The Seventies: L.A. Secretarial Job Interview

I’d read about Tom Laughlin in Variety, the same trade paper that ran the blind help wanted ad. He’d made a name with an outlaw biker flick, Born Losers, and there was buzz about the film he’d just wrapped, Billy Jack. It was an action drama about good kids with bad problems, starring himself in the title role, an almost supernatural superhero with marksman skills honed in Vietnam and martial art skills more impressive than Bruce Lee’s. The film’s high-concept action, the hero’s ability to solve society’s problems with only his guns, fists and feet, and a sexy score with at least one hit single were guaranteed to bring kids and parents flocking to sticky-floored theaters in every mall in America. Best of all, his PG-rated, future cult classic had been brought in for an incredible eight-hundred thousand.
I get all my jobs through blind ads, four in the past seven years. I’m never fired; I always quit with no notice. In any other business I couldn’t get away with that sort of performance, but these guys all hate each other, so I seem astute rather than disloyal when I “learn what the schmuck is really like” and walk.
The talent agent I was working for when I answered Laughlin’s ad was a morally bent tyrant who’d gone through four secretaries in four months before he hired me. I’d lasted two years, and he’d never raised his voice at me. He screamed around me – not at me. Even so, I’d had enough of his ranting and was ready for a change — especially since my paychecks were bouncing because his cocaine habit and his daughter’s Vassar tuition were higher priorities than my salary.
I was tired of working weekends and twelve-hour days. I came in early to get started on calls, and stayed late to make clients’ lives easier – listened to their problems, ran forgotten items to clubs or recording studios, located babysitters or drugs, that sort of thing. My lunch was usually Courvoisier VS from a drawer in my desk.
The similarly stressed office manager was understanding when I said, “I can’t stand this place one more minute, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I took the afternoon off for the interview.
Laughlin’s offices were in a monolithic gunmetal gray tower in Century City, and I was the only one left on the elevator when the mirrored doors slid open. No people in the foyer, no plants, not even an ashtray recessed into a wall. Just white walls on three sides, and gray-veined white marble floors.
I walked towards an open doorway in the glass wall to my right, high heels of my black suede boots clicking on the marble. As I stepped through, marble floors gave way to velvety pale gray carpet and the only sound was the subdued shushing of air-conditioning. I went to the windows on the other side of the empty reception area and looked down at smog-shrouded L.A. I hated L.A. – why didn’t I leave?
I felt I’d stepped into an Antonioni film, remembering something he had said: “Hollywood is like being nowhere and talking to nobody about nothing.”
I started down a long, twilit hall guarded by closed doors standing sentinel. Opening one door I saw a darkened screening room with thirty or forty high-backed armchairs. I opened another where a young woman was typing furiously in a small, windowless cubicle. She didn’t acknowledge me.
A hall to my left led to a door open into another windowless cubicle. A fierce-looking, middle-aged blonde woman was typing, an earphone almost hidden in her frizzy hairdo. When she saw me she snatched off the headset. “Are you Kimberly?”
“Thank god.” She rested her forehead on her hands for a moment, then looked up at me. “Laughlin’s in the last room at the end of the main hall. Just go back.”
She didn’t smile, and neither did I.
As I neared his office I could hear him yelling. “Fuck ’em, I don’t need ’em. No, I don’t need their fucking distribution . . . No I DON’T! … Listen to me, you chicken-shit asshole, you get it back from those fuckers or I’ll get an attorney with juice, you got that?”
I allowed a brief period of silence and made my entrance. “… Hello?”
He froze, crouched over, the middle finger of his left hand ready to dial the blue phone he held in his right. “You Kimberly?”
“I’m a creative genius.”
What could I say? “I’m . . . so glad for you.”
“Is that guy you work for a crook?”
“Well . . . I guess it depends on what side of the table you’re-”
“They’re all crooks! And those fuckers at Warners are the worst. They’re trying to cut the balls off my picture!”
He stared at me.
I come off well in these interviews; I think it’s my body language. They scream and carry on, and I remain quiet but concerned, brow furrowed, intelligent enough to understand their weighty problems. It’s an act, but a good one.
