In the beginning….

The event that changed my life came as all these things do, with a phone call, totally out of the blue.

I had just been fired from “Guiding Light,” with a couple more scripts left to write.  (In daytime TV, in some contracts, you have what’s called a “notice date” in which your boss or agent calls to let you know your contract is not being picked up, but you still have x amount of shows [usually four] left to write. Very discombobulating to do your best, knowing the Powers That Be just fired you, but for me at least, I do always try and do my best.)

In any case, I was at home, sitting at my desk in my office, most likely writing one of these “dead man walking” scripts, when my phone rang. It was my agent, Jim Sarnoff, calling to tell me about a call he had just received from an executive at Columbia Television (now Sony Pictures Television International).

“The guy’s looking for a writer interested in some sort of Russian soap. Historical. I’m not sure what it’s about or if it’ll come to anything. You may have to go to Russia.  If you’re interested, give him a call. His name’s Jeff Lerner. Here’s his number.”

Now, here are some things my agent didn’t know about me:

1. My grandmother, Sonia Schecter Seidman Schweisberg Schmuckler (the woman was married as many times as a soap opera heroine), was from Odessa, escaping to the U.S. after one pogrom too many.

2. In high school I thought it would be very cool to learn Russian so I could speak to her in her native language. So, I studied the language my senior year in high school and for two semesters in college.

3. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by historical catastrophe. The sinking of the Titanic, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  So:

3. When, in 1971, the movie “Nicholas and Alexandra” was coming out, my mom told me it was based on a true story about the last tsar of Russia, murdered, with his wife and five children, and that his only son had hemophilia…and…the movie was based on a book. Catastrophe lover that I am,  I ran to the library to check out the book. Which I then had to stop reading because my brother, according to Mom, had already bought the book for me and was waiting to give it to me as a birthday present.

4. The book, “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert Massie, started my lifelong fascination with Russian history.  (I still have it–dog-eared and very much treasured.)

Which all came to a head that fateful afternoon when my agent called and told me about the historical Russian soap and that this Jeff Lerner wanted to meet writers interested in the project.

My only thought after hanging up the phone with Jim was how soon could I call Jeff Lerner without appearing embarrassingly eager. (The answer: Screw it. I called within five minutes.)

I met with Jeff a week or two later. The Russians were writing a historical soap called “Bednaya Nastya” (“Poor Anastasia”) set in 1842 St. Petersburg about two noblemen in love with a serf and the daughter the serf has with one of the noblemen. Jeff gave me some translated pages to read and when I saw that the Tsar and his son featured in the series, I lit up like a Roman candle on July 4. This was not Nicholas II and his son Alexei who were murdered in Ekaterineburg on Lenin’s orders, this was Nicholas I and his son, the Tsarevich Alexander, who would later free the serfs and then be tragically blown up by a suicide bomber. I immediately started lecturing Jeff on this Nicholas (who started the Crimean War) and his son, probably boring him to tears but with my enthusiasm unabated.

I got the job. Six months later Jeff and I made our first trip to Moscow. And because of one phone call, out of the blue, I had the adventure of my life for the next six years.

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