“What are you up to today?” asked Sally Leeds when she reached Larry Karlin early on a Monday morning.
“I’m torn between going to Paris, spending the day in bed, or maybe getting some work done. What do you need?”
“Your help. Buy you lunch? An iced tea? A hot fudge sundae?”
“That Sichuan place you like,” said Sally. “1 PM?”
“If I remember correctly,” Sally said at the restaurant after she and Larry spent a moment exchanging pleasantries, “you’ve got a friend who’s a judge.”
Larry nodded. “And?”
“Mind asking him who’s the best person to represent me?”
“What about sisterhood? Female empowerment? All that stuff you were going on about when you found that woman attorney?”
Sally frowned. “Turns out she’s a lawyer like I’m LeBron James. Impossible to reach, only talks about herself, and keeps missing filing dates left and right.”
“If I ask for a recommendation, does gender matter?”
“Male, female, bi-, trans-, all I want someone who can get me through this.”
“I just emailed you contact info,” Larry told Sally when he called that evening.
“I asked my friend who he would call if he were in your shoes.”
“Great!” exclaimed Sally. “What’s your schedule like?”
“I want you there with me. Unless, that is, you’re afraid –”
“Afraid of what?”
“That you’ll never get to do a film with the great man himself.”
“Seems to me,” responded Larry, “I’ve survived thus far.”
Two days later, Larry picked up Sally at her place in the Hollywood Hills, then hopped the freeway for the trip downtown. As the two of them climbed into an elevator, he was surprised to see his friend fidgeting.
“Is my favorite Oscar nominee nervous?” Larry asked.
“Without a script? You bet. Besides, it was only for Best Supporting.”
As the elevator door opened at their designated floor, Larry squeezed Sally’s arm for support while leading her down the hall.
Stepping into an office that had none of the trappings of a show biz law firm, they approached the receptionist.
“Sally Leeds and Larry Karlin for Mr. Argiro,” Larry announced.
Moments later, an assistant escorted them toward a book-lined office adorned with plaques and certificates, plus photos of sports heroes of yesteryear, among them Tommy Lasorda, Kirk Gibson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I’m Vince Argiro,” said a man with steel gray hair and the energy of the welterweight boxer he once was. After shaking hands with Sally, Argiro turned to Larry. “Judge Chavez says you created the LA County Teen Court.”
“Together with him and the Chief Probation Officer.”
“He gives you the credit,” replied Argiro, “which is something he doesn’t often do. And you produced a pilot?”
Larry nodded. “With him as the judge.”
“And it didn’t air because?”
“The network wanted me to sensationalize it, which I wouldn’t do.”
Argiro smiled. “A producer with principles. I like it.”
“Me, too,” interjected Sally, who was then addressed by Argiro.
“So I take it you’ve been wronged by a movie star,” he said.
“That’s how I see it,” acknowledged Sally.
“Then so do I. But before we go there, tell me how you and Harley Rawlings got, for want of a better word, involved.”
Sally explained how she was cast first in a Western that Rawlings starred in and directed, followed by a comedy, during which time their relationship blossomed from professional into romance. That led to an opportunity for her to direct a film that Rawlings produced, which led to what she termed “an ultimatum of sorts.”
“Define that,” responded Argiro.
“He claimed he didn’t want more kids.”
“So you?” probed Argiro.
Sally sighed. “Agreed reluctantly to have my tubes tied.”
Sally girded herself before speaking. “Guess who knocked up a TV astrologer.”
Argiro took a deep breath. “So, fearing California’s palimony laws, I gather that instead of a monetary settlement, you were offered a deal to make films.”
“Which, I suspect, turned out to be nothing but hot air.”
“Sadly,” said Sally.
Sally and Larry watched the lawyer pick up a baseball sitting on his desk and fiddle with it for a moment. “You’re aware,” Argiro then said, “that it’ll be you against not just Mr. Action Hero, but also the studio that’s been lying and cheating on his behalf?”
