The Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick Interview

By Art Swift

August 26, 2004

Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick are one of the premiere power couples in television. In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, the married dynamic duo of writing has penned more than 200 hours of primetime programming, been nominated for Emmy Awards and their shows have been up for People’s Choice Awards eight years in a row. They shot to fame with “Knots Landing” in the mid-1980s and the rest has been TV history.

“My father was a Western writer, he published seven novels and over a thousand short stories. His name was John H. Latham. My cousin, Aaron Latham, wrote ‘Urban Cowboy.’ In a way I was following the family business,” Latham reminisced.

“As an Irish American Catholic, I was fascinated with wordplay and the distinction of phrases, as most in the Irish culture usually are. I was raised with a respect and love for the language,” Lechowick said.

Latham grew up in Conroe, Texas, near Houston, and Lechowick in Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland. Their backgrounds would later serve as the basis for their crowning achievement, the ABC cult favorite, “Homefront.”

The couple said they both became interested in writing at a young age. While Latham had obvious familial influences, Lechowick stumbled upon his career almost by accident.

“I wrote a monologue in high school for someone and someone laughed,” Lechowick said. “That’s a very bad thing because then you think you’re good at this and you get hooked. I won a minor writing award from Atlantic Monthly and I was on my way.”

Lechowick was graduated from the University of Notre Dame and Latham from the University of Texas at Austin. For his graduate studies, Lechowick chose Texas to complete a master’s degree in Radio, Television and Film and it is there that he met Latham.

“I began teaching at the school and after I went into directing. I did public television directing, lots of drama, lots of comedy and a cooking show,” Lechowick said.

Lechowick’s most notable turn on PBS was the Spanish and English series, “Que Pasa?”

“It was the first bilingual sitcom, three generations of Cubans living under one roof. The older generation spoke no English, the parents spoke more English, but preferred Spanish and the kids knew mostly English. It’s still running in Miami and a lot of people still mention it to me, all these years later.”

After graduating from Texas, Latham went to New York for a year and worked at the magazines Advertising Age and Business Insurance. She and Lechowick moved to Hollywood in hopes of pursuing a career writing for entertainment.

“Originally I was a comedy writer,” Latham said. “I wanted to do half-hour sitcoms. Well this was a time that the comedies were disappearing and hour-long dramas were coming in. And I wanted to work so I told my agent, ‘If you can get us a job, we will keep it because we’re very hard workers.’”

By this time Latham had started writing with Lechowick. They began their writing partnership in 1979 and their marriage in 1981. In 1984, they landed jobs as story editors, or staff writers, on the NBC nighttime soap, “Berrenger’s.”

“We were actually the third choice of the producers on ‘Berrenger’s,’” Lechowick said. “So we were fortunate to get that.”

“We did quite well on that but it didn’t last very long,” Latham said. “‘Berrenger’s’ was shot on the MGM lot by Lorimar and when it went down it was exciting because we got job offers from ‘Dallas,’ ‘Knots Landing’ and ‘Falcon Crest.’ We had not focused on soap writing; that was not what we were looking at, we just wanted to write. But at that time those were the big shows.”

Latham and Lechowick studied the offers and decided to go with “Knots Landing.”

“We liked it the best,” Latham said. “It was the most realistic and you were dealing with people who were middle income people, not the super wealthy, and it just appealed to us.”

“‘Berrenger’s’ wrapped in December and we did a script for an episode of season six of ‘Knots’ as freelancers (‘A Man of Good Will’),” Lechowick said.

The couple began working fulltime on “Knots” at the commencement of the seventh season and Latham and Lechowick both have vivid memories of their significant early experiences on the show.

“Valene (Joan Van Ark) got her babies in the last episode of the sixth season,” Latham said. “I remember it because I had to watch the dailies when they were shooting something about a day player screaming and holding a baby. I was so upset because the screams were going in this kid’s ear and the child was really crying and it was very difficult to watch. I remember going, ‘Why didn’t the director do this differently?’”

“The first big episode I remember working on was when Ted Shackelford blew up Empire Valley,” Lechowick said. “It was the first time we used intercut dialogue. Meaning, Gary Ewing (Shackelford) was trapped and Greg Sumner (William Devane) was trying to track him. So the dialogue would go with Greg Sumner saying, ‘They’re heading east,’ and Gary would then say, ‘I’m about 20 yards from the east entrance.’ That style got us by what could have been a boring scene but the producers allowed it and a lot of the audience liked it.”

When Latham and Lechowick were hired, they were not brought on as a team, but as two separate writers, and Latham said that was also a key factor in choosing “Knots” over the other soap offers.

