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Guest Post: My Life as a Female TV Writer in the Sixties and Seventies by Rita Lakin

by Melissa Silverstein
August 22, 2011 3:05 AM
8 Comments
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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
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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.

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8 Comments

  • Arlene Bowman | September 1, 2011 11:55 AMReply

    I really liked it the person's description of what it was like. Oh yeah, I am not surprised that women have to fight to be heard and even today. I think the Indigenous women really have to do it harder because where's our voice to be heard. I don't hear it in the mainstream, but there are Indigenous women filmmakers in U.S. who want to be heard with their film-video stories. They are there.

  • Kelli Stanley | August 27, 2011 6:02 AMReply

    Three cheers for Rita, whose talent and perseverance paved the way for future female writers and directors!

    And I can't wait to read her book about the realities of the "Mad Men" era.

  • Amy Zucchero | August 23, 2011 5:29 AMReply

    Rita- I'm not sure you remember me.. I'm Amy Zucchero (Bill and Sherry Zucchero's daughter) This post came up on the facebook page of the organization I'm working with now called Miss Representation. (www.missrepresentation.org). It is so wonderful to have your perspective. Are you really in San Francisco? I'm based her too and would love to get together and catch up!

    Cheers,
    Amy

  • Kathy | August 23, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    Thanks for the great post. It just shows how much we still need a strong feminist movement.

    It's sad to see these men accept women only when they act like "one of the guys." These men obviously don't affirm the full humanity of women and think the male is the norm of humanity. Puke.

  • Gavin Lakin | August 23, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    As a true Hollywood insider, I can say without a doubt that Rita Lakin was/is not chopped liver, but in fact was (and still is) a creative, dynamic and trend-setting television/writing/novelist pioneer. She may have been like "one of the guys" but her talents and courage opened the doors for the successful female writers, directors and producers of today. It is important to remember who came before us, so we can enjoy today's successes like Kathyrn Bigelow winning Best Director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker." And it didn't hurt that she cast me as a patient in "The Doctors" (no speaking lines-I was five- no SAG card, sigh) and then in "The Rookies" as the batter in a little league game (I hit the camera and got some sass from the camerman). OK, OK, I'm not an actual Hollywood insider. I'm her youngest son! And I love her very much. As Link on "Mod Squad" would say, "Solid!"

  • Bette Golden Lamb | August 22, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    Interesting time warp. Or is it? isn't it sad that women, even today, have to fight to be heard. And will women being saying the same thing 50 years from now?
    Great blog from a fantastic writer!

  • Camille Minichino | August 22, 2011 6:50 AMReply

    Great post! Who doesn't love Hollywood stories? Thanks Rita and Melissa.

  • Linn D. | August 22, 2011 5:45 AMReply

    Melissa - this is great, but I think there's a typo in the bio line. It doesn't make sense:

    "Rita Lakin worked in Hollywood for 25 years, as freelance writer, story editor, staff writer and finally producer-show runner of the shows I created. She retired to San Francisco and is now writing fiction - comedy murder mysteries."

    "I created." Is that the name of a TV show? (do I live under a rock or something?) Thanks!

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