“And that there’s nothing more difficult than a David vs. Goliath case?”
“Then the good news,” said Argiro, “is there’s nothing I like more. You’ve got documentation?”
“Contracts, emails, texts, and phone records.”
“You’re aware they’ll try to slander you?”
Sally looked surprised. “By?”
“Claiming you went down on everything but the Titanic. By the time they’re through, the Whore of Babylon will seem virginal compared to you.”
Seeing Sally grimace, Argiro turned to Larry. “And you, my friend, will not exactly ingratiate yourself to Mr. Macho or the studio he calls home.”
Larry shrugged. “I’ll live.”
“Then you know what?” said Argiro. “Let’s kick some ass!”
It was on a proposed cable movie that Larry and Sally initially became acquainted. Having pitched, as writer-producer, a true story he optioned about a woman who was a “targeted hire” – wooed by an engineering firm not for her expertise, but because of a past affair with the head of a government agency – Larry was handed a list of potential directors. After meeting with several, it was Sally he chose.
Though the project hit a dead end when the network underwent a change in management, what began as a collaboration developed into something rare in the movie business, an actual friendship rather than something fleeting or transactional. Sometimes that meant the two of them sharing silly stories, and other times asking for confirmation that one or the other wasn’t crazy. Plus there was a fair amount of exchanging jokes and memes, as well as loads of playful teasing.
Though he had occasional late night pangs about the potential repercussions of his helping Sally in her quest against Harley Rawlings and the studio that supported him, the notion of helping a friend was more important to him than potential professional fallout. And so was his sense of right versus wrong.
Larry’s belief that lawsuits were marathons rather than sprints was confirmed far too often as both Rawlings’ attorneys and his studio waged a war of attrition. First they stalled and dawdled rather than sending over requested documents. Then they inundated Argiro’s office with truckloads of largely extraneous and irrelevant material.
Time and again, Larry was called upon to hold Sally’s hand, talk her down from ledges, give her pep talks, and, on occasion, regale her with dirty jokes, to the point where his lady friend, a kindergarten teacher named Chloe, couldn’t help but wonder whether her boyfriend’s relationship had become more than just a friendship.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, then months to years, with Sally ensnared in an emotional roller-coaster ride filled by rage, depression, and even futility, not to mention fears of insolvency as legal fees and other bills mounted.
In rare better moments, Sally made hypothetical plans for if and when her ordeal, was not merely over, but somehow miraculously successful. One goal was to learn to scuba dive, then spend time in the Caribbean. Another was to revisit her favorite Parisian museums and restaurants, with a daily stop for ice cream at Berthillon on the Ile St. Louis. Plus there was her longstanding hope of traveling to China to see the terracotta warriors of Xian.
On a morning in March, after repeated attempts by Harley Rawlings’ legal team first to dismiss the lawsuit, then to delay the proceedings, Sally learned from Argiro that a court date was set.
As that long awaited day neared, Sally called Larry on a Friday afternoon. “Guess who’s going into rehearsals,” she stated.
“Give me that in English.”
“That’s what my legal eagle is calling the heavy-duty prep sessions he and his staff are preparing.”
“Up to It? And for it?”
“After all this time?” asked Sally rhetorically. “You bet!”
On the next to last day of the pre-trial sessions, Larry once again received a call from Sally. “Got plans late tomorrow afternoon?” she asked.
“Whatcha got in mind?”
“Drinks with me and my lawyer.”
“Text me where and when.”
Arriving at a downtown watering hole, Larry found Sally and her attorney seated at a quiet corner booth with a bottle of Pinot Grigio and assorted appetizers.
“So,” said Argiro after pouring Larry a glass. “Let’s put everything into perspective. Ready?”
Sally nodded, as did Larry.
“First the good news,” stated Argiro. “That they waived a jury trial – which probably owes to their wanting less publicity – means that you-know-who’s celebrity status will likely mean considerably less. Second, Judge Phil Pote is a straight shooter unlikely to be awed.”
