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November 21, 2017

Richard Levinson and William Link: Hall of Fame Tribute

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There is a little episode in the careers of Richard Levinson and William Link that offers a lesson to any writer whose agent is not being properly supportive:

Do it yourself — and cheat — if necessary.

"One of our scripts was Chain of Command, an hour drama, and we asked our agent at William Morris to send it out to The Desilu Playhouse," said Link. “This was around 1960. He said he didn't like it, and they'd never buy it. So when he left for the day, we got his secretary to write a letter on William Morris stationery, and forge his name. We sent the script to Desilu. Six days later they telegrammed to say they wanted to buy it. That was the biggest credit you could get at that time in television!”

Were they ever found out?

"Yes. Well, William Morris didn't complain. They got their commission."

And the agent?

"He was stunned. He got the telegram. He said, 'How did this happen?' We told him, and he said, 'Well, I still don't like the script.'"

For the record, that's hardly the only time writer-producers Levinson and Link turned to crime to further their careers. You could say they made the art of deception into their stock and trade. That, after all, is what fine mystery writers do.

"For some reason," said Link, lighting up a big Cuban cigar he recently brought back from Europe, "I like to deceive people. I probably would have been a great con artist, and so would Dick. We'd have been great grifters if we hadn't gone in a legitimate route."

Stylistically, the two had about as much in common as Abbott had with Costello. Levinson two-finger typed. Link paced. Levinson smoked cigarettes. Link wrung his hands. Levinson was tall. Link … less than tall. They tossed around ideas like "a typical, happily married bickering couple," as their friend and colleague Bob Cooper, president of HBO Pictures and HBO Showcase, phrased it. In the end, this professional odd couple gave to the world an obsequious, rumpled little detective called Columbo, an incisive, unfailingly poised author/sleuth named Jessica Fletcher, a methodical cowboy investigating murders in New York City named McCloud …

In short, they invented the cleverest, most civilized murder mysteries in television history, the most memorable detectives since Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe — and for good measure, threw in some of the most provocative motion pictures ever to fill the small screen.

"They were a study in contrasts," said Peter Falk, hesitating between words, not unlike his trademark Detective Columbo. “One talked very little, and the other one never stopped talking. I think Levinson was the smoker. Link was without vice. Levinson loved to talk about recipes. Link liked to talk about art … They were one of our country's top writing teams, no question about that. Obviously, they changed my life”.

To hear Link tell it, the two men were made for each other.

"Dick and I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia," he remembered from his longtime West Los Angeles home. “We went to different grade schools. In the seventh grade, they consolidated to form one class. I was alerted by mutual friends to look for a very tall guy who did magic tricks and read mysteries. He was alerted by mutual friends to look for a short guy who did magic tricks and read murder mysteries. We met that first day of school, and that started the whole thing.”

The "whole thing" was a career and friendship lasting almost four decades and 15 series, including Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, Mannix, McCloud, The Bold Ones, and accruing along the way: two Emmys, two Golden Globes, the George Foster Peabody Award, four Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, the Ellery Queen Award …

The New York Times eventually labeled Levinson, who passed away in 1987, and Link the "Mr. Rolls" and "Mr. Royce" of television. But to turn the clock back to the time when they were more like "Mr. Volks" and "Mr. Wagen" …

At that fortuitous junior high school meeting, Levinson and Link discovered a mutual passion for writing stories and drawing comic-book-style cartoons. Before long, while other kids were out playing football, Bill and Dick took to holing up at each other’s houses — to write. During high school in the late '40s they teamed to compose radio shows (they were devoted fans of Suspense and Dragnet), short stories, a novel (a mystery, of course, The House of Cards) — just for kicks. They also wrote the school musical in their senior year, Election Time. Said Link, "It was fun, but we were both highly ambitious — no question about it."

