‘I Tap Into Everything I Have’

BTS - Feed The Beast _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Ali Paige Goldstein/AMC
Clyde Phillips, the creator of the television show ‘Dexter,’ talks about pillaging his background for material.

Photo From ‘Feed The Beast,’ Season 1; by Ali Paige Goldstein/AMC

Seasonal Aquinnah resident Clyde Phillips, a crime novelist and one of Martha’s Vineyard’s luminaries in the world of television, has a new show on AMC. Phillips is executive producer and showrunner for “Feed the Beast,” which premiered on June 5. He also wrote the show’s first episode and its finale. Based on a Swedish series called “Bankerot” (“bankrupt”), “Feed the Beast” is the story of two friends who decide to open a high-end restaurant in a low-end part of the Bronx. One is a rock star chef who recently got out of jail after burning down his previous restaurant in a cocaine-induced rage. He’s also into the Polish mob for half a million dollars. The other is an alcoholic sommelier whose young, mixed-race son hasn’t spoken in the year since he witnessed the hit-and-run death of his mother. It’s the story of two troubled (and in-trouble) characters who have a dream, and for whom, in different ways, the realization of that dream offers perhaps their only chance for salvation and redemption.

“Damaged people are more interesting to an audience than are people who aren’t damaged,” says Phillips. “It goes back to the Greeks, to Shakespeare — who wrote about the tragic flaws in characters. If you watched a movie about some perfectly happy person who was just blithely going through life, you’d never get through it. Audiences want to see Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad,’ Don Draper in ‘Madmen,’ or Dexter, or Nurse Jackie.”

Dexter and Nurse Jackie are the principal characters for two of the most popular series Phillips has run and produced. Nurse Jackie has a plethora of personal problems, including a tendency to abuse prescription drugs both on- and off-duty. Dexter works by day in forensics for a police department, helping them catch murderers and other bad guys; in his free time, he is himself a serial killer, who traps murderers and other bad guys, and then slices them up alive with instruments like scalpels and small saws. While Phillips didn’t create either of these characters, he did write episodes for both shows. In “Blindsided,” one of Phillips’ series of four novels chronicling the life and career of Detective Jane Candiotti, the perp Candiotti finally catches is a serial murderer whose signature is gouging out the eyes of his victims with a spoon.

One might be tempted to wonder what draws Phillips to characters who are quite so “damaged.” Does he, um, identify with them in some way?

“That’s like asking George Lucas how he can write about outer space without ever having been there,” says Phillips.

“A lot of me is in my characters, but gouging the eyes out of somebody is not.” Asked whether he has a dark imagination, he acknowledges that he does, but adds that he has a light imagination as well, pointing out that during his four-decade career in the television industry, he has also created and run shows like “Get Real,” “Suddenly Susan,” and “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” which are all comedies.

“I’m the funniest guy most people know,” he says, “but I also have the capacity to write really dark and hateful images. Take Cormac McCarthy: There’s nobody darker than he is, but I don’t think he’s in an insane asylum somewhere. He’s a storyteller, using the breadth of his imagination.” Point taken. All writers of fiction use their imaginations and pillage material from the lives of people they hear about or know, along with their own lives, to create stories.

Phillips grew up in a Dorchester neighborhood that was half black, half Jewish, and lower-middle class, with parents he describes as emotionally abusive and neglectful to an extreme. His father was a butcher, and Phillips spent his youth working in his father’s meat markets, where he learned how to take apart a carcass, where he saw people cut themselves badly, and where he, himself, got cut. His father was, in Phillips’ words, “a bad guy and a crook,” a gambling addict who “never told the truth” and was always in debt to the wrong kinds of people.

“When I was a kid,” Phillips says, “the phone would ring all night long, and nobody would answer it. One night I did answer it, and somebody said, ‘Yeah, this is Arnold. You tell your father I want the $80.’ Remember the movie “Rocky”? How Rocky works as an enforcer, and in one scene he’s beating up some guy at the docks because he owes Vinnie the Neck 40 bucks? Well, the guy he’d be beating up would be my father.” Only a few years ago, when visiting his aunt at Thanksgiving, Phillips learned that the two broken legs his father suffered after being “hit by a car on Blue Hill Avenue” were actually a case of being kneecapped by a couple of low-level mobsters over an unpaid debt.