“And the not-so-good news?” asked Sally.
“On paper,” Argiro avowed, “what we’ll face on Monday is not just a mismatch, but a total disaster.”
Larry watched Sally gulp before the lawyer went on. “We’ll see lawyers galore, male and female, march in like a conquering army, all in matching Armani suits. They’ll have an air of moral certitude, plus a sense that the world is theirs – which, unfortunately, it usually is. Troubling?”
“So how do we counter that?” inquired Argiro.
“Shoot ’em?” volunteered Larry.
Instead of responding to Larry’s suggestion, Argiro smiled. “Ever play tug-of-war?”
Both Sally and Larry nodded.
“What happens,” the lawyer continued, “if the three of us try to match up against, say, the Rams or the Chargers?”
“We get creamed,” said Sally glumly.
“Only if we play by their rules,” answered Argiro. “But what happens, at the moment someone yells ‘Go!’, if we let go of the rope?”
“The other guys fall on their butts!” exclaimed Larry.
“Bang! Their legal team will show up with everything fully scripted, down to the most insignificant detail. Which means if we allow ’em to follow their script, they win by a landslide. So what are you going to do, Sally?”
“Tell me,” she almost begged.
“Monkey with ’em when interrogated. Think for a while to throw ’em off their rhythm. Hit ’em with non sequiturs. Play with ’em and have fun by saying things in a goofy and roundabout way. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“I know so,” insisted Argiro. “I’ve seen you on-screen. You’re a wonderful actress. That’ll lead to more hijinks, because know what they’ll do?”
“Start complaining to the judge, which will make ’em come off first like whiners, then like bullies, which’ll help us even more. We want the judge to start feeling protective toward the sweet, soft-spoken gal who, after being wronged by Mr. Macho, is being browbeaten relentlessly by his mean and evil hired guns. Make sense?”
“Absolutely,” said Sally.
“And speaking of Mr. Macho,” added Argiro, “rumor has it that despite his flinty on-screen stoicism, he’s got a pretty nasty temper. True?”
“Does he ever.”
“That, too, will help us,” said Argiro with a smile before turning his attention to Larry. “When you called Judge Chavez and asked for a referral, what did he say about me?”
“Exact words?” asked Larry.
“You’re a motherfucker!”
Argiro didn’t disagree.
As he and she walked together toward the valet parkers, Sally turned to Larry. “So tell me the truth –”
“Whether or not you’re taking notes.”
Larry sighed. “C’mon –”
“You’re a producer, right?”
“Not to mention a friend. And besides –”
“For there to be a movie, we need the right ending.”
As Argiro predicted, a phalanx of defense attorneys marched into the courtroom on Monday morning: four men and four women, all serious, all business, all Armani-clad.
Shrugging off the glares he got from the studio executives who entered in their wake, Larry did indeed start taking notes, jotting down what he later would consider the defining moments of the trial.
Several of those came as Sally deftly followed Argiro’s tug-of war advice. Asked whether she was ever manipulative in her dealings with Rawlings, Sally smiled ever so innocently. “Absolutely,” she happily replied. “On those rare occasions when Mr. Penny-pincher deigned to go out for dinner, I did my best to lure him away from burger joints toward my kind of places: Chinese, Persian, Ethiopian, and once even sushi, though he wouldn’t eat anything raw.” Asked whether her directing career might have stalled because of negative reviews, Sally grinned. “It was Mr. Rawlings,” she responded, “who taught me, after a couple of his films were savaged by the press, that it’s the paying public, not the critics, whose voice counts. Fortunately, on the film I directed, many of ’em seemed happy, first at multiplexes, then on video.” When the lawyer doing the cross-examination frowned, Sally one-upped him even more. “Want me to send you and your colleagues DVDs or Blu-Rays?” she asked, seemingly the personification of innocence. Then came the nastiest question of all, when a female defense attorney pointed a finger at Sally and asked, “Ms. Leeds, can you give me one valid reason – even one – why any studio, network, or cable entity would ever deign to hire you whether as an actress or as a director?” Instead of yielding to pique, Sally turned toward a fuming Harley Rawlings. “I guess you’d have to ask your client, since he chose to hire me first as an actress, then as a director.”
