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A Death in the Family


By Michael Cassutt

A ccording to the lore of Hollywood, back in the mid-1950s a writer named Frank Gruber gave a script assignment to a promising novelist named Samuel Anthony Peeples for one of the many western series then populating the airwaves.

A couple of years later, having built an impressive career in series television (he would eventually write the second pilot of the original Star Trek, "Where No Man Has Gone Before"), Peeples dangled a guaranteed assignment to another novelist and fiction writer (he had already written the novel Psycho) who lacked experience in scripts: Robert Bloch.

Bloch made the most of this opportunity—as we all know—and in 1962 was ready to "pay it forward," opening the door for (and lending money to) another promising talent, young Harlan Ellison, author of a handful of original paperbacks as well as dozens of stories and magazine articles. Ellison would win four Writers Guild of America Awards and go on to champion other writers—

And on and on.

Every writer has a mentor, some stranger who reads his work, understands it, and opens the right door at the right time. Every writer needs a mentor.

And I just lost mine.

A passion born of sci-fi genes

Phil DeGuere, or Philip DeGuere Jr., to give him his professional name, died Jan. 24 at the age of 60. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer only a few months earlier.

Phil was best known to the television writing and producing community for Simon & Simon, the popular and long-running (CBS, 1981-87) series about a pair of detective brothers, played by Jameson Parker and Gerald MacRaney.

Sci-fi fans will know him as the producer of the mid-1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. He also godfathered the Max Headroom series on ABC in 1987.

Originally from Cincinnati, Phil attended Stanford University, graduating in 1966. His senior thesis—a script—got him a job at Universal Studios, where he started writing for series ranging from Alias Smith and Jones to Baretta to Black Sheep Squadron. He worked with some of the legendary talents of television, from Roy Huggins (creator of The Fugitive and many others) to Stephen Cannell and Steven Bochko, gaining a tremendous knowledge of the mechanics of storytelling, all the while holding onto his own unique vision of the world.

For example, Phil's biggest passion in life—other than the Grateful Dead (a fantasy cult of its own, if you think about it)—was sci-fi and fantasy. Long before TZ, he had written and produced Doctor Strange, based on the Marvel Comics character.

His dream project was a feature-film version of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, which had been owned by Universal Studios since the mid-1950s. I heard that he had written a terrific script that never got made. (Isn't it odd that no script of Childhood has ever been made?)

He had that sci-fi gene, not only in his willingness to explore ideas and imagine a different world—he also liked to shake things up. To my knowledge, he was the first writer-producer to use computers in a major way, not just in formatting and writing scripts, but for preproduction scheduling, budgeting and other tiresome administrative tasks.

A final sermon from the Reverend

I first encountered him as the most junior "suit" in a conference room at CBS Television in 1980, when Phil's first version of Simon & Simon—set in Florida rather than California, and titled Pirate's Key—was sent back to the shop for retooling. I wound up writing for Simon & Simon several years later, but Phil had left the show by then.

We met when I pitched to TZ in the fall of 1984. Phil was vastly amused by the fact that I was wearing a suit and a tie (I was still a CBS exec). My freelance scripts worked well enough that when TZ was picked up for a second season, I was hired as the staff writer.

There I learned much of what I know about running a television series: Phil's plan was, hire good writers, let them do their work. While they're at it, make them read everyone else's scripts and learn production, too. He nurtured Alan Brennert and Jim Crocker, discovered Rockne O'Bannon, moved heaven and earth to involve Harlan Ellison in the series.

Peter Wagg, the English producer who brought Max Headroom to the U.S., was so impressed by Phil's freely shared knowledge of television production that he called him "The Reverend."

Phil loved the dark, satirical tone of Max, so different from the meat-and-potatoes television churned out by Universal during his years there. Phil liked the dark side—witness his chilling adaptation of Robert McCammon's story "Nightcrawlers" for TZ.

Phil was no saint. He changed wives more often than he changed agents. He had some substance problems that hurt his career and alienated co-workers.

My third turn of the DeGuere wheel was a 1990 series called Triangle, a detective series set in Ventura County and starring Bruce Boxleitner, Jameson Parker and Marilu Henner, and known even to Phil as Simon & Simon & Simone.

Phil had spent a year constructing what he called a "state-of-the-art" contract that forbade network and studio interference. When he started getting notes, when the notes wouldn't stop, he collapsed the show and exiled himself to the Bay Area, leaving a cloud of lawsuits behind.

During his decade in exile, Phil wrote a few freelance episodes and was involved with a syndicated series (Air America). Occasionally one of the TZ alumni—Alan Brennert or George R.R. Martin—would bring news of Phil. But I never saw him or talked to him.

Phil returned to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, resuming a writing career for Don Bellisario (whom he had mentored on Black Sheep Squadron 25 years earlier) on First Monday, JAG and Navy NCIS.

Realizing that too much time had passed without any contact, I took him out to lunch.

It was fun catching up, hearing about his new family. Finally I had the chance to utter a thank-you for hiring me on TZ, and for telling Lorimar that I was the perfect writer for Max.

"Hey, great! How about giving me a job?"

What more could you want in a mentor?


Thanks to a break engineered by Phil DeGuere, Michael Cassutt has gone on to serve on the staff of 13 different television series, from The Twilight Zone to The Dead Zone. He is also the author of 11 books, including the novel, Tango Midnight (Tor, Jan. 2005).


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