Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman ‘Transforms’ filmdom’s giant robot genre

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Alex Kurtzman, who has been able to morph from “Transformers” fanboy to celebrated Hollywood scribe. Variety named Kurtzman one of 10 screenwriters to watch in 2005, along with partner Roberto Orci, and the two are bringing depth to genres once dismissed as camp.

The public has been clamoring for more character-driven tales of science fiction, fantasy and action, from the rebooted versions of “Batman” and “Battlestar Galactica” to original works like “Heroes” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Kurtzman, 33, is riding high on that wave of enthusiasm. With this week’s release of the highly anticipated “Transformers,” the Santa Monica native who shopped at Hi De Ho Comics as a kid is hoping that audiences will appreciate the layered, nuanced approach he’s taken to this giant-robot rumble.

Kurtzman and Orci met as students at Crossroads School, where they studied French New Wave cinema together. The two collaborated on scripts over the phone while attending college in different states and got their industry start working for Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures on such shows as “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Kurtzman said Raimi taught him “the most important lesson of all, which is you have to take your genre seriously.”

The pair went on to write for the first season of ABC thriller, “Alias,” followed by the films, “The Island,” “The Legend of Zorro” and “Mission Impossible III.”

Kurtzman and Orci were initially hesitant to sign onto the “Transformers” project for the exact reason director Michael Bay was going to take a pass. “We felt it would be a toy commercial,” Kurtzman said.

But when executive producer and DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg explained that “Transformers” is ultimately a tale about a boy (Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf) and his car (the Autobot Bumblebee), all three were ready to roll out.

To prepare for the film, Kurtzman and Orci studied for three days at a Hasbro “Transformers” boot camp with Bay, and the pair showed the director a reel of character-driven mecha anime, a popular genre in Japan that helped inspire the original Transformers toys in 1984.

Kurtzman said one of the biggest challenges was attempting to take the film away from the various animated series and comic books spawned by the toy line.

“One of the first questions we were always asked when we would tell friends that we were doing ‘Transformers’ was, ‘Well, is it going to be a cartoon?'” he said. “They just couldn’t imagine it being [live action].”

Another challenge has been striking the right balance with three different, though perhaps overlapping, audiences. It had to be family friendly but also meet the expectations of summer patrons who crave explosions. And then there are the rabid “Transformers” loyalists who want consistency.

Kurtzman said he and Orci draw from their past.

“I go to my inner kid,” said Kurtzman, who grew up culturally Jewish. “Where do we find our inspiration? It’s the movies that inspired us as kids, and a lot of that was sci-fi, but a lot of that sci-fi was fun.”


Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts


One of many things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school’s humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan’s focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan — a Jewish man — with racism, calling for the school district to take action.

The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.

Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.

That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another — our Hollywood moment.

Dramatis personae:
Erin Aubry Kaplan — a writer, black
Alan Kaplan — a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel — a literary agent
Michael Maren — a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters

ACT I: The Proposition

(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)

The phone on my desk is ringing. It’s late. I don’t want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it’s the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancĂ©. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don’t blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan — Alan — had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn’t think it would work on me. Of course, I didn’t think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I’d get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner — a large cube of lasagna and a salad — turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn’t eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.

“Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren.”

It’s not the parent group. I relax a little.

“I know this is sudden, and that you don’t know me. But I’m a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific.”

For, I’d written, “The Color of Love,” a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.

“There’s something else.” Michael pauses. “I think this would make a great screenplay.” Another pause. “It’s got all the elements — love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don’t normally get said. I’d like your permission to shop it around.”

“Shop it around?” I hear myself say the words. I’m sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.

“Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I’m thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I’ve written for them before…”….
He’s a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.

I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.

“I think that’ll be fine,” I say. “But I need to talk it over with Alan. It’s his story, too.”

(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer’s apartment)

I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic — he hates all of it.

Like me, he’s a native Angeleno. That’s part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm’s, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that’s disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.

“Honey,” I call out, “you’ll never guess who called me at work today.”
Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He’s in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.

Good Kids, Bad Revenge

At the Humanitas Prize awards luncheon in Universal City earlier this summer, Jacob Aaron Estes picked up a $10,000 cash prize honoring the screenplay for his Paramount Classics film, "Mean Creek," which opens this weekend.

When asked what he would do with the money, the Chicago-bred writer/director told The Journal, "Pay rent."

