THE TALLEST MAN I KNOW

In order to tell you what I know about Ernie, I first need to explain how I met him.

I grew up poor in a mill town outside Pittsburgh, PA. When I was at Northwestern, I wrote letters to a bunch of TV people, telling them that I wanted to be a TV writer, what would they suggest I do, etc. Only one person wrote me back with advice – Earl Hamner, creator of my all-time favorite show THE WALTONS.

He told me that if I were ever in Hollywood, call him. Which, of course, I did, the month I got out here. He liked my writing and invited me in to meet him.

At his office, I saw a young 25 year old guy who Earl told me was a wonderful writer and person, Ernie Wallengren. I didn’t meet Ernie that day, but I soon got a call from him. He explained that he liked my work and that because Earl had given him, Ernie, his break, Earl asked Ernie to help me in return.

So I became Ernie’s protégé, both in writing, and to some extent, life. He became my own personal editor, reading draft after draft of what must have been dreck, until I had a great spec in hand.

I’m talking three years of dreck!

More than that, he took me to many lunches, even nights out with his friends, to break me out of my isolation. To give me good meals, when I couldn’t afford hot dogs.

Even more importantly than that was something Ernie did for me my second year out here. I was deeply discouraged by my lack of progress, and then I got Hepatitis, the kind you get from bad seafood. It was a terrible illness, and, at the worst of it, I wanted to quit. Pack up. Go back to Pittsburgh.

I’ll never forget the phone call Ernie made to me at that time. He told me, “You can’t quit. I believe you are a real writer – so does Earl. I won’t let you quit.”

I cried at that time and I’m crying now as I write you these words.

I did stick it out, of course, and though I broke through at Universal, Ernie soon got me a job at FALCON CREST, where I met Claire and Rod, my second family.

I can count at least four different times during my career that Ernie gave me work that changed my life. The last time was at PROMISED LAND, which is still, today, the best job I’ve ever had, after FALCON. Why? Because I was working for a man I trusted completely, both creatively and personally (Ernie was also my best man at my wedding). So I could strive for home runs, and I knew I had a coach to inspire me and believe in me.

Other things you should know about Ernie:

He is and has always been a devout Mormon. Even when he wasn’t. Even when he drank wine and Coca-Cola.

We had tons of talk early in our relationships about religion. Ernie was an expert in church history and dogma, and we had many playful jokes, kidding each other about our faiths. More than that, to understand Ernie, you have to understand his family and faith. Because he is a product of both. This great big family, competitive, rambunctious boys, and tremendous creativity throughout. A religion that believes in good works and the importance of family and friends.

Qualities Ernie has, of course. Plus, the greatest sense of loyalty I’ve ever met in a man.

You probably know that Ernie is an excellent piano player (by ear, I think), and computer whiz.

You know his great sense of humor and big heart.

And you probably know that no one has lived as “large” as Ernie. He drove the best cars, went on the best vacations, drank the best wines. He lived life to the absolute fullest, and had tremendous confidence in himself that he could work to support such a lifestyle – which he did.

And of course you know what a great writer he is. I’m still in awe of his talent and craft. What kind of writer is Ernie, what kind of man, when the chips are down?

Well, I always tell this story of Ernie: one thing Ernie was not was a good golfer. In fact, he was bad, try as he might. But every year, Lorimar had a charity golf tournament. Anyone who got a hole in one got a free vacation to Hawaii.

The only person ever to hit a hole in one in one of those tournaments was Ernie.

He was the consummate “money player”, on that course that day, in every script he wrote.

Now, no man is a saint and neither is Ernie. When he was younger, he was much more moody, and sometimes curt. He never gushed words at you to tell you how he felt – at least not me, anyway. You knew those things by his actions – like keeping you going when you wanted to quit.

I believe that Cheryl and his children made Ernie a better man, and that Ernie made Ernie a better man. I’ve never seen anyone grow as much as Ernie over time. How he turned back to his church, gave up drinking, threw himself so totally into family life.

Again, once, when I called Ernie while he was writing a script, he had five screaming kids around him. Now, I need near total quiet to write – I asked him how can he get anything done. His reply, “I LOVE it.”

Well, those are the high points, I think.

One more thing: what Ernie did for me was nothing short of helping me to achieve my dreams. Can you imagine?! He did that for me, and because of him, I have great craft and a wonderful career. And because of that, I can support my family.

Ernie gave me all that.

What an incredibly generous man.

No wonder that when I saw Ernie last Sunday, I did not, could not, see a man in a wheelchair. Because Ernie is the tallest man I know, in all ways.

Bill Schmidt