“We had worked together as a team on ‘Berrenger’s,’ but I very much wanted my own career, because we had a child. With teams, people can look at you and ask, ‘Who’s the real writer?’ So at that point we each became individual writers. We were each hired onto the show separately, with separate contracts, separate titles, separate credits. From that point on, Bernard and I did not write scripts together, we wrote our own scripts. What we have written together is 14 pilots, but our episodic work has been individual.”

The process of writing “Knots” was similar to other continuing series, Latham said. Before the season began, the writing staff would spend two months composing a “bible,” similar to a novella, ranging from 100-150 pages that covered everything that would happen that year on the show. From there, the writing staff would take that prose document and break it down into outlines for each episode. Week by week, one writer would take the composed outlines and write an individual script.

“We had a week of seven working days,” Latham said. “We started on a Monday and would finish on the following Wednesday. But we never worked on a hard and fast schedule. Sometimes the episodes were easy to complete, sometimes they were very difficult. The outlines are the hard part; the scripts are easy, that’s fun, that’s dialogue, that’s a breeze. In one-hour drama, it goes in four acts. And we used to say there was the unnatural fourth act. That goes back to Aristotle, when drama falls into three acts. But what you find in soap operas is that there are three acts of a complete story and the fourth will often be the first act of your next show.”

Latham said that they balanced the rigors of working on “Knots” with raising two children, Rick, now 22, who is on an academic fellowship in several Asian countries and Vincent, now 18, an incoming freshman at Bard College in New York. The key was to leave work at the office and always have one of them around for the kids on weekends.

“If one of us had to write on the weekend, one of us would entertain the child and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to Disneyland, we’re going to the park.’ We never wanted them to suffer because of our career. So the kids would think, ‘I’m having a wonderful Mommy Sunday or a wonderful Daddy Sunday.’ We would get home at 6 or 6:30 and lived a very civilized, normal life for our kids. We played board games and cards and never discussed work.”

As for the stories on “Knots,” both Latham and Lechowick brought their individual sensibilities to the plotting, and themes from their childhood often arose. Lechowick said his “Midwestern American Catholicism” from his childhood fueled his storytelling at times, especially in terms of certain “social issues” plots.

“I grew up in a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” Lechowick said. “We were very devout Catholics who attended Mass faithfully, observed every holy day of obligation, prayed the novena, everything. This theology of social justice stayed with me into adulthood and I think had an effect at times on the show.”

The theme of social justice pervaded their favorite plots. Both Latham and Lechowick said they most enjoyed creating the storyline featuring Jason Lochner (Thomas Wilson Brown) as an abused teen helped by Mack McKenzie (Kevin Dobson).

“During that story Mack McKenzie came to the realization that he himself had come out of an abusive environment, but he had not faced that fact,” Latham said. “That is frequently what happens with adults who have to come to terms with that later in life. We interviewed children who had gone through it, at the Clarion Center here in L.A.”

“Never once (in that story) did you see hitting or abuse,” Lechowick said. “But you knew it was there. This became more of Mack McKenzie’s story, because it brought him around to an insight. I remember a scene with Mack and Larry Riley (Frank Williams) that went something like, ‘You can’t smack your boss, you can’t hit the President, but somehow you can do that to a child.’ There was a big burly guard on the lot who said he had seen that episode and told Kevin Dobson that after watching that, ‘I don’t hit my daughter anymore.’”

Another favorite of Lechowick’s was the storyline involving Olivia’s (Tonya Crowe) cocaine addiction and the impact it had on her mother, Abby (Donna Mills).

“Donna Mills played either a vixen or villain up to that point. So she has a daughter who uses drugs, let’s humanize her. It’s more interesting to see a villain in a situation like this; now she’s presented with a problem she can’t get out of in the usual way.”

But it wasn’t all heavy drama that Latham and Lechowick were interested in. Latham said her favorite “fun story” was the May-December romance between Greg Sumner and Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan).

“Bernard and I saw there was a chemistry we thought we should use,” Latham said. “We love audience testing, so many writers say they don’t like it, but we love it. Bill Devane didn’t want to do the story, Nicollette didn’t want to do the story, David Jacobs didn’t want to do the story -- everybody pretty much didn’t want to do the story. So we went to a focus group and said what happens if these two characters fall in love because there’s such an extreme age difference and everyone in the room said they hated it. So when you have so much response from a group, positive or negative, you know you’re onto something good because you’ve engaged the audience.

“The focus group hated it because they said he’d be a dirty old man. Bernard and I looked at each other and said we know exactly how to write this: we made her fall in love with him and he refuses to have anything to do with her because of the age difference. So it is her heart that has gone out to him and we play it that way. She is in love with him and he will not return her affections.

“Sure enough, we started writing it that way, laying it in very slowly. Next time we tested the show, the entire focus group said, ‘How can he be so awful to her, she adores him … he needs to return this.’ And it worked like gangbusters. That one I loved doing and it was very successful.”

