The Mail I Get – Convicted Conman James Strauss Edition

You’d be stunned how any people have reached out to me to share their horror stories of being swindled or harassed by convicted conman & fake TV writer James Strauss… everybody from aspiring screenwriters to stiffed shopkeepers, from enraged military veterans to swindled conference organizers, from stiffed restaurants to stiffed Hawaii vacation-home renters. There’s been a surge in those emails in the last couple of weeks. I guess he’s stirring things up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, perhaps the only place on earth that hasn’t learned that he’s a total fraud. Here’s an excerpt from one of the many emails that I’ve received:

I live in Lake Geneva Wisconsin and today The Geneva Shore Report, which this James Strauss owns, told bold face lies […] saying [my] church and former pastors were in cahoots with the fire department where people were to vote.  His bold face lies and hurtful newspaper needs to stop. Please don’t use my name. But can you help my community?! And please hurry.

James Strauss’ mugshot, taken before he was sentenced to federal prison for fraud.

It’s YOUR community. YOU do something about it. If you, as a resident, don’t have the guts to stand-up against him, under your own name, and reveal him for what he is, how can you expect people who don’t live there, who have no stake or interest in what is going on, to do anything about it? Here’s an excerpt from a very lengthy email I received:

I am asking you to please not publish my name. Frankly, we cannot afford to feel the wrath of Mr. Strauss’s mean-spirited writings and video “reporting”. I am a long-time resident in the Geneva Lakes Area in Wisconsin. Sadly our lovely resort community is home to The Geneva Shore Report, a mean-spirited rag of a “newspaper” for which James Strauss is the creator and editor. He promotes his rag as “The most feared newspaper in America”.

I am writing to you because Mr. Strauss is damaging good people in our community. Mr. Strauss has made accusations via innuendo and flat out lies about our now retired pastors of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Chaplain on our Lake Geneva Fire Department, [and] slandered Karen Stein of KS Ministries who, out of her own pocketbook, invested a healthy half a million dollars in a clean and sober living house. What can I do to expose his con man lies? Please help!

I told him this: I’m sorry to hear that Strauss is continuing to ruin people’s lives…but there is nothing I can do about it. I’m not a journalist or a cop. The best advice I can give you is to spread the word that he is a convicted conman and fraud who spent years in a federal prison for swindling people. It’s information easily found on the Internet.

Outside of the Lake Geneva folks, I recently also got a desperate email from an aspiring filmmaker (he asked me not to quote his email on my blog) who was wary of doing free work for Strauss, who promised in return to use his contacts to help the kid break into Hollywood. This poor kid was shocked to learn that Strauss has zero legitimate Hollywood experience and asked me what he should do. My answer was simple: walk away. Strauss is a pathological liar and convicted felon who will screw you over.

It’s amazing to me that Strauss is still able to con people when the truth about him is so easily found in a google search. The way I look at it, anybody stupid enough to get into business with him deserves what they get.

S is for Sad

Fellow Kentucky Colonels Lee Goldberg & Sue Grafton

I’m so sad to hear about Sue Grafton‘s death. Not only was she incredibly talented, she was also a very nice woman.

I met her for the first time in the mid-1980s at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference…shortly after her first or second book came out. I had a long, thoroughly delightful lunch with her, my Mom, and Paul Lazarus…and then I think we did a panel together. She wasn’t a celebrity then, but she made a strong impression on me and Mom. We liked her instantly. After that, I ran into Sue often on the “book circuit” and she was always so gracious and nice to everyone…and never failed to ask how my Mom was doing.
 
A few years ago, she was a special guest at the Riverpark Center in Owensboro, KY…we did a panel together during the day and I was honored to interview her at a gala dinner. She was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel during one of the events. As the Kentucky secretary of state or whomever it was told the audience all the reasons she deserved the honor, she leaned over & whispered in my ear: “This is the third or fourth time they’ve made me a Kentucky Colonel. You’d think they’d keep track of this stuff”. But she went up on stage, thanked the politician for his kind words, and said what an honor it was for her to receive it as a native Kentuckian.
In between, those events, I got together with her and her husband at Denny’s for some nice breakfasts together, where we talked shop.Those were the special times for me.
 
