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Texas Novelist Stephen Harrigan Confesses All . . .

by Jerome Weeks 12 Jul 2012 10:21 AM

Best known for The Gates of the Alamo, Harrigan actually paid a lot of bills writing stuff like In the Line of Fire: Smoke Jumpers (with Adam Baldwin!). Now he writes about what cranking out B movies and mini-series has been like.


Brought to you, in part, by Stephen Harrigan’s writing: Timothy Dalton as Julius Caesar in the ABC mini-series, Cleopatra

… Harrigan, best known for The Gates of the Alamo and a longtime Texas Monthly contributor, has also had a 30-year career writing screenplays.  Admittedly, these were mostly for “boilerplate” made-for-TV movies like In the Line of Fire: Smoke Jumpers and “maybe just a little cheesy” mini-series like ABC’s Cleopatra. Now — as he writes for Slate — that career appears to be mostly over, not because of any lack of talent or professional perspicacity on Harrigan’s part.

It’s just that the ’90s were really the heyday of this kind of work:

Nowadays when I open a green envelope [the paychecks that come in the mail for subsequent sales of the movies and TV shows], it feels less like reaping a reward than confronting a feverishly hardworking and naively idealistic ghost of myself. By idealistic I mean that even when I wrote something like In The Line of Duty: Smoke Jumpers (sample note from NBC exec: “Can the Smoke Jumpers take their shirts off more?”), I never thought of myself as a TV-movie hack. I wrote with the anguish and conviction of an uncompromising indie auteur. And by ghost I mean that it’s pretty much all over. The kind of stuff I specialized in was, for the most part, Movies of the Week, known in the business as MOW’s. They were called movies of the week because, in the days before reality television swept away the old scripted paradigm of TV entertainment, every broadcast network had at least one night a week devoted to the airing of an original movie or miniseries. As a writer of what I call colon movies (such as Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Take Me Home: The John Denver Story), the ’90s were my golden decade. I was an A-list writer of B-list productions.

A terrific mini-memoir for anyone looking to make a living writing for the big or little screens.