In February of 1971, Mrs. Saha pushed her grocery buggy down the aisle of her local supermarket in Houston, Texas. A neighbour stopped and said, “We watched The Courtship of Eddie’s Father on TV last night. The episode was written by Mark Saha. Is that your Mark?” Indeed it was and later that day Mark, who’d been living in Los Angeles a decade, received a telephone call from his parents who for the first time allowed that maybe, just maybe, their son’s crazy notion to be a Hollywood writer might pan out.

When I met Mark in early 2018, after I began attending Write Away in Santa Monica every Tuesday, he really got my attention as we finished up and headed out the door. “I wrote an episode of Mod Squad back in the sixties,” he told me. Are you kidding? An episode of Mod Squad? I don’t know how old you are, my reader, but I’m old enough to clearly remember, as a young teenager, watching Mod Squad every week on TV. Hell, I can still recite the show’s ridiculous tag line: “One black, one white, one blonde.”

Mark Saha’s Czech ancestors arrived in the state of Texas in the nineteenth century, taking up a government offer of free farm land if they committed to working it. Born in Rosenberg, Texas in 1937, Mark later moved to nearby Houston with the family after his father decided to leave behind cotton farming.  A good Catholic boy, Mark followed his older brother Larry to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and took the Liberal Arts program which started him on a path his father never really understood. “What kind of job do you get with a Liberal Arts degree? Why not study accounting?”

Mark, back centre with black hair, riding the rails out to the fields in Northern California, around Stockton, to pick tomatoes

Mark did not want to be an accountant, he wanted to be a writer. And he seemed to have a knack, even at an early age, to put himself in situations that would allow him to observe others and their circumstances, observations that would provide valuable insight for later stories. While at Notre Dame, for example, Mark took up a classmate’s suggestion that they hitchhike back to Houston rather than more conventional travel. According to Mark, the classmate named Tom Scott “was very much into Jack Kerouac and The Beats, and carried a loaded pistol in his luggage for protection.” One trip was too slow going for Tom so he slipped the pistol into Mark’s duffle bag and caught a Greyhound home. There was Mark, eighteen years old, hitchhiking alone with Tom’s gun. Along with leaving him protection, the classmate left Mark with the advice that if you were on the road after dark go to a police station and they would allow a young college boy to sleep in a cell. Mark followed the advice but never mentioned to the police that he had a loaded pistol in his bag.

He dropped out of Notre Dame for a year but did go back and, with his Bachelor of Arts in 1962, secured a spot in the graduate film program at UCLA. While a UCLA grad student he traded in hitchhiking for jumping freight trains with two roommates. Often going north to pick tomatoes to earn beer and pool money, they slept in ditches in sleeping bags. As Mark told me: “I learned many interesting stories from bums and winos.” He added those stories to the ones he’d heard hitchhiking where he’d “discovered that people would confide in a stranger things they could tell no one else. One married man told me of his on-going affair with a teenaged waitress in town; he was scared to death they would get caught but said they just couldn’t quit. A couple of moonshiners took me up into the hills to show me their still and gave me a jar of moonshine. I found it all an infinite source of material for a writer.”

Mark in the California tomato fields, early 1960s

All that material paid off — while still a student at UCLA he won second prize for a short story he submitted to the Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award. The real prize that Mark received, though, was a call from an agent who wanted to represent him. That offer had Mark leaving UCLA before graduating and landing his first paying job in Hollywood’s television and film industry: Production Assistant (PA) on a TV show called Never Too Young. A sort of daytime soap opera for teenagers, the show starred Tony Dow (big brother Wally from Leave it to Beaver) and its premise was that a “fifth Beatle” had left the band and England, ended up in Malibu, and started up a local beach hangout called Alfie’s High Dive. Laugh at the premise of that show if you must (well, you should laugh, it’s preposterous), but the job not only provided a foot in the door for Mark, it also provided the opportunity to meet a number of America’s up and coming music stars. Each episode featured performing musicians and one of Mark’s duties as PA was to take them out for lunch. One time Mark found himself across the table from two young men who were struggling to break through. The duo had performed in England as Tom and Jerry but came back to America with a deal from Columbia Records and began to bill themselves using their own names, Simon and Garfunkel. Another lunch had a very successful New York Brill Building songwriter wondering to Mark what he was doing on the show. “You know,” he said to Mark, “I’m not really a performer, I’m a songwriter.” But he did go on the show to perform his new song, Solitary Man. I wonder if Neil Diamond ever reflects on that moment?

