Talk With Link and
When the book of television is finally written (probably by me . . . and I probably won't
be able to get a publisher for that, either), the names of Levinson and Link will be
bandied about as among the very best the medium has to
offer. Never mind that they created some of the greatest
TV Detectives, such as Mannix and Columbo. Never
mind that they made award-winning mystery TV movies,
such as Murder by Natural Causes and Rehearsal for
Murder. Never mind that they are mystery lovers,
mystery readers, and mystery promoters, Never mind all
that. Among their credits are some of the best things
ever on television, period. But I'll let them tell you about
Seen together, Levinson and Link look like the Mutt
and Jeff of writing teams (and I mean that in the most
flattering way possible). Bill Link is the shorter and
quieter of the two. Dick Levinson is the taller and
tougher. If the story of their lives had been filmed before
either was around, they would have been played by
Cagney and Bogart. Or Garfield and Bogart. Or maybe
Lorre and Bogart. Yeah, Link is the more Ellery Queenish
of the two (and I mean by way of Dannay), while
Levinson is definitely Bogart.
TAD: Okay, let's get this straight. How do you work
Link: We met the first day of junior high school and
started collaborating in junior high school. And basically
our system of working together is the same as anybody
else's. The concept comes first, and we both have to
agree on that. Once that's done, then we have to
structure it, which is the toughest part, then get the
characters and that might take several weeks, depending
on the project, For a two-hour original movie for
television, it might take several weeks just to work it out
scene by scene, and when we both approve of all this, we
sit down in a room and write it. We're lucky because we're
both morning people. We like to work in the morning.
That helps. If we can do five pages a morning, we're very
Levinson: This is dialogue, mind you, not narrative.
Link: Yes, and by the end of a month . . . or longer . . . we
Have the script. We don't do that many rewrites, and
that's basically it. We don't collaborate by phone or
through the mail or anything like that.
Levinson: For instance, for years Bill and I played around
with the idea that wouldn't it be interesting to have the
trial before the crime. It was just an idea. Then another
idea we had was what would happen if the world's
greatest defense attorney wanted to murder his wife, How
would he do it? Then we got the insight that he would
create in his mind the world's greatest prosecuting
attorney, and subject each method he came up with to
Out of that came Guilty Conscience. Then comes the
twist. What if, at the same time he's trying to murder his
wife, she's trying to murder him?
There's a whole different way of writing mysteries as
opposed to writing non-mysteries. As we say, in non-
mysteries, the characters draw you along. In mysteries,
you draw the characters along. The kinds of mysteries we
write, which are influenced by Carr, Queen, and Christie,
are intricate and very artificial. And, while we don't do
many rewrites, each finished page of our first draft has
been rewritten about ten times. Tragically, we are the
kinds of writers who can't go on to page two until page
one is utter perfection. The other thing is that I'm at the
typewriter and . . . our joke is that Bill paces, but in his
later years, Bill sits, And the difference between an
individual writer and a team is that the questions you ask
yourself in your mind, we ask each other, out loud.
"We started writing radio shows and had our friends over to d these dramas. And, as
Broadway, it's a
way to meet
TAD: Yeah, but that fateful day in junior high school . . .
What made you become partners?
Levinson: We became friends and found we had similar
interests, one of which was reading mysteries.
Link: We shared hobbies. Dick would read five mysteries
a week, and the ones he liked he would pass to me. I read
five mysteries a week and we'd switch over - I'd give him
the good ones.
Levinson: We started writing radio shows and had our
friends over to the house to do these dramas. And, as
Mike Nichols said about Broadway, it's a great way to
meet girls. So they'd come over and they'd act. We
adapted Two Bottles of Relish; we adapted Donovan's
Brain . . with his brother blowing into a straw to get the
Link :Wonderful training.
TAD: Did you write books?
Link. Oh, yes, we wrote short stories, and we wrote a
mystery novel called The House of Cards and
another called Queer Street. Two, to this day
unpublished - at the bottom of our trunks.
Levinson: They both featured the same private
detective. In California, no less.
TAD: Queer Street?
Levinson: A boxing term. You hit a guy hard enough
and he's on Queer Street. It didn't have a gay
connotation. As Ellery Queen said, "Who knew?" But
many of the devices in those books we've utilized since
then. it's the same problem a lot of writers face. When
you're young, you've got a lot of terrific ideas and a lot of
passion, but you haven't got technique. Then later, you
get technique, but you could burn out and lose the
Link. We shouldn't admit it, but occasionally we use
idea in mysteries we got in junior high school.