One of the tasks of plotting an ensemble show like “Knots Landing” was to add to the large cast periodically. By the end of their tenure in 1991, there were 20 characters appearing regularly on the show, a sharp increase from when they arrived in 1985. Latham and Lechowick said they enjoyed presiding over the arrivals of Paige, Claudia (Kathleen Noone), Frank, Pat Williams (Lynne Moody) and Anne (Michelle Phillips). But Latham cites Sam Behrens as her favorite addition to the show.

“Danny Waleska, he was my favorite. He was a marvelous villain by the time we got rid of him after two years. After he had trapped Gary and beat him up with a baseball bat – it was just marvelous!” Latham said, laughing.

Not everything worked in their eyes, however. The venture to Mexico by Paige, Michael (Patrick Petersen) and Johnny Rourke (Peter Reckell) did not go as originally planned and Latham and Lechowick were a bit embarrassed by its development.

“At the end of one season, CBS was toying with the idea of doing summer programming,” Latham said. “CBS was going to spin off the younger characters and we were going to take them to Mexico. So we had the cliffhanger with them and then the network decided not to do it.”

“The idea of summer programming was being talked about in the 1980s, but it was still a new concept,” Lechowick said. “CBS balked because they didn’t think that enough people would watch in the summer. For 50 years they taught the audience not to show up and they only showed reruns. But as shows like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Eastenders’ in Britain showed, year-round programming can work. One of the great dilemmas used to be that no one watched TV on Saturday nights, but CBS changed that with ‘All in the Family,’ ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘Maude’ and ‘The Bob Newhart Show.’ So the summer show could have been done if they wanted to, and of course you’re seeing it done now.”

Instead, in 1988, Latham and Lechowick, now promoted to producers, had to solve the plot problem of the youth trio in Mexico without a show.

“It was like, what is going on?” Latham said. “First they were down in Mexico for an archaeological dig, and didn’t we have them locked in a truck, and they almost died? And then we had to get them out of the truck and life had to go on in the cul de sac.”

Latham and Lechowick said they miss the days before cable was preeminent on American television, because networks no longer take any risks and are obsessed with holding onto their share of shrinking viewers. On “Knots,” CBS allowed them to do mostly anything they wanted.

“Networks are afraid of offending anyone now,” Lechowick said. “You simply can’t tell certain stories for fear that a particular group might not like it. On ‘Knots’ we had six years of 30 episodes a year where we didn’t have that worry. We did musical comedy, as I saw it, to mystery to drug abuse. David (Jacobs, creator and executive producer) was very sympathetic to whatever we tried.”

“There was a lot more freedom back then, honestly,” Latham added. “Now if you do certain things you’d get calls from the network. We did that episode that was like ‘Mildred Pierce,’ (‘The Heat of Passion’) it was real film noir, and we got no calls saying they didn’t like the style or content, or anything.”

Lechowick is quite proud when he notes that he wrote the 200th (“Noises Everywhere, Part I”) and 300th (“The Last One Out”) episodes of the series. He shows more excitement when discussing the cast he got to work with.

“My God, did we have a cast or did we have a cast? Bill Devane, Ted Shackelford, Kevin Dobson, Michele Lee and Donna, my word, and Alec Baldwin and Julie Harris. You know, Julie Harris picked up the corner of her apron when she entered a room in one scene. It’s something so small that you watched and realized what great acting is. Ted could do comedy and Kevin could do comedy, and they were effective because they were not punching it into the ground. In a heavier story they knew how to handle humor.”

Two cast members, though, have complained about the stewardship of Latham and Lechowick in published interviews last year. Joan Van Ark and John Pleshette both were critical of the couple. Van Ark was disappointed in the direction her character Valene went in, and Pleshette called them “awful people” after allegedly clashing with them on the set of the episode “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” which Latham and Lechowick wrote together and Pleshette directed.

“I don’t remember the tensions and the disagreement,” Lechowick said. “Certainly we weren’t in a position where we were treating him badly when he came to direct. John wasn’t one of our usual directors and after a while you see the same people and you get into a rhythm with them. With John it would have been the opposite of giving him a hard time; he was married to David Jacobs’ ex-wife so if anything, we were bending over backwards to please him while he was there. So I’m not sure what he was bothered about.”

Van Ark said her character was being turned into “the village idiot” on the show and that she protested about particular plotlines to Latham and Lechowick, but to no avail.

“Well, the character had some mental problems,” Lechowick said carefully. “She thought her ex was returning and she got tormented by Jill (Teri Austin) and she stir fried her kids’ hermit crabs. I wouldn’t say this made her an ‘idiot,’ but it was something that happened in the progression of Valene. Did we try to make her look purposely bad? No. Were we trying to have her leave the show? No. Did she get all the screen time she wanted? No.”

