The enormous success on Broadway of “Book of Mormon” brings to mind the longest and most difficult mini-series development in the then-William Morris Agency’s history.
Feature agent and former New York colleague Fred Milstein called me one morning and spoke about a series of forgeries and murders by a 28-year-old elder of ths Mormon church against fellow Mormons.
I could try to explain the convolutions of this story, but the most incisive and coherent analysis comes from a former LDS elder who calls himself “Stray Mutt.” It is herein paraphrased.
Mark Hofmann [pictured left] was a gifted and masterful forger. Like any good con man, he knew part of his success manufacturing and selling fake historical documents depended on willing victims – people who wanted to believe. Growing up Mormon, Hofmann realized he was surrounded by the devout who were trained to trust authority. He also saw they were true believers about their sacred history and legends. This was a situation ripe for exploitation.
From his years of collecting, buying and selling old documents and studying church history, Mark Hofmann knew there were skeletons in the Mormon closet. He also knew the church was interested in acquiring potentially embarrassing documents so they could suppress them.
So Hofmann created the “Salamander Letter” [at right], a document by church founder Joseph Smith encountering a talking salamander that turned into an angel. The sale of this “document” to his brethren, created, penned and aged by Hoffmann, netted the son of the Mormons $40,000. Hofmann was on his way.
There were dozens of other “documents” only Hofmann could “discover.” Over a period of four years, Hofmann’s transactions with the leaders of the LDS netted him nearly a million dollars. In cash.
In the meantime, he regularly flew to New York where he sold other (non-Mormon) historical documents to collectors, stores and museums. One of his repeated “touches” was the respected Argosy Books on East 59th Street. Indeed, he was also conning the experts.
A knowledgeable member of the church, however, began to suspect Hofmann was a forger. Hofmann realized he might be exposed, so he blew the guy up with a letter bomb. To throw the investigation away from himself, he tried to blow up the first guy’s business associate, but unintentionally killed the associate’s wife instead. He was trying to deliver a third bomb, but it blew up on him.
Milstein sent me both the book proposal for “The Mormon Murders,” followed by the first draft of its manuscript by two New York writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Harvard Law grads, they had created and edited a series of annual reference volumes, “The Best Lawyers in the U,.S.” and the “Best Doctors.”
On the side, they wrote commercial non-fiction. “The Mormon Murders” was their latest. I read their just completed manuscript and told them I believed this was a four-hour miniseries.
We had to move quickly as two other books, Robert Daley’s “A Gathering of Saints” and “The Salamander Letters” by Sillitoe and Roberts were to be published and would attract media interest. We didn’t want another network or even HBO to beat us to the air.
I had sent the book proposal to a number of clients and Zev Braun (right), working with Philip Krupp, were among the first to respond. They set about to option the book, chose CBS as our first target and prepared writer lists.
Derek Marlowe, fresh from “Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” turned in a confusing morass of talking heads. Dale Wasserman, of “One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest” and “Man of La Mancha,” was brought in by the producers to do a page one rewrite.
But first the network asked if we also had the rights of those depicted in Naifeh and Smith’s book -- dozens of Mormons and non-Mormons, antique collectors and forensics specialists in Utah and New York, members the Church willing to talk, Hofmann’s family and friends, the families of the victims, the hierarchy of the Church, Sat Lake City and FBI investigators and the lawyers and prosecutors.
We were back in the territory of “Kent State” and “Murder Ordained,” with the immediate responsibilty of locking in everyone we needed to depict. A multitude of deals, on paper would have to be structured before the network would be comfortable.
Computers only existed within the agency walls in the payroll and music departments. They would come into all areas within the following year. In the meantime, all documents had to be drawn up by me and individually typed for 28 participants in the proposed television miniseries. Then we had to get them signed and returned and, in most cases, paid. Still, we persevered.
Wasserman’s rewrite was good, but not great. We believed the underlying material deserved better as we wanted to attract a major director and star talent who would elevate this beyond the ordinary television movie. In order to accomplish that we needed a four-hour teleplay that approached brilliance.
After several drafts, Wasserman delivered and CBS ordered what had now become Murder Among the Saints to production. A license fee was negotiated and it came in around nine million dollars.
When word hit Salt Lake that CBS was committed to tell the Mormon urders story as a four-hour mini-series, it is said that LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley called CBS founder and chief William S. Paley and asked, “How would you like some outsiders doing a vicious four hour attack on your Jews?”
Paley, who hadn’t been Jewish for more than half a century, was taken aback enough to call Bill Self, running CBS programming, and suggest, “Would it bother you too much to kill this Mormon show?”
The “Mormon show,” which had been ordered to production and funded, was now dead at CBS.
A few months afteer the axe fell, another CBS executive, not familiar with the first attempt, heard about the case and ordered a two-hour version by feature writer Steve Shagan. Shagan’s approach was to ignore the actual role played by each of the true life characters and to invent scenes and motives, damn the truth.
Heroes became bystanders or, worse, villains, and villains became heroes. It was a travesty to anyone who read “Mormon Murders” and knew the case. CBS didn’t hesitate to pass.
Still later. Braun and producing partner Philip Krupp, hired Joel Oliansky to write a new version of “Murder Among the Saints” and were able to set it up at HBO. However, with a change in management, HBO ultimately passed. It was and is a brilliant script, the most concise and coherent of all, and one day, perhaps, will be produced.
Hofmann is serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison in Draper.
Authors Naifeh and Smith went on to write the definitive Jackson Pollack biography An American Saga which won them the Pulitzer Prize. It was the basis for the Ed Harris Oscar-winning theatrical motion picture.
Their latest work for Random House is a biography of Van Gogh.