What Anthony Quinn taught me about writing dialogue

Some years ago, I was hired to write a set of new, American-slanted introductions for a British television series, “Ten Who Dared,” which recreated the adventures of some famous 19th century explorers. Mobil Oil had purchased the series to run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.

When originally broadcast in England, the ten programs were hosted by David Attenborough, or some similar British highbrow. Mobil felt this was too hoity-toity for US audiences, so they asked Anthony Quinn to take over the hosting job, speaking introductions written by me.

 
I must admit, I thought Quinn was an odd choice to host a Masterpiece Theater series, since he was not exactly a member of the cultural intelligentsia. But when writers are offered paying jobs, they rarely refuse, which explains the existence of advertising and public relations.

 
Anyhow, I was flown to London to meet the Big Man, who was making a movie there. And he was indeed, big—about 6’4”, 250 lbs., with a large head and hands the size of collanders. He was an intimidating figure, even if you forgot that he was a movie star.

 
At the time, I was still a hair over 5’9”, and about a hundred pounds lighter than he was. I cite these numbers not to foreshadow some kind of fist fight, which would have been suicide, but because I want you to imagine us working together.

 
London was all handshakes and smiles, and vague talk about the exciting collaboration ahead of us. Then I flew home and started researching the ten explorers and writing show introductions.

 

Two months later, the segment director—my boss—his camera crew and I came to New York and set up shop at a little sound stage on 8th Avenue, in the film district. I soon discovered that the half-dozen perfectly-proofread Xeroxed copies of the ten new introductions, I’d brought wouldn’t do. I would have to retype them on a machine that produced copy in inch-high letters, on paper meant to be fed into a teleprompter. While the crew did their thing with the cameras, the lights and the relatively simple set, I typed.

 
Twenty minutes after the filming was supposed to begin, Anthony Quinn strolled in, grinning, wearing an elegant new Paul Stuart suit we later discovered he’d charged to the film production company. Now came the moment of truth. The segment producer had approved of the scripts, but Mr. Quinn had not even read them. I handed him the script packet and he began to read, brow furrowed, letting out an occasional “uh-huh,” but saying nothing. Finally, he looked up. And sighed. “Okay,” he said, without enthusiasm, “let’s give it a shot. We can start with the South Pole guy—Amundsen, right?”

 
Well, lights, camera, action, etc. And I’m standing there, watching Quinn saying the words I wrote, “In the end, all that saved Amundsen and his men from starvation were their sled dogs.” A dramatic sentence, I thought, with disturbing implications, but Quinn made a sour face, shook his head and came down from the set, heading toward me.

 
He stood over me and put one of his big, heavy paws on my shoulder and smiled. “Hey, Ardman,” he said, friendly-like, “This just doesn’t work. Could you fuck this up for me?” He handed me the script and offered an encouraging nod.

 
This is a writers’ greatest fear—to be told what you’ve done isn’t good enough, but not given the slightest hint about how to fix it. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, feeling completely helpless and I retreated to the teleprompter typing room.

 
“Fuck it up,” he’d said. Well, with that kind of criticism, I thought, rewriting ought to be simple. I sat down at the typewriter, hands sweating, and tried to get my brain in gear.

 
Quinn had been right. In his mouth, my words, graceful as they might have been, insightful as one could have hoped, sounded phony and wooden. I’d written new introductions all right, but I’d forgotten who I was writing them for. I’d forgotten his character, his presence, his brute vitality.

 
I considered the big man standing out there on the set, waiting for the rewrite, waiting for words that suited him better, waiting for words he could say without seeming pretentious, words that fit his personality, words that genuinely expressed his emotions, as he reflected on Amundsen’s heroism and desperation.

 
I summoned up a mental image of Anthony Quinn and inventoried what I saw—his age, his education, his life experience, his heritage, his speech patterns, his mood, his motivation, everything I could think of. Then I began to pound away on the teleprompter typewriter.

 
An hour later, I emerged from my little cave, script in hand, to find the rest of the crew eating a catered lunch that would have impressed Steven Spielberg.    Quinn made as if he were happy to see me. I handed him the script and he went off to study it, taking a plate of lobster salad with him.

 
When he came back to the set, I searched for clues in his face, but there were none. He was all business. He took his place. The wardrobe lady straightened his jacket and the makeup girl powered his forehead. Then it was lights, camera, action again.

 
I watched him delivering the goods, not as some let’s pretend intellectual or faux historian, but as Anthony Quinn, the big man, the movie star, reacting to a story of unbelievable courage and determination. But it was the last line I was waiting for, the line that had to work, or else.

 
And Quinn came up to it, stepping forward, looking directly into camera. He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head, as though he were about to say something he could hardly believe, but knew was true.

 
“They would have starved,” he said. “Except for the dogs.” He paused for a very long time. “They killed the dogs.” He paused again. “They ate the dogs.”  He continued gazing into the camera, overcome by the horror of his words.

 
“Cut,” said the director.

 
Quinn relaxed and smiled. Maybe I gave him the right words, but the man sure knew how to say them. He walked over to a table, picked up the script packet and handed it to me, with a warm grin. “Hey, Harvey,” he said, “could you fuck up the rest of these for me too?”

 
I grabbed a bit of potato salad and headed back to the teleprompter typewriter.

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About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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