The last time I saw her was at Bouchercon in Albany, where we chatted for a while at the bar and I got to introduce her to some writer-friends of mine, who she immediately treated like old friends of hers, too. That’s the kind of lady she was.

 

Sue, me and Zev Buffman at the Angie Awards in Owensboro, KY
Kentucky Colonels Sue Grafton and Lee Goldberg at Bouchercon
I wish I could remember what I did to earn this delightful inscription! 🙂

Book Reviews: Thirtysomething and Petrocelli

After delivering my new novel to my editor, I treated myself to two non-fiction books about TV shows — THIRTYSOMETHING and PETROCELLI.

THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY: AN ORAL HISTORY by Scott Ryan. This a fantastic book, full of insights into every aspect of the show, and told in a unique and truly compelling fashion: almost entirely in stand-alone, capsule quotes from actors, writers, directors and producers who made the series. The author acts more like a film editor, arranging the quotes in the best order to tell the story but also to maintain narrative tension. It’s brilliantly done…and is not only informative, but very entertaining, like listening in to a fascinating, Hollywood dinner party. The book tracks the show season by season, episode by episode, and goes into remarkable, behind-the-scenes detail. There’s a feast here for writers, directors, actors, producers and fans of the show to devour. Particularly fascinating and revealing for me was the story, told almost in a Rashomon fashion, behind the fifth season that the network and studio wanted…but that the showrunners didn’t…and all the emotions, creative conflicts, and politics that led to the series’ premature demise. The book even includes the script pages for the unshot, final scene of the final episode. The author clearly put enormous work into the book, engaging in hundreds of hours worth of interviews.  You don’t need to be a fan of Thirtysomething to learn something from this book…especially if you’re a student of TV history, or contemplating a career in TV, or are even an established writer/producer about to embark on running your own show. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a TV show and should be required reading in classes about writing and producing series television. The only drawback is that there’s no index…which isn’t a problem is you’ve got the ebook edition, but if you have a print copy, it’s definitely missed.

PETROCELLI: AN EPISODE GUIDE AND MUCH MORE by Sandra Grabman. The book is thin, a mere 129 pages, because it’s really not much more than a general episode guide, despite the subtitle “and so much more.” I really wish there was “so much more,” because I’m a huge fan of the series and was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD. There’s not much information here besides random quotes from articles about the show and broad synopses of the episodes. There’s very little about the development of the original theatrical movie, The Lawyer, or what prompted the studio, network or producers to adapt the only modestly successful film into a series four years after its release. Why did it take so long to happen? Did the idea to do a series originate with the studio? What network did they take it to first? Why did they shoot a pilot rather than use the movie as the pilot (given that they had the same star)? It’s also never explained why the writer & director of the movie seemingly weren’t involved in the pilot or series, nor why key cast members from film weren’t retained for the pilot (besides Barry Newman). There’s no discussion of how the pilot, entitled Night Games, was developed creatively, or how the showrunner was selected, or what elements they decided to keep and/or discard from the movie and why. Only perfunctory is attention is given to the writing and production of the TV series, which was shot on location in Tucson. Perhaps the lack of details is because many of the key production personnel have passed away…but that obstacle hasn’t stopped other authors from doing far more thorough and satisfying books about much older shows that this one. It would have been nice if the author sought out more of the writers, directors and actors for in-depth interviews and did a much more thorough job of exploring the nut-and-bolts of the series. There’s no mention, for instance, of Lalo Schifrin’s theme or his scoring of the series. Also, very little attention is given to the reasoning behind the show’s near cancellation after the first season, or the creative changes made in the second season, or what elements, besides ratings, factored into the show’s ultimate cancellation. Again, it would have been helpful if the author had talked to studio or network executives, assuming any of them are still with us, rather than just speculating. Overall, the book comes off as a very half-baked work…worthwhile only for the most ardent Petrocelli fan who merely wants a printed episode guide to refer to. This book was truly a missed opportunity.

Heartbroken for Bill Crider

I was heartbroken to read this weekend that my friend Bill Crider has entered hospice care. He’s been fighting cancer for a few years now and I want to believe he’ll keep fighting it… and beat it. I treasure our friendship, which has meant so much to me in so many ways. He’s perhaps the nicest guys in publishing…and certainly one of the most well-read…a gentle, caring soul who can’t teaching others through his love of the genre. He’s certainly taught me a lot.
 
