Written by: Matt Hutaff · December 17, 2018
Jacob Epstein made his mark working on iconic television shows like Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law before bringing his talents to Sliders. Epstein served as co-executive producer and executive producer during the first two seasons and was at the helm for many of its most memorable moments. In a candid interview with Earth Prime, Epstein recalls how he came to – and left – the series, the talented writing team he assembled, and some of his favorite episodes.
I was brought on to Sliders by Bob Greenblatt, who was then running Fox. I thought the premise was genius, a chance to do Mad Magazine satire along the edges of a science fiction adventure series with funny character stuff we could explore as well. I had mostly written cop and legal dramas and was excited to be able to break out of that. I am a political person and I thought the show offered a great opportunity to reflect the country back to our audience in a fun house mirror.
My duty as co-executive producer was to run the writing staff. Tracy was the creator and a brilliant guy, but I had more experience with the nuts and bolts of the writers’ room and production. He was very generous and collaborative; we complemented one another pretty well the years we worked together, and I hope he feels the same.
Titles in television are kind of like semaphore; everything is in code and the codebook is always changing. I was brought in as co-executive producer because the Landis Group were credited as executive producers and were jealous of their turf. In fact, only Bob Weiss was very much involved with the show that first season; he was a very clever and solid producer but was involved in a couple of feature projects so he was hard to pin down. He was often across town at Paramount in the editing room on whatever it was he was working on.
After a while, Weiss became an obstacle and we tended to work around him. Good when you had him but not worth waiting around for days for. The network tended to agree. These tensions eventually led to my telling the network it was them or me. Bob ended up leaving the series, along with John Landis and Leslie Belzberg.
I brought Jon Povill in first, I think. He had an office near mine when I had a term deal at Universal. He came in for a meeting and started to trash a story we had. (He might have even come in and trashed the whole series; we had a couple of guys do that.) But Jon was so guileless telling us we sucked and didn’t understand Science Fiction that Tracy and I looked at each other and sort of thought: “who is this nut?” As with most collaborations there’s a chemistry which reason understandeth not, and Jon sparked something and we kept talking and he calmed down and he wrote a good first script for us, very fast. We dared him to bring something back to us in a week, and he declared he would do it, and he did. He contributed a lot to the first season, particularly since he was such a hard core sci-fi guy who knew so much about the genre (which I certainly didn’t, and which Tracy knew to a passing degree.)
Jon was a very hard worker and put his all into the show and had a good sense of humor about it all. I don’t think he had had much experience in television, although he worked as an assistant to Gene Roddenberry. His successes had mostly been in features. I was a huge fan of his Total Recall.
I also brought in Christian Williams that first year, a great writer but not a good fit with Weiss. (Christian went on to create Hercules and made a fortune for himself and the studio, so Weiss was wrong and I was right.) And Scott Miller came along.
My first wife was an executive at Fox when I started writing. I had only one credit when I got a meeting with Jacob Epstein. I walked into his office and he said, “I’m sorry, Scott, but I’m going to be upfront with you: this is not going to happen.” He explained that it had to do with the politics involved with Danielle [Claman].
I told him I understood and said I’d like to pitch him an idea anyway just so I could practice. He said okay. I pitched him the idea that eventually became Eggheads. Jacob said, “This is the best idea anyone has pitched,” and he bought it. Then he told me he wanted me on staff.
That’s more or less as he described it. I am flattered by his recollection; I don’t remember much about it except he had a very clever idea and it was fun to thrash it out with him. As I recall, Scott and I came up with an idea about a world where intellectuals were celebrated the way we celebrate athletes. I bought the concept from him and sent him off to flesh it out. Scott was a gifted painter but had no experience writing television. And I was deep into production.
We would meet every week or two and he would present his latest bird’s nest with lots of wonderful stuff but it was hard to untangle. When we got a breather we sat down together, or met on the weekend or something, and put the outline together. Scott did a great job, and the script pulled Weiss out of the editing bay. It struck Bob’s fancy, and he produced the hell out of it, bringing in a bunch of friends from ESPN to do the play-by-play. That was one of my favorite episodes.
I don’t recall too much direction from Fox. They seemed pretty happy with us – or maybe we were such a dark horse no one expected much. Danielle was a wonderful executive and very supportive, fond of all of us, I think, and rooting for us, which made an enormous difference. She remains a good friend to this day. If we got notes from Greenblatt she made it clear where the notes came from and why and she never got upset if we pushed back. I don’t think we did, much.
