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Talk With Link and Levinson

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
    that. '
    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
    this thing?
    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
                             Mike Nichols said
                           about Broadway, it's a
                             great 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
    bubbling effect.
    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
    Fitzgerald. .
    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?
    TAD: Yes.
    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
     need you."
    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
    mystery trilogy.
   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 [1986].
    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
    read before.
    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
    the trilogy.

    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
    Vanishing Act.
    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
    Agatha Christie.
    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
    a nightmare.
    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
    on. But
   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. . . "

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