(Note: In one of the “Feed the Beast” clips on the show’s Facebook page, we see a mobster pinning the chef to the floor and extracting one of his molars with a pair of pliers. “Steal from me,” he says, “and I take one of these.”)

Phillips describes his mother as “passive” and “an enabler.” She never had a job, she never learned to drive a car, and she gave birth to Phillips when she was still in her teens. “When she died, on my birthday, a few years ago,” says Phillips, “I realized that she’d died on my birthday for the second time. Whatever aspirations and hopes she might once have had died when I was born. She didn’t really like being a mother. She never touched me; she was completely unaffectionate.”

(Note: In a “Feed the Beast” blog interview on AMC’s website, Phillips says of the alcoholic sommelier character: “Tommy’s backstory is that he was born to a father who didn’t want him and a mother who was a teen mom, so there was no love in the family.”)

To be fair, Phillips is completely forthcoming about his use of his own backstory in his creative work. “I tap into everything I have,” he says. “It’s all storytelling.” He talks about reading at a book signing after the publication of his first novel, “Fall from Grace.” An audience member asked him which character he was in the novel, and he replied that he was Jane — the main character. Jane, he says, was “lonely, and hungry for a relationship, and I had been that. I understood that.” Like Jane, he says, he had spent many nights alone and made many bad decisions because of loneliness, and his loneliness “was because of my bad childhood. I didn’t know what love was.”

But even in the worst childhoods, there are often a few nuggets of goodness that can help turn ill-fated stars bright, and Phillips had several of these. There was the man who owned the Phillips’ apartment building, who also owned a bookstore. (“It was the oldest bookstore in Boston,” Phillips says. “Everything in Boston is always the oldest this or the oldest that … like ‘the oldest Kinko’s.’”) When Phillips wasn’t working for his father, he worked in the bookstore and was paid in books, which he devoured eagerly. So much reading led him to start writing himself. He filled notebooks with stories he’d invent about the men he’d see trudging tiredly up the street at the end of the day, coming home from work.

Then there was the test he took, unbeknownst to his parents, that qualified him for acceptance into Boston Latin School (“the oldest school in the country”). “I loved it there,” says Phillips. “I thrived there. It showed me that I could handle the academic rigors and the social rigors of a world outside of the shtetl where I was living.”

There was also the aunt who told him about his father’s kneecapping, whom Phillips calls “my sainted Aunt Sophie.” The first person in their extended family to leave Dorchester, Sophie moved to Natick, which Phillips says he thought was 100 miles away, even though it was more like 30. Sophie had two sons, one of whom is still Phillips’ closest friend. “She would come and get me every other weekend,” he says, “and I’d go there and get to see what love was, what normalcy was.” Perhaps because of this, Phillips was eventually able, after all those lonely nights and bad decisions spurred by loneliness, to find and marry Jane Lancelotti (name model for Phillips’ character Jane Candiotti, and herself a writer). The two have been together for over two decades, and they have a daughter, Claire, on whom Phillips dotes.

Finally, there was the fact that while Phillips was still at Boston Latin School, his father got into such serious trouble that the family had to pick up and move in two days. They went to Los Angeles, where Phillips’ maternal aunt lived. She had three children and a dog, and Phillips’ family moved in with two children and a cat. Phillips and his sister slept on the sofa in the living room for a year. But while this situation might have seemed far from optimal at first glance, it got Phillips to Los Angeles, and his being there was the first step toward his career in show business.

Phillips’ meteoric rise in the television world grew out of a combination of kismet, talent, and extreme diligence. “When I went to UCLA,” says Phillips, “I thought I was going to become a lawyer, because that’s what Jewish kids who got into college did when they got out of college.” But an English teacher thought otherwise. He told Phillips that if he applied to English graduate school, he’d be certain to get a free ride. “He questioned whether I was sure I wanted to be a lawyer; he asked me to think about it. So I thought about it, and realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So I went to English grad school at Cal State Northridge. I was No. 1 in my class, with a 4.0.”

Then, the summer before his final semester, when he had just four credits to earn before graduating, Phillips got a summer job writing for a game show called “Split Second.” “I loved it,” he says, “and now I had a toe in the door.” While there, he met some television movie producers who hired him to read and summarize scripts. At the end of the summer, they offered him a full-time job as their second secretary — a position that, in Phillips’ words, entailed “gassing their cars, answering phones if the first secretary wasn’t there, and getting lunch.” This was, Phillips realized, the entry-level position that he would be seeking some months later, were he to return to school to complete his master’s degree. “It was like being a junior in college and getting an offer from the NFL draft,” he says. “So I quit school and took the job and basically ate everybody alive in the company. I became their guy, and they taught me the business.”