Lechowick added that Van Ark’s Valene often dominated the storylines and was given many opportunities to shine.

“In the season finale where it was just her and Jill, that was a 15-20 minute scene, no cuts, it was different and it was radical. That was one of her great moments.”

During the infamous five-month Writer’s Guild Strike of 1988, Latham and Lechowick were forbidden from working on “Knots,” though Latham said there was pressure on them to do so. Instead, they decided to flesh out a story Latham had been carrying since childhood called “Homefront.”

“It was based on my best friend’s mother who was a Belgian war bride,” Latham said. “In my little town of 9,000 there were three war brides (from World War II). And I would listen to their stories, one was German, one was Belgian, one was Italian. When the strike happened we sat down and developed this story. When it was time to pitch pilots, in 1990, we took the idea to NBC and they passed and ABC bought it. That was a dream of mine. During the time we wrote and shot the pilot we were on ‘Knots’ and the next season we were on ‘Homefront.’”

“We were going to set it in Texas, like where Lynn grew up, but the show ‘Dallas’ had just been on the air and the network thought it would seem too similar so instead we set it in Ohio. I grew up in Ohio, outside Cleveland, so we set the show in the fictional town of River Run,” Lechowick noted.

Latham, Lechowick and Jacobs were executive producers of “Homefront” and they brought much of the writing staff from “Knots” with them, including James Stanley and Dianne Messina, who would also eventually marry. Mimi Kennedy, a writer on “Knots,” was cast in a starring role on the show. This followed her notable cameo appearance on “Knots” as Linda Fairgate’s (Lar Park Lincoln) mother. Ironically, Latham and Lechowick were busy working on the pilot for “Homefront,” and didn’t even preside over Kennedy’s episode, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” in 1991.

“Homefront” expanded upon Latham’s idea of World War II war brides by adding soldiers returning from the war, “Rosie the Riveter” types losing their jobs to returning servicemen, racial tensions and Kyle Chandler as an up and coming baseball phenomenon. After being snubbed by award voters during their six years on “Knots Landing,” Latham and Lechowick were nominated for Emmys and other major awards in the two years “Homefront” was on the air.

“Homefront” struck a chord with many viewers during its run, but was not highly rated overall and was cancelled in 1993. Latham said she still gets email from viewers and fan club members about the show.

“I think we did about 45 hours and imagine doing 45 hours of your dream project. That’s like 20 feature films, and so I considered it a gift. It would have been nice for it to last longer, but I was thrilled that it was on. The actors were marvelous; some of them are still my best friends. The crew was magnificent.”

When “Homefront” ended, so did “Knots Landing.” Latham said she never watched the show after she left and considers that a rule of thumb for any show she works on.

“Once you’re off a show, if you watch it, the characters won’t be speaking the way you think they should speak, or the story may not go the way you think it should.”

Neither she nor her husband was approached to work on the 1997 “Knots Landing” reunion miniseries “Back to the Cul de Sac,” Latham said.

Very much in demand after “Homefront,” Latham and Lechowick have worked steadily ever since. The couple went on to create and executive produce “Second Chances” and “Hotel Malibu” for CBS and “Wild Card” for Lifetime. Latham wrote for “Savannah” (WB) and “Pacific Palisades” (Fox), executive produced “The District” and “That’s Life,” both for CBS, while Lechowick wrote for “Savannah,” created and executive produced “Live Through This” for MTV, co-executive produced “Hyperion Bay” (WB) and executive produced “Wolf Lake” (CBS)

Latham returned to the world of soaps, this time Daytime, as the first head writer on “Port Charles” in 1997 on ABC. She said on “PC” she finally got to use the Aristotelian three-act dramatic structure.

“I truly enjoyed working there,” Latham said. “I was able to bring Scott Hamner, Earl Hamner’s son, who had worked on ‘Knots Landing,’ over to ‘Port Charles,’ and he’s always been one of my favorites.”

Latham said the key story that she worked on in her two-year stint on “PC” was the “General Homicide” murder mystery that revolved around Dr. Kevin Collins (Jon Lindstrom). Latham left “Port Charles” in 1999 when her father was dying.

The couple has a new show in the works, Lechowick said, but he declined to release specifics of the project. Both, however, said they are very grateful to be in the position they are in in Hollywood.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to work in this field,” Latham said. “We wanted to work in the field we work in and we did.”

“It’s great working with Lynn,” Lechowick said. “When you have to meet a deadline, it’s perfect to be working with her. She came from the print world, I came from the directing world, and it just has really turned out well.”

Art Swift is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Check out www.ArthurSwift.com for additional writings.

Copyright 2004 Arthur Swift


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