Scuffling in Tinseltown

Ernie Pintoff

When I came out to Hollywood from New York, one of my first paying gigs was working on a low-budget action script with the director Ernie Pintoff. Ernie had actually won an Oscar (you can look it up) for a short subject called “The Critic” with Mel Brooks. But mostly he made his living doing episodic television.

Ernie and I would work at his house in Outpost Canyon. We sat side by side at a huge oak table in his kitchen. Sometimes we’d work for eight or ten hours at a crack. I’d drive home exhausted.

Ernie never spoke to me about anything except the movie we were writing. I wasn’t sure he even knew my name. But little by little we started getting to know each other. One day during a break he asked me what else I was doing when I wasn’t working for him. I told him I had written three novels that never got published—-and I was constantly hammering out spec screenplays that also didn’t sell. He regarded me thoughtfully for a long few seconds.

“Keep working,” he said.

I could tell this was a piece of serious wisdom from a veteran who had been through the wars, but I wasn’t really sure what Ernie meant.

The next day I asked him if he wouldn’t mind elaborating.

Again he said, “Just keep working.”

Then Ernie’s fiftieth birthday came around. His wife Caroline threw a big party and I helped out. When the event was over, Ernie and I wound up in the kitchen together doing the dishes. Ernie had recently been diagnosed with cancer. He had had cancer twice before and survived.

“Keep working,” he said. “Don’t turn anything down. Porn flicks, slasher movies, free stuff for friends. Don’t get precious. You’re young, you’re learning. Keep working.”

Ernie cited three reasons:

“One, working means you’re getting paid. I know you’re getting peanuts for this job. It doesn’t matter. It’s money, it’s validation. Every buck means you’re a working pro, you’re toiling in your chosen field.

“Two, when you work, you learn. Everybody has something to teach you. A grip will show you something about lighting, an editor will drop some pearl about what to keep and what to cut. Even actors know something.

“Three, you’re making friends. Some kid who’s schlepping coffee today may be a producer tomorrow. He may buy one of your specs. An actress you do some free work for today may get you hired for a rewrite six months from now.”

I was thinking, Does this movie we’re working on count?

Ernie read my mind. He laughed. “Don’t turn your nose up at anything. This piece of crap we’re working on now can teach you plenty. Because it’s working. The principles of story-telling are in this piece, just like in Shakespeare. I’m making sure they’re in there. Watch me. Do what I tell you. Porn works, splatter works, horror works; if they didn’t, nobody’d finance ‘em and nobody’d go to see ‘em. You can learn from all of them.”

There’s a sad ending to this story. Ernie died a few years later. Our little action movie never got made.

But I took a lot of jobs because of what Ernie told me, and I never regretted any of them. I learned my craft. I got to work as a pro. Ernie gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

“Keep working.”