Friday, September 11, 2015

The Only Woman in the Room. A conversation with Rita Lakin

RHYS BOWEN: One of the surprising things about writing mysteries is the people that you meet. Mystery writers come from an amazing range of backgrounds and have pasts that would make terrific stories in themselves. But no one has surprised me more than RITA LAKIN.  I first realized that she was a lot more than a writer of cozy paperback mysteries when she was on a Liars panel I hosted at a convention.

Script writer, producer, director of programs that were iconic to many of us growing up:   Peyton Place, Dynasty, The Rookies, Mod Squad and many more.  So I had to have her on Jungle Red to celebrate the publication of her autobiography, THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM.  Read on and you'll see why I was so absolutely fascinated. . 

Rita, welcome to JRW and congratulations on the publication of your memoir. So let's go back to that famous Liar's panel. Some of your answers certainly raised my eyebrows and you were clearly the winner of the game because nobody believed you when you were telling the truth. Invited to join the Mile High Club by Omar Shariff? Who is this woman, I thought? And then I found out. Wow, lady, you have led quite a life. What made you finally decide to write your memoir?

RITA LAKIN:  not “what, but “you” at that Liar’s panel. It had never entered my mind, ever, that I had any reason to write my memoir. To me memoirs were about famous people. But, based on all the laughter to my answers at that panel, I thought I might a put together a slim volume of funny anecdotes during those 25 years I spent in Hollywood.
I had people read my effort, and they suggested that I write a real memoir. Which then led me to dig out boxes of  memorabilia - stuff I’d rat-packed away for 50 years. Once I went through much of it, I realized there was a book. I’d forgotten how often I wondered where the other women writers were and that’s when the story took off in my mind. 275 pages later, I felt I might have something unique.

RHYS: What made you think you could break into TV writing and producing when it was so clearly a man's world?

“Think” being the odd word here. There was no thought. I was a widow with three small children and I needed to earn money. I managed to get a secretarial job at Universal despite the fact I couldn’t type. And after reading the movie scripts on the lot and the realization that writing scripts paid much more money than I was making, I made the decision to write a script. I had been writing short stories for years, and selling a few, considering it a hobby, it wasn’t that  big a jump to thinking I could write

RHYS: What was the hardest thing for you in those days?

RITA LAKIN: Getting past the grief of being in mourning. Balancing raising children alone and working long hours honing my craft.   I was very lucky. The men I worked for were kind and helpful.

RHYS: Apart from Mr. Shariff and the mile high incident what are some other favorite fantastic stories you share in the book?

RITA LAKIN: I had the biggest opportunity of my career early on, to adapt a novel for a very prestigious show. The other writers (all men) were world famous. All the actors were famous, too. (writers, the caliber of William Inge and actresses like Ann Bancroft. This  was big time) Unfortunately for me I was written up in Variety as a secretary in with all these famous people. Alas, the big name actress picked to star in my movie refused to work in a script written by a “lowly secretary.” She wanted a famous writer, also. So, I was dumped.

Being partnered with another writer on Dynasty. He actually had murdered his wife and even wrote a book about it. He was creepy.

Thinking I’d been asked to his office to pitch a movie idea, a producer pimped a man for me. He turned out to be a mafia boss who wanted to set me up in a house in Beverly Hills and send all my children to college. It was an offer, he insisted, I couldn’t refuse. I declined.

Another producer I worked for insisted I put his name on my Mod Squad script. The show won the MWA Edgar that year. He never told me about the win, nor that he’d gone to the ceremony in NY, and picked up our awards. Nor did he tell me about the Edgar statue I won, that he kept. All he gave me was a certificate saying I won. Need I mention I was very na├»ve in those days? I hadn’t known about that Edgar award. I wish I could get my statue back.

RHYS: These days you write about a little old lady detective with her friends in Florida. Funny and so accurate. But do you ever itch to get back to the edgy scripts you wrote in those earlier days?
RITA LAKIN:  I’ve written 464 scripts for television, 8 MOW’s, 2 Mini-series  - spanning 30 TV productions. I consulted on 60 shows. Created and produced a number of them as well.
Wrote 7 Gladdy Gold mystery novels, 1 gothic novel, 1 YA novel. 2 theatrical plays, some short stores (and stuff I’ve already forgotten.)

I no longer have any “itch.” But maybe I’ll go back to my old lady comedy mysteries. They’re so much fun to write.     

RHYS: Rita, you are fabulous and an inspiration to women writers everywhere! And if you recognize Aaron Spelling and Dick Van Dyke etc etc in the photos. Well, yeah.

Rita's memoir is called THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM  and will be available any day soon. And Rita will sign a copy to a commenter, so leap in and ask questions.


Joan Emerson said...

Okay . . . amazing and inspiring, although it's sad that some of your experiences, like the Edgar award, are just plain mean. I'm guessing those sorts of things were common at the time???