Greenblatt didn’t have much to do with the show creatively, though he might have watched rough cuts. A couple of times we got appeals from Sheryl Wachtel, our upbeat current executive with ideas for stunt casting. I guess the show tested old or white or something, so they tinkered around the edges. But all in all, far from the kind of interference that most shows suffer now.
I don’t remember “Twisted Cross,” though I do remember being pitched Nazi episodes a bunch of times. Despite the success of Man In The High Castle, the Nazi pitch was a quick way to end a meeting. I don’t remember “Beauty World” except maybe as a concept that sounded plausible in the room but which we could never crack. And so it died.
In terms of credit, I wrote on just about every episode, and wrote most, if not all, of several episodes. But I was making good money as a producer and had been taught by Steven Bochco not to take credit from younger writers who needed the money and the residuals and also the solo teleplay credit for them to give to their agents in the chase for the next staffing job. It was the system I grew up in; Bochco rarely put his name on scripts. I was no Bochco, certainly, but that’s how I did it. The business is now full of TV auteurs who take credit for every script that goes into production and junior writers are notoriously resentful about being big-footed.
I don’t remember “Luck of The Draw” or the cliffhanger. I do remember we were all fairly confident of a second season but I made it clear I couldn’t do the show with the Landis dysfunction. It was awkward for the studio but the network supported me. The Landis Group was not happy with me, fairly enough, and neither, it turned out, was the head of the studio.
Tracy was understandably upset he had not been bumped up to executive producer, so in the interest of comity (and because the guy created the show and did great work) we agreed he would share the title with me. I also brought in Alan Barnette, who was a line producer I knew who had very good relations with the studio. After the showdown with the Landis Group the studio was not on my side and I thought Alan could make the trains run, get what we needed in terms of production and be my liaison to The Black Tower, which was where the executives skulked and schemed.
For the second season, I brought in Steve Brown, whom I had known mostly by reputation and through a mutual friend. He had a deal at Universal that was up for renewal. The studio wanted to cut him loose but I respected Steve’s story sense and gift for plotting, which was critical with a show like Sliders since every episode started from a dead stop. (Quick: what’s the world they landed on, what are the problems, then what happens, etc.) I thought we needed a guy who could churn story. I don’t know if it was the best hire I made. Steve wasn’t really a Sci Fi guy and tended to sulk.
Tony Blake and Paul Jackson were writers the network and studio wanted. They were decent writers and fit in well but they didn’t have much interest in satire or politics. I think we sent them out to do an episode called “Love Gods,” which reminded me of an old Abbott and Costello movie where the fellas land on a planet of women. (Ours was funnier, in my opinion.)
I always heard that if you do one or two great episodes a season you’re doing pretty well, and if you have three great ones you are heroes. I don’t know if any of the episodes we did qualified as great, but my favorite one was one I worked on with a wonderful writer named Nan Hagan who came to me through Alan Barnette. Nan was great. The idea was that the Sliders land back on Earth Prime or what feels like Earth Prime.
Yes. They are finally back with their families and friends, and even though Quinn swears them to keep their mission a secret until the right time, everybody starts blabbing; Rembrandt craves celebrity and gets the cover of Time magazine and the Professor takes full credit for Quinn’s discovery. In adversity the team had been united but back home everyone turned sour. They have to patch up their jealousies and resentments and leave this world which was working out so well, at least for some. And in the next world deal with the consequences of how they had all gone off the rails and hurt one another. An interesting analogy for a writing staff, perhaps.
We were having big headaches with John Rhys-Davies. John thought he was the star of the show, which would have been a surprise to FOX and our audience. The studio and network wanted him gone, so we thought if we could turn his character evil it might make John sit upright for a minute and realize we had an exit ramp ready for him; the prospect of his villainous and unbeloved double dying on some lonely world never to return would encourage him to read his lines and stop complaining.
That was kind of nuts, but it was Tracy’s passion and he was working out something with it. I trusted him over those at the studio and network who kept trying to get him off it. I don’t remember too much about the episode except the studio got even more annoyed with me and thought I was stumbling out of the gate. Fuck ‘em.
I left the show at the end of the second season because the studio head wanted me out. I thought the network would back me; I had delivered a (relative) hit for them for two seasons – on budget, on time, good scripts, mostly, etc. Danielle was in my corner and indicated Bob Greenblatt would insist on my return. But in the end Bob chose not to stand up for me – he said it was the studio’s money and they could do what they wanted – which I thought was chickenshit. It was, alas, the end of our friendship.
I didn’t watch the show after that season. Like seeing your wife with another guy. I am still proud of it, though, and I am happy that others enjoyed it. I had a wonderful time.
|Previous: Robert Floyd Looks Back on Sliders|