11/22/2010 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hollywood Heartbreaks

When your novel gets published, you can't help dreaming about that phone call from Hollywood with a seven-figure offer to bring your story to the silver screen.

I've had that dream four times, one for each of my books. Any year now I'm going to wake up to the screwy reality of the movie business.

My California dreams (Hollywood heartbreaks might be a better way to put it) began with my first novel, Shepherd Avenue, which tells the tale of a sensitive ten-year-old boy who spends a rough summer at his grandparents' house in Brooklyn after his mother dies.

At that time (1986), Hollywood was still making "little" movies. That book was enthusiastically optioned to the movies three times, for short money every time.

(Note to novelists - watch out for enthusiastic Hollywood producers. The greater their excitement, the smaller the check.)

The first producer found a film company willing to bankroll the project on one condition - Frank Sinatra had to play the grandfather. Sinatra, who won on Oscar for From Here To Eternity!

They offered him a million dollars to play the old man. Back then, a million was like $10 million now, but by this time Ol' Blue Eyes was reading the lyrics to "My Way" off a teleprompter, so there was no way he was going to learn his lines. He passed on the project.

The second producer was sure he could get it made if Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin played the ten-year-old kid. By the time that producer gave up on the project, Culkin was married and divorced.

The last gasp came when Danny Aiello was eager to play the grandfather. At the time, Aiello was up for Best Supporting Actor for Do The Right Thing. The Oscars were upon us, and Shepherd Avenue's latest producer was excited, because Oscar winners have clout.

"If Danny wins," he vowed, "Shepherd Avenue will get made!"

And the winner for Best Supporting Actor in 1989 was...Denzel Washington, for Glory.

I probably wept harder than Danny Aiello did. (But stay with me. We're not through with Denzel Washington just yet.)

Forget little movies, I thought. They want a big story? I'll give them a big story!

My Ride With Gus (1996) is a rat-a-tat tale of three brothers - a middle-management Mafioso, an architect and a priest - who spend New Year's Eve trying to dispose of a dead body. A cinematic natural. Fox optioned it about eleven minutes after it was published, and Chris Columbus (Home Alone) was going to direct.

I sent him an autographed copy of my book. A screenplay was written. Ray Romano was going to star. ("Everybody Loves Gus?" Hey, let's go with it!)

But... it never happened. No explanations, nothing. The project didn't end, it just stopped.

Ten years went by. Ten years!

Out of the blue, I got a phone call from my agent. My agent, whom I could have sworn had gone into the Witness Protection Program.

"Good news!" she said. "Gus is back on!"

"That's great!" I replied.

"There's just one thing." She hesitated. "It's being rewritten for an all-black cast."

A Mafia movie, starring black people.

"Why don't they go all the way and make it a musical?" I suggested. "How about 'Porgy and Gus'?"

I called the screenwriter (who, just to add to the melting pot aura of this project, is Jewish.)

"Look, Hollywood's all Mafia-ed out," he explained. "Godfather One, Two, Three, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco... this way it won't do as well in Europe and Asia, but hey, we'll get it made. We'll run it past guys like Denzel, see what happens."

That would be Denzel Washington, the same guy who screwed up my Shepherd Avenue movie deal with his Oscar victory for Glory!

Forsaking the global outlook, the screenwriter moved my Mafia story from Brooklyn to Chicago, and set it among street gangs.

I've never been to Chicago, I've never been in a gang and I've never been black, but had that movie been made, it would have been "based on the novel by Charlie Carillo."

Moot point. Denzel or no Denzel, the project simply evaporated.

You might be wondering - why didn't they let me, the author, take a crack at the screenplay? Two reasons - one, I'm not in Los Angeles. And two, Los Angeles isn't in me.

It's just a bad fit. A novelist in Hollywood is a little bit like your father coming down to the basement when you're hanging out with your friends. Nobody can have any fun until dad goes back upstairs.

High hopes, low expectations. My two latest novels are Raising Jake (2009) and One Hit Wonder. (2010). One is a father-son story, the other a love story. I'm ready for the call from my agent saying we've got option offers for both books, but the thing is... would you have a problem if they set the stories in China? See, their economy is strong, and that Great Wall is just so... visual...

Well, whatever. The book is the meal. The movie money is just the gravy. And once in a while it's pretty good gravy.

One of my best movie paydays came from a still-unpublished novel that actor Dennis Farina
optioned for a couple of years before cutting bait on it.

But Farina paid me enough money to have our bathroom totally refurbished - new bathtub, new sink, the works. I think about that project every time I'm sitting in the tub, watching water go down the drain.