The "Mean Creek" script depicts what happens when a teenage prank goes horribly wrong on a rafting trip. Such unexpected cruelty, Estes said, is based on "a whole accumulation of childhood experiences that I borrowed from."

The experiences utilized include the one summer Estes, who was raised in a Russian Jewish home, spent in California at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Lake Tahoe. He was 12 years old and overweight.

"I was tortured at Jewish camp, absolutely," said Estes, who at 31 could be mistaken for a relation of actor Vincent D’Onofrio.

But summer camp taunting makes up just a small part of the "Mean Creek" DNA. Set in Oregon, the film’s main character, Sam (played by Macaulay Culkin’s sibling, Rory), tells his older brother about being harassed daily at school by bully George (Nickelodeon’s "Drake & Josh" star Josh Peck). Seeking revenge, the brothers invite George on a river raft trip with several other kids, with plans to abandon the bully in the wilderness. During the trip, Sam learns how lonely George is and, out of pity, tries to abort the planned revenge, but the river’s harsher course changes their lives.

"The story is about good kids who get caught up in something that gets much more ugly than they ever intended to create," said Estes, who wrote and directed the short film "Summoning" in 2001.

"It’s launched by a revenge fantasy that goes horribly wrong," he said.

The R-rated "Mean Creek" was an official selection at the Cannes, London and Sundance film festivals. Aside from the raft trip’s blonde girl Millie (Carly Schroeder) being called a "JAP" by the other kids, the film’s religious references are minimal and only in passing.

"It’s about the conflict of different backgrounds," Estes said. "It’s a very tough age."

"Mean Creek" opens this weekend at Laemmle Sunset 5 and next weekend at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, visit

The Furst Brothers’ Gamble

When producers Sean and Bryan Furst met Wayne Kramer in 2001, just about everyone had rejected his Las Vegas fable, "The Cooler." The screenplay was a hard sell, "because it defies any specific genre," Bryan Furst said. "It’s not a mob flick, it’s not a comedy or a love story, but all three together."

It didn’t help that the inexperienced Kramer wanted to direct, although that hardly bothered the Fursts. With their eight-year-old production company, Furst Films, Sean, 33, and Bryan, 26, have made a name for themselves by discovering previously unknown talent. In 2000, their Sundance picture, "Everything Put Together," introduced filmmaker Marc Forster, who went on to direct the Oscar-winning "Monster’s Ball." "Sean has this incredible, risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit," Forster told Variety, which listed the Fursts among 2003 "producers to watch."

So it wasn’t surprising that the brothers were willing to gamble on Kramer, who impressed them with his visual sensibility and his sharp screenplay, co-written with Frank Hannah.

The story is more reminiscent of classic 1970s films than recent Sin City flicks such as "Leaving Las Vegas," which interested the Fursts.

"We were also drawn to the film because we identify with the idea that to a certain extent, you make your own luck," Sean Furst said.

While growing up Reform in Beverlywood, their model was their father, who turned the flag company he started in his garage in his early 20s into a national business. Although Sean Furst initially aspired to become an actor (he caught the bug while starring in a Temple Emanuel production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"), he adopted dad’s Jewish work ethic and set his sights on producing. "I wanted to pursue something that would allow me to be creative but also to build a business," he said.

After majoring in theater and business and USC, he moved to New York to work as a producer’s assistant, and proved resilient when that job fell through. He waited tables, interned at a production company and developed "a little gift of gab," he said. By age 25 he had founded Furst Films: "But I had to put myself on the map," he said.

He began doing so by investing his own money into a pet property, "Everything Put Together," which "was like a debutante, coming-out kind of thing," he said.

His younger brother helped out on the set after graduating from NYU’s film school in 1999 and soon became his partner. The Fursts went on to establish a reputation for securing high-profile talent for inexpensive independent films, casting Philip Seymour Hoffman and Minnie Driver in "Owning Mahowny," for example.

"One of the things we’re very good at is making a compelling case to actors’ representatives," Sean Furst said.

They used that talent to snag an initially reluctant Macy for "The Cooler," their first project under a first-look deal with ContentFilm.

"Bill had read the script, but he hadn’t really committed to the movie, " Bryan Furst said.

"[I’d] played a lot of losers in my career, so many, in fact, that I had decided to put a moratorium on that type of role for myself," said Macy ("Fargo," "Boogie Nights"). "When I read ‘The Cooler,’ I thought, ‘This takes the character of the loser to operatic heights.’"