Bill introduced me to so many great books and authors who have not only entertained me, but made me a better writer. Authors like Harry Whittington, Ralph Dennis, and Dan J. Marlowe, to name a very few.
 
He edited two of my books, THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE, for Five Star Mysteries…and his advice made them better. I was thrilled when, thirteen years later, he agreed to write THE DEAD MAN: CARNIVAL OF DEATH for the series that William Rabkin and I created & edited for Amazon/47North. It was so great to be able to work creatively with him again and to share a byline.
 
And I am honored that Bill has entrusted me with his terrific western novels OUTRAGE AT BLANCO and TEXAS VIGILANTE…first to adapt to the screen (we’re still trying to get them made!) and later to republish them through Brash Books (where he was instrumental in advising me & Joel Goldman on titles we should acquire).
 
I’ve enjoyed the many hours we’ve spent over the years talking about mysteries and books…and am so glad I got to visit him at his home in Alvin, Texas a year ago and see his incredible book collection for myself 
 
I spent some time with him and his daughter Angela Crider Neary just a few weeks ago in Toronto…and he seemed so happy and energetic, that I believed he’d beaten the cancer for good. I still hope it’s a battle he can win.
 

Book Review: 52 WEEKS & 52 WESTERN NOVELS

52 WEEKS & 52 WESTERN NOVELS edited by Scott Harris & Paul Bishop. First, I have to admit a bias. The coauthor of this book, Paul Bishop, is an old friend of mine and many of the authors profiled, and the contributors who wrote about them, are my friends, too. Also  one of the books covered, OUTRAGE AT BLANCO, is published by Brash Books, a company I co-founded. All that said, I love this book and I believe I would even if I didn’t know so many of the people involved.

52 Weeks & 52 Western NovelsIf I were really industrious, I’d list 52 reasons why this slick, beautifully designed book is a must-have for western fans…especially those who are just getting into the genre. #1 on my list would be that it offers a great overview of key western novels that offer a wide-ranging perspective on the genre. #2 would be that each entry is affectionately, and knowledgeably written by either well-read experts in the genre or acclaimed western authors. #3 would be that even long-time western fans will learn some interesting facts about books and authors they thought they knew everything about. Count me among them. This book is packed with information and will make you want to read, or re-read, every single title.

It’s not clear to me how the 52 books that are covered were chosen…or why some authors get two or more listings (like Claire Huffaker, Marvin Albert and Louis L’Amour) while other landmark authors/novels aren’t listed at all (like Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE and A.B. Guthrie‘s THE WAY WEST, for example). There are lots of well-known titles (especially among western fans) and many obscure ones that were new to me (and that I am eager to read!).

If I have a criticism, it’s that the write-ups can be a bit too familiar at times, with the contributors talking too much about themselves or about how they know the authors (“I’ve had the great pleasure to get to know Arnold and his wife Bonnie over the years” or “Bill and I first met through the pages of fanzines” etc). I also wish the two editors had resisted the urge to refer to their own western novels (“In my own series of western books…”) in write-ups of other books or to have their books included in the listings — it gives the book an unnecessary, self-promotional aspect that detracts from the overall professionalism of the endeavour.

But those are minor quibbles. The passion the editors and their contributors have for the genre, and for these books, is palpable. This isn’t a dry, stodgy reference work. It’s a fun read, written in a casual, energetic style that makes you feel like you’re having dinner with a group of really smart, really passionate western fans who can’t stop talking about the books they love…and that they want you to love as much as they do.

Cheesecake

Here’s the main title sequence for SABLE, an awful series that only lasted for a month in 1988. William Rabkin & I wrote an awful freelance script for this awful series that thankfully wasn’t shot — but it had a lasting impact on us.

The show had a terrible, expository character, an African-American tech wizard in a wheelchair, named Cheesecake. We hated that character…because it wasn’t a character. It was a painful cliche. So “Cheesecake” became our shorthand, and is to this day, for a cliche character who exists only to provide dull exposition.

It’s amazing and depressing how many times that EXACT SAME DREADFUL CHARACTER — the exposition/computer whiz character in a wheelchair — has been repeated in shows since then.