Levinson: When we were fourteen, we wrote a story
called "The Mystery Writers of America Case," in which
the characters were Queen and Carr and Boucher, and
they all got together solving impossible crimes. EQMM
sent that one back, saying, "Interesting idea but not
developed well enough." Anyway, we sold
our first story during our freshman year at college. We
said, "This is easy!"
Link. Forgetting about all the rejections. . .
Levinson: But by then we had become fascinated by
the so-called "Golden Age of Television." Marty,
Twelve Angry.Men, Patterns. . . all New York-
based shows, all so-called "closet dramas," and . . . um.. .
Link. I think that was a transition in our intellectual
growth. Up until we entered college, I think we had read,
almost exclusively, mysteries. But then we started
reading the English Lit I "great books." Suddenly, there
was Hemingway, there was Melville, there was F. Scott
Levinson: The Freshman Awakening!
Link: That coincided with the Golden Age, which were
social dramas and dramas about people.
Levinson: Add that to the fact that we were brought up
in Philly, where there was a lot of theatre, Broad
way tryouts, and we were both movie buffs. Then we
began to do musicals in college, which were great fun.
TAD: And that led to a lifelong interest in musicals
which manifested itself. . .
Levinson: You're segueing to Merlin, aren't you?
Levinson: Let me speak about Merlin to any would be
playwrights, Columbia Pictures financed Merlin, and then
the head of Columbia Pictures was a man named Frank
Price. Who said to us, "Why do you want to write a book
for a musical?" And we said "It's the only step down from
television we could think of." Our definition of a musical's
book is "That which, if it's a hit, it's a hit in spite of, and if
it's a flop, it's a flop because of." We made an assumption
when we were approached to do Merlin. That it would
close out of town. Because most shows do. We said, "Do
we want this life experience? Do we want this
adventure?" Yes. All our lives we'd seen musicals - the
backstage squabbles, the drunken leading man,
the late-night meetings . . . we wanted to go through that
Our advice is this: if you do a musical on the assumption
you'll get rich or famous, you are bound for a nervous
breakdown. If you do a musical because you want an
enriching and exciting experience, you can't be
disappointed. So we went into it knowing we had a life
and a career that had nothing
to do with New York, and anticipating that everything
would go wrong, And don't forget, both Bill and I are
magic enthusiasts. Hanging around with the world's
greatest magician, Doug Henning, and seeing how it was
all done, was an incredible attraction. But here's where we
divide on it. It was one of the happiest, most exciting
periods of my life.
Link: it was a grand adventure, there's no doubt about it.
I would compare it to being in an automobile accident. I
didn't find it a particularly enlightening experience. We
wanted an intimate show, but the producer wanted
something grandiose, which I still think was a mistake.
[To the tune of about five million dollars. - RM] But to
show you just how crazy we are, we had our own
insurance policy. We wrote a two-hour teleplay while this
madness was going on.
Levinson: Prototype, one of our favorites. [A science-
fiction drama on the nature of being human starring
Christopher Plummer and David Morse, -RM ]
Link.- Yes. It turned out very, very well. So we knew
that, even if it died opening night, Beverly Hills existed.
But it didn't. It ran for a year.
TAD: Now, before the readers go nuts, because this is
The Armchair Detective, let's segue over to mystery.
You've just finished Blacke's Magic and are presently
still working on Murder She Wrote. . .
Levinson: By the way, Blacke's Magic was cancelled
because Universal Television refused to have it renewed.
There had been a whole change-around in this industry
Concerning money. NBC said, "We'll do it for a second
season," and Universal said, "Let's negotiate." And by
the time that was over, NBC was
not very happy. Because Universal said, "We're not
doing Michael Mann's new show [Crime Story, we're
cancelling Donald Bellisario's show [,Airwolf 1 because
it's too much money," and suddenly NBC says, We don't
TAD: That's too bad. I liked the show.
Levinson: We know. And we had ways of improving it.
We learned. We were only able to do thirteen shows. We
weren't given the chance. We were the highest-rated
NBC show to be cancelled. In Murder She Wrote and
Columbo, we were lucky enough to fall into everything
very quickly. In Blackes Magic, we finally went to NBC
and said, here's what we think we re doing wrong,' and they
said, "You're right. go fix it Work on the relationship between
Harry [Morganl and Hal [Linden] and put more magic in," and
all sorts of other things.