The producers changed Macy’s mind by writing persuasive letters to his agent, emphasizing that Lootz was the romantic lead and that the film was first and foremost a love story.

Several months later, "The Cooler" went into production at the Flamingo Reno; in January 2003, it was the first movie to sell at the Sundance Film Festival (Lions Gate acquired the North American distribution rights for an advance of $1.5 million). "We screened the film on a Thursday and closed the deal on Sunday," Bryan Furst said.

Since then, "The Cooler" has earned rave reviews, dramatically increasing the brothers’ producing cache. Today, they have a dozen new projects in the works, including the horror film "The Woods" for United Artists and the Hughes brothers’ thriller, "Conviction."

As the producers continue seeking out new talent, they have something in common with "Cooler" characters: We gamble every day at the office," Sean Furst said.

How the Times Distorted Jenin

When I write a screenplay, I start out with an agenda. I decide who my hero is first and who is the villain. Then I fashion scenes to build my dramatic case and make it believable. That is, I believe, exactly what occurred with regard to at least two reporters, Sheila MacVicar of CNN and Tom Miller of the Los Angeles Times, on Tuesday, April 16 in the Jenin refugee camp.

I was there. I saw everything they saw, I heard everything they heard, I smelled everything they did not smell. And the truth is there was no smell of death on that day, despite what Miller wrote in his feature article of April 21.

Miller needed a smell of death that wasn’t there, and MacVicar needed bodies for her story. That was a problem, because absolutely no bodies were found while the press tour, of which we all were a part, was in the Jenin refugee camp. In addition, Miller evidently needed to be seen as an intrepid reporter overcoming Israeli restrictions in order to piece together what really happened.

"What exactly happened in the Jenin camp has been cloaked in mystery, largely because Israel for days banned the entry of rescue workers, journalists and other independent eyes. Reporters who circumvented the restrictions, have pieced together the events of the camp…" Miller wrote in his April 21 article in the Times.

That is very dramatic prose. Unfortunately, where Miller is concerned, it is also untrue. Miller, far from circumventing the restrictions of the Israeli military, rode into the Jenin camp in an Israeli armored personnel carrier with me, courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

For the record, I am biased. I am an Israeli American who served in the IDF and was, and continue to be, a peace activist, who has held talks with members of the PLO and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine long before Oslo. I have had high-level, and sometimes secret, meetings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza long before it was legal for an Israeli to do so. I continue to believe that Israel will never have the security it desires without a peaceful Palestinian state next to it, and that the Palestinians will never get the state they want without deciding once and for all to live in peace with Israel.

I went to Jenin to find out what happened there.

"Before the Israeli forces invaded two weeks ago," intoned MacVicar in her lead-in, "this was the crowded center of the Jenin refugee camp. There were apartment houses in twisting, narrow streets, bustling and busy. That neighborhood is now gone, erased by Israeli bulldozers, turned into a river of concrete and twisted steel spreading over two city blocks. Everywhere there is evidence of life interrupted."

Now, let me tell you what there is also evidence of. Before one enters the refugee camp, one passes through the very pleasant little town of Jenin. The entrance to the camp is roughly 100 meters from the rest of the town, which has handsome single-family homes and yards, businesses and apartments. Not a one of those buildings appears to be touched — no bullet holes from Israeli machine guns, not one house bulldozed, indeed, not even a broken window anywhere in sight. All this only 100 meters away from the scene of the fighting.

The reason there is no devastation here is quite simple: No one was shooting at the Israeli reservists from these buildings, and so, quite properly, they did not shoot back.

And who lives in these suburban homes? Are they of a different racial stock, perhaps, and thus were spared? Are they Swiss? No. They are the Palestinian Arab residents of the town of Jenin.

The difference between them and those waiting for the reservists in the booby-trapped camp was a very simple one. They were not terrorists. They were not fighters. Those waiting for the reservists in the camp were.

One reservist sensed MacVicar’s hostility. He was a soft-spoken man who approached her and introduced himself as the reserve unit’s medical officer, Dr. David Zangen. He told her that when the fighting was over, they found photograph albums of children from roughly 6 years of age up through early and mid-teens. It was an album of photos of children who would be the next crop of suicide killers, with notations indicating when each of the children would be ripe. The reporter had no time for the doctor, however.