Beyond the interesting lunches, Mark got his first break while doing his essential PA duties: picking up the scripts from the writers, mimeographing and distributing them. According to Mark, writers fortunate enough to have full time jobs on TV shows were very protective of their position and in the case of Never Too Young the two writers locked themselves in their office and pounded away on typewriters aided only by coffee and cigarettes, speaking to no one, just handing their scripts out the door to Mark. One day he went to the producer because he realized the writers had written an identical scene for two different episodes. The producer had no time to quarrel with the writers so he looked at Mark and said, “Okay Hemingway, show me what you got. Write me a new scene.” Although he never got credit, it was the first thing Mark wrote that aired. Between that bit of experience and the sample screenplay that his agent had tasked him to create — the agent needed something to show movie studios that this new young writer had talent — Mark landed on a team of writers for the new TV show Peyton Place.

Peyton Place allowed Mark to do a couple of things he had not been confident he’d be able to accomplish — pay off his UCLA student debt and buy his first automobile — hitchhiking and freight train jumping days now firmly behind him. He also settled into Santa Monica, in the neighbourhoods between Third Street and the beach, eventually ending up in the apartment he still lives in. For those who don’t remember, Peyton Place was a big deal back in the 1950s and 60s. A bestselling 1956 novel, it was adapted into a 1957 film and then became the first prime time TV soap opera. A very successful soap opera that launched the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, as well as giving my Baby Boomer Generation a tag line for any messy romance entanglements in either their neighbourhood or high school. Whenever it came out in the open that a few guys and gals were cheating on their partners with mutual friends we’d say to one another: “Here we go, another Peyton Place.”

Regarding that sample screenplay Mark wrote at the insistence of his agent: he actually got paid twice for it though it was never produced. The vagaries of Hollywood as Mark has explained to me many times. He wrote Doodlebug Days based on his summer experiences working back home in Texas as part of an oil field survey and sample drilling crew that drove “across the Big Thicket blowing shot lines”. Old grizzled oil field workers referred to them as “doodlebug crews”. After the script was completed, Mark was back home visiting his parents when he received a call from a guy named Warren Skaaren of the Texas Film Commission. Skaaren was looking to invest money in films shot in Texas and Doodlebug Days looked like a perfect fit. Working off and on for a guy named Ted Flicker (who wrote and directed a successful James Coburn action comedy called The President’s Analyst) Mark put Skarren in touch with Flicker but they never got the green light to film. That said, they made a fair bit of money on the script from Texas, and Flicker turned out to be one of the more decent of Hollywood people. After six or seven years without making the film, Flicker returned the screenplay rights to Mark. In turn, Mark optioned the rights to a studio though they never filmed it either — but he still got paid, again.

Warren Skaaren, by the way, did move on with his own career as a Hollywood screenwriter who, Mark says, became “very hot in town as a ‘script doctor’” and in an amazing streak turned problem scripts, starting with Top Gun, into hits. Other scripts he “fixed” included Beetlejuice, Batman, and Beverly Hills Cop II.  Mark says the guy was probably the most hated writer in the Writers Guild because he hadn’t written a salable original script yet he was paid top dollar to “mess with Hollywood veteran screenwriter’s work and add his name to the credits. Warren was well on the way to becoming a major Hollywood force when he died of cancer at age 44.”

Mark shared the story on Warren Skaaren with me in detail because recently Mark discovered that a women named Alison Macor wrote a biography, “Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren”, and some of her source material came from letters she discovered — letters written between Mark Saha and Warren Skarren regarding Skaaren’s original screenplay Spooks. To quote:

The love of Mark’s life: Brigitta spreading out a beach towel in Malibu, sometime in ’79 or ’80

“Television writer Mark Saha (Peyton Place, The Mod Squad) gave Skaaren the most useful advice, offering step-by-step instructions about story action and momentum. He also advised Skaaren to create an outline for the story and to brainstorm for effective scenes before attempting to rewrite the script, two suggestions that Skaaren would adapt and use throughout his future screenwriting career. Although Saha cautioned Skaaren about submitting Spooks before it was sufficiently revised, he praised the story’s premise and encouraged him to keep working on it. ‘Spooks is a picture I would buy a ticket to go and see,’ Saha told Skaaren.”

Skaaren never sold an original screenplay but became very famous in Hollywood, and very wealthy, as a “script doctor”. Those are the vagaries of Hollywood. Vagaries that can be illustrated regarding a famous movie that Mark had everything to do with — and nothing to do with. Let me explain.

