levenson.
The welcomed absence of tension thanks to Hessler making himself scarce continued into the next afternoon. Everything changed, however, when he barged into the office at 4 PM.
“How's this?” Hessler asked Levenson. “Our first victim tomorrow is a friend of mine who'll probably be more comfortable if I do the interview. That okay?”
“If I say no?”
Levenson reflected for a moment, then shrugged. “You got one and only one.”
It wasn't hard to glean from their body language that neither Jose nor Daisy was tickled to see Hessler arrive at their first stop the next morning.
With Levenson shooting them a Let's get it over with look, they prepped the lighting and microphone for the interview with an epidemiologist named Marvin Karp.
Availing himself of no preliminary chit-chat, Hessler promptly launched into what seemed more like an interrogation than the kind of back-and-forth Levenson favored.
“Give me a one sentence definition of diabetes,” Hessler demanded right away.
“Hmm,” said Dr. Karp, gathering his thoughts. “Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin is impaired, resulting in abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates plus elevated levels of glucose in the blood and urine.”
“Can you just say, 'Diabetes is a disease in which blood sugar skyrockets?'” asked Hessler.
“Technically,” replied Dr. Karp, “that's not true.”
“But it'll play on TV,” urged Hessler, causing Levenson, Daisy, and Jose to cringe.
Girding himself, Dr. Karp repeated Hessler's words in a monotone.
To Levenson's chagrin, the rest of the interview went even further downhill from there.
“Pretty great, huh?” gloated Hessler when, while Jose and Daisy were gathering gear, he and Levenson stepped out of Dr. Karp's building. “I got every fucking sound byte I wanted.”
“And it'll be a miracle if even one is usable.”
Hessler stopped in his tracks, looking as though Levenson had informed him that the earth was flat, or that God was a sea monster. “I got great motherfucking content,” he hissed.
“From a guy who looked like he was in a hostage situation.”
“You're being harsh,” said Hessler.
“No, honest. The poor guy sounded like he was under duress.”
“Know how many interviews I've done?”
“And what do I do for a living? It's not the same as when you need is a quick byte for one of your segments.”
Once he and his team were finished with the interviews that followed Hessler's departure, Levenson drove to Burbank instead of heading home.
“Ready to admit you're wrong?” Hessler asked belligerently as Levenson entered to production office.
“My interview with Karp. I looked at it three times, and it's great.”
“So now you're an award-winning documentarian? Or have you graduated to full-fledged auteur a la Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Godard?”
“At least we agree on something.”
To Hessler's surprise, Levenson turned and started for the door. “Where you going?” he asked.
“Back to reality.”
“Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Why do you need me,” answered Levenson, “when you've got everything covered?”
Levenson didn't bother answering the call that came from Hessler while he was driving home. Nor the one that evening. Nor the calls, texts, and emails with which he was bombarded when he stayed home the next day, Friday.
Saturday more attempts came in, including some via Facetime and What's App.
Levenson's stonewalling continued until Sunday noon, when the doorbell rang. “A present for you,” an Uber Eats driver informed Judy, who answered, handing her a platter of bagels, lox, and cream cheese, plus an iced bottle of Champagne.
I apologize! said the note, signed by Barry Hessler.
“I didn't realize how tough you were,” Hessler acknowledged when Levenson stepped into the production office on Monday morning.
“Guess who grew up in Jersey.”
“Okay, Jersey boy. To show how much I care, you and I have a date at noon.”
“And my stem cell patient?” asked Levenson.
“Somebody's determined to have his way.”
“It's not about me,” replied Levenson. “It's about the film.”
As Hessler unlocked the door to his 718 Cayman S at 11:30, he heard Levenson chuckle. “What's so funny?” he asked.
“What's the difference between a porcupine and a Porsche?”
“Tell me,” said Hessler.
“With a porcupine, the pricks are on the outside.”
Choosing not to respond, Hessler unlocked the door, then off they drove.
Silence reigned until they entered a part of East Hollywood known as Thai Town.
“Where we going?” Levenson asked.
“You'll see,” replied Hessler, who turned a corner, then pulled up in front of a bungalow advertising “Thai Massage.”
“Please tell me you're kidding,” Levenson groaned.
“What's wrong with a little fun? Especially when it's on me.”
After scanning the block, Levenson faced Hessler. “You go ahead.”