Cheesecake came to mind today because I just watched the first regular episode of Bill Bixby’s THE MAGICIAN, from the newly released DVD boxed set, that had that same “Cheesecake ” expository character — though it was a white guy in a wheelchair and aired several years before SABLE premiered. Just goes to show how long that dreadful, lazy writer cliche has existed. 

A Brash Birthday

Lee Goldberg & Joel Goldman making a brash fashion statement

Three years ago this week, Joel Goldman and I launched our publishing company Brash Books with thirty titles, all of them acclaimed, award-winning books that had fallen out of print…and that we brought back in new print and digital editions.

Our mission was cocky and ambitious: to publish the best crime novels in existence. We believe we’ve lived up to that brash goal. We now have just about 100 titles in print, more than a dozen of them brand new books, many by first-time authors who’ve never been published before. Our books have consistently scored rave reviews from the industry trades… including three STARRED reviews from Publishers Weekly. We’ve also sorted through nearly 900 manuscript submissions.
 
We want to give our heartfelt thanks to all of our readers and especially to these amazing authors for putting their faith in us:
 
Leo W. Banks, Robert E. Dunn, Patrick E. McLean, Bill Crider, Bob Forward, Phoef Sutton, Margaret Moseley Burris, Mark Rogers, Jane Waterhouse, Jim Sanderson, Philip Reed, Robin Burcell, Gar Anthony Haywood ,Warren Ripley, Andy Straka, Dick Lochte, Craig Faustus Buck, Noreen Ayres, Michael Genelin Gerald Duff, Max Allan Collins, Dallas Murphy, A.W. Mykel, Phillip Thompson Mark Smith, Barbara Neely, Maxine O’Callaghan, Geoffrey Miller, Tom Kakonis, Jack Bunker, Michael Stone, and the estates of Jimmy Sangster, Ted Thackrey Jr. , Jack Lynch, and Stan R. Lee.
 
This year we made a big push into audiobooks and we couldn’t have done it without our amazing, super-talented narrators. So we’d like to thank Travis Baldree, Harry Dyson, J Rodney Turner, Shawn Compton and John Burlinson for their stellar work.
 
And finally, none of this would have been possible without the hard work of our office manager Denise M. Fields and graphic artist Jacqui Hair, who created our Brash logo and does all of our advertising. We’d also like to thank the many freelance graphic artists who designed our covers.
 
We can’t wait to see what 2018 brings for Brash Books, our authors, and our readers.

My Strange Encounter With Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman in an episode of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

Comedian Shelley Berman died yesterday. I never worked with him but we did spend an afternoon together.

Six years ago, I was having my car repaired at MBZ Motors in a dreary corner of the San Fernando Valley. I can’t remember why, but I was stuck there all day while the work was being done. There was no where else to go. I had my laptop with me and I was trying to write. Shelley Berman came in to have his Mercedes repaired and sat on the couch across from me to wait it out. I recognized him immediately (my Dad had his records when I was a kid and I saw him perform once — I believe it was in San Francisco) but I didn’t pay attention to him out of respect for his privacy. And I wanted to get some work done.

But it soon became apparent from the way he was talking to people in the waiting area, all of whom were relatively young, that he was very eager to be recognized and was greatly disappointed that nobody knew who he was. They treated him as an irritating old man they wished would just leave them alone (though, I must say, the staff at MBZ was incredibly friendly and respectful to him — they clearly had known him for some time). I felt sorry for him. He was an incredibly talented comedian and actor…and it broke my heart that it appeared to him that he was forgotten. So I spoke up, addressed him by name, told him that I knew who he was, and that I enjoyed his work on BOSTON LEGAL, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, and that my father had his records. 

He broke into a big smile. Berman then went on to regale me over the next few hours with amusing and emotional anecdotes from his life — even sharing with me the heartbreak over the death of his young son (and tearing up as he told me). It was remarkable experience…and also a bit uncomfortable. There was something not quite right about his need for attention or how open he was with me, a complete stranger, about his life (I remember wishing I’d recorded it all). Now that I’ve read his obit, and learned that he passed away from Alzheimers, the strange encounter makes a bit more sense. But it was a memorable afternoon and I felt honored to have been his audience of one.

