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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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JetBlue's Steven Slater: What's the right pitch for his TV movie?

August 13, 2010 |  1:28 pm

Steven_slater How do you pitch a TV movie about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who's become a folk hero after he cussed out a rude passenger, grabbed some beer and jumped down an emergency slide at JFK on Sunday? His crazed misadventures seem to have captured the imagination of put-upon Americans everywhere. But is he really made-for-TV material? 

I went to an an expert, calling up David Permut, the peripatetic producer who is Hollywood's longtime king of pitch artists, having sold Universal on the idea of making a big-screen version of "Dragnet" simply by walking into studio chief Frank Price's office and humming the TV show's theme music. "I guess it helped that Dan Aykroyd was standing next to me," Permut modestly adds.

With a host of projects based on real-life people already in development, running the gamut from a biopic about car whiz John DeLorean to a film about civil rights activist Bayard Ruskin, Permut had clearly already given some thought to the idea of a movie about Slater, since he'd not only seen his morning-show TV appearances, but already searched out a variety of tribute songs written by Slater fans that have popped up YouTube. So what does Permut think? Could this be a go project?

"If Paddy Chayefsky were still with us, I'd be on the phone with him right now," Permut told me. "I mean, who doesn't identify with a guy who's been through what Slater went through. It's the ultimate example of the famous line from 'Network' -- 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore.' Audiences would definitely relate to this guy. We've all had jobs where we got fed up and went a little crazy. Everyone feels his pain."

Unfortunately, mad-as-hell movies have been few and far between in recent years. It's been a long time since Michael Douglas starred in "Falling Down," where he played a jobless defense worker who lashed out at all the dolts who were making his life miserable. The movie was a box-office disappointment, perhaps because audiences prefer feel-good uplift to stories about struggling against the system. "Hollywood just doesn't make those kind of movies anymore," says Permut. "Jimmy Stewart made a career out of playing those kind of characters,  but I think those films have been lost in the dust."

If Permut were going to pitch Slater's story, he'd add a meta dimension to it. "One of the most interesting angles is what happens when someone becomes an overnight celebrity, so you'd want that to be a part of the story too, to show how Slater's character is handling being a media sensation." Permut also thinks Slater's back-story has potential. "I saw his ex-wife being interviewed on the "Today" Show and she paid him every accolade possible, which certainly looked good, coming from his ex-wife. And then two channels away I saw Slater being interviewed with his boyfriend, so you know there's definitely a complicated back story to tell."

The biggest problem, Permut says, is that it's hard to sell a pitch when we don't know the whole story arc yet. He worries that the public's initial fascination with Slater could quickly melt away. If Slater has too many skeletons in his closet, he could go from folk hero to a tabloid sleazeball in a New York minute. Still, Permut finds the whole affair ripe with possibilities. "I especially like the whole beer angle," he said with a laugh. "That opens up a lot of product placement potential, which is always a good thing when you're looking to get something like this off the ground." 

In fact, I'm betting that Slater has a much better shot at getting a Bud ad than a TV movie deal. At least it's a start. If he can deliver the goods, the sky is the limit. If Sly Stallone makes a sequel to "The Expendables," I can easily see Slater being one of the gang, growling at the bad guys and hitting someone over the head with a big suitcase. As Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest, once you're in showbiz, anything can happen. 

Meanwhile, if someone actually gets a Slater TV movie off the ground, I think we have the perfect actor to play the part. Click on Keep Reading and see what you think:

It's Neal McDonough, who played Dave Williams in the fifth season of "Desperate Housewives."

Photo: Neal McDonough at a premiere earlier this year for "The Losers."

Credit: Jason Merrit / Getty Images

Neal_mcdonough

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