I remember all your shows that Rhys named [and watched them, too]; however, I immediately recognized your name from when you were the head writer for my all-time forever favorite show, The Doctors. I am so looking forward to reading your book.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Oh my gosh, you have amazing stories! I'm so interested in your comment that you no longer have the itch! Does that mean you'll push on and write something anyway? Wait until the itch appears? Or maybe retire?

Hats off to you Rita!!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Rita! Such amazing stories! Can't wait to read the book!

Libby Dodd said...

How marvelous!
A true inspiration.

Kait said...

What wonderful stories. What a louse the Edgar hog was. But that is how women were treated, and at times, I suspect still are! I'm looking forward to a great read. Keep on writing those Florida stories. They are fun reads!

Priscilla said...

This an amazing book. An incredible story about one very courageious and talented woman!

Mary Sutton said...

Rita, I bet you have a LOT of stories. Your memoir sounds like something that has to go on my reading list.

I'm with Lucy: have you lost the itch because you think you've written everything you'd want to write? Do you think it will ever come back or will you press on without it?

Hallie Ephron said...

I'm a huge fan of yours, Rita! What an amazing life and career, SO worthy of a memoir. I can't wait to read it. My parents were contract writers at Fox (when you were still a babe in arms), such an exciting time to be in the movie business. But YOU were in TV at that same kind of fantastic moment. Make that momentS. So happy to see you here on Jungle Red. And by the way I saw that Liar's panel and it was hilARious!

Julia said...

Welcome, Rita! I can't wait to read your memoir. And thank you for being a ground-breaker. We're so used to women being able to step through (almost) every door today, we forget we owe a debt to all those who were, originally, the only woman in the room.

Karen in Ohio said...

Having been the only woman in the room, many times, I know exactly where you're coming from, especially in the case of the award hog. I feel the same frustrations today, at times, when I read the news. So infuriating. Wish we could all help you get the statue, Rita.

But on the other hand, it was an exciting time--for TV, for writing, and for being an attractive woman surrounded by men. I will very much look forward to reading your story. Best of luck!

Rhys, you're a great story spotter, by the way.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Wow wow wow. I don't know whether to laugh or cry or applaud. So-all.

So eager to read this! And I loved Dynasty :-)--although now, I'll think about it in a very different way.

The Edgar story is outrageous. And enraging. SO eager to read the book! Thank you!

Grandma Cootie said...

Another wonderful glimpse into the real life of an author. I can't wait to read your memoir. Thanks to you and all the women who pressed on when things were just so not fair.

Deborah Crombie said...

What wonderful stories, Rita! So inspiring--and so infuriating in parts. Maybe you could write a mystery where the guy with YOUR Edgar gets bonked over the head with the statue:-)

Can't wait to read your book!

Kathy Reel said...

I'm not only amazed and impressed by what you accomplished as a woman, I'm gobsmacked that you did it while raising three children. You deserve not only a memoir, but a statue entitled, "This is strength!" Well, maybe a few more adjectives need to be added, such as smart, persistent, fearless, and pioneering. Rita, you are someone who should never stop writing.

I'm looking forward to reading your book, and I agree with Debs about writing the mystery where the greedy Gus gets murdered with the Edgar.

Pat D said...

I watched a lot of those shows. Mod Squad, Peyton Place, Dynasty. You know, if we knew the name and location of Edgar thief, perhaps Edgar would make his way home to you. Just saying. . .

Alison said...

Chiming in here as Rita's granddaughter to let everyone know that she's not just a trailblazer, she's a pretty great grandma as well. Plus, she keeps some of her best stories for the family. Shhh.

Bette Golden Lamb said...

Rhy: Thanks for having Rita share some of her fascinating background. I've always known her as a gutsy woman--just never realized the scope of it all. We have already preordered Rita's book and are really looking forward to reading it.

Just as an aside, Rita: A house and paid college education for your children? Would the gangster have settled for a quick feel for one college education?

Very interesting piece!

Rita Lakin said...

Hi everyone,

I've been writing to you all day but my computer never let me get through.
So, briefly, thank you all for your kind words. Yes, I'll still keep writing.
Thanks for suggestions for getting back my MWA statue. But, alas, Harve Bennett, the villain producer, has gone off the mortal coil.

In my post published fantasies I'd hope he'd read my book, call and apologize profusely, and give it back to me. But that won't happen.

FYI The first photo, I'm standing with Aaron Spelling.
In the second, this is the Peyton Place group portrait. The first tie I ever met women writers.
They are Peggy Shaw, Sonya Roberts and Carol Sobieski. Pau Monash, the producer, was the first one I ever met who looked for women writers to hire.

Margaret Lucke said...

Rita, I'm delighted that you decided to turn your answers on the liars panel into a real memoir. The readers of "The Only Woman in the Room" have a real treat in store! Looking forward to seeing this book between covers -- and the next Gladdy Gold novel as well.