Making Movies: Gun Monkeys and The Walk

Eugenio Mira and Lee Goldberg

I’ve got lots of movie news to share that I’ve been keeping bottled up for some time. First off, my novel THE WALK is being made into a movie, to be directed by Eugenio Mira, who made the clever, stylish Hitchcockian thriller GRAND PIANO (starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack) and did some amazing second unit work on THE IMPOSSIBLE (the tsunami movie with Naomi Watts). He’s fresh off of directing the second unit for JURASSIC WORLD II… so with that big-budget, action and disaster-movie experience behind him, he’s obviously the perfect guy to do THE WALK. The movie will be produced by Paul Hanson, George Paige and John Baca for Covert Media.

Covert Media is also producing my screenplay adaptation of Victor Gischler‘s Edgar-nominated novel GUN MONKEYS , which will be directed by Simon Brand. The development history of GUN MONKEYS goes back years. I optioned the book myself, wrote the script on spec, and for a long while it was set up with actor Kevin Costner and director Ryuhei Kitamura. That project came real close to getting made…and then fell apart. A new producing team came on board, offers are going out to big-name actors now, and we’re on track to shoot in late 2017/early 2018.

Back in September, Simon shot an action scene from my script as a camera/lighting test…and I’ve just been given the okay to share it now that he’s posted it on his site. The key parts are played by his friends and it has a voice-over that isn’t in the script — I wrote it just for this so that the action makes sense out of context. I think the footage looks terrific. Here it is. I hope you like it! 

Gun Monkeys from simon brand on Vimeo.

 

DVD Reviews: DECOY and CORONET BLUE

Two short-lived, NY-based crime shows have finally come out on DVD…and they are both gems.

DECOY stars Beverly Garland as police woman Casey Jones and was the first TV series to shoot on location in New York. It was also the first series to feature a police woman in the lead role. All 39 episodes from its brief, 1958 run are included in this boxed set, which also comes with a nicely detailed brochure of synopses, brief episodic credits, and some interesting background on the series — one I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with at all. I’ve always been a fan of Beverly Garland, and was fortunate to work with her on the “Mannix” episode of DIAGNOSIS MURDER, but I’d never seen this series before. I’m glad I took the gamble and bought the DVD set. Think of DECOY as a grittier DRAGNET…but with a female star. The series is straight-forward, ripped from the case files, police procedural storytelling. But unlike DRAGNET, Garland manages to give her character an emotional life beneath the action and dialogue purely through her facial expressions, dialogue delivery, and body language. Her acting strengths, some sharp writing, and the consistently excellent NY location shooting make this a dandy piece of TV crime noir well worth your time. I’d argue it’s actually a far more realistic and interesting series than POLICE WOMAN, which came decades later. You’ll also see early guest appearances from future stars Peter Falk, Suzanne Pleshette, Martin Balsam, Diane Ladd and Larry Hagman.

 

 

CORONET BLUE is primarily remembered for its cool theme song…if its remembered all. Which I guess is fitting, given what the show was about. Frank Converse stars as a guy who is shot, thrown in the Hudson river, and left for dead. He survives, but can’t remember anything about his past except the words “Coronet Blue.” The 13 episodes followed his efforts to discover who he is and, as is customary in series like this,  help other people in trouble along the way. This boxed set lives up to my memory of the show…pun intended. The theme song and score are great, the writing is strong, the location shooting is excellent, and the casting is top-notch.  It’s a real time capsule of talent — lots of future writing, acting, and directing stars worked on this series including Roy Scheider, Jon Voight, Candice Bergen, Billy Dee Williams, Albert Ruben (writer of KOJAK, etc), Lamont Johnson (director of EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK, etc), Alvin Sargent (writer of PAPER MOON, SPIDERMAN 1, 2, 3 etc) . The prints are good and the DVD has one extra, an on-camera interview with creator Larry Cohen, who is perhaps best known for creating BRANDED and THE INVADERS…and directing IT’S ALIVE.  It was nice to have the interview  — I just wish he’d gone into more depth. It’s also a shame that they didn’t interview some of the other surviving actors, writers, directors who worked on the series. Even so, that’s a minor quibble. This is a terrific boxed set, one I have been waiting on for years.