"Perhaps you should ask yourself why," she said, dismissing him.

"I do, madam," he said, "I ask myself why. I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine sending one’s child out to be a mass murderer who commits suicide to kill women and children."

"Well, I can explain it," said the reporter. "For me it all comes down to one word, ‘occupation.’"

"But madam," the doctor said, "Jenin hasn’t been occupied for nine years."

MacVicar just turned and walked away. She was looking for scenes of bodies being pulled from the rubble, as will be recalled, and she still hadn’t gotten the footage because none had been found that day. Thus, there would have been ample time for the doctor’s comments, as there would have been space for them in Miller’s article, but they didn’t fit the script.

How did MacVicar solve her body problem? She simply used footage from another day, footage she hadn’t shot, one bare foot sticking out from under a piece of rubble, which she had never seen, which had been shot by someone else when the pickings were better.

I am sure MacVicar and Miller have their own version of these events, and I’m open to hearing their side of the story, which is more consideration than they offered the doctor.

Daniel Gordon is the author of five books and the screenwriter of such films as "The Hurricane" and "Murder in the First." He is also a former sergeant in the IDF. He will be speaking on Wednesday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call (805) 497-7101.

Ponderosa Past

In the 1940s, when Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht formed their production company, Hecht-Lancaster, they optioned debut novels by two young Jewish writers: "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer and "Burial of the Fruit," by David Dortort. Dortort and Mailer were hired to adapt their books into screenplays.

"The fallacy in Hecht-Lancaster’s logic was that neither Norman nor I knew anything about writing a screenplay," Dortort said. "The verdict came in: these were two of the worst screenplays ever written," he added, laughing in the comfort of his spacious Bel Air den. Dortort’s screenplay mastery came later when the writer parlayed his love for American history into the phenomenon of a show he created in 1959 called "Bonanza."

Last year, he drew from his six-decade career to create the Dortort Program for the Arts at the University of Judaism’s Department of Continuing Education. The program, which is open to the community, begins its second season this month with a three-part film series exploring immigration: "Three Stories" (Jan. 20); "Kosher Messiah" (Jan. 27); and "Island of Roses" (Feb. 4). "Undeclared" creator Judd Apatow (Feb. 17) and composer Elmer Bernstein (April 21) will also be spotlighted.

Today’s industry talent may have programs such as Dortort’s to draw creative nourishment from, but such enterprises didn’t exist early in the writer’s career. Dortort gave up writing novels for teleplays to support his family. He became the first writer-producer hyphenate after actor John Payne used his clout to land Dortort on "The Restless Gun" in 1957. At the time, a TV writer-producer was unheard of. Universal’s head of production hated the idea … until the Western topped the ratings.

"He became my biggest fan," said a smiling Dortort.

When Dortort’s close friend, actor Raymond Burr, landed CBS’s first in-house produced program, "Perry Mason," it planted CBS on top. Hoping to emulate the success of "Mason," NBC hired Dortort to produce its own in-house show. Dortort’s idea: "Bonanza," a family-hearted Western about a rancher and his sons who lived near Virginia City, Nev., on the Ponderosa ranch.

"I had two Jewish guys playing cowboys ," said Dortort, referring to stars Lorne Greene and Michael Landon.

In a sense, Dortort not only created a popular series, but color television itself. When he agreed to produce "Bonanza," it was on the condition that the program be aired in full color. At the time, television was black and white. NBC execs balked. Dortort swayed the network only after agreeing to foot budget overages out of his pocket.

Technicolor had a reputation of being an elitist, expensive color lab, so Dortort found a willing ally in Sidney Solow, Jewish owner of Consolidated Film Lab. Unlike NBC, Solow saw the full potential of color television. Eager to keep the account, he gave Dortort a sweetheart deal. For three years, "Bonanza" was the lone color show on television. "Bonanza" enjoyed a successful 14-year run (1959-1973) and broke in talent such as Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H").

Anyone who believes "Bonanza" is a phenomenon of the past should examine PAX TV’s freshman series "Ponderosa," starring Matt Carmody. Since its Sept. 9, 2001 debut, Dortort, a former three-term Writers Guild’s TV division president, is a script consultant on the show — the highest rated in PAX TV’s history.

Dortort acknowledges a strong parallel between the Ponderosa and the State of Israel.

"The value of the land, the overcoming of obstacles, the planting of forests, preserving its very existence everyone on the land an antecedent," Dortort notes. "Essentially, my message is a very Jewish message: charity, community, respect for parents and children."

