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Producer Frank von Zerneck

I spoke by phone with producer Frank von Zerneck May 13, 2002.

Luke: "Tell me about your childhood."

Frank: "I was born and raised in New York. My father [Peter von Zerneck] was an actor. I went to the High School of the Performing Arts, which was made famous by [the TV series] Fame. I studied acting. I went to Hofstra College in Hempsted, New York. On a Shakespeare scholarship, I majored in Drama, graduating in 1962.

"My father constantly worked in live television, as did I during high school. In those days, if you could be counted on to not freeze up when the red light went on, hit your marks, remember the words, you worked constantly. By the time I returned from college, live television had dried up and gone to LA as [shot on] film television. I worked in theater as a manager.

"In 1970, I moved to LA and went to work for Gordon Davidson, who ran the Center Theater Group. I produced plays for him for three years and then, in 1974, formed the television production company Moonlight Productions with my director-friend Robert Greenwald.

"Television was and is great because they're open to new people. If you have relationships with writers and are good at developing screenplays, TV doors are open to new people because TV has such a huge appetite for new material. We made our first film in 1975, The Desperate Miles. We've made 110 since."

Frank speaks dramatically, like an actor, with every word carefully pronounced.

Luke: "I thought Roger Gimbel and Edgar Scherick were prolific but you've produced many more movies."

Frank: "Those guys are friends. I'm younger. These people were icons when I entered the business. I've been nothing but a producer. I've never worked at a network or agency."

Luke: "Has anyone made more TV movies than you?"

Frank: "I don't know. I'm proud of my accomplishments but it is not a contest. I've made a lot of 'programmers' [productions just to meet a programming need] and mediocre movies as well as movies that I am proud of.

"When I started out, I was mentored by Leonard Goldberg. I remember when he and Aaron Spelling made their 75th television movie. And I thought, 'Ohmigod, what would that be like?'"

Luke: "How did you make all these movies with titles like Portrait of a Stripper, Portrait of a Centerfold, Portrait of a Mistress?"

Frank: "In those days [late 1970s to early 1980s], the networks each made two movies a week for 40 weeks. The networks relied upon high concept material to help them break through the clutter and attract an audience. Movies of the week stand and fall upon three things: One, the sentence that appears in TV Guide. The so-called logline. What it's about. Two, who's in it. And three, the 30-second trailer that starts playing one week before the movie airs. Movies of the week don't really rely on reviews because once they are on and someone reviews it, they're not on again for a year.

"So in those days, high concept movies were what we all did for a living. Some of them were wonderful movies and some of them weren't. There was a network executive who would say to me that he is personally going to stamp out child prostitution, no matter how many movies he has to make to do it.

"The business evolved. I broke up with Greenwald after ten years. I formed a partnership with a man who worked for me, Robert Sertner.

"I produced three one-act plays for CBS Cable. Their challenge was to be a cultural arts cable channel. They no longer exist. I then got into a deal with Ted Turner soon after he started TNT. The first one was 1989's Billy the Kid, based on Gore Vidal's play. Turner liked it because it was a Western.

"For Dress Gray, I had chased the rights to the book [by Lucian Truscott IV] for a while but it was snatched by Warners as a feature. They developed it. Gore wrote the screenplay. And it never got made. I went to Warners and asked them to try it as a television miniseries. They agreed. I set it up at NBC as a miniseries. Gore had to take his theatrical feature screenplay and turn it into a miniseries.

"Gore lives in Rovello, a little town on the Amsiri coast in Italy. And when you work with Gore Vidal, you go to him. He doesn't come to you.

"So I fly over there, shaking in my boots, because I am about to request changes from this worldclass writer. I'm this little television producer. I spent a week with him. It was a wonderful collaboration. He's from the old school. He too started in live television and the theater. He has respect for the role of the producer.

"Here I am, shaking in my pants that gee, I'd like to change this and build up this character. And he gets it. He says, 'Good idea. I'll do that.'

"Gore confessed to me, 'People approach me all the time. But nobody seems to know television like you. Here are some of my other things.' I read his adaptation of Billy the Kid. So when TNT started, and I knew that Ted [Turner] liked Westerns, I presented Turner with the idea and he liked it. I called Gore and told him we were going to be doing his Billy the Kid. And he said, 'Young man, you are unbelievable.' We flew Gore to Tucson, Arizona, to appear in the movie.

"Purely as a hobby, my wife, daughter and son operate an independent bookstore in LA - Portrait of a Bookstore on Tujunga in Studio City. Every time Gore has a book published, and he's in town, he makes sure to come by and do a book signing. He helped put us on the map."

Luke: "What is your daughter Danielle doing these days?"

Frank: "She's producing. Her last acting thing was [a 1995 independent movie] she did with [writer-director] Tom DiCillo called Living in Oblivion. We gave money to that. It's one of our two independent films.

"She's housed with us here. She and a woman named Mia Sara formed a production company to develop features and high-end cable.

"Danielle's married to James Firnley, the British rock musician. They live here and spend summer in the Cottswolds, north of London and south of Stratford."

Luke: "How did you feel about your daughter becoming an actress?"

Frank: "I was against it from the beginning. In California, you can get a driver's license at age 16. Until that age, she'd been begging me for help. She wanted to get an agent. I said no. Your life as an actress is not your own. It's a difficult business. It's full of rejection. I want you to have a normal life.

"So when she's 16, she gets a driver's license, drives around and gets an agent, and within three weeks, she's on the soap opera General Hospital. She was on for two years until she was murdered off. After that, she never stopped working."

