Hollywood, via Gilman, Amherst and law school

May 23, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

DAVID WALPERT arrives for lunch via the Gilman School and Amherst College and a year of law school, none precisely known for nurturing television sitcom writers. He picks at a salad that looks appropriately Californian, toying with a piece of lettuce, not wishing to overindulge. You imagine his mother, Fern Walpert of Pikesville, or his father, accountant Fred Walpert, declaring, "Eat, David, eat." He chuckles at the image. Life is a smile, even when your last two jobs were shot out from under you.

He's a delightful young man -- and why not? At 31, in town to visit his folks, he's got an apartment in Los Angeles, a girlfriend who moved there "and I swooped in before she could meet anybody better," and so what if he hasn't got a job for the moment?

It'll work out. Who knew it would get as good as it's already gotten? Not Walpert, not like this, writing for television's "Ellen," with Ellen DeGeneres, and then for television's "Sports Night," with actor (and fellow Baltimorean) Josh Charles.

"You were a funny boy at Gilman?" Walpert is asked.

"I don't know," he says, his soft voice barely heard over the din at Donna's in Pikesville. "I was a little quiet. I used to whisper the jokes and somebody else louder would say them. Which is, I guess, what I do now."

After Gilman, he went to Amherst and took American Studies, a mix of literature and history. Then, a year of law school. Hated it, but saw a flier in a guidance counselor's office about a Walt Disney scholarship program: "Send in a sitcom script and make $30,000 a year."

He thought: This is not what Amherst graduates do for a living. They become doctors and lawyers. The law, he had already tried. He decided to write a sample script.

"I did a `Seinfeld' sample," he remembers. "I think the premise was George is dating a blind woman, and he was excited because she didn't know what he looked like. But then he realizes, when they get physical, she'll know he's short and bald. So he tries to keep her at bay."

"There was an old `Taxi' episode similar to that," he is told.

"There was?" Walpert says, clearly astonished, eyebrows launching. "Oh, gosh. So, OK, strike that," he laughs. "Anyway, it was pretty awful and it was rejected. But I didn't have much going on, so I went out to California for a couple of years, did a bunch of odd jobs. I was a production assistant on a movie, which means I was an errand boy. The first day, I was assigned to clean the toilets."

"For this," he is asked, "you went to Amherst?"

"Yeah, and I'm sure my parents were petrified," he says, "but they were very nice and very supportive. They knew I was making enough pressure on myself. I was there almost three years, and then I applied for the Disney fellowship again, and this time I got in."

The program was constructed like workshops, in which he would pitch ideas to studio executives, and they would tell him why they were good or bad. After six months, the Disney people sent some of his writing to the "Ellen" staff. They took him in.

"I was," he says lightly, "petrified. You know, `They'll find out I'm a giant fraud.' And being a sitcom writer, you sit around all day with other writers, day in and day out. And they're these people who are so fast and so funny, and you sit there thinking, how will I ever compete in this atmosphere? And you feel like you're going months without saying anything, and you think, `I'd better say something so they remember I'm here.' "

He started seeing lines he'd written woven into scripts, then more lines, and more. He started feeling "a little puffed up, like I was starting to belong. After a few months, I got my first actual writing credit.

"And then you worry, `This is gonna be the worst thing that was ever on television.' And you call home and alert your parents, and they're thrilled, and my mother's calling everybody in Baltimore. And then, after a few episodes, she's on the phone to me with little points of criticism.

"You know -- `This actor could have read the lines this way instead of that way.' And then you come home, and you're introduced at a wedding, and they say, `Oh, you write for "Ellen?" You should come to my mah-jongg game for ideas.' Yeah, Ellen at a mah-jongg game."

There was unusual pressure around "Ellen," because DeGeneres had just made the big announcement about her sexuality. Soon after, with mediocre ratings, the show was terminated.

"Ellen was nice," Walpert says, "and I got more confident as I went along. From there, I went right to `Sports Night.' " Disney owns them both. "Sports Night," the takeoff on ESPN, won critical acclaim, but not enough viewers. A TV Guide cover called it "The Best Show You're Not Watching."

After two years, ABC canceled it 10 days ago.

"Yeah," Walpert said Sunday night, back home in California. "I got a message on my answering machine that it was canceled. So I'm interviewing now. I've had meetings about two new shows, and I'm watching tapes of some pilots. It's a little nerve-racking, but I think I'll be all right."

He clearly enjoys the life. "Yeah," he says, laughing, "I'll be complaining about something. You know, `They made me change that line.' And then I think, `Wait a minute, there are people on assembly lines who would love to do this. I'm sitting around making jokes all day.' "

As they always say around Gilman and Amherst: This is why we pay the big tuition money.

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