“What about you?”
“I'm going across the street for some panang curry at that restaurant.”
“Boychik,” said Hessler as they were driving back to the production office, “you don't know what you're missing.”
“I'll live,” replied Levenson.
“Some day you've got to come with me to Thailand. The girls are cute, sweet, and above all nice and young.”
“I'll go the same time I get signed by the Lakers. But about getting me someone who had stem cell –”
“Not gonna let that go, huh?”
“Not a chance,” said Levenson.
Three days later, Hessler shook his head when Levenson stepped into the production office. “Didn't I warn you about stem cell people? The guy you interviewed looks like he spent time in a concentration camp.”
“Which is why I made it a two-person interview with his daughter, who's gorgeous.”
“I wouldn't go that far.”
“Because she's not fifteen-years-old and Thai?”
“Cheap shot,” grumbled Hessler. “What in hell does it add?”
“Hope. And emotion. You don't think people'll respond when the guy – Jerry – says, 'This gave me a kind of life I never thought I'd have again.'?”
“Still, my ass! And when the daughter says, 'To me it's a miracle!'?”
“You don't give up,” Hessler sneered. “And anyway, I don't think Guthrie'll like it.”
“What if I tell you he loves it?”
“You showed it to him?”
“He popped by the editing bay while Pete Rumsey and I were looking at it.”
“You're making me look bad,” whined Hessler.
“Bullshit! In Guthrie's eyes this makes you a hero. Now do you want to keep feeling sorry for yourself, or are you ready to hear my ideas for the intro and outro?”
Anticipating difficulties, Levenson saved the Hessler segments for the last day of the shoot. But instead of the assertiveness he feared, what Hessler displayed was abundant nervousness. Like a kid preparing for a first date, Hessler fretted about which jacket to wear, then which tie. Next came uncertainty about his hair and makeup.
Fearing that in the state he was in, Hessler would be tongue-tied, Levenson led him to a quiet nook. “When's your next trip to Thailand?” he asked.
“Whenever we finish this fucking thing,” Hessler grunted. “Why?”
“Just wondering. Bangkok?”
“Bangkok first, then Phuket. But how come you're suddenly curious?”
“Really want to know?”
“This is called establishing a rapport.”
“You motherfucker!” said Hessler with a rare laugh. “Let's do it.”
To put the editor's mind at peace, Levenson gave him orders. “Not if, but when Hessler sticks his nose in and starts asking for changes,” he told Pete Rumsey, “put it on me, not you.”
“By?” asked Rumsey.
“Saying you've got to run any change by the director.”
“And if he balks?”
“Tell him I'll steal the footage and kick his ass.”
After griping incessantly about his inability to add what he called input, Hessler did an about-face when, after showing a cut to the head of the News Department, Bill Guthrie gushed. “Wow!” he shouted.
“You really like it?” asked Hessler.
“It's a fucking monster! Know how great that moment is when the stem cell guy talks about giving him a new life? That's money. And when the pretty daughter calls it a miracle? Viewers'll go apeshit!”
Hessler took a moment to process Guthrie's words, then put an arm around Levenson. “Now you see why I brought him in,” Hessler affirmed with a grin.
On the night the documentary was scheduled to air, Levenson turned down Hessler's invitation to a viewing party so as to watch at home with Judy and their kids.
Thanks to the glow from favorable reviews, plus strong Neilson ratings, a date was set for Levenson, Hessler, and Bill Guthrie to discuss their next offering.
That meeting was torpedoed due to an explosive news report on a Sunday evening. According to the bombshell, an acclaimed physician at a local news station had been busted for receiving and disseminating kiddie porn.
“Holy shit!” shouted Judy when she heard, causing her kids to giggle.
“Mom!” screamed six-year-old Amy.
“Dirty word!” yelled five-year-old Kenny.
Instantly, Judy faced her husband. “Did you know?”
Levenson, who had never mentioned Hessler's proclivities, shook his head. “No way.”
When, at an award dinner four months later, Levenson accepted a Golden Mic Award for Best Network Documentary, the producer – Dr. Barry Hessler – was conspicuous in his absence.
Though Levenson segued into a documentary about the Latinization of the boxing, both in the ring and in the stands, gone forever was any chance for the continuity he had been promised in what was meant to be a series of medical films.