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August 27, 2014

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Find a voice, sure, but find a paycheck, too

Hollywood veteran teaches writers to be pragmatic

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Leila Navidi

UNLV instructor John Hill stands Wednesday with his life’s work, dozens of scripts and novels written over 38 years. Hill, who calls P.T. Barnum his hero, won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on the TV show “L.A. Law.”

John Hill

John Hill stands next to his life's work, about 70 scripts and novels written over the past 38 years, inside his Las Vegas home Wednesday, May 6, 2009. Hill won the Emmy in 1991 for his work on Launch slideshow »

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John Hill has a message for wannabe writers: Forget heart and think commercial.

Admittedly, he’s not what he calls “a writer’s writer.”

But he made it in Hollywood as a screenwriter for more than a quarter-century — no easy feat. And he won a writing Emmy for “L.A. Law” in 1991.

These days, when he teaches writing in one of his continuing education classes at UNLV, his lectures often devolve into talking shop and how writers need to be pragmatic to be successful. The best stories can be pitched in 25 words or less, he says.

See, Hill is an idea guy. He’s imaginative and creative and a top-notch fast talker, a quality he’s not shy about. He calls P.T. Barnum his hero.

In the classroom he cracks jokes at the expense of both his students and himself, espouses the virtues of high-concept plots, and teaches with poster boards crammed with the lessons he learned in Hollywood.

Hill moved to Los Angeles from Kansas, one script in hand, as a 24-year-old in 1971. If you stack the 60 scripts he was paid to write in the ensuing 28 years, the tower will be almost as tall as him.

Only a handful were made into movies — “Griffin and Phoenix” and “Quigley Down Under” for example — and none was a hit.

“It’s very frustrating until you look at your bank account,” Hill says about the studios buying scripts and never producing them.

As he crept into his 40s, he had one cold spell that was harsh enough to force him to decamp to his wife’s hometown in Alabama, where they opened a bookstore. The lack of customers gave Hill plenty of time to read, and he soon was inspired by one book to write a screenplay about an Antarctic explorer.

So back to Hollywood he went once more with script in hand. It sold for more money than he’d ever gotten — though was never made — and he was back in the game.

Until he turned 50. Then Hollywood unceremoniously cast him out for good as over-the-hill.

“Or they caught on to me,” he says.

The end “was worse than a screeching halt. They just ignore you to death.”

Hill decided his own Act III should play out in Las Vegas, which he considers “the spiritual annex to Hollywood.”

He mainly lives off his Writers Guild pension and the occasional royalty check. (A few years ago Lifetime redid “Griffin and Phoenix” and a $25,000 check landed in his mailbox.)

His version of “playing golf in my dotage” is to make his own low-budget movies: writing, directing, producing, editing and starring in them. He and his producing partner, a personal injury lawyer in town, filmed their first movie in one day and their second in five days.

Hill is still pursuing his big hit — “that life-changing event” — but now he’s looking toward the publishing world.

His goal?

“Write the most commercial novel possible.”

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