Another moment Larry cherished came while Vince Argiro was cross-examining the defendant. “Is it true, Mr. Rawlings, that your favorite snack is avocado doused with mayonnaise?” Instantly, one of the defense attorneys rose to her feet, shouting, “Objection, Your Honor! What has that got to do with the case at hand?” Without relinquishing control, Judge Pote turned and posed that question to Argiro, who responded with a grin. “Simply put,” Argiro explained, “it helps distinguish between Mr. Rawlings’ stoic, hard-as-nails macho screen persona and that of his real world, unscripted, mayonaise-eating life.” “Objection overruled,” said Judge Pote, who smiled as he turned to Rawlings. “Please answer the question.” “True,” mumbled a most unhappy movie star. “I’m sorry, Your Honor,” said Argiro, doing his best to milk the moment. “I couldn’t quite hear the answer.” “Please speak up,” pressed Judge Pote. “True,” acknowledged thoroughly enraged Harley Rawlings.
The choicest moments of the entire trial, in Larry’s hierarchy, came during Vince Argiro’s closing statement. Gazing alternately at Rawlings and Judge Pote, the lawyer spoke with great conviction. “Bullying, sadly, has a long and painful history,” he began. “Yet, as a lesson to us all, there have been those, from David versus Goliath on, who have stood up to tyrants, ogres, and evil-doers. So how can we, especially in this time of the #Me Too movement, fail to admire the gumption and courage of a diminutive woman who chose to fight for her rights against someone with infinitely more strength, influence, and wealth?”
“Horseshit!” snarled Harley Rawlings, stopping Argiro in his tracks.
Instantly, Judge Pote glared at the actor. “Silence!” he demanded, pointing a finger while Armani-clad defense attorneys tried desperately to calm their obstreperous client.
“But what’s worse than a bully?” Vince Argiro then wondered aloud, again addressing the judge. “A bully aided and abetted by those in thrall to his power, his celebrity status, and above all his great wealth. That, I would state, is the very basis for, and definition of, a conspiracy. A pact to deny a hard-working, over-matched woman of her rights, her livelihood, and even her self-esteem. And that, I’m here to stay, is ugly, unfair, and illegal.”
Taking a breath, Argiro stared at Harley Rawlings. “Is that the image your fans see when you’re on-screen playing a cop, a Western hero, or one of your ever-so-saintly outsiders? I’m waiting, Mr. Rawlings. Or are you too ashamed to answer?”
Under Argiro’s gaze, Rawlings fumed momentarily, then exploded. “Know what I’m ready to do to you, smartass? I’m ready to –”
Before Rawlings could finish his threat, Judge Pote slammed down his gavel. “One more word, Mr. Leeds, and I will hold you in contempt!”
Larry was never certain – not then, nor when thinking about it later – what pissed off Rawlings more: the judge’s threat of incarceration, or being referred to as Mr. Leeds.
“So,” Sally said to Larry, as she lifted her Champagne flute at the celebratory dinner after her victory, “did you get the ending you needed for your docu-drama?”
“More importantly,” answered Larry, “have you decided which of your dream trips will be first?”
Sally sighed. “I think I’ll savor this for a moment, then decide.”
Sadly, no trip ever was taken. Nor did Larry, who from time to time gave some thought to turning Sally’s tale into a film, get the ending he desired.
Barely two weeks after her triumph in court, Sally took a bad fall. While being tested for a concussion, a mass was discovered in her brain. Further tests determined that it was not benign.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.Less than three months later, Larry paid his last respects to his friend.