Link:Unfortunately, we never got the chance. They
pulled the rug out.
TAD: Meanwhile, though, you had finished your TV
Levinson: Oh, yes. Originally, we wrote Natural Causes,
which the network changed to Murder by Natural
Causes, and we said, "Let's keep doing this," because
this was the sort of thing we loved about mysteries. Then
we did Cold Reading, which the network renamed
Rehearsal for Murder, and then Guilty Conscience. That
was originally a play Bill and I wrote, which the
Schuberts and Manny Azenberg put together in Florida
starring Richard Kiley to see whether we should bring it
to New York. For a variety of reasons, it didn't come to
New York, so we said, "Let's do it as a television movie."
So while Merlin was playing on Broadway, Guilty
Conscience was playing in a small theatre in San Diego.
So we were bicoastal playwrights. Now Guilty
Conscience is on a month's run at the Royal Theatre in
Windsor, which is the Queen's theatre next to Windsor
Castle, and will tour for ten weeks all over England, with
the possibility of winding up in the West End. Whereas
Rehearsal for Murder has been adapted as a play and
will be opening in the West End mid-November .
TAD: Will any more of the. . . trilogy . . . be forthcoming?
Link: Never say never . . . but it's finding what we
consider a unique concept that we haven't seen before or
Levinson: But Vanishing Act was not a part of that.
TAD: Ah, yes. Vanishing Act created its own little mini-
controversy when many recognized it as an adaptation of
another TV movie done years before, One of My Wives Is
Missing. I think it caused this ripple because you are
looked to for the kinds of original ideas which made up
Link: Vanishing Act was different in that we did not
generate it. This was brought to us.
Levinson: And it was one of the great premises of
mystery fiction, created by a French playwright named
Robert Thomas. It was then first done on television in the
early years, and called Deadly Honeymoon, starring
Rozanno Brazzi, but the writer switched it, having a wife
looking for her missing
husband. Then it was done later as One of My Wives
Is Missing, written under a pseudonym by Peter Stone.
That was an adaptation of a Broadway show called
Catch Me if You Can. Ten years later, we're
approached by Twentieth Century-Fox to adapt the
original Robert Thomas play as a movie. We did, but they
lost interest because when Deathtrap was released as a
movie, it was not a success. Years after that, a producer
called us and said, "Do you have a mystery I can film in
Canada?" He bought it from Fox and made it. That was
Prior to the airing, we insisted that CBS publicity
mention the fact that it was an adaptation of Robert
Thomas. They neglected to do this, until we heard about
h, then they did. And it had to say the same onscreen,
which it did. Now the bad fortune is, a
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Link: Even so, we didn't do it until Twentieth gave us the
time to plug up all the holes in the mystery. We must be
masochists because we lock ourselves in a room and try
to make everything work . . . courting massive migraines.
Levinson: Many mystery writers have a happy life
because they don't see the holes. In North By Northwest,
why not go up to Cary Grant and plug him? No-they
rent a crop duster. In The Jagged Edge, the murderer kills
a woman and her maid in a remote house miles from
anywhere, wearing a mask. Why does he wear a mask?
So the audience can't see him. These are called
"Refrigerator Scenes" by Hitchcock. When you're home,
opening the refrigerator after seeing the picture, you say,
"Wait a minute . . . !" These are terrific scenes. They
make no sense. So the mystery writer is constantly faced
with Refrigerator Scenes. To me, the best mysteries are
ones with great scenes that do make sense.
TAD: interesting, because, while you do not do
predominantly mystery, you are best known for mystery.
Why do you think that isle
Levinson: Probably because our two greatest successes
are mysteries. But for a period in the Yes, we did My
Sweet Charlie, The Execution of Private Slovik, That
Certain Summer. . .
Link: The Gun, The Storyteller. . .
Levinson: Crises at Central High. . .
Link: And the only mystery in there was Columbo.,,
Levinson: And critics kept saying to us, "How come you
guys always do social dramas?" And we said, Fellas,
on our tombstones, it's going to say 'Creators of
Columbo'." Now people are saying to us, "You're writing
too many mysteries." I must tell you that our current
telefilm is not a mystery and our current series is not a
mystery. The title of it is Hard Copy, and it should be on
by March [of 1987].
TAD: So you're not straitjacketed by mystery,
Levinson: it's the grand dream!
Link it's an escape valve!
TAD: But now you have your second greatest success,
Murder She Wrote.