Luke: "And she appeared in many of your movies?"

Frank: "Yes. Nepotism counts."

Luke: "And your son is a writer - director."

Frank: "We worked together on his first film, God's Lonely Man. But now he develops for other people. He'll never do television. He's developing Joyce Carol Oates' [dark] book Zombie.

"We produced a Joyce Carol Oates book recently, We Were the Mulvaneys. It was a walk in the park musical compared to Zombie."

Luke: "I can't get my mind off your portraits of strippers, centerfolds and mistresses. That wouldn't sell today."

Frank: "Well, in another form it sells. Networks are now into event movies. I'm sure six people will make a Robert Blake movie. Here's the thinking: Eighty percent of the decision to watch television is made by the woman. So the networks want to attract that female audience. So if you take accessible average female characters that the audience can relate to and understand, and at the end of act one in the seven act structure [acts are divided up by commercial breaks, it is essentially the same as the three act structure of features] and give her a dilemma that forces her to explore other options... Like Kim Basinger is living in a one stop light dusty small town. She desperately wants to get out. Someone approaches her about going to the Playboy mansion. That's the dilemma. An upwardly mobile hard working career woman who never dealt with self worth issues finds herself in relationship after relationship with married men. That was the thinking behind it. And those movies worked. They did very well."

Luke: "Of course. And they attracted primarily a female audience?"

Frank: "Of course. Men would look for the titillation value but this was network television so there wasn't any titillation.

"The emergence of pay cable has allowed the examination of themes on television that you couldn't do before."

Luke: "Have their been topics that you wanted to tackle but network executives didn't want to touch them because they were too hot?"

Frank: "I don't think so. Now anything is possible."

Luke: "Which of your movies have meant the most to you?"

Frank: "Remember they're all like children to me. But, To Heal a Nation, a true story about a foot soldier who gets the idea to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans.

"A high school graduate, Jan Scruggs, comes back to an angry nation. Soldiers are no good. And he wants to do something for the people killed. And he puts together this ragtag group. It took him eight years and he got the memorial built.

"I went to Washington to meet with him and he took me to the Vietnam veterans war memorial. It was a life experience. It's just a V cut in the ground with granite walls with 56,000 names on them. To stand there and watch the visitors come and try to touch the names and look for their loved ones... You can't help but be overwhelmed. And this was all this guy's doing.

"Too Young to Die. The story of the youngest person to ever be sentenced to death, in the South. It stars Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis, two unknowns at the time.

"I like the five Native American films we did for Ted Turner. They were epic in scope. Wonderful stories that had never been told.

"I did a little movie with Mrs. Jackie Robinson as the co-producer called The Court Marshal of Jackie Robinson. It wasn't a biopic about Jackie Robinson. It was about an event in his life before baseball that told everyone what kind of character this man had. And apparently this incident was influential in the decision of Branch Rickey to bring him into the Dodgers."

From Imdb.com: "Jackie Robinson was a young college student and athlete who learned never to take racist attacks lying down. This eventually gets him into trouble when he is drafted in World War II and assigned to a Texas training camp deep in the racist south. The film climaxes when Jackie Robinson must face a court-martial for insubordination when he refused to go to the back of the bus when the white bus driver ordered him, knowing that he was in his rights to do so."

Luke: "I remember your 1981 film Miracle on Ice about the Gold medal winning US Olympic hockey team."

Frank: "I live in LA. The Olympics were in Lake Placid. The team was going to New York to accept an award. I got on an airplane to New York and managed to convince the captain [Mike Eruzione] of the US hockey team to give me the rights to do this story. He had to convince all 18 guys on the team. They were all staying at the Plaza Hotel as guests of the NHL. He got them together and said, 'I like this guy. Remember, it is all for one and one for all. We either do it with him or we don't.' And they all voted yes.

"I'm still friendly with Mike Eruzione to this day. He's a sports announcer on the Madison Square Garden network. He led this team to this incredible victory. The night before the Gold medal game, he said, 'If we win this, it never gets better than this. I promise I will never play hockey again.' And he kept his promise. All the other players went on to careers in hockey."

Luke: "How do you know when you've done a good job on a picture?"

Frank: "Purely personal satisfaction. I made a movie called Nowhere To Land, about an airliner in trouble over the Pacific Ocean. We made it in Australia. We built an airplane. It's a programmer. It's an airline disaster movie. I thought it was so well made. There were over 400 edits in the picture. The pace was unbelievable. Reviews mean nothing. Who are these people who review films? What do they know?"

Luke: "Have you had to fire a director in the middle of a shoot?"

Frank: "I don't think I've ever done that. I came close once."

Luke: "Have you ever had to sell your soul to get a movie finished?"

Frank: "Sure. I was in Australia making a movie about a family lost at sea. We were using an Australian director. We're doing a section inside the Barrier Reef where the water is calmer. And it's being shot in an ordinary way. We're not using the fancy camera equipment we have. All the things we've talked about in visuals, we could've done in a studio. I went to the director and expressed my concerns. 'Let's have fun here. Let's use these toys. Otherwise we should just move back to the studio.' And he looked at me and said, 'Why don't you direct the movie?'

"I'm 10,000 miles from Hollywood. What am I going to do now? So I ate crow. 'Oh no. It's your vision. I'm here to support you.' But I could've strangled the guy. I swallowed my pride just to get through it."

Luke: "How do you and [business partner] Bob Sertner divide up your roles?"

Frank: "We are the same person. I could interrupt this call and he could get on and finish it."