Ripped Off


Robert Ito is a Canadian-born former ballet dancer who became an actor in the 1960s. Not just any old actor but the first to play a ninja on American television. In a 1973 Kung Fu episode called “The Assassin,” Ito’s character is a crippled blacksmith who doubles as a Japanese master in the art of suddenly becoming very limber, dressing in black, throwing shurikins around in a menacing manner, disappearing in a puff of smoke and leaving David Carradine to take the blame.

That marital arts trivia came to me as gospel from one of the two writers of the episode. The writer in question...Something Spooner (hey, cut me some slack: it was 34 years ago)...offered to get a spec treatment I had written for Kung Fu to the Warner Brothers brass because, as Mr. SS put it, “I’ve been promised a favor, and if your treatment grabs ’em, we’re co-writers. Deal?”

My new partner and I submitted the treatment a month or so before the middle of the second season. In the third and last season we had heard nothing in response when I caught a bit of an episode in which Caine is trapped in a cave where he has hallucinations of Aztec demons. The scenes I saw generally looked and sounded like they came from the treatment SS and I had turned in.

There was the usual water-downed Zen that was supposed to infuse new thematic blood into the Western. At best those Shaolin Temple imitations were reworked Love Generation slogans from the ’Sixties.

“Just as war hurts flowers and children and other living things, so too, Grasshopper, does the Colt .45 single-action Frontier revolver.”

“But Master Poo, is it not also called Peacemaker because it kills tyrants?”

Sometimes the series wove in Carradine’s input that his character shouldn’t wear shoes or ride a horse because.... I have no idea. But Aztec hoodoo in a cave couldn’t have been spontaneously conjured by someone else.

SS could care less. His name was on the treatment, but he was so used to producers saying they owed him a favor but never coming through, he ate humble pie as if were cherry ala mode. I think he went on to be an unaccredited script doctor whereas I, young as I was, sought justice.

I was acquainted with a lawyer who had been agent but was now back plying his wiles in the Legal Affairs Department of Warners. I telephoned him, and told him what was in the treatment and what I had seen on TV. I offered a tentative verdict.

“Probably,” he said. “Yes, you probably were ripped off. But we’ll fight you. Even if you win, it will take years to settle. So, we end up paying court costs and your lawyer’s fees, and you end up with what? The going rate for TV episodic. I say you move on to something else.”

Pausing to think about that, I remembered having a few after work scotches with Warren Bush, the Executive in Charge of Production for the David L. Wolper Organization. Warren had hired me for a staff position in the Research & Development Department. Although we had our ups and downs, he was as much of a mentor as I ever had in the entertainment industry, as well as something of a father figure. I enjoyed hearing him talk about his experiences as a B-29 navigator in World War II. After doing his bit to fire bomb flowers and children and a lot of murderous thugs, Warren got a job in the CBS News Division in New York. He talked amusingly of his California exploits, taking up gliding and acrobatic flying, and of some recent craziness regarding the Jacques Cousteau specials.

In the editing wing of our building, a cutter had pasted a sign to his door. The sign played off the title of the movie about Depression Era marathon dancers, starring Traitor Jane and Gig Young. The sign expressed sentiment about what it was like to make the happy crew of The Calypso appear so sober, so scientific, so proto Al Gore.

“They shoot Frogs, don’t they?”

Warren claimed that when he first met Jacques Cousteau, the former French Navy captain was fixated on using television only to sell tickets to his Queen Mary museum. It took some talking to convince the inventor of the aqua lung to get behind the environmental impact of Warren’s hype, “The poet of the sea.”

Alex, who worked with me in R & D, used to do a great faux French accent, which I can’t come close to recreating, so imagine Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau saying, “Suddenly, I had to leave pressing concerns in Tahiti and helicopter to The Calypso anchored off the Aleutians. In my year long absence the poor, motherless seal pup had mysteriously died.”

On this evening, however, the talk was not about Captain Cousteau and the merry crew of The Calypso. It was about me! To me that’s always a headliner. Number One on the charts with a bullet. Yo, my main man. Primo, know what I mean? Anyway, Warren drew on his cigar, having given up Merits, and said philosophically:

“In this business you can’t worry about having your ideas stolen. You can count on it. But you have to get them out there, and if you’re any good, you’ll always have more.”

Suddenly, I left the Papua, New Guinea, of my memories and choppered in to the sordid Calypso of the present. “Yeah, you’re right,” I grudgingly said to the lawyer. After we hung up, I muttered what Dean Goodwin, another cohort from the Wolper days, always said before he killed himself, “F___ it if you can’t take a joke.”

Years later I channel surfed into a rerun of the Kung Fu episode in contention. I could hardly believe my eyes it was so awful! I didn’t remember anything in the treatment about some snotty Imperial Prince poisoning young Caine. I thought the prince was supposed to be a rattlesnake. I vaguely recalled an Indian maid taking care of Caine as he suffered from severe flashback. Finally, I concluded that all that junk clinging to the plot had to be SS’ work. He deserved to be ripped off.

I still had plenty of good ideas left waiting to be stolen.