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Thinking of Clifford Odets Today

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Sometimes, in the context of, say, being a playwright , especially one with a play starting previews in two days, I think of the late great Clifford Odets, and in particular, his last years, the rough ones, spent in Hollywood. I am thinking of him today because recently I wrote an episode of the smart, fun, sexy spy show “Alias”, and it’s on tonight! (My best friend, Ron Rifkin is one of the stars of the show, and he insists his character isn’t a villain.) Odets wrote a bit for TV before dying a hard death of stomach cancer at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood in 1963. (Where I had been born two years before.)

Maybe he never got over the shame of his HUAC testimony. People who knew him tell me that Kazan gave him bad advice,or rather, good advice for another Kazan, but Odets wasn’t Kazan; he was Odets; in other words -- a moral authority and guiding light, a great writer, a holy thing. Anyway, I digress. I can imagine Odets’ life out there in the flats of Beverly Hills. He suffered, he had insomnia, and he painted. (I own one of his paintings, a gorgeous watercolor of scenes from an office, with typing on it, a little story to go along with the pictures. It was a gift to me from his son, psychologist, author, and horologist Walt Whitman Odets).

It was funny writing for “Alias”. Everyone was very kind. The staff writers welcomed me, and in fact, they did a lot of the heavy lifting. There were sections I couldn’t handle, involving explosions and chases and past plot-lines and so on, and I wrote myself into a corner, and I got a lot of help. I wrote stuff for villain-not-villain Ron, and for psychotic Joel Grey. I thought about how lovely the life of the staff-writer must be; you go to an office, you sit at a big table with your pals and you gossip and hash things out.

Sitting in my borrowed office at “Alias” on the Disney lot, I thought about maybe writing a pilot and selling it and setting up shop in L.A., and having somewhere to go every day. Not a bad life. I thought about how mind-blowingly spectacular David Milch’s show “Deadwood” is, not to mention “The Sopranos”. Or “24”. I thought about the fun I’d had doing an episode of “West Wing” a couple of years ago. But I kept thinking about Odets and his last terrible days out there in the sun, (I read that he could only eat ice-chips as he lay dying), and how much he must have missed Manhattan, and the first read-through of a new play, and the time when you move out of the rehearsal hall and into the theatre. Did he miss it as much as I would? How do you do both? The theatre may be marginalized, but it is about dreams, and shadows and the passage of time and secret histories and blood knots and madness and political outrages. The theatre is about actors taking pauses to collect themselves, and funny makeup and the sleight of hand magic of good lighting. It doesn’t take any money at all to do it. You can do it in your kitchen. So. I am thinking of Odets and the theatre, and how much I love it.