Neal Rubin: Coleman Young, meet your TV protege
Clearly, Coleman Young was made to be a TV character: smarter than Alex Trebek, saltier than “Deadwood,” more charismatic than all the Kardashians put together.
Oddly, he hasn’t been. It doesn’t appear than anyone had even made the effort.
Now someone has, and a version of Young could be coming to a small screen near you.
Things are still in the very-much-a-longshot stage, but a character based on Detroit’s longest-serving mayor could make an overnight success of a 58-year-old producer in Jackson named Jay Nelson who owes his inspiration to “Mad Men” and his motivation to a broken leg.
That could bring joy to those who loved Coleman Alexander Young and even more joy to those who love to despise him, 181/2 years after he died.
With Young in mind, Nelson wrote a pilot for an hour-long drama called “Mayor” that won third place in a prestigious contest sponsored by the CineStory Foundation.
The distinction earned him a spot in a writers’ retreat in April in California that led to a literary manager there talking about “Mayor” to a guy at a studio who wanted to look at it.
The participants are being cagy about details, but Nelson sent along a revised version of his two-year-old script 12 days ago and expects to hear back within three or four weeks.
“The possibilities go from ‘We’ll pass’ to life-changing,” he says. With far more scripts floating around than opportunities, he concedes, “the probability is pass.”
Then again, when Young was only as old as the script, who would have expected him to become mayor?
Stretching the subject
The mayor in “Mayor” is called Jim Russell. The city is called Detroit.
Unlike Young, who had his one child late in life, Russell is divorced with two kids.
Like Young, Russell uses a lot of words you can’t say on network television even in 2016, which is why cable or streaming are the likely markets.
The pilot begins with Russell delivering a version of Young’s famous inaugural warning “to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”
It’s only a version — and Russell is named something other than Young — “because I wouldn’t want to be limited by historical record,” Nelson says. Reality is a useful base, but it’s imagination that gets you renewed.
A former vice president of production at WTVS-TV (Channel 56), Nelson co-owns a company called Nice Work Productions.
As a young production assistant at WTVS, he once met Young in a receiving line. Two years later, he was shooting a promo for the station at Manoogian Mansion and Young said, “Didn’t I meet you at that fundraiser at Joe Louis Arena?”
John Engler had the same sort of memory, but nobody’s writing a script about him.
Making it realistic
Young, however, remains unexplored, as far as Harvey Ovshinsky knows.
As a writer, teacher, Emmy-winning producer and reviewer of thousands of screenplays over the years, “I think I would have heard about it,” Ovshinsky says.
Young represents “everything you want in antiheroes,” he says. “Or heroes, depending on your point of view.”
Nelson says he was watching “Mad Men” when he was struck by the idea of a period drama set in mid-’70s Detroit.
The idea became a pilot after he slipped on an icy sidewalk and was stuck in a third-floor apartment for two months with his leg in a cast and his imagination in high gear.
“I wanted to make it realistic,” Nelson says, so the plot for the first episode involves Mayor Russell dealing with an overly aggressive, overly white police force.
Some people will adore him. Some will hate him. It’ll be just like the real thing, 40 years later.