Saturday, March 7, 2015

TOM SAWYER: AMERICAN STORYTELLER


Tom in his office at his Malibu Home


“Get over it.” Tom Sawyer says it’s the best advice you can give people.

A few years back I had the chance to meet one of my artist heroes, Leonard Starr, who was in Southern California for the San Diego Comics convention to receive an award. While in LA he was staying at the Malibu home of his good friend and former assistant, Tom Sawyer. Meeting Leonard was fascinating and I soon realized that Tom himself was no less an incredible personality. This was a man who started inking backgrounds in comics and went on to become a famed Hollywood TV writer and producer.
Comicstrip legend Leonard Starr and Tom.


A Len Steckler photograph hanging in Tom's front room.

Born in Chicago, Tom attended Saturday morning cartooning classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts from the time he was twelve to sixteen, studying under Martin Garrity. After a year at the “college” level, he decided that his time could be as well spent actually working in the field, and he moved to NYC in the early 1950’s.

Here he met another comics legend, Tex Blaisdell in the waiting room of Avon Comics. Tex steered him towards Leonard Starr’s studio, and Tom was soon working in this wonderful cartoonist factory, working first on doing Leonard’s backgrounds, but quickly moving forward to handle all aspects of a comic book page. He was soon picking up freelance work from Stan Lee at Timely, Jerry Siegel at Ziff-Davis and numerous other publishers. 



One of the many things that Tom learned in this studio beyond the drawing experience, was the storytelling process. Almost every morning someone would come in with the joke of the day. Once told, the rest of the morning was spent deconstructing the gag while they worked, until by lunchtime they had it honed to it’s finest form. This skill would come in handy in the communication process involved with graphic storytelling.



By the late 50’s Sawyer felt he had peaked in the comics field, and was going to concentrate on  advertising art. This decision was a fairly simply economic one. The finished page rate for comics was about $25-35 at the time. For pretty much the same work, advertising paid $2500-3500, a hundred times that rate. (In examining Joe Kubert’s work, I could see that up to his second stint on “Hawkman,” he was continually improving his skills. But at some point, the realization set in that no matter how much better he got, the rate was going to be the same. Since Joe wanted to stay in comics, he then concentrated on becoming faster and more efficient.) It was also about this time that Tom started using “Sawyer,” as his last name, dropping his birth name, Scheuer. Named Tom because his family name sounded – on those rare occasions when it was properly pronounced – like “Sawyer,” it made his life a lot easier. 



His career continued to soar. With his slick style and adept draftsmanship he was soon known as “The Norman Rockwell of line illustration.” As a result he was the highest paid storyboard artist in NYC. Doing the boards also led Tom into the next phase of his career. He had become fascinated with home movies, video and the editing process. He enrolled in a night course at the NYU Film School, and for a time studied directing with Lee Strassberg. Consequently, it wasn’t long before Tom was also directing as well as boarding the commercials, and shooting short films, one of which (“Reunion”) was honored by the New York Film Festival, and went on to national theatrical release.




In 1967 he and his beautiful wife Holly wound up in LA where he had taken a job writing and directing a feature film. While he discovered the job itself was a hype scam by the producer, he was able to meet connections during this time and start to get an introduction into how the movie making process worked. While he and Holly returned to NYC soon, the seed had been planted for the next step in his career.
Tom meeting the great Milton Caniff.

Ed Sullivan and friends

Diana Lewis

William Powell and his wife Diana "Mousie" Powell.

Tom's cousin Ruth Terry in a cowgirl outfit.

Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan

Howard Hughes

By the way, when you meet Tom, you are immediately dazzled by his personality. He isn’t the type to ever be awed by  celebrities; he just fits right in. At fourteen, in New York, he attended a party where the great showman Ed Sullivan was the guest. At the same party he met his then hero, Milton Caniff, creator of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon.” That same year he took a trip with his family to Los Angeles where they stayed with his cousin, Ruth Terry,  a film star who appeared in a number of Roy Rogers/Dale Evans flicks and many other films. On the first day Ruth took her young cousin swimming at William Powell’s house, since she was friends with Diana “Mousie” Powell, Bill’s wife. During at an animated conversation with Ruth, Diana’s swimming suit top suddenly fell to her waist, leaving young Tommy staring in awe. Diana, gave him a quick smile, nonchalantly replaced the top and continued on with her conversation. The next day he got to visit a studio set and meet Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan. Dinner that night was at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Howard Hughes sat at the family table.
A Len Steckler photograph of Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandberg

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker


While he was in NYC, one of his friends was the noted photographer Len Steckler, who shared studio space with Carl Sandburg. Many of Steckler’s most famous photos were of Marilyn Monroe. Tom is full of stories of meeting folks like Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker at the Plaza Hotel, or watching his friend, publicist Dick Brooks escort client Daryl Zanuck into a party at the same location. When you talk to Tom you understand that he was destined to end up in Hollywood.

Convinced that he needed to see if he could be a success in the film business, Tom moved his family out to Malibu in 1973, where he began working on a self-financed feature film project eventually called “Alice Goodbody.” He had been inspired by the the fact that hard-core porn “Deep Throat” had become an acceptable “date movie.” He figured he could make a better one, but once in LA he quickly realized that those films were still a kiss of death in the industry. Not to be deterred, Tom tried the then-unthinkable: he approached the Rating Board and asked for their help in making sure his film would get an “R” rating. They gladly aided him, advising on each questionable scene how to avoid getting an “X.”  Friends and associates viewing the final version were astounded that he had pulled this off, regarded as it was in those days as a “hard” R. And with the whole process the phone began to ring. 
With Mary Tyler Moore

Tom and Angela Lansbury

Tom began writing for TV, starting with a comedy pilot for CBS. He was soon working on staff of various TV series, and as a fixer on series that were in trouble ratings-wise. Not without its memorable, only-in-Hollywood moments, one such “keeper” took place shortly after he was hired to try rescuing a series titled “Gavilan.” Examining Executive Producer Leonard Goldberg’s script notes for the next episode to be shot, and disagreeing with most of them, he requested a meeting. After listening to Tom’s comments, Goldberg simply stated, “Tom, I’ve made a hundred million dollars in this business. Do it my way.”  

Luck was also part of the process as Tom acknowledges, but often luck is what we make of it. He had been working as a writer and script fixer for a few years, when in 1984 he was approached by producer Peter Fischer to write for his new show called “Murder She Wrote.” Fisher explained that it was to be an Agatha Christie-type mystery series. Tom’s immediate input was to drop this idea and write stories like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”: Interesting characters in conflict with each other, where a murder occurs. The series became character driven and was a huge success, with Tom acting as head writer and producer for five of its twelve seasons.




Emmy and Edgar-nominated, you can see the impressive list of Tom’s credits and view some of his films at: www.thomasbsawyer.com. Not bad for a guy who started out penciling and inking backgrounds.

One of the joys of getting together with Tom was the beautiful drive out through Malibu Canyon to his home, a neighborhood filled with screen personalities, and then riding to lunch in his vintage 1982 Jaguar XJS. When talking about the secret of his success, Tom makes no bones about it being largely due to his disdain for authority, and having a bulletproof ego. In Hollywood especially, he feels, talent alone is not enough; hard work and desire are really what make the difference for achieving success.

One of Tom's biggest fans and critics

These days Tom isn’t just sitting on his laurels. He has a love of opera, inherited from his former employer, Mr. Starr, and has co-written one about President Kennedy. “Jack” has been staged to acclaim in the U.S. and in Ireland. He is also the author of the thrillers “Cross Purposes,” “No Place to Run” and “The Sixteenth Man,” plus a highly regarded book on writing, “Fiction Writing Demystified.” He also teaches “Storytelling: How to Write Stories That Will Grab and Hold Your Audience” online at Screenwriters University. 

After an amazing career and when you live in Malibu aren't you supposed to just sip cocktails by the pool and enjoy the sun with your lovely wife Holly?




1 comment:

  1. Brilliant overview Mike - thanks so much. Some of the love stories work looks similar to Toth's solid shapes in my opinion

    ReplyDelete