They were intensely interested in movies, of course, and excitedly followed the development of TV — becoming ardent watchers of weekly dramas like The Philco Playhouse, U.S. Steel Hour, Kraft Theater. This was a time, Link explained with undisguised nostalgia, when "writer was king;" when TV boasted among its screenwriters Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, Rod Serling. Somehow, the young scribes didn't seem to realize that their hobby might make for a career, and, as sons will do, they remained intent on following in their fathers' pragmatic footsteps: Levinson to the automotive business, and Link to a textile brokerage. ("It bored us both silly," said Link, "as our fathers both knew.")

The lads matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, of all things non-literary — and wound up with degrees in economics. Laughed Link: "We hated Penn. We hated the Wharton School ... Dick used to copy some of my term papers. I would read the books — he didn't have time."

On the brink of entering life as square pegs headed for round holes, the pair finally caved in to overriding impulse. They founded a satirical magazine on campus called Pennpix, wrote and sold a short story to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (it won best new short story of 1953), and penned several of the university's traditional, very big budget "Mask and Wig" musicals. The shows were quite legitimate, always reviewed by Variety. One, a Sherlock Holmes mystery musical, Holmes, Sweet Holmes, went on to open at a major Philadelphia theater.

These successes offered the deciding clue that perhaps the mysterious future need not lie in dutiful dreams of cars and textiles. They leaned on a friend at Syracuse University whose father happened to be Harry Kalscheim, an agent with William Morris in New York City. Kalscheim, who handled Milton Berle, found L&L's theme so polished and compelling that he signed the pair without hesitation. But the Link and Levinson success story was not a natural progression. Their first setback was punishing:

"We were incredibly excited," said Link. "This was the most powerful theatrical agency in the world. We took the train back to Philly, and waiting for me was a letter inducting me into the U.S. Army. It was such a blow, I cannot tell you."

Link served four years. Levinson joined six months later, but only served six months due to changes in national service laws. Link wrote at night while stationed all over Europe, mailing his scripts to Levinson for revision and additions. Finally discharged in 1959, Link found, to his great shock, that all the great hour-long original TV dramas — the format he and Levinson had aspired to emulate — were gone. As he put it: "The Untouchables had come in and mowed them all down with their Thompson machine guns."

For the next nine months, the duo made do by selling short stories to Alfred Hitchcock's magazine. It was then that the Chain of Command breakthrough with Desilu came (no thanks to that agent). L&L grabbed their briefcases and flew to L.A. (an experience in itself; Link said "It was culture shock — purple lights on foliage at night, swimming pools … ") They were instantly put under contract for Four Star Television, and soon were writing scripts for a young ex-actor named Aaron Spelling.

"He bought everything we did, and was sort of our mentor," said Link. “Every promise he made he came through on. He said, ‘Write a good show here, and if that's good. I'll get you a multiple …’ Our first series was Michael Shane, which lasted one season for NBC. It gave us entree into editing rooms, soundstages, actors — we really saw what Hollywood was all about.”

Well, not quite. They really learned what Hollywood was all about — instability — when their second great career setback arrived: a five-month writers' strike. Barred from doing what they essentially lived for, L&L headed back to New York in disarray — but not for long. They soon found that writing for live shows, for some strange reason, did not break Writers' Guild regulations. Opportunity appeared in the form of the Chevy Mystery Show, an NBC replacement for Dinah Shore (one of the first color programs) done live. They had an idea for a story called "'Enough Rope" that they thought would be ideal for the Chevy show. It concerned a psychiatrist who thinks he has committed the perfect murder.

Until, that is, he runs into a cop named Columbo. The year was 1960.

"A man named Bert Fried played Columbo," said Link. “He later became president of the Screen Actors Guild. I met him years later at a party, and I said, ‘You know you were the first Columbo.’ He said, ‘What?’ He had actors' amnesia — he had played in so many shows, he'd forgotten!”

