Melissa Jo Peltier

Author of fiction and nonfiction; film and television producer/writer/director

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Making A Real Person Into A Fictional Character

February 20, 2013

Tags: fiction, character, Arnold Shapiro, television, reality television, novel, reality boulevard

A Case Study With A Happy Ending

A few months before my first novel Reality Boulevard was due to be released on eBook, I held my breath and phoned my friend and television mentor, the legendary (Oscar and 16-time Emmy winner) Arnold Shapiro.

“Arnold,” I said, picking nervously at my fingernails. “I’ve written a novel. And one of the characters is inspired by you."

“Uh oh,” was his response.

My stomach tightened: “I want you to read it in advance,” I said, “To make sure there is nothing in there that is so objectionable you might want to sue me.”

We conversed a little longer, during which time Arnold – ever the gentleman – told me that whatever I wrote, it was fiction, and he respected that. He said he’d like to read the novel for his own interest, but he wouldn’t get in my way, no matter what.

I knew my British publisher would be relieved at his response, considering they’d had me do a complete rewrite to make sure none of my other characters were too much like any real life Hollywood people. Unlike our free and easy American first amendment, UK libel laws are brutal and strongly favor the plaintiff. In fact, there is even such a thing as “libel tourism,” where disgruntled plaintiffs lie in wait until a book, magazine article, or other media product is published in the UK – then let their legal dogs off the leash.

Despite Arnold’s rational reaction, I was on edge while waiting for the crazy-busy 72-years-young producer - currently executive producing "Beyond Scared Straight" for A&E - to get around to reading my manuscript. I don’t know what I was expecting or even hoping for, but I was a wreck. This was because I cared so much about my reader.

I’ve known Arnold Shapiro since I was 20 years old and just starting out in television. I worked for $90 a week as a PA on a show of his, “Pet Peeves,” and about a decade later, I produced, wrote and directed major, award-winning network documentaries with him which are among the proudest achievements of my career. During my 25 years in the business, I’ve rarely met a more openhearted, ethical, what-you-see-is-what-you-get person in a position such as his. I love and admire him as if he were a member of my family – which is why I made him a character, but also why I was terrified he might not be happy about it. Though the character of Marty is a really great guy at heart, he has his fatal flaws, and in the story, I put Marty through hell. How would the “real” Marty react?

A few weeks later, I found an email in my box:

“Dear Talented Melissa,

"I have read 11 chapters to date (208 of the 408 pages) and I'M LOVING IT!

" Honestly, it's hard for me to stop reading. Every major character's story interests me as does the entire plot. I can honestly say that I'm so honored being the "inspiration" for the Marty character - and I'm enjoying him so much - that I wish you would use more of the real me as part of him.”

I was ecstatic, honored and humbled at his response. I can honestly say that, no matter what happens to Reality Boulevard from here on, Arnold’s reaction to it makes it, for me, an unqualified success.

So how much of Marty is Arnold? Arnold himself listed these characteristics:

“I am loving all the actual similarities I've found between Marty and me:

* Malibu home

* Fear of failure: metal desk, rotary phone (I can't believe you remembered that!)

* No blinking when giving a speech or accepting an award (very amusing)

* Non-drinker (tee-totaler)

* Always punctual for meetings

* Same weekday and time period for "Lights & Sirens" as "Rescue 911"

* Drives a Lexus

* Commitment to "redeeming TV"

Here are a few more: Marty’s from Alhambra; his first job in television is on a game show; his friend and mentor is an older game show producer (though the character of “Jerry Stone” is inspired by a combination of old school Hollywood gentlemen I’ve had the pleasure of knowing during my career.) Like Arnold, Marty won an Oscar for a documentary set in a prison (Scared Straight, 1978) and a lot of subsequent Emmy’s; Marty says he’s going to retire and doesn’t (much to the chagrin of the ‘real’ Marty’s wonderful real wife, Karen.)

These are all wonderful, superficial characteristics, but for me, the essence of Marty is sincerity and loyalty. Marty is a tough businessman who can easily navigate the shark tank of Hollywood, yet he is never false, is always true to himself, and gives and inspires a kind of loyalty among those who’ve worked for him that is beautiful and rare. He retains a childlike passion for his work that is infectious. In these characteristics, Marty and Arnold are one and the same.

In the plot details, however, Marty is as much a fictional character as any other on the pages. As far as I know, Arnold never in his life chased a manipulative, much younger actress to the detriment of his sanity and career; his beautiful real-life wife Karen is a wise and mellowing influence. Also, I’m a Jungian at heart and I do believe every character is in some way a manifestation of the author. Marty’s arc – learning to let go of a kind of desperate ambition and just be himself – is in many ways an expression of my own private struggle to let go of Hollywood and my previous life there.

In the past, I’ve felt a great joy when the subjects of my documentaries or television shows let me know how satisfied they were with the way they were portrayed on screen. As a novelist, to have the subject of one’s characterization so enthusiastic about his namesake is an even more fulfilling sensation.

I loved Marty while I was writing him, and so far, all my readers do too. But for the “real Marty” to love Marty too – that is an achievement of which I am incredibly grateful and proud.

Published Works

Reality Boulevard
"...a book in the tradition of great Hollywood novels, from Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People (1930) to Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1988), and reads like Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network screenplay retooled for the 21st century" - Ken Salikoff, Kirkus Indie Magazine
"In this smart, funny, insightful novel, reality TV becomes all too real...Peltier examines the Hollywood world of writers, producers, rich kids, actors, wannabes and con men with a keen and often compassionate eye. " - Kirkus Reviews
"Once I started reading "Reality Boulevard," I could not stop...this is the best satirical look behind-the-scenes of "reality television" ever written." - Arnold Shapiro, Oscar & Emmy-winning Producer of Scared Straight; Rescue 911; Big Brother
“[Millan] arrives amid canine chaos and leaves behind peace.” —Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
Non-Fiction (Co-Author)
“As complete a tome on the subject as one could want…If the answer you’re looking for in this guide cannot be found, the question is not worth asking...this is an impressive piece of work.” - Bookviews, June 2011