The Buddy Holly Story, a 1978 film about one of America’s great Rock and Roll pioneers, won two Academy Awards including Best Actor for Gary Busey. Born in the same state of Texas, a year after Holly, Mark felt he understood both the man and his music. He pitched the idea of a Buddy Holly biographical movie to Universal Studios who agreed to bankroll the venture. They flew Mark to Florida to meet Holly’s widow, Maria Elina; Lubbock, Texas to meet his siblings and parents; and New Mexico to meet music producer Norman Petty. After two years of work, widow Maria decided that she should be paid for the rights to her husband’s life story. Universal balked because they thought they would then have to pay an equal amount to Holly’s parents, his producer and his band, The Crickets. So Mark’s screenplay was shelved, though he’d been well paid. Along came Fred Bauer, a Philadelphia entrepreneur with a background in television, who agreed to pay Maria Elina for the rights to the story. She told him that she felt a real kinship to the screenwriter Mark Saha and Bauer should use him as the writer. The problem was Bauer would have to pay out Universal for the rights to Mark’s screenplay and he had no intention of doing that. Bauer hired another writer instead, they wrote their own screenplay, and The Buddy Holly Story was released by Columbia Pictures. Like I said, the vagaries of Hollywood: Mark got the film started and earned good money but his screenplay never made it to the big screen.

During all this time, Mark had developed a relationship with a woman named Brigitta who can only be described as the love of his life. Brigitta’s parents escaped Latvia in 1944 and she was born in a displaced persons camp in the American zone of southern Germany in 1946. Her parents eventually made it to the US where her father bought a small tailor shop in La Jolla, California. Mark met this beautiful young woman in 1969 at a block party in that same neighbourhood between Third Street and the beach where he still lives. She was visiting her sister (at the time Brigitta worked as a flight attendant for Braniff on a military charter transporting American soldiers back and forth to Vietnam) and she had every guy at the block party all over her. Mark played the shining knight and offered her an evening of dancing away from all these guys. Years earlier, while still at UCLA, a very close female friend took Mark to the various lesbian bars in LA because she felt, as a writer, he needed many different life experiences. The cardinal rule, she told him, was he could never hit on the women. So Mark took Brigitta to the lesbian bar he most frequented and knew all the women and told them the same rules applied: as much as Brigitta knocked them out, they couldn’t hit on her!

Mark and Brigitta back in the day when she was visiting him in Houston, Texas

Mark and Brigitta have been close ever since, lived together at his place once, but have never found themselves in the same life-place where they could settle down together forever, perhaps marrying. “We’ve kicked around over fifty years and are together again sorta these days,” he says. “Once I drove her to LAX to marry a millionaire she met on a flight, and two years later went to LAX and picked her up when she left him.” These days Brigitta lives in her apartment in San Francisco and Mark in his apartment in Santa Monica, neither of them able to risk giving up one of the apartments to move in with the other. But Mark did spend this past Christmas with Brigitta.

Mark joined Write Away in 2015 to help him focus on a short novel he’d started writing about a couple of modern day saddle bums named Lee Estes and Jim Harrison. The story revolves around an equine sport known as “cutting”, a competition to demonstrate a horse’s ability to handle cattle, specifically to “cut” a particular steer or heifer from the herd. He published Lady Joe later that year on Amazon (find his novel here). When I met him in 2018, Mark was in the midst of writing a collection of short stories, some of which I heard him read aloud on Tuesday afternoons. After getting to know Mark I could hear echoes of his adventures hitchhiking and riding freight trains, the people he met who shared personal narratives they couldn’t share with their friends and loved ones, in those stories that he published in 2019: Lost Horses (find his book here). Beyond writing, Mark and I discovered we both loved to walk and some of the most pleasant days I’ve spent in California are ambling around Santa Monica, the Venice Beach Boardwalk and Venice Canals, and the hipster restaurant/shopping street Abbot Kinney with him. The first time I met Mark at his apartment for a stroll I wondered about how slow a walk it would be with this 82 year old guy until, that is, he lit out in front of me and I hurried to keep up.

Mark and Brigitta getting together in San Francisco for his birthday, around Christmas time, 2015

It’s been a long time since Mark Saha has cashed a Hollywood studio cheque and he readily admits that living off his previous investments are getting tighter by the year. Perhaps if he’d become an accountant, like his father wanted, his investments would be more robust. But as we step out of the gateway of the small building he’s lived in for over forty years, onto Ocean Avenue that runs parallel to the Pacific, the wide sandy beach between us and the sea, I tell Mark: “you’ve lived the dream my friend”. So, with regards to dreams and life, I leave you with these two quotes from Mark Saha’s Lost Horses, not of his prose but of his epigraph, and of his dedication.

The epigraph he chose is a single sentence from the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Logic can prove nothing of interest to the human heart.”

The dedication Mark wrote: “For Brigitta, with love”.

Next up is another Write Away member who has become a good friend, a man truly to be referred to as An Officer and A Gentleman — Brian Bland.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

More About Ed

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