Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a new novel (his third) and immerse himself “deep” in a fictional Omaha subplot.
“I wanted to take a risk with what I was doing. The best decision I made,” he said from his writing-reading perch at Wohlner’s in Mid-town.
It’s not the first time he’s used Omaha as workplace and muse. In the early 1990s he researched here for an Omaha character in his first novel. Decades earlier he passed through hitching cross country on a personal Beat adventure. That drop-out, tune-in odyssey led him to Jamaica until Uncle Sam called.
On Feb. 7 Film Streams will present a 1978 film he wrote, American Hot Wax, that tells the story of DJ Alan Freed, who introduced white audiences to rock ‘n’ roll. Until now Kaye’s kept a low profile here, but that changes when he does a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show.
Kaye grew up in a West Los Angeles malaise of stale Hollywood dreams. He entered the ferment of 1960s social rebellion as a UC Berkeley and University of Wisconsin (Madison) student. He served in the Marine Corps Reserves, where his Jewish, college-educated background made him a target.
This child of Old Hollywood and New Journalism, “inspired by the galvanizing youth culture thing,” indulged in the era’s excesses. He was a researcher for David Wolper Productions, where colleagues included William Friedkin and Walon Green. He was an underground journalist, a CBS censor and a producer-writer for the KNBC late night sketch comedy show Lohman and Barkley. Anticipating Saturday Night Live, the show sped the careers of Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and John Amos.
“It was a fascinating moment.”
Then Kaye got fired. Hedging that “disappointment” was the mentoring he received from Mission Impossible and Mannix creator Bruce Geller. Then Geller died in a plane crash.
Kaye’s ex-wife and first love was institutionalized, leaving him to raise their son. She later committed suicide.
“It was a very chaotic time,” he recalls.
All the while he wrote scripts but sold none.
“I was really struggling.”
One day he picked up two young women thumbing rides in L.A. He ditched them after realizing they were Manson girls – post-Charlie’s conviction. The incident sparked the idea for his first industry feature, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). This nihilistic screwball comedy is a shambling, anarchic take on three broken people hooking up for a road and head trip. Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips teamed with Alan Arkin. Dick Richards directed.
“It was a time when you could write a road movie,” Kaye says of its meandering, seriocomic style. The approach became his niche and hit its peak with Hot Wax. His friend Floyd Mutrux directed. Tim McIntyre, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis star.
Kaye’s own counterculture leanings drew him to Gonzo hipster Hunter S. Thompson, whom he made the basis for his Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) script. Bill Murray plays Thompson. Kaye’s then-producing partner Art Linson directed. The serious take Kaye envisioned was hijacked by “a make it funny” decree from studio suits. Hanging out with Thompson in New Orleans, an old Kaye stomping ground, while placating moneymen hell-bent on laughs “turned out to be fun but really insane,” said Kaye.
Unkind reviews “singled out” Kaye’s writing. “It was a blood letting. Very painful.”
The experience, he said, gave him “thick skin” and taught him “not to be too invested in something.” Still he said, “It definitely set my career back.” He takes small consolation the movie has a cult following, even admitting, “I’m not sure it holds up as well as Hot Wax.”
Kaye’s last screen credit came as writer-director of Forever Lulu, a 2000 film starring Melanie Griffith and Patrick Swayze.
“I decided I wanted to write sort of a valentine to my ex-wife.”
The lead characters have a college affair and years later she escapes a mental hospital to find her old beau, now married, to inform him he fathered a child she bore and was forced to give up for adoption. The pair set out to visit the son who doesn’t know they exist.
A negative trade review cost the film a theatrical release.
The producers, he said, “kind of left me alone,” adding, “It was a great experience for me because I really felt I had stepped out and done something.”
It’s the same feeling he had writing his first novel, Stars Screaming.
“Spending eight years writing this book and getting it done, I realized I would not quit on something and that I had it in me to write it. Even though I wrote myself into complete poverty doing it, I finished it. I stepped through enormous amounts of fear to work to my potential.”
Then came his second novel The Dead Circus. Even with his new novel nearly complete, he says he may linger on in Omaha awhile.
“I’ve fallen in love with this town.”
For tickets to the Feb. 7 screening, visit www.filmstreams.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com