Levinson: That came out of our production of Eller
Queen. We took one of the writers of Columbo, Peter
Fisher, made him our producer - we were the executive
Producers - and worked together, learning a lot of
lessons. One of the lessons we learned was not to be too
tricky. Some people say, "We can guess Murder She
Wrote." We say, "Good!" We also learned that Angela
[Lansbury has a drive we didn't have in Ellery Queen,
just by the nature of her personality. We also did EQ a
little bit '40s, a little bit
campy, so we deliberately made Murder She Wrote a
very old-fashioned, very straight, even very square show.
We didn't give Angela any eccentricities. We said, "Just
be yourself, because you're so charming."
Link: A large part of the success, we've found, is
marrying that creation to somebody who's very well liked
and has a powerful presence. We found that with Peter
Falk and with Angela.
Levinson: But some people still don't understand that
Murder She Wrote is a whodunit and Columbo was
Link: it was a "How-to-prove-it."
Levinson: We had a writer come in recently, who said,
"Love the show. Okay, we see this guy murder his wife,
and Angela goes after him..." And Peter Fisher goes,
"Excuse me? This is a whodunit." And the guy goes,
"Yeah, I know, anyway, we see this guy murder his wife .
Link: is that wonderful? He . . . didn't . . . understand.
TAD: An outsider would think you were studiers of
Link: One of the great constructionists.
Levinson: Oddly enough, we didn't like her as much as
Carr and Queen simply because she didn't write
particularly well. She was not a stylist. But I don't think
there was anybody who plotted as well.
TAD: Interesting that Columbo was a show which
revolved around the one line that was in almost every
Christie: "You don't have any proof."
Levinson: As we've said before, Columbo owes itself
to Father Brown and Crime and Punishment. The
brilliant student and the bureaucratic cop.
Link: But it became a nightmare. We would paint
ourselves into a corner and not have that final clue! So
we started relying on other writers, and, . . well, it was just
TAD: But back to Murder She Wrote. Angela
Lansbury is essentially playing an American Agatha
Christie, if Christie had been a detective herself.
Levinson: Exactly! Not Miss Marple, as some people
have said. And when the show first came on, you
complained that it was unrealistic that she stumble over
bodies all the time. But there are "givens" in a genre. We
used to have a thing where Mannix would knock on the
door and say, "I want to talk to you about your
husband's murder," and the widow would say, "Haven't
you ever heard of telephones?" Half the time a character
will say, "It's lucky father favored me," and the other
could say, "l know that; why are you telling me that?"
Link: it's so easy to satirize these things.
Levinson: So if you have the detective react to the
body the way they would in real life, you can't press
the key thing we're proudest of in Murder
:she Wrote, and I'm sure Peter Fisher is as well, is
that there has almost never been a successful tel-
eVision drama with a female lead - other than Police
Woman, where she showed her legs and had to be
bailed out in the last act, The Bionic Woman, which
was a spin-off, Wonder Woman, and Cagney &
Laced This is a woman of "a certain age" who wears
glasses. So what we're proudest of is that you finally
have a woman who isn't bailed out and doesn't have
to display parts of her anatomy. I can also tell you
that it is a hit which broke every rule. it's all talk,
there's almost no action, it's slow, it deliberately has
what we call "Aaron Spelling lighting," the music is
"melodic-conventional," it successfully follows 60
Minutes where the last three shows in that time-slot
failed, it features "mature" performers, and it's a
whodunits The smart money in town didn't give it a prayer.
Link: Our money! We thought six and out. It couldn't
TAD: in hindsight, it was brilliant.
Levinson: Well, I wish we were that smart.
Link. You've got to give enormous credit to Peter Fisher
for coming up with 22 good-to-brilliant whodunits a
Levinson: We're astonished at the success of that show.
Actually, what's astonishing to us is that we're able to get
our social dramas on the air, even though all of us know
up front that no one's going to watch. And the irony is
that, by "no one," we mean "only fifteen to twenty
million." But we keep saying we've got to make these.
We've been lucky enough to carve out this little niche for
ourselves where they say, "Let's indulge them 'cause
maybe they'll give us another sensational series." And. of
course, we're still dying to do a show where a bad guy
pulls a gun and the hero runs away! I mean, you don't
stand there when a man pulls a gun! One of the beauties
of writing a mystery is to ask yourself, "What would a
person really do in this case?" Of course, if a guy pulled
a gun on me, I'd use the opportunity to clear up some plot
points. "Now, the real reason l buried
the money was. . . "