Ray Donovan, Showtime’s new drama about a Hollywood private eye, is the sort of show in which a macho action-movie star about to be ruined by box-office-busting revelations of homosexuality saves himself by (falsely) claiming to have just awakened in a hotel room beside a (real) dead girl after a night-long orgy of cocaine and sex. That’s all in the first five minutes, by the way. So you’re wondering, who thinks of this stuff? Well, one of us, of course.
Ann Biderman, the veteran Hollywood screenwriter behind Ray Donovan, is the product of an improbable (and ultimately unsuccessful) Miami marriage between a quintessentially 1960s Bohemian mom and a typewriter-salesman dad. Growing up, she split her time between a rambunctious Miami Beach political crash pad and New York’s legendarily weird Chelsea Hotel. And even back then, she concedes, her brain was oddly wired.
“I was a really nutty kid,” she recalls amiably. “I didn’t watch TV. I was obsessed with Meyer Lansky. I was obsessed with Frank Sinatra. I was obsessed with the Rat Pack. I made my father take me to the hotel where they shot [Sinatra’s bleakly comic movie] A Hole In The Head ... .
“My mom was a very free spirit, very politically involved. She was the secretary of CORE [the Congress on Racial Equality, a militant civil rights group], and I marched around the federal building in downtown Miami before I could really walk. People would get out of prison in the Deep South and our house would be where they would land. FBI agents would come to visit all the time.”
And that was practically Leave It To Beaver compared to the summers in New York at the Chelsea. Built in the 19th century as an experiment in socialism where the very poor would live alongside the very rich, the Chelsea flew its freak flag with a surreal and sometimes sinister swagger.
Quarreling black-magic priests fought spell-casting duels in the lobby. Poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there, and playwright Arthur Miller used to say the marijuana smoke in the elevator shaft was so thick you could get stoned just on the ride from the lobby to your room. Punk-rock muse Nancy Spungen was knifed to death in one room; Andy Warhol’s model Edie Sedgewick set another on fire while trying to put on false eyelashes by candlelight; poet-musician Leonard Cohen had sex with Janis Joplin in a third, then infamously wrote the brutal song Chelsea Hotel #2, about the experience after her death. ( I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best/I can’t keep track of each fallen robin ... .)
Biderman wasn’t necessarily directly involved in all those things — though Cohen was a pal and lived down the hall — but she wrote her own chapters of Chelsea history.
“A couple of times I was dosed with acid,” she recalls. “That was not a good thing. And bringing someone home to meet my mother, in a very formal way, we walked into the lobby and they were carting out someone who had been shot. But, really, it was fantastic. Artists, poets, musicians, they all came to the Chelsea.
“Every rock band in the world stayed there. My sister hung out all the time with Jefferson Airplane. My mother was very close to [rocker] Patti Smith and [photographer-provocateur] Robert Mapplethorpe, who lived there, and there’s stuff about us in Just Kids, Patti’s book about that time.”
But if the mind that created Ray Donovan is a product of Miami, the subject matter — a private eye who holds the hands and keeps the secrets of the stars, whose mantra is “I have a way to get you out of this” — is pure Hollywood. The title character (played by much-decorated stage actor Liev Schreiber) is drawn from the tales of any number of real-life showbiz fixers:
Fred Otash, the detective hired by the Kennedy family to sweep the home of Marilyn Monroe clean of anything embarrassing in the hours after her suicide. MGM troubleshooters Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, who covered up the illicit pregnancy of Loretta Young by her married boyfriend Clark Gable by arranging for her to adopt her own baby. Tony Pellicano, wire tapper to (and of) the stars, whose electronic eavesdropping in celebrity divorce cases eventually got him a 15-year prison sentence.
“This character has been around forever in Hollywood in various forms,” Biderman says. “It’s a huge industry, full of entitlement and money and sexuality, and there’s always been somebody around to take care of every abortion or drug overdose or whatever form scandal was taking at the moment.”
Biderman’s passion for research is legendary — she spent seven months riding with police officers before writing a word of her cop-drama series Southland — but her decades in Hollywood following her graduation from the NYU film school gave her a head start on Ray Donovan.
“I’ve lived here a long time, most of my friends are celebrities, I understand the issues of stalking and privacy,” she says. “I understand the town. So that part wasn’t as hard as Southland. But I did talk to a lot of people. To paparazzi, to defense lawyers, to ex-FBI agents, to tabloid reporters. I talked a lot to the people at SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. [Her detective’s back story is shaped by youthful sexual molestation.]
“But at the end of the day, it’s fiction. As much as you arm yourself with real stuff, you ultimately sail off with your imagination.”
Biderman spent years in Hollywood working on feature films (mostly hard-bitten crime thrillers like the 2009 gangster epic Public Enemies) but has done relatively little television. After she dipped her toe into the TV waters with some scripts for NYPD Blue (and winning an Emmy), her first big project was Southland, a peculiarity even in an industry known for unorthodox business practices.
The show, about the lives of Los Angeles beat cops, made its debut in the spring of 2009 as a mid-season replacement on NBC, winning critical acclaim and moderate ratings success. NBC renewed Southland for a second season, but after shooting six episodes, abruptly canceled the show without airing any of them. The Hollywood press bristled with stories in which unnamed NBC executives declared the show “too dark.”
Southland eventually found a cable home on TNT and ran four more seasons before its cancellation last month, a success by any TV measure. But the subject is still a sore one for Biderman.
“It was a debacle,” she declares. “NBC decided to get rid of 10 p.m. dramas to make room for Jay Leno’s prime-time show, and we were a 10 p.m. drama. We got caught in the middle. It was that simple. Too dark? I’m sure they did think it was too dark for 9 p.m. I thought, when they bought the show, they wanted to push the envelope. ... I might not have been the best candidate for a network show.”
Ray Donovan, with its sexual kinks and explosive violence, will never be mistaken for a broadcast-network drama from any time slot at all. That, laughs Biderman, is what helped sell it to Showtime programming boss David Nevins.
“I don’t want to sound immodest, and I hate this expression, but honestly, he pretty much bought it in the room” right after hearing the proposal, she says. “It was all about the timing. Showtime at the time had lots of shows that were female-centric, with strong female leads and stories, like Weeds and The Big C. I think David was looking for a macho show to mix it up, and there I was in my high heels, pitching this filth, this macho filth.”