The Torah is as important to Dortort as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. "My love for America," Dortort said, "has permeated all of my work. Even as we teach beauty, wisdom of the Torah."

"He’s just a wonderful source of wisdom," said Gail Leventhal, Dortort Program of the Arts coordinator. "A fine writer with a critical eye. His wife Rose has a background in music."

"Why not be proud of our American association?" Dortort asked. "As much as we support Israel, it should not be at the expense of an emphasis on America. As Jews, we should not be apologetic about our place in America. What we brought to the table, we can be proud of."

For information on Dortort Program for the Arts, contact Gail Leventhal at (310) 476-9777, ext. 546.

Luried Tales

Back when Rod Lurie was the meanest film critic in L.A., he used to gush about actress Joan Allen on his KABC radio show. The guy who once called Danny DeVito a “testicle with legs” lauded Allen as “the greatest working actor in the world.” “I’d manage to slip that in every other week,” admits the Israeli-born critic-turned-director, whose debut film, “Deterrence,” revolved around a Jewish U.S. president in crisis. Allen had heard all about the fawning critic, so she was receptive when he offered to write a screenplay for her in 1998.

The former Los Angeles magazine reviewer immediately set out to pen a script Allen couldn’t refuse; watching news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair gave him a juicy idea. “I thought, ‘We have such a double standard in this country,” Lurie, the son of famed Israeli political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, told The Journal. “We can stomach sexuality in our men, but not in our women. And I wondered, ‘How long would a female politician last if she were caught having sex with a male intern in the oval office?'”

The result was “The Contender,” a political thriller about a female U.S. senator who is nominated for the vice presidency, only to encounter allegations of sexual scandal.

Allen loved the screenplay, but there was fallout from Lurie’s old days as the most reviled critic in town. “Some actors I wanted for ‘The Contender” wanted nothing to do with me,” says the former reviewer, who once dubbed Whoopi Goldberg a race traitor for playing too many domestics. Fortunately, Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges, both Allen fans, eagerly signed on to the film. When studios pressured Lurie to drop Allen for a bigger-name actress, he declined and made “The Contender” as a low-budget indie.

Lurie was shocked, after production wrapped, when Steven Spielberg telephoned: DreamWorks was interested in purchasing the movie as its very first acquisition. Spielberg requested a private screening at his house, along with Lurie’s home telephone number. “I put ‘Schindler’s List’ on the VCR, so when he called me, he’d hear it in the background,” the director sheepishly admits.

By 8 a.m. the next morning, Lurie had a deal; now he’s been signed to direct another DreamWorks film, a prison thriller, and to develop an FBI-related TV series. He’s glad for the opportunity to work on something other than a political thriller, though he’ll no doubt return to the genre. “Maybe I’m there because I’m a coward,” he concedes, sounding a bit like Woody Allen. “Because not many other directors are working in the genre, there’s no competition.”

So can the tough ex-critic take what he used to dish out? “I’ll try not to read ‘The Contender’s’ reviews, because it will be too painful,” he admits. “Every barb will sting.”

Climbing the Mountain

Back in 1991, David Brenner was king of the comedy mountain.

The comic had appeared well over 100 times on the “Tonight Show,” which he often guest-hosted in the 1970’s and ’80’s. He enjoyed lucrative Las Vegas appearances and was a perennial guest on TV shows like “Letterman.”

Then came the contentious court battle that knocked him, for a time, off the mountain. Brenner virtually disappeared for over four years as he struggled to win custody of his oldest son, Cole, now 17. It nearly cost him his career.

The comic had to drastically cut back his performance schedule or risk losing custody of Cole. His income declined by 80 percent as he paid $600,000 in legal fees. Brenner lost his Manhattan brownstone and his limousine. By the time he had won the custody battle, the clubs weren’t calling anymore.

Since 1995, Brenner has been immersed in another fierce battle — to rejuvenate his career. He took over a nationally-syndicated radio show, wrote a screenplay and worked the clubs. During a recent telephone interview, it was clear that all the work has paid off: Brenner is back with a vengeance.

