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Director John Erman interview

Director John Erman
Transcribed interview text by Jay Blotcher

As a kid growing up in suburban Boston in the 1970s, Jay Blotcher was a huge fan of the ABC and NBC Movie of the Week series. 

But nothing prepared him for the 1977 NBC telecast of Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn. He was in front of his living room television on that night of its premiere on May 16, 1977. 

Blotcher was awestruck by the saga, sometimes compassionate and sometimes exploitative, of male hustlers in Hollywood and one ambivalent teen (played by Leigh J. McCloskey) in the center of the maelstrom.

Blotcher would finally come out as gay and Alexander would remain for him a cultural touchstone.

In the summer of 2010, Blotcher wrote about the 25th anniversary of another cultural watershed, the NBC 1985 AIDS drama, An Early Frost, for The Advocate.
An Early Frost TV movie
An Early Frost
25 Years Later

For the Advocate article, Blotcher interviewed both the drama's star, Aidan Quinn, and director John Erman. Blotcher belatedly realized that Erman had directed Alexander and he asked the veteran helmer to do a separate interview for TV Party on his career, with a focus on Alexander.

Erman agreed and they met at the Emmy Award-winning director's Park Avenue apartment in New York City.

In a free-ranging discussion that lasted almost two hours, Erman held forth on his career in television, backstage politics, and the challenges of making films with important messages.

Blotcher set aside the micro-cassette with intentions of transcribing the interview at a quiet time. 

Years passed. It was not until December of 2023 that he returned to the material, chastened to discover that John Erman had died on June 25, 2021.

Here is the interview, almost 14 years after it was initially conducted.

Alexander: The Other Side of DawnNew York City. Erman’s Park Avenue apartment.
September 30, 2010

Jay Blotcher Interviewer: I’m having the distinct pleasure of interviewing John Erman right now. And I’d like to talk about your career from the beginning until now. But first we have to focus ourselves.

John Erman: Right.

Blotcher: Okay, and that’s specifically about Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn. When I took you down Memory Lane last week (about An Early Frost), I asked you to think back 25 years. This week, I’m asking you to think back 33 years. And I recall in our conversation last week you said the ironic thing is that you [disliked] that project.

Dawn Portrait of a RunawayErman: I looked at the precursor of it, you know, the show… that starred Eve Plumb, and I thought it was wretched. But I was just beginning on the movie-for-television road. And my agent, a very smart man, said, "You just have to take jobs right now. You can get picky in a while."

Blotcher: How new were you to this business?

Erman: Well, I wasn’t that new to the business; I had started in the business as a director in the early 60s and I had done a lot of episodic television.

Blotcher: Specifically?

Erman: Specifically, My Favorite Martian, That Girl, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, The Flying Nun. You name them, I did them. And then, through an episode of Marcus Welby M.D., I got a feature film. And that went on to get me a second feature film. And the second feature film was a sort of career-stopper, because for a variety of reasons, some of which were not my fault. Most of them were not my fault; the movie was a big failure, and I was the one unknown quantity in terms of that film. It had famous actors and producers. It was a movie that was called Ace Ely and Roger of the Skies It was one of those – it was about a biplane.

Ace Ely and Roger of the SkiesBlotcher: Okay, so like the ‘20s?

Erman: Yeah, the ‘20s. And it was a really interesting, kinky kind of story that got greenlighted by Richard Zanuck. And one of the writers was [laughs] Steven Spielberg. And Dick Zanuck thought it really was a fascinating project and made the film. We put the film together and just as we were getting the film finished, Dick Zanuck got fired. And another whole regime came into 20th Century Fox. And when new people come in, they tend to sweep clean. And we were one of the projects that they wanted to just sweep clean.
So they tried to re-cut the film to make it more family-oriented, which it wasn’t at all, and as a consequence, they ruined the film. And I had a very distinguished agent at the time, and he had seen my cut of it. But then I called him up and I said, "You know, they really fucked around with this; I want to take my name off it." And he said, "Well I don’t know if that’s a good idea; let me come and see what they’ve done." So, he came to Fox, where we were working, and he saw it and he said, “You’re right; nobody should be involved with this.”
So, I took my name off of it and the next thing he told me was that I probably wouldn't work for two years, which was absolutely true. He said he had represented Richard Lester and Richard Lester had had some failure – I’ve forgotten what it was – and he didn’t work for two years. So, for two years I couldn’t get a job.

Blotcher: What year was this?

