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The ABC series Lost is the sort of extraordinary hit that TV dreams are made of.
Centering on a band of plane-crash survivors marooned on a mysterious island, Lost has mixed sci-fi and plot twists into a huge phenomenon, attracting millions of viewers and propelling ABC out of a long prime-time ratings slump. When fans tune in to the show for the start of its fourth season in February 2008, one of the names they will see rolling in the opening credits as co-creator is Jeffrey Lieber. That’s Jeffrey Lieber, Evanston Township High School, class of ‘87; U. of I., class of ‘91.
Lieber’s success should lend itself to a heartwarming tale about a local kid who defied odds and made it big in show business. But the story is not that simple. In the Chutes & Ladders world that is Hollywood, Lieber finds his biggest triumph discomfiting. The network fired him after he wrote Lost’s original series pilot. He doesn’t know the crew or cast. He has never visited the writers’ offices for the show and never set foot on the set in Hawaii, where much of the series is shot. Lieber won his credit only after a fight for recognition with ABC.
Nobody needs to feel sorry for Jeffrey Lieber: because of that successful arbitration, Lost has served him quite well financially. But he finds that a hollow victory. “It’s money for therapy,” he says, with a laugh.
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Jeffrey Lieber’s story provides a case study in the rigors, pitfalls, and payoffs of a business that remains deeply alluring. Every year, countless wannabe film and television writers from all over the world descend on Hollywood to try to break in. Besides the glamour, the payoff can be golden: top movie and TV writers typically receive annual paychecks in the high six figures; with back-end profits, they can sometimes earn millions.
Still, only about 4,000 writers actually earn a living at the trade, according to the Writers Guild of America. Jeffrey Stepakoff, a TV veteran whose recently published book Billion-Dollar Kiss offers a behind-the-scenes look at the business, says about two-thirds of those paid writers work in television, many on the staffs of shows. The business is tough enough, says Stepakoff, that about 20 percent of working writers cycle out of the industry every year. “It’s a very small, insular community,” he says.
Sitting on the upstairs back porch of his 1912 Craftsman bungalow in L.A.’s Venice Beach on a recent chilly night, Lieber, 38, with black hair, longish sideburns, and a goatee, recounts how he became Lost’s unknown castaway. The tale begins in Evanston, where he grew up the son of Susan, a clinical psychologist, and Roland, an architect. He got his start in show business in high school. “I went to see a production of Scapino,” he recalls. “There was this really hot blonde named Suzy Moore onstage, and I kept thinking, I want to do anything I can to get closer to her. So I just started doing plays.” (As it happens, his future wife, Holly Long, was also in Scapino.)
After high school, Lieber enrolled in the theatre department at the University of Illinois and later came to Chicago to break into the city’s theatre scene-meaning, he moved into a roach-infested two-flat in Bucktown, worked part-time at Starbucks, and took roles in shows at Victory Gardens, Shakespeare Repertory, and the National Jewish Theatre.
Tired of being a struggling actor, Lieber teamed up with another struggling actor from the U. of I., Michael Shapiro, to write scripts for TV sitcoms on spec (that is, without any promise of being paid). An actress friend in Los Angeles passed the scripts to her agent at Writers & Artists, a respected talent agency. Lieber says he recalls the man today only as “Jerry.” Jerry liked their scripts and told them that he’d sign them on as clients. Soon, Lieber and Shapiro flew out to L.A. for a meeting. Lieber says that afterward, while lunching on Melrose Boulevard-in shorts, in January-he and Shapiro decided: “That’s it: we’re moving to California. Hallelujah!”
A month or two after arriving in Los Angeles, in March 1995, Lieber and Shapiro met with Jerry one morning to discuss a movie project. Later that day, Lieber called Jerry at his office with a question, only to find out that as of that afternoon, Jerry no longer worked at Writers & Artists. That meant Lieber and Shapiro were out, too. Lieber now suspects that they were never actually signed as clients: “We were probably what’s known as ‘hip-pocketed,’” he explains, “where an agent says, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll work with you.’ But he doesn’t tell anyone else, and if you pan out on your own, great, then he’ll sign you. If not, no one knows you exist. We didn’t exist.”
Eight months passed with no agent or job offers. Lieber toiled at a $10-an-hour day job for a company that developed video games and in his spare time he churned out screenplays. Shapiro, hobbled by writer’s block, ultimately gave up on his Hollywood dreams and returned to Chicago, where today he is the new principal of Shepard Middle School in Deerfield. “I’ve always said that Jeff’s like a shark-if he stops moving, he dies,” says Shapiro. “So he’s up at five o’clock in the morning, sitting in front of the laptop; then he falls asleep at about 8:30 [p.m.], and then he gets up in the middle of the night and he writes.”
In the fine tradition of Hollywood networking, Lieber passed his scripts on to an old high-school friend whose girlfriend worked as an assistant to a talent agent who was friends with an assistant to a literary agent, who read them. The agent agreed to sign Lieber, but with a catch: she was in the process of switching agencies and would seal the deal when she settled in elsewhere. Two weeks later, she called Lieber from her new agency. “Have you ever heard of Writers & Artists?” she asked. Lieber recalls thinking, “Oh, God, how could this be happening?”
Still, he signed with her and finally got his break. The studio Dreamworks liked one of his pitches and he became a finalist to write a romantic movie comedy. Unfortunately, he was up against John Patrick Shanley, the Academy Award–winning writer of Moonstruck. “I think I’m toast,” recalls Lieber. “So, I go out and I buy a fishbowl and a goldfish, and I send it to [the Dreamworks executive] with a card that says, ‘Just remember-the little fish take up less room and they’re easier to care for; hire the little fish.’” Lo and behold, Lieber got the job.
About a week later, Lieber met with the executive in his office, and the fishbowl was empty on the desk: “I said, ‘What happened to the fish?’ And he says, ‘The fish is dead-we overfed it.’” (Later, Lieber was fired from the project and the movie was never made.)
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Photoillustration: C. J. Burton