by Larry Brody
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
– Gina Leonard
In the late ’50s, Herbert Leonard, known to all as Bert, was a force to be reckoned with. He had a ton of series on the air, including two dramas that could be considered the best series of that decade: ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY.
For me, they’re way up there. Only thing that keeps ‘em from being at the top of my list is all the great live drama anthology series of that same era. You know, little things like PLAYHOUSE 90, STUDIO ONE, GE THEATER.
Today, on one of my favorite sites, The Classic TV History Blog, I learned two interesting things.
- The complete ROUTE 66 is out on DVD
- Bert Leonard is dead
I love blogster Stephen Bowie’s love for all things that have to do with that period in TV, and usually I agree with everything he says. This time around, though, I’m not sure of what he’s saying. By which I mean that he presents quite the balanced view of a man who’s been described not only as a brilliant visionary but also as an obnoxious con man. And much as I love the concept of balanced news, I feel obligated to stick my 2 cents in on this matter.
In either ’86 or ’88 – one of those years the WGA went on strike – my then partner and I were hired as Executive Producers of a version of RIN TIN TIN (one of my favorite shows when I was kid, and produced/owned by Bert Leonard) to be called KATTS AND DOG in Canada, where it was being made, and RIN TIN TIN: K-9 COP in the U.S. Bert was totally out of it then, as far as the business was concerned. But I was, you know, a fan.
My partner and I were action/drama writers, and Bert said that’s what he wanted this show to be. When we asked for more details, he gave us a short synopsis. Characters, setting, potential stories, you know the drill. He brought us to Toronto to meet everyone involved (where I met a terrific guy named Sam Manners, the legendary production manager who’d kept ROUTE 66 going on the road back in the day), then sent us back to L.A. to write what would be the second script. (Another writer, whose name I don’t recall, was already working on Episode One.)
When we were halfway through the script, Bert called to apologize for what he said was a “slight hold-up” in the deal. “I can’t give you screen credit as Executive Producers because you’re not Canadian. That’s got to go to someone here in Toronto. But you can still do all the work. Meanwhile, start packing. I’ve found a great place for you to live while we shoot.”
A couple of days later, we finished the first draft, messengered it to him, and started packing ourselves and a couple of kids.
And a few days after that I came home from an evening out to find a message on my answering machine in which Bert said. “Hey, read your script. I was wrong about drama. This show should be a sitcom. You’re fired.”
Never heard from him again.
Neither did my agent. Or business manager.
No matter how many times we called.
And, no, never got paid.
I did hear from Sam Manners, though, who called to apologize for his old friend. And to say he was quitting the show.
Bottom line: I don’t know what Bert was really up to during that Chinese Fire Drill. I do know that he didn’t seem to care about anything but sex with his current lady love, who, according to Stephen Bowie, he later married…twice. If he’d ever been a visionary, he sure wasn’t now. It was all con man, all the time.
Still, though, after all these years. I find myself hoping that Gina Leonard’s comments, above, are at least as true as those of Susan Orlean. And maybe even a tad more.
And wondering if I’m responding to him as a visionary legend, a typical flawed human being…or as a con man who even in death just worked his magic on me again.