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The Early Ferris Bueller: Remembering John Hughes' Years in Advertising

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One of the last times I saw John Hughes, he was sitting across my desk at Leo Burnett in Chicago and telling me he was quitting. It was early 1979 and he said he was leaving advertising to write screenplays. His first assignment, he said, was to write a script for a prospective National Lampoon movie called Jaws -3, People- 0. Selfishly, I told him that he was making a big mistake. That he'd never make it as a screenwriter. That he shouldn't quit his day job. I felt so strongly about this that at the end of his last day at Burnett, I drove him all the way home trying to talk him out of it. But John was unmoved. His mind was made up.

I shouldn't have been surprised.

I had hired John five years earlier as a copywriter. His advertising samples weren't much to look at -- just a few print ads and one commercial. But what hooked me was page after page of jokes he had sold for $5 a pop to comedians like Henny Youngman. They were hysterical. On the basis of that alone, he got the job.

From the beginning, however, it was clear that advertising was just a way station for John. A place to park himself while he honed his writing. He wasn't the first to use advertising this way. Or the last.

But John never looked down his nose at the job. He took on every assignment with gusto and an off-kilter sense of humor. He was tireless and prolific -- a committed workaholic. Every time he had a success on one project, he'd take on two more. When he finished those two, he'd go for four more. He was a whirlwind, banging away on his typewriter from morning till night. I think it was a discipline that never left him.

At the same time, John could be enormously shy. Because he was so outgoing and funny most of the time, it was hard to see that at first. I guess I noticed it the first time he presented a storyboard to a client. John put the board on the wall, faced that wall, and presented to that wall. Never once did he look at the client.

Eventually, he learned how to make an easygoing, effective presentation, but I doubt he ever lost the shyness.

Years later, when he was a successful screenwriter, he told me that the presentation skills he learned at Burnett helped him in presenting to the studio executives. He always remembered two things: first, to tell them what the idea was in one sentence before going into the details; second, to make some self-deprecating remark or a joke about the studio executive's tie in order to break the ice and make everyone relax.

By his third year at Leo Burnett, John had become responsible for a major client that was headquartered in New York City. For him, it meant doing a lot of writing and traveling to New York once a week for presentations. From this period, there are a couple of things I particularly remember. The first:

John had an 11AM presentation in New York on a bleak winter Wednesday. He flew out of Chicago at 7AM, planning to return to Chicago on the 5 PM plane. But high winter winds were buffeting La Guardia and one after another, flights were canceled including John's so he was forced to spend the night at a hotel nearby. The next morning, he stood by for a flight to Chicago, but many of these were being canceled as well because a big snowstorm was now raging in Chicago. When John finally did get out, his plane had to be diverted to Des Moines. But as they approached Des Moines, that airport became snowed in as well and the flight ended up in Denver. Not being able to get back to Chicago right away, John stayed on the plane and took it on to Phoenix. "Well, Phoenix is warmer", he explained.

I talked to him a lot while he was stranded because John was tired and frustrated and needed to explain why he wasn't in the office. Without luggage and running out of money, he complained that all he wanted was "A clean shirt! A clean shirt!" It took until the following Monday before he could get back to Chicago.

The other day, someone on TV said that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was simply a rehash of Vacation and the material came from the same story. Not true. You can't make up an odyssey like that.

I also remember that it was during this period that John famously started to hang out at the New York offices of National Lampoon trying to sell humor pieces. The Lampoon thing was John's big secret. He didn't tell me he was working for them on the side for a long time. But when had his first piece published in what was then the most prestigious humor publication in the country, he couldn't resist showing it to me. Then it became our big secret and my big dilemma.

On the one hand, I knew John wanted to work at Lampoon. On the other, I wanted him to continue to work for me. I also knew my boss and the agency would not look kindly on John doing both. Understandably, Burnett frowned on people taking a salary from them while working for someone else.

So John and I struck a deal. In the mornings, he could work on Lampoon things with his door shut. But in the afternoons, he had to write for Burnett clients.

And the agency was never the wiser -- even when John's name began to appear on the Lampoon's masthead. So there came a time when John was listed as an Associate Creative Director at Leo Burnett while also being listed as a Senior Editor at National Lampoon.

Eventually, however, the dual life began to tear at John. So I shouldn't have been surprised when the inevitable happened and he parted company with advertising.

I saw John only a couple of times after that. But we communicated a lot. Mostly by phone and recently by email.

Early on he called often to talk about a lot of things. His frustration with writing projects that went nowhere (Jaws-3, National Lampoon's Joy of Sex. His first sold script (Horror High--eventually National Lampoon's Class Reunion) His frustration with directors who wanted to ban him from the set.

He also talked about his writing routine. It was pure John: write from wake-up to lunch, spend the afternoon with his wife and children, write again from after dinner until late into the night -- every day, seven days a week. He also told me that when he got stuck in a script, he'd stop writing and build bookshelves -- sometimes at two in the morning. And I envied and admired his ambitious routine. Because I knew I could never be that committed to writing and because I didn't know how to build bookshelves.

As John became famous, our communications became less and less frequent. And eventually, they happened maybe once a year -- and then only on special occasions. Like when he was about to film a car crashing through the wall of a motel.

In 1993, after I hadn't heard from him in about two years, John called me at work to ask me a favor. He wanted to get copies of two books written by Leo Burnett himself that had been privately published by the agency. They were a collection of memos and speeches that clearly spelled out Burnett's marketing wisdom on how to make great advertising. John needed them, he said, because in his opinion nobody in his company -- or in Hollywood -- understood effective marketing. John thought the books might teach his people something. Later that day, as soon as I got the books, I called John to tell him I had what he needed.

It was ten years before he called me back.

Late one evening in 2003, my phone rang. It was John, picking up the conversation like it hadn't been ten years between calls. We talked for four and a half hours and started an email conversation the next day.

In those four and a half hours, we talked about many things. But one thing stands out.

He told me that when he was working for me -- on more than one occasion -- he would buy a cup of coffee, put it by his typewriter and leave his office. The theory was, I'd come by looking for him, see the coffee and figure he was in the bathroom or something. Which is what I would have believed. Meanwhile John would be winging his was to New York for a meeting with the Lampoon people.

When he told me this, I couldn't stop laughing. After all, it was such a Ferris Bueller thing to do.