Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Member Voices

My Grandpa was a Writer in Action

“Shut up and listen to the world” and other things Alvin Boretz taught me.

For the past year, my family has been working with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research to preserve and digitize the life’s work of my grandfather, Alvin Boretz, in a collection titled Writer in Action. It’s been an amazing experience to be a small part of helping to preserve his legacy in the hopes that future generations find meaning in his work. I’m so grateful to archivists everywhere who help ensure our history is always present. 

Jessie Kahnweiler

One of the goals of the collection is to show the true life of a writer, warts and all. While he wrote over 1,000 scripts, the archive contains many rejection letters, half-baked ideas scribbled on hotel stationery, exhaustive research, and dozens of unproduced scripts that have never seen the light of day. Some highlights from the archive include a telegram of praise from the great Lenny Bruce, chummy correspondence with Sophia Loren, and countless rounds of notes from producers that trigger my PTSD. Despite all the setbacks, my grandpa didn’t give in to all the bullshit. He just kept writing. 

The archiving process was especially meaningful to me as I have been lucky enough to follow in my grandpa’s footsteps and become a TV writer myself. I’ve been a proud member of the WGAW for about 10 years and am grateful for the Guild's stable presence in my life, especially during the ups and downs of this business. Like it is for all of us, writing isn’t just a career for me but a way of life. 

My grandpa Alvin has been my hero since I was in diapers. My earliest memories are of sitting on his lap while he banged away on the typewriter, only breaking to give me some candy from his secret stash. I remember sending my writing to him (before email!) and waiting with bated breath and braces for his hand-written notes. Despite my being 13, he didn’t take it easy on me! He doled out so much priceless advice throughout the years. One of my favorite Grandpa slogans was: “To be a writer you must shut up and listen to the world.” Which made sense, because that man loved to eavesdrop on strangers. 

Alvin Boretz and his granddaughter, Jessie Kahnweiler

Now I know what you’re thinking: Nepo baby! Unfortunately, by the time I moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting, he had retired, and most of his contacts were no longer with us. Still, my Grandpa passed on something far greater than connections: the chutzpah required to pursue writing as a career. And despite achieving some great success during his career, he fought until the very end. 

Alvin Boretz was a first-generation Jewish boy who grew up in a candy store in Brooklyn, which contributed to his lifelong sweet tooth. Born in 1919 of humble means and facing countless tragedies at a young age, my grandfather fearlessly poured his pain into his writing. He wrote about trauma and society's taboos of the time including cerebral palsy, homelessness, alcoholism, and mental health long before that was cool. During a career that began in 1946 and spanned six decades, he helped push mainstream Hollywood forward despite itself. He proved that you can entertain but also Trojan Horse deeper themes. My work involves using comedy to explore heavier topics such as eating disorders, sexual assault, and Jewish identity. It can feel scary exposing my vulnerabilities to the world, but I try to channel my grandpa’s guts and fortitude. He faced his demons through his work (before therapy and medication no less!) 

Through his advocacy in the Guild, my grandpa reminded me that we have an obligation to protect the profession of writing at all costs.

Without having any connections or formal training, my grandpa built a career that spanned hundreds of episodes of television and radio, a produced feature starring John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren, and even a 1977 Spider-Man TV movie based on the comic book and characters by Stan Lee. But what’s most impressive to me about his career is the hustle. He was a true working-class writer who would take any job just to put food on the table. 

My grandpa was also a very passionate and active member of the WGA. He served on multiple committees, fighting to ensure pension and health insurance for writers and he picketed his way through five strikes on the streets of NYC wearing a full suit! The final lines of his op-ed for Newsday during the ‘88 strike sum up his devotion to his fellow writers:

Alvin Boretz and Eddie Adler during the 1988 WGA strike

“Writers want what all of us want and need. The dignity of fair pay for honest work. I love what I do but it sure isn’t a summer breeze. A writer gambles on every word, puts himself and his livelihood out there for grabs. How much is that worth?” 

Last summer when it was our turn to fight the good fight, I could feel my grandpa’s spirit with me. I felt a sense of vigor getting up at 4 a.m. and heading to Burbank to try and get the trucks to turn around in front of Disney and Warner Bros. (Shoutout Teamsters—you are everything!) Through his advocacy in the Guild, my grandpa reminded me that we have an obligation to protect the profession of writing at all costs. I still think of him every time I get my teeth cleaned or go to therapy. Thanks for the great health coverage, Gramps! 

As I type this while pregnant with my child, I’m thinking a lot about legacy and what my grandpa passed down to me just by being himself. He teaches me every day to be brave, to fight the man, and to tell my stories no matter what. This is such a scary time for our profession. We are facing countless existential and literal threats. The idea of writing as a profession is under attack. There are so many unknowns. But what I do know for sure is my grandpa and his contemporaries fought like hell for us and that fight is in our DNA (along with neurosis and stomach issues). 

My grandpa struggled, but writing was his solace; it saved him from himself. And despite the ups and downs of his career, when I look through his archive, I see a man who spent his days chasing his dreams and speaking his truth. I can’t think of a better way to spend a life. 

My grandpa unfortunately passed away before I joined the Guild, but I can feel him with me smiling ear to ear only to reveal a mouth full of candy. Whenever I’m procrastinating, I hear his voice: “Get to work doll!” And I do.

Please enjoy Writer in Action: The Alvin Boretz Collection!

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