In short order, Levinson and Link transformed "Enough Rope" into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which became a touring hit with the great character actor Thomas Mitchell as the patronizing investigator. This more or less catapulted the duo back to Hollywood, this time with a seven-year contract at Universal to develop movies for television — "halcyon days," as Link said, that culminated in the late '60s and early '70s with the likes of Stephen Spielberg and Sydney Pollack directing for TV. Their next landmark project was a world premiere movie adaptation of a play called My Sweet Charlie — an interracial love story and the first of a number of controversial L&L movies. It marked their debut as producers, something that came at the behest of Universal TV chief Sid Sheinberg.

"We didn't really know anything about producing, so we had some cold feet," said Link. "My argument was, it's a way to protect our scripts. We're basically writers, and producing is like buying an insurance policy on our scripts."

The next period — the late '60s through the mid-'80s — was the era when Link and Levinson went really unchallenged for quality dramatic television. Charlie had gotten big ratings, so NBC suggested another movie. L&L decided to revive Prescription: Murder, offering the role of Columbo to Bing Crosby. Crosby opted instead to golf away his remaining years, so the writer-producers turned to an up-and-coming New York actor and old acquaintance named Peter Falk. Said Link: “We saw Columbo as older, but we thought, 'This is another way of going. Peter projects intelligence, he's a good actor, he's got that heavy New York accent. He was cast — thank God!’”  Falk shot Prescription: Murder, and NBC promptly suggested a follow-up. Sheinberg commissioned six new shows.

"We were shattered, because we had to do six shows with no scripts! Well, we worked around the clock. Then Falk came in and gave us a stop date — the son-of-a-!" laughed Link. “He was doing Prisoner of Second Avenue for Neil Simon. We said, ‘Peter, we've got to do all these shows this summer?’ He said, ‘That's what we've got to do.’ Well, Dick and I produced. Our story editor was a young guy named Stephen Bochco. We loved Stephen Spielberg — he was about 21, and we asked him to direct our first episode. It was about two mystery writers. One guy kills the other. The big joke around the studio was, ‘Did Link kill Levinson, or did Levinson kill Link?’” =

Columbo, of course, is still going strong. Falk, "eternally indebted" to L&L, reports that "they were a little wary of a kind of nosy actor that wanted to get involved in areas that he had no business in — meaning the script." Link recounted one discussion of a fine point of Columbo's character, or at least his car:

“I'll never forget it. We had this all-morning argument with Falk about his old Peugeot. There's a cracked headlight. Falk said, ‘Hey, I might be sloppy, I might be disorganized, but I'm a cop, and a cracked headlight doesn't go along with that. It doesn't work.’ So we went to lunch, and walked out, and there was Falk's Jaguar parked in front of our bungalow, and all three of us saw that he had a cracked headlight!  Falk smiled and said, ‘Lunch on me.’ That was the last we ever heard of it — went right into the script.”

The next few years brought more Columbos ("the only non-violent cop show in the history of the medium — no guns," Link says with pride) and a series of remarkable, controversial films: That Certain Summer, the first major television movie to deal openly with homosexuality ("The only reason that show got on the air in 1973, when most gay people were still in the closet, was Barry Diller, head of ABC movies of the week. We were very proud of that film"); The Execution of Private Slovick, the story of the only American since the Civil War to be executed for desertion, starring Martin Sheen ("the most powerful movie we've done"); The Gun, a remarkable chronicle of an American handgun, from manufacture to its one use — killing a child ("Dick and I got in terrible trouble with the National Rifle Association. They plastered us all over American Riflemen — 'These were the guys who were soft on homosexuality and made that traitor Eddie Slovick into a hero.' The Gun was also one of our favorites"); and HBO movies including The Guardian, in 1983, with Martin Sheen and Louis Gossett Jr., the story of a security guard in a New York apartment building who is eventually given great influence over the lives of the tenants.