He’s sold the screenplay, a wicked comedy called “Willpower;” he’s signed a multi-performance deal with the Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas; and his new HBO special, “David Brenner: Live and Dangerous,” will be broadcast live from the Venetian on Feb. 19. Brenner is also appearing at smaller clubs such as the L.A. Cabaret Comedy Club in Encino, where he will perform Nov. 5 and 6. “Those shows will have more of a neighborhood feel,” the Encino resident says, “because I’m a Jew who lives in the neighborhood.”

But don’t expect to see the old David Brenner, the master of the “hair-on-the-soap” brand of observational comedy. “That whole observational thing was just, ‘blah, blah, blah,'” he says. “Now I’m more into observations about things that concern me, like politics, crime, the economy.”

His comeback has taken some thought. When Brenner, 54, performed on “Letterman” in February, applause interrupted his act a record 16 times. But not a single job offer came his way the next day. “People just thought, ‘Brenner is always hysterical,’ and went off to lunch,” he says. So the comic thought up a novel way to draw attention with his HBO special.

Instead of performing a scripted stand-up routine, he’ll improvise a significant portion of his act, riffing off of news items he’s read that day in USA Today. “I’ll run with the material, even if it’s not tested,” he says. “I do that in small clubs, and I’ll do it live in front of millions of people on HBO. I know I have to make the wire higher and thinner than ever before. And I have the guts to do it.”

During a recent performance, Brenner quipped, “It was decided that Miss America can have had several marriages and several abortions, and that’s a good thing. Now Miss New Jersey can win.” When Dan Quayle “pulled his hat” out of the presidential race, Brenner joked, “he was most disappointed that the little propeller on top was broken.”

If improvising an act before millions takes guts, it’s something Brenner learned in spades while growing up in tough, poor sections of south and west Philadelphia. “I was in hundreds of street fights,” recalls Brenner, a Jewish-gang leader who always tried to deflect anti-Semitic violence with jokes. “We were tough Jews.”

Brenner’s grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi whose sons accompanied him to shul wielding bricks and bottles to fight the bigots. “Three of my uncles became rabbis and three became gangsters,” Brenner says. “And my father was not a rabbi.”

Lou Brenner was a bookie with steel-gray eyes who drank whiskey and smoked cigars. He was also the funniest person on earth, Brenner says. As a young man, Lou was a vaudeville comedian who came home one day with a Hollywood movie contract in his pocket. Lou’s father, the rabbi, nixed the deal. “He said, ‘You can’t work on Shabbat,'” Brenner says. “So my dad quit.

“But I remember going down to the pool hall with my father, the people gathering around him, screaming and laughing at his jokes. It was fall-down laughing… And on the way to the pool hall he would take me to shul. He went every morning to daven. He wore tsissis and carried a Bible.”

Lou was a man who cared about people, and David, as a young man, wanted to change the world. While still in his 20s, he made 115 documentaries on socially-conscious issues such as overspending by the Pentagon and poverty. He won an Emmy Award and headed the distinguished documentary departments of both Westinghouse and Metromedia Broadcasting. “I naively thought I could change things,” he says. “And then I realized people didn’t want to change.”

So Brenner, who had inherited his father’s penchant for comedy, tried his hand at stand-up in 1969. Two years later, he made his stunning debut on the “Tonight Show.” Within 24 hours of his appearance, he had received $10,000 worth of job offers. His career was well on its way.

Today, Brenner lives with his longtime companion, Elizabeth, a painter, and their two sons, Slade, 4, and Wyatt, 18 months. She takes the kids to synagogue while Brenner frequently performs for Jewish groups, including a recent fund-raiser for an Orthodox school. During an appearance at a Jewish event in Reno, Nevada, he quipped, “Jews in Reno? How did this happen? What, did your plane crash here?”

These days, Brenner’s comedy is more reminiscent of his socially-conscious documentaries than his “hair-on-the-soap” jokes. “I’ve come full circle,” says the comedian, who also takes pride in his highly-improvisational approach. “Anyone can study a script and perform,” he says. “But I write the material, ‘right now,’ live. Everyone in the audience will have a seat inside my comic brain.”

David Brenner will perform Nov. 5 and 6, 8 p.m. at the L.A. Cabaret Comedy Club, 17271 Ventura Blvd. Tickets are $10 plus two-drink minimum. For tickets, call (818) 501-3737.

From the Tube to the Big Screen

Veteran television writer/producer Saul Turteltaub had to wait 44 years for his first film credit, “For Roseanna,” starring Mercedes Reuhl and Jean Reno.
Saul Turteltaub, a name-brand television comedy writer and producer for 44 years, remembers submitting his first movie screenplay.

