Dream catcher, veteran TV writer has some tips for the Chronicle

| October 31, 2019 | 1 Comment

John Donley

Television and film writer John Donley visited the Larchmont Chronicle office recently to pitch an idea:

“I love this community, but there are many people here you don’t know who they are… each month you should profile someone in the neighborhood in which we’d get to know that person…”

It was with Rabbi William Cutter that he dreamed up the story idea on walks in the neighborhood when the two discuss everything from “Moses to Donald Trump…. It’s been a long, wonderful relationship. I ended up reading the Torah a couple of times…” Donley tells us.

Cutter returns the compliment. “He’s a wonderful human being,” the rabbi said of Donley.

“People want to have something to look forward to…” Donley told us. Profiles of local people “would increase readership.”

But, the point, he added, would be to uplift the community. “There’s so much division in the world. I love finding ways to bring people together. We’re so caught up in our tribal beliefs…

“I like to believe there’s something within us that we can transcend.”

We agreed. Here’s our profile of John Donley:

John Donley’s local career dates back to the groundbreaking Norman Lear TV shows of the 1970s, almost as long as he has been enamored with his Larchmont neighborhood.

“I walk everywhere, and so I’ve gotten to know a lot of people,” he tells us.

He’s heard plenty of rumors and stories over the years, even one involving a murder(!). A tale that particularly fascinates him is about Babe Ruth, who had dated a woman who had lived next door to his home.

“There should be a television show made” on the community, he muses. “What an incredible neighborhood.”

His most recent endeavor is a film script that time travels to slavery in the south, a subject he knows a bit about.

A descendant of slaves — Donley’s great-great grandfather inherited 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War, the appropriated amount for former slaves, but which few ever received. His relative was among the lucky ones, Donley tell us.

His youthful looks and upbeat disposition aren’t from a life of leisure. “I spent countless grueling hours and endless days picking and chopping cotton on a farm outside Gould, Arkansas, laboring beneath the hot Delta sun beside my sharecropping parents.”

It was there that he dreamed of baseball.

“My body may have been present in those fields, but my heart and mind were always far, far away… turning plays with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and hanging out with my idols Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays…

“To say that I hated farming then and hate it now is a grave understatement.”

When he graduated from Gould High School, he headed to Chicago and tried out for the Chicago Cubs. “Like all the other young dreamers there, I was trying to put one over the wall. The home run didn’t happen, but my single fired up enough hope and imagination in me that all I saw were fluttering green dollar bills falling from the sky.”

The coach was not impressed, but an undeterred Donley next tried out for the Chicago White Sox. While his dreams of baseball never materialized, another would come into view:

“While stationed with the United States Army in Germany, I watched a production of Anton Chekhov’s play, ‘A Marriage Proposal.’ I was fascinated. I would become an actor!”

And, so, like countless others before him, he headed to Los Angeles to follow his new dream.

Eventually he turned to writing, having learned from acting classes what makes for a good story, and he brushed up on his grammar — segregated schools of his youth left him unprepared for the world of syntax, he said.

“I poured my heart and love for my people into comedic scripts and materials that tackled significant issues in Black culture…”

He sold pilots and spec scripts for “Sanford and Son” and “The Flip Wilson Show,” and one day he received “the call” from legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear.

“He invited me to pitch ideas for a new TV show. This and other attention to my work led to the success of my dreams — a career of writing material for some of television’s most popular shows of all time, and some of the entertainment industry’s most beloved legends and icons.”

Donley’s credits include “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Benson,” and “Who’s the Boss.” He won the NAACP Image Award for best situation comedy in 1984.

More recently he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Oct. 26 in Little Rock, which, he said, “is beyond humbling.”

He has taught writing in South Los Angeles and Watts, and he’s proud of his daughters, who, after he moved to Larchmont Blvd. in 1980, he dreamed of sending to Marlborough School. And he did.

Jonako went on to Columbia University and holds a master’s from USC School of Cinematic Arts and is a film producer. Sachiko is a Yale graduate who has a Ph.D. degree in developmental psychology from UC Irvine. She is Director of Studies at Wilson College at Princeton University.

But back to the point, Donley continues:

“I’m convinced that there’s a plethora of great stories right under our noses, in our neighborhood, that would not only make for fascinating reading, with the  built-in capacity  to hook the reader into looking forward to the next monthly story — which, by the way, would better serve the newspaper’s objective of increased readership and increased ad placement…”

He just didn’t expect to be the subject of his story pitch.

“I just never thought it would be of me… This is a wonderful community. I feel so blessed.”

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Category: People

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  1. Rodney White says:

    Very much enjoyed the reading and the life experience of John. Look forward to reading more in the future

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