Gerald Green wrote the teleplay for the NBC mini-series "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story." The on-screen credits say so, the Writers Guild of America says so, and Gerald Green emphatically says so. Indeed, a Writers Guild arbitration proceeding stated without a flinch of a doubt that Green is the sole author of the script.
So naturally Green gets a trifle irked that Lamont Johnson, the director of the film, and Dick Berg, the producer, are still running around saying they wrote it.
"Look, I'm 63 years old, I've been a writer for 40 years, I've gotten a lot of bad reviews and some good ones, but nobody has ever challenged my integrity," says Green, an affable but at the moment agitated old pro who looks a little like Jose Ferrer. "I've written some lousy books and I've written some rotten scripts, but nobody's ever said, 'Gerald Green is a faker. He put his name on somebody else's script.' That's what hurts me."
From the outside, it may sound like just another Hollywood squabble, another event in Tinsel Town's Ego Clash Olympics. But as the Writers Guild manual states, "A writer's position in the motion picture or television industry is determined largely by his credits. His salary status depends on the quality and number of the screenplays, teleplays or stories which bear his name." Even Berg concedes, "We live by our credits in this business." But then he also insists that he and Johnson "got less than we deserved."
So the dispute gives outsiders a rare look at the workings of an industry in which professionals live and die by their screen credits.
The case had seemed closed. In January, the Writers Guild arbitration committee in Los Angeles took on the case because Johnson and Berg were asking for a cocredit as writers on the film, a fact-based fiction about the heroic exploits of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is believed to have saved as many as 120,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
"I'm the world's biggest pessimist," says Green, who also wrote NBC's globally acclaimed "Holocaust" mini-series. "It comes from years of attending Columbia University football games [class of '47]. But after I went over the script prior to the arbitration proceedings and saw how little Berg and Johnson had contributed, I walked downstairs and said to my wife, 'I'm going to win this.' "
And he did. On Feb. 20, the Guild notified Paramount, producers of the mini-series, that "the writing credits shall read as follows: 'Teleplay by Gerald Green.' " That seemed to be that until Johnson, in an interview published in The Washington Post April 7, the night before "Wallenberg" began airing on NBC, said, "Dick and I rewrote the script from scratch. I hated the script Gerald Green wrote and didn't want to do it."
While it was stated then that the Writers Guild ruled Green was to be the sole writer credited, Johnson referred to the Guild as "an absurd institution" and seemed to dismiss its findings.
The Guild hears about 300 cases a year involving credit disputes. While credit is arbitrated, the disputing parties are not named in any of the documents considered; in this case, Green was known to the committee only as "Writer A" and Berg and Johnson as "Writer B." Most of these cases are over when the committee rules. Indeed, the Guild manual states that once the credits have been determined, "No writer shall claim credits contrary to such determination," which is what Johnson did. He is not a member of the Writers Guild, however, and so is not subject to its official reprimands.
Green says he is willing to concede that Berg and Johnson rewrote about 30 percent of his script, but that is insufficient under Guild rules to qualify them for a credit or a cocredit.
Hence his pique at Johnson's remarks.
"Remember in 'Virginia Woolf' how they played games like 'Get the Guest'?" Green says. "This game is called 'Remove the Writer.' Lamont Johnson is simply wrong -- unequivocally and flatly wrong."
From Hollywood, where he is working on direction of a new play, Lamont Johnson sounds as though he is sorry he made the remarks about rewriting the script with Berg, but he does not recant what he said. Nor will he concede that his and Berg's contribution amounted to only a 30 percent rewrite.
"We dramatized the scenes that Mr. Green had simply placed in the chronology of what was already the Wallenberg story," Johnson says. "We had to translate them into cogent theatrical and filmic terms to make them play. Mr. Wallenberg gave us the story; Mr. Green did not invent it. The events and people are fixed in history."
From Paramount, where his Stonehenge Productions is headquartered, Berg says of Johnson's original comments, "I would have to corroborate every comma. I have never dealt with a man more honest or as incapable of guile or dissembling." He also says, "We did a major rewrite of Gerald Green's script."
However, the Guild made a painstaking scene-by-scene comparison of the original Green script and the rewritten Johnson-Berg version when it made its decision unanimously in Green's favor. And if Berg and Johnson feel so strongly they were wronged by the Writers Guild ruling, Green says, they had every right and opportunity to file for a review of that ruling. But they did not. He takes this as a tacit admission that they were wrong.
"I did in fact make an appointment to appear with our attorney," Berg says. "But one hour before we were to appear, I was told the appeals committee is not empowered to reverse a finding of the adjudicatory board. I was in postproduction on 17 hours of film including the CBS mini-series 'Space' and I did not have time for an exercise in futility."
Johnson says, "I was too busy to quarrel at that point."
"Nowhere else can a man make as sizable a contribution as we did on this project and be totally ignored," Berg says. Berg did get the executive producer's credit, however, and Johnson was credited as both director and coproducer. If "Wallenberg" wins an Emmy for best teleplay, and it very well might, Green alone will be the qualified recipient.
A former journalist whose eclectic career includes production stints on the NBC classic TV series "Wide Wide World" and the network's "Today" show, Green is perhaps best known for his novel "The Last Angry Man," which became a television play and a film. He wrote both screenplays. The novel was based on the life of his father, a doctor in the slums of Brooklyn.
"And when things got so terrible for this man," Green says of the character, "when he saw a world filled with duplicity and conniving and brutality, he had a quote: 'The bastards won't let you alone.' It's entered the language. A friend of mine who's a writer in Hollywood said that's the way it is out there, the bastards won't let you alone. And I never really believed that. I've never had an experience that would make me think that until this Lamont Johnson thing."
On the positive side, Green concedes that some of the changes made by Berg and Johnson, including a new opening and a new conclusion, were good ones. He says he thought the film was beautifully directed by Johnson. Johnson calls Green "a thoroughly nice man, and an enormously talented one. Emotionally and intellectually, he has all the right instincts for this kind of material."
And Berg says, as perhaps only a Hollywood producer could after all this acrimonious colloquy, "I don't want to derogate Gerald Green. He is a fine writer. In fact, I'm thinking about him for another project right now . . ."