“Yeah, ‘really.’ I’m supposed to have final cut, and the fucking film is perfect the way it is, and they’re gonna mess with it and cut twelve minutes! Twelve minutes, for crissake!”
“God, they are so stupid,” I said. “What a waste of creative talent.”
“Yeah.” He lowered his voice in response to my calm tone. “It’s a fucking waste, all right, but they’re not getting away with it. I’m not some dumb schmuck off the fucking turnip truck, you know what I mean?”
His cursing was at odds with his looks. He looked healthy and squeaky-clean, and I thought I smelled Paco Rabanne. His hair was crisp and dark, cut very short. He was built like a fighter, slim, muscular and bouncy. He wore a baby blue v-neck cashmere sweater with a bit of pristine white undershirt showing at the v. His faded jeans were tailored to fit, and the brown Gucci loafers that lay beside his white-stocking feet were almost as shiny as patent leather.
He noticed me looking around the room. “Yeah, I haven’t had time to get any furniture in here. First things first, right?”
The only piece of furniture was an oversized black leather beanbag chair. There were several phones on the floor, half-buried in a Medusa tangle of multicolored cords.
I walked over to the corner where two window-walls met, reaching from the high ceiling to the floor. Peering down from forty stories I detected a bit of movement and felt vertigo, and an irrational fear the building might tilt and send me hurtling into space. I stepped back a couple of feet and gazed west at a fog bank building up over Santa Monica. I didn’t turn back to Laughlin as he started to tell me what the job entailed.
“I have three secretaries, and my number one just burned out. You think you can handle it?”
“Sure,” I said, staring in the direction of the shrouded ocean.
“You don’t even know what you have to do.”
He’d said “you.” I knew I had the job.
“I carry a tape recorder with me wherever I go,” he said. “I get a lot of great ideas, and I don’t want to lose any of them, right?”
I turned to him and smiled. “Right.”
“So I record everything. I’ve got one going now, see?”
I looked down and saw a small black metal box, a cassette recorder almost hidden by the beanbag chair.
“Great,” I said.
“Yeah. So I make these tapes, and I bring ’em in. The last one to get ’em is my number three secretary. She makes a complete transcript, takes down everything I say, everything on the tapes.”
“Yeah. She gets the tapes from number two, who’s already lifted out all the scheduling crap – you know, who I gotta see, who I gotta call, that sort of thing.”
“Mmm hmm,” I nodded.
“So number two places a lot of my calls, but I make a lot of my own. Direct – puts the bastards off edge, know what I mean?”
“Right.” I smiled approvingly.
“But number one, that’s where you come in, you take off the really important stuff, the creative stuff, the ideas – you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, great idea.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “That’s how we got the script for the picture.”
“What do you mean?”
“We taped a bunch of kids – you know, dopers, hustlers, drop-outs. We picked ’em up on the Boulevard, got ’em to the house for these, like, rap sessions, you know what I mean? Gives it a great feeling of spontaneity, right?”
“Wow,” I said, suitably impressed.
“Yeah, right. Okay, you start Monday, come in around seven-thirty.”
“Great, thanks. I’m looking forward to it.” I shook his hand. We’d work the money out later. And I’d work it out with someone other than the “creative genius” – I knew better than to waste his time on such a small matter.
I started toward the door.
“Wait a minute,” he called out.
I turned back. “Yeah?”
“What’s your sign?”
“My birth sign?”
“Forget it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Forget the job. I’m a left-handed Aries, it’d never work out.”
“Gee,” I said. “I have Sagittarius rising.”
“Not good enough.”
The interview was over.

* * * * *

PS: A couple of weeks later I got hired as secretary to the Head of the Music Department at Warner Bros. He was a left-handed Leo. It didn’t work out.

PPS: Tom Laughlin did make a distribution deal in 1971 for Billy Jack with Warner Bros. but sued them and re-released it himself in 1973, when it earned forty million dollars the first year. He was a student of Hapkido, and performed many of his own stunts. In some scenes he used a double—his teacher, Master Bong Soo Han. From Roger Ebert’s review: “I’m also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. Billy Jack seems to be saying the same thing as Born Losers, that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists? . . . Billy Jack arrives at a conclusion that is only slightly more encouraging.”

E.G. Swarthout wrote this first as fiction, in Rick Peabody’s class at St. John’s College, 1986. Then she decided enough time had passed to write the real story.