Several times over the course of my television writing career I was asked by civilians, “Where do you get the ideas for stories?” The truthful answer, I suppose, would be “We steal them wherever we can.” Everything is potential source material for a roomful of writers who need to come up with twenty-some episodes every season.
I’ll sheepishly admit that basic story ideas, which TV writers call “notions”, were appropriated not only from our own life experiences, but from family and friends, too. By way of example: Over dinner one night, a couple of friends mentioned a misunderstanding they’d had years before, about her engagement ring; I embellished the basic facts into an episode of Cheers called “Diamond Sam”. In every writers’ room I was ever in, a lot of personal stuff got shared, and it wasn’t always our own personal stuff.
I also regularly searched newspapers and magazines for possible story ideas. Writers for drama shows — especially the police procedurals — do that too, but they favor a ripped-from-the-headlines approach, the sensational crime stuff that makes the front page. For comedy shows, on the other hand, I ripped obscure items from page 27. I’d clip out those little oddities that often go overlooked in hopes that they might be useful sometime, and occasionally they were. While going through my file cabinet the other day, I came across a folder full of yellowed clippings that for one reason or another never morphed into a television script. I should probably throw them out, but some of them are just too good to abandon.
Consider this little nugget that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1987. The headline was You Can’t Teach an Old Thief New Tricks:
An elderly man whom prosecutors called “an interesting guy but an irredeemable crook” was facing yet another prison term Wednesday for his latest arrest in a criminal career stretching back to the years before World War I. Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Boag said Ronnie Winston Fairbanks, 88, who has been arrested at least 137 times and used more than 80 aliases during a long life of petty crime, was arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting June 10 at a Robinson’s department store in downtown Los Angeles, where a store security agent said he had stuffed $174 worth of women’s earrings in his shirt and a duffel bag.
Boag said Fairbanks has a 37-page “rap sheet” dating back to a juvenile arrest in 1914 and was on probation at the time of his arrest for a June, 1986 incident in which police at Los Angeles International Airport found him in possession of two stolen suitcases. “He was warned by the judge then that if he violated parole, he would go to state prison for two years,” Boag said. “I feel sorry for the guy, but what can you do — he just won’t stop stealing.”
Fairbanks, whose colorful list of aliases includes the name “Ivanhoe Boggle”, told police after his airport arrest that he had spent 35 years in prison. He carried 10 Social Security cards, each bearing a different identity, and his arrest sheet showed arrests and convictions in at least 10 states — though none for a crime more serious than theft.
One of my few career disappointments is that I never found a way to work Ivanhoe Boggle into a script.