Bill Heater had the unique ability to create a vivid character through his writing of dialogue. He was peerless. The only writer that I know who had that ability in equal measure was David Mamet. Bill’s writing on John Hancock got the campaign a Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, to the booing and hissing of the audience. The French didn’t think that kind of reality belonged in advertising. I asked Bill how he kept the quality during the run of the campaign. He said, ‘I completely ignored the client’s comments.’
There is a good story about process here. When I received the scripts for the first Hancock campaign, I was blown away with them. I started casting before Bill and his partner, Don Easdon, came to California. I had trouble with one of the commercials. There was only one actor that got it. We couldn’t find the ‘other guy.’ The spot had two guys talking to each other in a bar. They were friends. The dialogue starts with the line, ‘How much you makin’?’ I thought (actually agonized since the spot was so good), and then came up with what I thought was a great solution, John Roselius. John was an excellent actor who had worked with John Cassavetes. I had worked with him on a number of commercials before and was taken by the truthfulness of his performances, something rare in commercials. It’s hard to describe the resonance that some actors have, a sense of character that doesn’t depend on dialogue, a quality that they have by their very presence. John had that. If we changed the spot to an older brother – younger brother conflict it would work with John, since he was somewhat older than Marc McLure, the only good actor we could find who fit the original idea. Bill considered the script sacrosanct and didn’t buy the idea. We decided to see them work together. At the casting session, John came to me and asked what I wanted him to do? I said:
‘How’s the script?’
‘Pretend it’s a John Cassavetes movie.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Pretend it’s not a commercial and do it like it’s going to last forever and you will be judged by your performance! There’s a fridge there with some beer. You and your brother are talking late at night. Open the fridge, crack open a beer, take a sip, and start talking.’
‘I’m in AA.’
We’re there watching. John opens the fridge, takes out a beer, cracks it, takes a swig, then BELCHES. ‘How much you makin’. Huh. You makin’ thirty?’
Game over. Grand Prix Cannes. Bill Heater enters the pantheon.
Hancock hasn’t made better commercials since. There’s something to be said for (against?) client’s involvement. Remember Heater said that he never listened to the client’s comments. That’s why the campaign was so successful. Clients sometimes should get what they need, not what they want. Bill’s comment was a little harsh but they have never done commercials as compelling as Bill’s no matter how hard they have tried. The same could be said of Riswold and Wall at Nike, and Patti and Schneider at Pepsi, and some others. Their best work could never come out of a client’s brief. They were touched with magic. When Riney came up with the Bartles and Jaymes campaign his only support was Ernest Gallo. All of Ernest’s managers were against it and wanted lifestyle commercials, young people on the beach drinking wine coolers.
Here is a defining story about Bill’s extraordinary talents. We were casting a Hancock commercial about a retiring football player. Bill had based his script on a video he saw of Jack Lambert, the great Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, giving his retirement speech. The casting tapes sucked. I suggested this was an opportunity to get a black man into the campaign. I had a friend, Tony King, in mind. Tony was a terrific actor but was the worst audition you could have. He was an intensely proud man and auditions were demeaning to him. After the casting callbacks we threw in our picks. Bill still liked a white actor, his partner Don Easdon liked a black guy that was completely middle of the road, and, of course, I wanted to use Tony. Tony was a retired pro football player as well.
‘Why don’t you like the white guy?
‘Because he’s smarmy and groveling and embarrassing.
‘What about Don’s guy?’
‘He’s not black. He’s milk chocolate.’
‘Why do you like Tony?’
‘Because he’s black, he’s threatening, unexpected, and you would never cast him in a commercial. Besides, he’s a great actor.’
‘It wasn’t there in the audition.’
‘He’ll be great on the shoot.’
‘I’m not convinced.’
The producer suggests a vote. She will be the tiebreaker. Somehow I agree to the vote but I know that if I don’t win, I’ll do something radical. Bill votes for the white guy, Don votes for his guy, and I vote for Tony. The producer votes for Tony. Tony wins! I ask her why she voted for Tony and she says that if she didn’t she wouldn’t have a commercial. Women’s instinct. The next morning, at the shoot, Bill hands me a new script written on Beverly Hills Hotel stationery. The script is brilliant, a complete departure from the original, and it is in Tony’s voice.
‘How did you do this?’
‘I listened to you and Tony talking during the session.’
‘But we hadn’t decided yet.’
‘I know, but I knew.’
Bill did. was in Ireland having a Guinness at James Joyce’s Pub and the bartender told me that James Joyce used to sit at the end of the bar and listen to conversations, then retreat into a room at the end of the bar and write down precisely what he heard. That way, it would be as accurate and authentic as possible. Truman Capote used a similar technique when he wrote IN COLD BLOOD, although he claimed to have a photographic memory. To me Bill is in their category of truth and honesty.
In the words of Hemingway, ‘Write one true sentence.’