Writer Wednesday: Rita Lakin – The Only Woman in the Room

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Rita Lakin

I can’t recommend this book enough. A terrific travelogue through the Hollywood and television industries from the PoV of writing — and you know how those industries hate writers. Lakin has a multifaceted career that spans the 60s, 70s and 80s, everything from Dr. Kildare to The Home Front and Flamingo Road.  A suddenly-widowed woman with small kids Lakin landed a job as a secretary at Universal Studios, where she had the time — and the support! — to begin reading scripts to learn the trade. And did she ever! Her first big break is a script for Richard Chamberlin’s Kildare that uses her own experience of grief to give it emotional punch.

Of course things don’t go swimmingly forever after: this is television after all. Lakin breezily recounts moments of humiliation and betrayal with a survivor’s comic remembrance. Her dogged pursuit of a career despite these setbacks, the sneering of her fine arts writer pals (sound familiar?) and the active sabotage of some real stinker relationships (oh. my. god.) demonstrates the real love Lakin has for this form of writing. Her prose is lean and lively. There’s never a dull moment. She loves to hold you in suspense by changing topics.

But she never forgets: her pal Doris who wrote that one short story that did so well amongst literary mags, who wouldn’t even watch her script debut on television — sixteen years later asks for an entré into the business. Lakin, despite working all of those years to get where she was, helps her friend out. That’s a lesson, too. Opening the door for other women was a touchstone of her entire career. After going to Writer’s Guild meetings where she was ignored or to meetings with producers that were just couch casting attempts, Lakin learned a lot but she never got bitter.

–even over her terrible, lousy, leeching loser of a husband Bob. That takes some doing. Though she is plain about Harve Bennett stealing her MWA Edgar in 1970 for Mod Squad (what a creep! who of course went on to a long and successful career as a producer: crime pays).

Things you can learn from Lakin: Never trust Aaron Spelling. Always be leary of producers who promise the world. Get everything in writing. Seriously, everything. Praise people who do good work even if they steal it from your mouth. Hollywood hates writers. Hollywood has trouble remembering that women are people until women remind them. Still.

Lakin has nothing but good things to say about the people who were generous to her over the years. Sydney Pollack, Richard Chamberlin, Steve Bochko — she has a whole chapter on Bochko as the break-through show runner, a job she tried to convince producers to give to her when she pitched a series, but there wasn’t a name for it yet. Every innovation builds on what went before. We just don’t always know or see it.

In the scriptwriting business getting breaks matters, Lakin makes clear, but having done the hard work to be able to make use of them is the real key.