“I showed it to [producer] Irwin Winkler, who loved it. He showed it to United Artists, and they didn’t love it. So, instead, Winkler went ahead with another low-budget film, called ‘Rocky.'”

That was more than two decades ago. The 65-year-old Turteltaub is only now celebrating his first movie credit, as the writer of “For Roseanna,” a.k.a. “Roseanna’s Grave.”

The film deals with a trattoria owner (French actor Jean Reno) who desperately tries to keep alive all the residents of his Italian village in an effort to save one of the few remaining plots in the local cemetery for his ill wife (Mercedes Ruehl).

Despite the somewhat somber subject, and mixed reviews, Turteltaub’s comic flair predominates, and the film winningly alternates between tender middle-age romance and robust humor.

In any case, Turteltaub himself is now being acclaimed as the poster boy of the geriatric set — in a town and industry rife with age discrimination, where 30-year-old writers and producers are often considered past their prime.

Producer Norman Lear says of his old colleague: “I know a lot of guys who are 35 and who are far older than Saul. He’s a life force. If this doesn’t send a loud message to an industry that needs a loud message, I don’t know what would.”

Turteltaub is also notable for a less-recognized achievement. While it is not uncommon for Hollywood personalities to write generous checks for Jewish causes or to accept plaques at star-studded testimonial dinners, Turteltaub is one of the few members of the entertainment industry to enlist in the less glamorous, foot-slogging work of daily Jewish community life.

He has done so while writing and/or producing some 1,500 episodes for more than 30 TV comedies, including “Kate and Allie,” “What’s Happening,” “Sanford and Son,” “Love American Style,” “That Girl,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.”>

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Turteltaub and his wife, Shirley, joined Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

“I am not as strongly Orthodox as most of the congregants [among them a high percentage of writers],” he says. “I’m more of an ‘Orthodox-style’ Jew.” Although Turteltaub maintains that he “doesn’t feel worthy” of playing a prominent role in the congregation, Beth Jacob honored him and his wife for their contributions to the synagogue some years ago.

His most consistent involvement has been with the Entertainment Division of the United Jewish Fund, the money-raising arm of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. He served as the division’s chairman in the late 1980s and continues as a member of its cabinet. He has been equally active in promoting Israel Bonds, and he currently serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

Turteltaub appreciates his status-raising role as a screenwriter, though he is not too enchanted with the finished product.

“‘For Roseanna’ is the longest thing I’ve ever written,” he says during a phone interview from New York, where he is in the midst of a two- year stint as executive consultant to the “Cosby” show. “It’s nice to have friends call you with congratulations and to see your name in the papers. But it’s also frustrating because, in the end, the film isn’t really yours. I had to make a lot of changes to please the director (Britain’s Paul Weiland). In films, the writer is very unimportant, while the director is god.”

Turteltaub can cast an equally sober eye on some of the less elevating moments of his illustrious TV career, particularly the short-lived “Chicken Soup.”

That 1989 sitcom, with Turteltaub as writer and producer, played off the ethnic and religious differences between Jewish comedian Jackie Mason and the non-Jewish Lynn Redgrave.

In the original version, Mason was to have been married to Redgrave, but Turteltaub refused to go along with the concept. He said that he could accept a Jew and non-Jew falling in love — “that’s an emotional reaction” — but he couldn’t endorse intermarriage.

The show lasted a mere eight weeks, partially because Mason was wrong for the part, Turteltaub says. “Jackie is a reactor, not a pro-actor; he’s best when he’s kibitzing.”

“Chicken Soup” also drew the ire of the militant Jewish Defense League, whose national chairman, Irv Rubin, attended one of the tapings, eyed by nervous security men.

“Irv was sitting in the front row, and, after a while, he fell asleep,” says Turteltaub. “So I woke him up and told him, ‘You can hate the show, but you can’t sleep through it.'”

As for now, Turteltaub’s belated screenwriting career is taking off. He has finished a script for Mel Gibson, who will direct the romantic adventure story, also set in Italy, while another feature deal has been sealed with Miramax.

Coming up is a joint venture with his son, 33-year-old Jon Turteltaub, currently one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood.

Saul as writer and Jon as director will collaborate on an American version of the recent Japanese release “Shall We Dance?”

Father and son, who run a mutual-admiration society, expect nothing but harmony on the set.