Ghostwriting Article: Ghost on the Coast

Robert Patrick (Photo by Andrew Caldwell)

Robert Patrick (Photo by Andrew Caldwell)

Ghostwriting article from EMMY Magazine, October 2001

By Robert Patrick

The coast made me a ghost. When I made the great leap from 10003 to 90027, TV producers were unimpressed by the many thousands of productions of my 50 published plays worldwide. They wanted only writers whom someone in TV had already hired, so that they couldn’t be accused of independent judgement in case of a flop.

I got a foot in the door when I met a writer with too many feet in too many doors. He handed me a job he couldn’t handle. It was a show whose producers wanted the same story each week (“eeek-eeek, chase-chase, bang-bang, ha-ha”), so I easily delivered a finished script the next day. He warned me that in the future I should take longer, because TV producers need to think their work is excruciatingly difficult, to justify their fantastic salaries. I sensed that it was actually he who felt belittled by my facility. I now sit with finished scripts on my lap and e-mail my writer-employers, “This is much harder than I could ever believe possible. Can’t you please give me another week?” This gets me bonuses, and the comment, “TV’s not such a snap as you New York playwrights think it is, huh?”

To my surprise, the writer paid me on delivery. Playwrights get paid only after shows open and tickets are sold–sometimes decades after we type “CURTAIN.” But I quickly adjusted to this TV thing of getting paid right after writing “FADE OUT,” or often even before writing “FADE IN.”

There was, duh, a catch. My name wasn’t on the script, nor on the screen. I couldn’t claim the show. It felt odd to be among people at a bar when it aired, and to be unable to say, “Why, thank you. I tried.” Nor did the job lead to jobs. My writer didn’t want his producer to know that the work wasn’t his, so he didn’t exactly drag me into the studio as a “find.” In nine years, I’ve never met a producer. But I’ve met other writers who bit off more than they could type, and so things proceed pleasantly.

I’m hardly L.A.’s only ghost. I was once hired by a ghost hired by yet another ghost to “freshen up” a TV movie which already had six pseudonyms on it, plus several X’ed-out titles. I can’t say if it ever got made, because I have no idea what they finally called it.

Actually, I can’t name anything I’ve done. That’s the code of a ghost. But I don’t think I’m revealing too much by saying that they tend to be about awful people doing awful things to each other. One exception was a hero who did awful things to himself, but only because he thought at the moment that he was someone else. Characters in the stories I’m handed frequently have amnesia and/or aliases, posing as other people or even as each other. They often shout, “Get down!” meaning not “Boogie!” but, “Something’s about to explode!” and inevitably, at some point in the proceedings they grin wryly, wink, and say, “That’s what we WANT them to think.” I haven’t been too specific, have I? I mean, there must be at least two shows like that.

I don’t invent these plots. They’re provided by producers, who have often pre-sold their shows to distributors worldwide by promising them precisely such stories. Plots churned out by a harried producer until they total twenty-two don’t always make conspicuous sense. Some seem to have been written on a paper-shredder. I’d love to alter the stories, but that’s seldom possible. I can’t talk to the decision-makers, so I must believe the nervous,overloaded writers who hire me when they tell me: “I know scene five is cole-slaw, but you can’t rewrite it. The producer says that’s how pterodactyls telepathically controlled by Martian robots actually behave.”

Occasionally, I can make minor changes. TV producers want scripts of a certain length–not a line more or less. At the bottom of a page on which an axe-murderer was to commit his tenth or twelfth slaughter, there wasn’t room to detail another dismemberment. I couldn’t go back and make room; my client was panting beside a fax machine in Burbank, waiting for filmable pages. So in the one line left I invented, “On seeing the axe raised, Clara drops dead from fright.”

It ain’t all wisecracks. A ghost must be hardened to heartbreak. I was asked to write an epic two-parter on a famous American feud. I dived into research and discovered that no dramatic treatment of the episode had been anything like true. It had always, inaccurately, been treated as a Romeo and Juliet story. The truth was infinitely more exacting. I worked as I have never worked before or since making a rip-roaring double feature of it. My client was thrilled. He took it to his producers who scanned it and tossed it aside, saying, “You know, Titanic just opened to record grosses. Rework this and make it more like Titanic, you know, a Romeo and Juliet thing.” My client refused. The story has never been shot, and I can’t even show it to anyone, because it belongs to the deadheads who commissioned and axed it. It lies as dead as good manners in two huge boxes on my shelves.

You might ask why I endure such looney limitations. The answer is financial. While I don’t clear as much as the credited writers do, the take startles a mere playwright. Recently a writer phoned me way late in the night to ask for one line for a comic scene. I came up with, “Shut up, or I’ll work you over with a cheese-grater,” and got $500 for fifteen seconds of work. That would work out to $120,000 an hour. But usually, you can calculate my income by cutting the hired writer’s fee in half and dropping a zero. Sometimes two. I can’t complain. There’s no ghost’s union. We often get cash, and we never get credit.

Well, nearly never. One weekend a client invited me to his home to view the broadcast of a show I’d ghosted for him. He promised me a surprise. And he delivered it. I was credited onscreen. I blushed, “You didn’t have to do that.” He gushed, “Oh, yes, I did.” I soon saw why. The producers had kept my first page, my middle page, and my last (except for the crucial final line). What they had forced him to scribble to fill-in between my bits resembled neither my plot, nor human, nor hardly even healthy animal behavior. When the nonsense ended and some new nonsense began, I turned to my friend and said, “You just didn’t want your name on it.” He grinned wryly, winked, and said, “Welcome to TV.”

See a complete synopsis of that show, profusely illustrated, HERE.
ROBERT PATRICK’s published work includes the plays “Kennedy’s Children” and “Untold Decades,” and the novel “Temple Slave.” He is not the star of The X-Files, although he often gets that Robert Patrick’s fan mail, because he is listed and the actor isn’t. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. He can be reached at

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