Review: Funny Old Guys

The Lunch Bunch

From Emmy Magazine, 10/02
by Eric Taub

The are among the creators of early American television, writers and producers of seminal programs like the Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, Ben Casey and many others. Yet today, as most Hollywood veterans sadly learn, they've moved from the Who's Who of Hollywood to the Who's That?

Each Tuesday these mostly octogenarian, ex-New York writers do lunch at L.A.'s Mulholland Tennis Club. Over cheeseburgers and scrambled eggs, a group including Bernie West (All in the Family), Fred Freiberger (Star Trek), David Shaw (The Defenders) and Bernie Kahn (Get Smart) gather to talk about their careers, their relationships and the state of the business that consumed them for decades.

Several years ago, the most unpleasant of subjects intruded on their schmoozefests. Frank Tarloff -- a blacklisted writer and a 1964 Oscar winner for Father Goose -- learned he was dying of cancer. The first member of the group to face imminent mortality, Tarloff hoped that by discussing his impending death, he could help his friends through it when their time came. The poignancy of that experience- and the love and concern these men hold for each other-has been captured by Los Angeles filmmaker David Zeiger in Funny Old Guys, a documentary currently on the festival circuit and scheduled to air on Cinemax next year. At first, Zeiger wasn't sure what shape his film would take, but once Tarloff became ill, the movie took on a direction of its own.

More than simply following death, Zeiger chronicles the men's search for meaning in a professional world that once feted them and has now forgotten them. "Here we are -- most of us are eighty or above -- whaddaya do?" Tarloff asks at the start of the film.

Most of the friends hold no illusions about working in the business again. "If you're older than twelve, forget about getting a job in Hollywood," said Freiberger one recent afternoon at the tennis club. "When we worked, we were trying to be playwrights -- that's why television created talents like Paddy Chayevsky and Rod Serling. But we also had a sense of humor about our work. We knew we were often writing shit."

Today's television executives not only have no use for any writer over thirty, the friends agreed, but they also have no sense of what came before them. "You mention famous old films and actors to executives, and they don't even know who you're talking about," said Leon Ross, another member of the gang and a former USC film professor.

Still, most are pleased with the freer atmosphere accorded today's writers, who no longer have to trade hells for damns in their scripts or write doo-doo because the network won't allow ca-ca.

Over lunch, the group denied having been terribly upset by Tarloff's death. Yet in the film their faces speak differently. The men understand they're no longer at the peak of their careers or their lives, but rather reaching the end of them. Except for Kahn, they've all stopped writing. Shaw now defines himself as a painter.

They have their memories, their good work and each other. "We were the veterans," Roth said. "In television, there was no one else before us."