Inside Warner Bros. Studio: 6 True Hollywood Stories with Alan Shayne

by Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

I had the privilege of interviewing former President of Warner Brothers Television, Alan Shayne.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. What is your backstory?

I was the President of Warner Brothers Television for many years, shepherding hit shows such as Alice, Night Court, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Wonder Woman, and Growing Pains.

I began my career as an actor on Broadway and became a well-known casting director of TV and films such as All the President’s Men. I produced TV specials and, after leaving Warner Bros., I received an Emmy nomination for producing the mini-series The Bourne Identity with Richard Chamberlain.

I now live in Connecticut and West Palm Beach and am a writer. My latest book Finding Sylvia, is a mystery romance novel set in Hollywood, Connecticut, Spain, Marrakesh, and London.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

My partner of over 50 years, Norman Sunshine. Norman is a painter and sculptor whose work is in museums and collections around the country. Earlier in his career, he was an illustrator and Creative Director for the Jane Trahey Agency, where he coined the phrases “Danskins are not just for dancing,” and “What becomes a legend most?” for Blackglama Minks. He also won an Emmy for graphic and title design in the 1970’s, and was a Creative Director of Lear’s Magazine.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Norman and I wrote Double Life: A Love Story from Broadway to Hollywood in part to show that a good marriage is a good marriage regardless of gender, and to strike a blow against inequality.

Will you share some of your top Hollywood stories with us?

My Top 6 “funny but not funny” Hollywood stories are:

1. All the President’s Men

While I was the Head of Casting at Warner Brothers, I had the great privilege of working with the director Alan Pakula in casting All The President’s Men. I went to Washington and met the people at The Washington Post, who had been involved in exposing the Watergate scandal, so I could find the right actors to not only look like them but also express the essence of them. When I was questioned about my trip at the film meeting, all anyone wanted to know was who would play Ben Bradlee. I said there was only one person who could do it: Jason Robards. “Don’t be ridiculous,” the head of the studio said. “He’s washed up.” Fortunately Alan Pakula agreed with me and Jason won the Oscar for best supporting actor.

2. Alice

While I was the head of casting at CBS, the man in charge of the west coast TV operation came to me and said that CBS had the actress Linda Lavin under contract, but they were about to lose her — her contract was up at the end of the week. “Is there anything we have for her?” he asked. I always read all the scripts that were submitted as potential series and one I liked had been rejected by the big bosses. “I think Alice would be perfect for her,” I said. He replied, “We turned that down. It’s not funny.” “You put Linda Lavin in it and it will be funny,” I said. “Well, if you can persuade New York to do a pilot,” he replied, “I’ll go along with it.” I got on the phone and sold as hard as I could and finally they decided to take a chance. Alice ran on CBS for ten years.

3. Warner Bros. Television

I was asked by the heads of Warner Bros to temporarily take over the television division. “We’re going out of television,” they said, “it’s losing money, but we need someone to be there for a few months until we can wind up everything. You’re the only one around who knows anything about television so will you do it as a favor? You’ll come back into the film division as soon as the red tape is over. Of course I agreed. But once there, I couldn’t just sit around, so I worked as if the division was going to be successful. And it was. It became a great success. The heads came to me again. “We’re staying in the TV business,” they said. “Who can we get to take over?” I made out a list which they went through, but somehow everyone was either busy or wanted something else. One day I went to Ted Ashley, the chairman. “I did the work,” I said. “I made the division a success. I should have the job.” I became President of Warner Brothers Television for ten years until I left to be a producer.

4. Bette Davis

I was putting together an Agatha Christie movie for TV with Helen Hayes, when someone at CBS suggested Bette Davis to play a woman who is slowly being poisoned. “She hasn’t been well,” I said. “I’d be afraid—since we’re doing the film on location in England—that she might not be up to it.” “But you’d have the Queen of Broadway and the Queen of Hollywood,” said the network executive. “All right,” I said. “if she’s interested we’ll take a meeting and see how she is.” Miss Davis was interested, so the director and I went to her no-frills apartment. She looked beautifully coiffed and dressed, but her face was still distorted from her stroke. She was accompanied by a young secretary who held her arm.“I like the script,” Miss Davis said, “and I’ll do it, but I don’t play sick.”

“But Miss Davis, the plot is about a woman who is being poisoned,” I said. “We don’t have a show if she’s not sick.” “My fans know about my troubles,” she snapped, “they don’t want to see me play sick.” “I’m sorry,” I said, “I had so hoped to have you with us.” I got up to go. The secretary suddenly grabbed Bette Davis and pushed her into the next room. Within seconds they were back. I’ll never know what the secretary told her but Miss Davis said, “I’ll play sick.” It was a mistake, however. She wasn’t well and couldn’t work for more than a short time without becoming exhausted. She was also rude to everyone—including Helen Hayes. We kept cutting her lines and giving them to other actors since she had trouble remembering, and when it was all over, I sent her some flowers and she wrote me a note which I still have. It read, “Lilacs. How lovely. But did they have to take most of my lines away? Didn’t Helen Hayes have enough?” She had signed her name and had drawn a smiling face underneath it.

5. A Big Idea for TV

When I was president of Warners Television, a call went out to all the television heads that a new man was taking over television at NBC. He wanted all of us to come to him with exciting ideas that would lift the network’s visibility. He didn’t want the same old cop shows and doctor shows. He wanted us to be creative — the sky was the limit. I was thrilled. I had wanted for years to do a series of great books. Some were certainly done on public broadcasting, but I wanted to reach out to the whole country — get kids in high schools to know the classics. Warner Bros. had a book division. I would get paperbacks of the classics into school rooms with pictures from the productions, and I’d get stars who had favorite books to play the characters they’d never had a chance to play in a movie. I got so excited and quickly made an appointment. I arrived laden with books, graphs, details of books, and the stars I would try to get. I had never felt so inspired. The executive sat at his desk and listened to my every word. He never interrupted. Finally when I was through he said, “This place is going up in flames and you’re talking about great books.” He subsequently put on the same cop shows and doctor shows.

6. Alive

When I was a film executive at Warners, I pitched a book that I had found called Alive. I thought it would make a great movie. I had to sell it to the other film executives and the heads of the film division at the weekly film meeting. I used all my years as an actor to dramatize the crash of a plane in the Andes, the desperate fight to keep warm in the snow, the depletion of food, and the final resort to cannibalism that kept a few of the men alive. When I finished my emotional depiction of the drama, there was a moment of absolute silence while everyone absorbed what I had said. Then one film executive said, “Blacks don’t like snow.” My project was killed instantly. It went on to another studio and was a great success.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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