They also freelanced a few murder mysteries before returning to Universal to create, with Peter Fisher, Murder She Wrote, in 1983. Jean Stapleton, Link said, didn't "get" the MSW pilot, so they sent the script to Angela Lansbury, who was poised to break into TV with a Norman Lear sitcom. One look at the L&L script, and her plans changed: "She said, ‘I really like this — it's sort of an American Miss Marple, with no violence. The woman solves the crime; she's not bailed out by men. I love this and I'm going to do it.'”

The final setback in the careers of Levinson and Link was the ultimate setback. Richard Levinson died in 1987 of heart failure.

"Outside the death of my father," said his great friend and creative partner, “this is the most tragic thing that has ever happened to me. He had some pains in the left arm, and chest congestion. He didn't see a doctor. He was a very heavy smoker. He probably could have averted it — that's the sad, sad thing.”

Link credits his other interests — jazz and classical music, his art collection, his ongoing penchant for drawing cartoons (some are on display at the Cartoon Museum in San Francisco) — for surviving the tragedy, and continuing to work. He also credits a psychiatrist. “He said to me, using a very flattering analogy which isn't really true, but it was quite supportive — ‘Let's say you have two Picasso paintings, and one is destroyed in a fire. Do you think the one left is more valuable, or less valuable?’ I said ‘More valuable.’ He said, ‘You got it’ … I lost Dick, but I'm still writing and still successful. But I still wish Dick was here.”

Link indeed is still writing. He did The Cosby Mysteries (killed by zero promotion, he said), and is working with Francis Ford Coppola to author and produce a series of two-hour movies based on the best-selling mysteries of Jonathan Kellerman for ABC (just finished the first script). The Levinson and Link legacy, meanwhile, lives on in other ways, as HBO's Cooper explained:

“Our Barbarians at the Gate and The Band Played On were very much modeled after what Levinson and Link did. Both were entertaining, had resonance, and illuminated our lives in an unusual way. Levinson and Link have been pioneers and architects of a kind of movie that has been and still is unique. For three years in a row, HBO has won the Emmy for best movie for television, and in fact, it is a simple acknowledgment of Levinson and Link. When we won our first Emmy three years ago, I wrote to Bill, and to Dick's widow, Rosanna, to simply say that we would not have received that Emmy had it not been for them.”

While very moved by such a tribute. Link's satisfaction with his career is tempered by dissatisfaction with the state of television.  “For years Dick and I were telling the audience the good stuff: blacks and whites can live together in harmony, gays are not horned creatures, guns are bad. Has any of this taken? There are 250 million handguns floating around, we have terrible racial prejudice, and homophobia reigns. The humane bias of TV doesn't seem to have done a damned thing … But you've got to get out there and try — try to write those things that are humanistic in content.”

These days. Link finds himself watching TV "selectively" (American Movie Classics, NYPD Blue and “anything that Bochco does," Picket Fences, Homicide, Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, listening to music (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky, Bartok), collecting art (he and his wife, Margery, have lately presented some Diego Riveras to museums), writing, writing some more, and doing a little writing as well.

And sometimes, when the ideas aren't coming and the typing stops, Link's mind wanders back to the old days — often, he said, to one particular moment — a day when two bright-eyed young writers stood poised, with the world figuratively and almost literally at their feet.

“When Dick and I were kids and had gone to New York, before we met William Morris, we were going to Studio One, one of the best live dramatic shows, and we were early. We were in our Brooks Brothers overcoats, suits, carrying attaché cases full of scripts. I said, ‘We can't appear too hungry — let's waste some time.’ We went into the building and into the elevator, and we go up and up and up, and suddenly, the building leaves us, and we're in the sky! Still going up! Obviously, we were in the wrong building. This one was still under construction. Dick and I got out and stood there, on a plank girder overlooking Manhattan.”

Link sighed, and dragged on his Cuban cigar.

"It was unbelievable. I think back on things like that."


This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Richard Levinson and William Link's induction in 1995.

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