In the early 1960’s, even though I had an MA in English Lit, I was happy to get a job as a secretary at Universal studios. I had access to all scripts being shot on the lot. Using them, I taught myself to write scripts.
I was very lucky to get an agent. And so my career began. My first script was for Dr. Kildare. It was a wonderful experience working with two other beginners; six year old actor Ronnie Howard and a new director, Sydney Pollack.
I sold scripts to other shows like Daniel Boone , Run for Your Life and The Invaders. Macho men shows. The producers I worked with were pleasant enough, but I felt it was a men’s club, never to be let in.
I began to realize no women’s names appeared in the credits. I kept looking. Where were they? I wanted to pal around with them and share adventures. Surely I wasn’t alone.
In 1965 I landed on Peyton Place. Producer Paul Monash was a very liberal guy. On the staff already were three women along with six men. At last, I wouldn't be alone. Sonya Roberts and Peggy Shaw were part of husband-wife writing teams. Carol Sobieski was very young and new. They were as happy to see me as I was to see them. We shared our job experiences and they also remarked that hadn’t met any other women either. We stayed friends until the vicissitudes of life separated us.
A few projects later I became Story Editor on the Mod Squad. My producers were looking for new writers and I wanted to bring in some women so I asked if that OK with them? They agreed, but with trepidation. I immediately called my Peyton Place girlfriends and they added another name they found.
But before anyone arrived for story sessions, the guys summoned me into a meeting. Here’s the dialog as I recall it.
Producer one: Before those women arrive, we need your advice.
Murmurs of agreement.
Me: About what?
Prod Two: (pause) About the women. How do we treat them?
Me: Treat them? What are you talking about?
Prod three: Well, they’re women. They’re different.
Me: And what am I, chopped liver?
Prod one: You…you’re a writer…
Me: Yes. Thank you. And you treat me like a writer.
Prod three: You’re like one of the guys…
Me: (sarcastic) Oh, really? Thanks a lot.
Prod one: You know what we mean. Your writing is great. You do the job without complaints. You’re a professional.
Prod two: We trust you.
Me: And the women coming in are professionals, too, so treat them as you treat me.
They seemed relieved. Meeting over. I couldn’t believe it. They were confused and a little worried. This was new. They didn’t know how to deal with women in the work place. They were right to worry. It was the tip of the iceberg.
We waited - the three male production staff members and me. I was dressed, as usual, in a simple comfortable dress, low heels.
And in walked our very first woman writer candidate. She was nearly 5’10,” but with stiletto high heels, taller. She had startling pinkish-red hair and she wore a very tight red sweater that accentuated her chest with a matching very short skirt. And lots of makeup. When she crossed her long legs; I glanced at the men, who were trying not to gawk. They turned to me and I knew that inside they were groaning …thinking yeah, sure treat them like writers.
But as it turned out the woman, Joanna Lee was a terrific writer and had a great career ahead.
After they met Carol, Sonya and Peggy, it dawned on them; we were all different from each another. These women did excellent jobs. The men were pleasantly surprised, and even started dressing a little better. We were all treated with respect.
At that time, I learned that only 4% of the membership in the Writers Guild of America were women. And sadly, fifty years later, it’s not much better.
Excerpts from Candide in Hollywood (working title) by Rita Lakin
Rita Lakin worked in Hollywood for 25 years, as freelance writer, story editor, staff writer and finally producer-show runner of the shows. She retired to San Francisco and is now writing fiction - comedy murder mysteries.