Oscar's real Cinderella storyteller: David Seidler, screenwriter of 'The King's Speech'
If anyone is living out a stranger-than-fiction Cinderella story this Oscar season, it's David Seidler, the colorful 73-year-old screenwriter of “The King's Speech.” For several months, the film has been viewed as a best picture front-runner, making Seidler a favorite when it comes to the original screenplay category. This hasn't gone unnoticed by Seidler, who told me over lunch the other day that he's already done the research: If he were to take home the statue, he’d be the oldest writer to win for an original script.
Seidler is in justifiably high spirits these days. As he sees it: “After a checkered career like mine, it's nice to be an overnight success.”
Overnight is an understatement. As recently as September, Seidler was so down on his luck that he didn't even have an agent. In a career that stretches back to the 1960s, he'd never written a hit movie. Though he'd been a prolific TV writer, most of that work had dried up in recent years thanks to the explosion of reality television, leaving him laboring on such fare as “Kung Fu Killer” and the “Son of the Dragon” miniseries.
After nearly 30 years of working with his writing partner, Jacqueline Feather, he wrote “The King's Speech” on his own. Why? Well, Feather was also his wife, and after 30 years, she’d divorced him.
Through it all, Seidler, who with his broad shoulders and craggy features looks like a retired longshoreman, has managed to live the kind of adventurous life that is increasingly uncommon in today's Hollywood, where most writers come to the business straight out of film school. Born in England, Seidler fled with his family to America as a child during the early days of World War II. His first memories are hearing the thunder from the guns in the Battle of Dunkirk.
As a child, he had a terrible stutter, which is why he'd originally taken an interest in the tale of King George VI, the monarch who overcame his stammer with the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue. Seidler's parents had him listen to the king's speeches, hoping they would provide encouragement. Seidler says he actually conquered his stutter as a teenager when he realized that he'd never have successful dates with girls if he couldn't woo them with words.
“It drove me crazy that I couldn't ask a girl out on a date,” he explains. “Because even if they said yes, what was the point? I couldn't talk to them. I got angry and said, 'By God, I have the right to be heard.' And it went away in a matter of weeks.”
After going to college at Cornell, where he was friends with Thomas Pynchon, Seidler got the writing bug. His first job was in New York, writing translations for dubbed Japanese monster movies. He got work on a 1960s TV series called “Adventures of the Seaspray,” which was shot in the South Pacific. Seidler ended up in Fiji, serving as a political advisor to the country's prime minister.
He drops dark hints about strife and corruption, saying, “I really had to leave because I'd made too many enemies. I got beaten up a couple of times and even though I could take a punch, I had a wife and child to worry about.”
After a few years in the advertising business, he found himself turning 40 in the late 1970s with few prospects. “I had no real money, no reputation, no real career.”
He moved to Los Angeles with a new wife and one great story idea: the saga of Preston Tucker, the charismatic automobile designer and entrepreneur whose career ended in scandal and turmoil. It turned out that his old Great Neck, N.Y., high school classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, had the rights to the Tucker story. Seidler impressed him with his encyclopedic knowledge of the man and got the gig of writing the movie.
The project was beset with casting issues. Coppola wanted Jack Nicholson to play the lead role, but the actor dropped out, as did Coppola's second choice, Burt Reynolds. When “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” was finally released in 1988, with Jeff Bridges in the lead, it opened at the same time as Martin Scorsese's controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which grabbed all the headlines. By then, Seidler was long gone, having what he calls “a terrible falling out” with Coppola.
Seidler and his wife ended up writing TV movies and miniseries for the next few decades, mostly biopic-style TV movies like “Malice in Wonderland,” which featured Elizabeth Taylor as Louella Parsons and Jane Alexander as Hedda Hopper, and “Onassis: The Richest Man in the World,” with Raul Julia as Aristotle Onassis and Jane Seymour as Maria Callas.
He has a great story from every project. On “Malice,” he says much of the creative brainstorming involved figuring out what diamond-related gifts to provide Taylor, who required a new present each day. “She was quite something,” Seidler recalls. “She'd pitch quarters with the crew, win — and I mean win big — and then collect all the quarters and take them home.”
He'd always wanted to write about George VI's conquest of his stutter, but he'd promised the Queen Mother that he would wait until her death, not imagining that she would live to 101. By the time Seidler turned his attention to the project, two years after her 2002 death, he'd been diagnosed with cancer.
“I was feeling powerfully sorry for myself, but then I rallied and threw myself into my work. I said to myself, 'David, if you're not going to write Bertie's story now, when exactly are you doing to do it?' “
Seidler initially wrote the story as a play, hoping at best to find a British TV outlet for it. He'd always imagined Geoffrey Rush playing the role of Logue, but Rush's agents gave him the cold shoulder — which was hardly a surprise, since as Seidler puts it, “As the writer of 'Kung Fu Killer,' I didn't exactly have any heat.” Amazingly, the project ended up being filmed with Rush and Colin Firth in its lead roles and is now a critically beloved Oscar contender.
His cancer long in remission (“my doctor told me I'll have to find something else to die of”), Seidler finally is enjoying the warm glow of true Hollywood infatuation. He says he has studio chiefs asking to meet him, A-list producers offering him projects and top actors lauding his work. “My price has gone up four or five times already,” he says, not afraid of appearing a bit exultant. “I've even got old girlfriends e-mailing me, saying 'David, I always adored you.' ”
It was worth the wait. “You know, I couldn't have written this story when I was 33,” he says. “Life provides all sorts of terrible obstacles and only later do you realize that they are really all for the good. I was crushed when the Queen Mother told me not to write this in her lifetime. But I wasn't ready. To tell the story correctly, I had to plunge myself back into the experience of being a stutterer. That meant going back to the pain and isolation I knew as a child. And I know inside that I just couldn't have done that as a younger man. I wasn't ready until now.”
He smiles broadly. “Getting this movie made is like getting an unexpected victory lap,” he says. “I mean, everyone takes me seriously even though I'm the same ass that I was three months ago. What could be better than that?”
Photo: David Seidler, screenwriter of the Oscar buzzed about film, "The King's Speech."
Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times