Erman: Uh… ’72. So, I was lucky enough to know George Cukor and I was telling him about this situation one day at lunch. And he said, "You just gotta take anything." And I said, "I don’t want to go back and do [TV sitcom] F Troop. So, he said, It looks you’re gonna have to." He said, "you know, I got fired from Gone with the Wind. You know, you just pick up and go on." So, the upshot of that was, through a series of circumstances, I got into the TV movie business, and I made an early TV movie that turned out very well which was called Green Eyes with Paul Winfield and Rita Tushingham.
Out of that I got Roots [the second season in 1978], because the man who wrote Green Eyes was a friend of [producer] David Wolper.
So, my friend who write Green Eyes called David Wolper and said, "This guy is very talented, and you should think about it." At exactly that time, a director dropped out of Roots. It was a director who was supposed to do the first two episodes, and he could only do the first one, and I got the job. And I won the Directors Guild Award, and I was sort of on my way. But this came right after that. So, I was hoity-toity; "I had just won the Directors Guild, I had just done Roots, blah blah blah. Why did I have to do this junky piece [Alexander]?" But my agent talked me into it, and I did it.

Blotcher: Okay. Did somebody come to you with the project or--?

Erman: Usually what happens is – usually they don’t come to you directly. They come to you through your agent, and I was represented by CAA which was a very powerful agent in television at that time. And I just got a call one day, saying, "We have an offer for you to do this show." And [laughs] my memory was that I said, "I hate that script. And I don’t really want to do it." And my agent said, "If I get you a raise, would you do it?" And I said, "Oh all right!"

Blotcher: But you said that you had watched Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway first –

Erman: Well, before I said no – you know, he sent me the script and he sent me Dawn. And I called him back and said, "No, I don’t wanna do this." And then he made me this bargain and I lost the bet. I got a raise. [laugh] So I was committed to do this.

Blotcher: And did you make any alterations in the script?

Erman: Yeah, I made a lot of alterations.

Blotcher: Do you recall some –

Erman: No. I just remember that when I saw the writer’s name, I could see him in my head. I could see what he looked like. And I went, Oh, Walter Dallenbach! Yes, he was a good guy. He was a very [laugh] poorly – uh, yeah. But, you see, this woman [Darlene Young, who co-wrote the original story with him]– and I don’t want to say bad things about her – she wasn’t very good.
Oh – here’s what happened! Walt Dallenbach was brought in to rewrite her. That’s when I came into the fore and asked for changes, which I guess I got, and, you know, we were off to the races.

Blotcher: So, looking through the prism of being a gay man, what was your initial feeling about [the screenplay] – or initial misgivings? That it was bad quality overall or...

Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn : Leigh J. McCloskeyErman: The writing. What I read originally was very poor. And I thought it was exploitive and I thought it was cliché. I just did not respond to it. And then, you know, what happens to you when you commit yourself to a project is you get totally involved. And your desire is: All right now, here we’ve got a sort of flawed piece of material. I want to make it better. And I remember that I did work with Walt, and I remember that we did change it.
Of course, the thing about it that stuck out to me when I looked at it again was how good the other acting was. I had reservations about the two leading people [Eve Plumb and Leigh J. McCloskey]. I had more reservations about Leigh than I had remembered I had. But what kept assaulting me as I watched it [again recently] was, Oh, he’s good and she’s [laugh]. Like that. I remember getting deeply involved in the casting and fighting a lot of battles.

Blotcher: I would presume that Eve [Plumb] was already locked in –

Erman: Yeah. She was in the first show.

Blotcher: Do you recall when Leigh came in?

Erman: He was already in it. He had been in the first show.

Blotcher: Oh, right, right.

Erman: He had a small part in the first show. And that show was a huge ratings-getter.  And Doug [Douglas J.] Cramer and his partner were very savvy in terms of the way television networks operated and they sold this [Alexander] as a sequel. "We’re gonna make a sequel and instead of making it about a prostitute, we’re gonna make it about a hustler." [laugh]

Blotcher: What do you remember about the shoot?

Erman: Well, I remember a lot.

Blotcher: Okay. Tell me whatever comes to mind.

Erman: Well, the first thing I remember was that it was a forced march. I’ve never, ever worked as quickly as we had to work because the producers were so cheap – and that’s the only word I can use. We made the movie in 16 days. And it was all on practical locations and it had a lot of night work, as you remember, and a lot of that was on Hollywood Boulevard, which is not easy to control. And every night after we would – I had a wonderful cinematographer who I had worked with before. A guy named Gayne Rescher who was great. And every night, at the of the shoot, one of the producers would say, "All right; we’re gonna have a meeting right now. We’re gonna have it in my Rolls Royce."
So, Gayne and I would get into the back of the Rolls Royce and the producer and his associate would get into the front of the Rolls Royce and he would say, "We’re way behind. How can we work faster? How can we work faster? This is unacceptable."
And we were just like donkeys. We were just flying to get that show done. When I looked at it again, I thought, "I don’t know how did it. But we did it." So, that was the first thing I remember.
The biggest emotional thing I remember was how frightened Leigh Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn : Leigh J. McCloskeyMcCloskey was. He was a very square, polite, straight kid. I don’t know whether he had an option when he did Dawn, which forced him into this, or whether they just coerced him into this by telling him it would make him famous.

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Director John Erman

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Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn

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