“Eating everyone alive” meant going the extra mile. When Phillips brought lunch to the executives, he would stay in the office, sitting on the sidelines, listening as they talked to a writer or a director. “If I learned that they were having problems with a scene, I’d go home at night and rewrite the scene and give it to them in the morning, without being asked. And often they’d use it. I showed them that I knew what I was doing, that I was cut out for this business.”

Phillips’ responsibilities grew, and soon he was offered a position running the TV-movie department of a small production company. “The deal was that any TV movie I could sell, I could also produce.” During this period, he made some 10 movies, including “Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story” and a string of what he refers to as “disease-of-the-week movies — you know, Jane Seymour finds a lump, Suzanne Pleshette’s husband is paralyzed … I made all those movies.”

When he began to sense a decline in the TV-movie field, Phillips moved to making series. Using his seemingly bottomless well of story ideas and his business savvy, he achieved better and better deals for himself. “When you get to my position doing television shows,” he says, “they’re basically paying you drug money.”

While Phillips could easily retire from TV at this point and perhaps devote himself full-time to writing novels, he’s not ready to do it yet. “There are two sides to my personality,” he says, “the side that wants to be staying in my pajamas writing a book, and the side that likes to have 200 people working for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to satisfy both sides, though I’m always wanting to be doing the other when I’m doing the one.”

One thing Phillips seems never to want to be — or even to be capable of being — is idle. “I’m never not writing,” he says, and explains that his drive is born of fear — the fear that “you’re only as good as your next project.” He tells a story of a massage his wife gave him as a gift. When the masseuse commented that he seemed tense and needed to relax, he responded by asking her to pass him a pencil and pad from a nearby table. While the massage was still in progress, he jotted down some notes; when the masseuse left, he went to his office and wrote a pitch for a show called “Suddenly,” which he sold to Fox the next week (though it has yet to be produced). More recently, returning from attending the French opening of “Feed the Beast,” he spent the plane ride writing up an idea for a new series. Even when he’s on Martha’s Vineyard, taking his daily five-mile power walk in Aquinnah, he always carries a pencil and paper in his pocket.

While Phillips says that he can’t remember when he last took a real vacation, the time he spends on the Vineyard in the summertime is precious to him. “I can’t wait to get there,” he says. “I love the air there; it’s untarnished.” Although he is generally working from home when he’s in Aquinnah, he makes time for the things he most loves doing on the Island, including his power walks and early-morning visits to the beach with the dog. He doesn’t fish (“As much of a barbarian as people may think I am, I can’t kill anything”), he doesn’t swim in the ocean (“I’m not a water guy”), but he does spend time with friends every day, even if it’s just a half an hour at lunchtime with the gang that gathers on the porch of the Chilmark Store. Phillips and his wife have been coming to the Island for 20 years, ever since a friend from childhood offered to lend them his Edgartown house one summer, and they ended up staying for five months while Phillips wrote his second novel. Over the years, the couple has developed a community of friends here — friends who, Phillips says, are “friends we’ve made as adults, so they’re friends we’ll have forever. I love being with my friends.”

Phillips is clearly pleased with what he’s accomplished in his life to date. “When people ask me what I do for a living,” he says, “and I get to say ‘I’m a writer,’ I mean it, and I’ve got a lot to show for it. I was just in Paris speaking before 150 writers, and every one of them wanted to be me.” But he’s always quick to remind people where he came from. “I’m just a kid from Dorchester,” he says. “I always have to qualify that for my own peace of mind.”

He also acknowledges that his unhappy childhood has been a major motivational force in his life. He was, he notes, the only child in his neighborhood who got himself into Boston Latin School. “I did it because of my drive to get out of that life. Maybe part of me is still trying to get out of that life.” While speaking to the writers in Paris, he had a sort of epiphany on this subject. People were asking about his early life, and the question, he says, “arose in my mind, bubbling up: Would I trade my unhappy childhood and subsequent success in some parts, and fame, for a happy childhood and less success and less fame? And the answer is yes. I would rather be a happy mechanic in Randolph, Massachusetts, than to have gone through the early life I went through.”

Laura D. Roosevelt is a writer, photographer, and poet. She lives in West Tisbury.

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