The Real Howard Spitz (1998): What’s The Beef?

Dave looks at what led to one of the most charming films of the ’90s being cast off into obscurity.

On the face of it, THE REAL HOWARD SPITZ (1998) is a tough sell.

It’s a supposed ‘family comedy’ about a child-hating writer who cynically pens a tale about a trench coat-wearing cow in order to fund his gambling habit, and it’s directed by a man whose claim to fame was co-helming a Yorkshire-set oddity concerning a Jewish pig farmer.

Unsurprising, then, that every producer with a blank cheque at their disposal suddenly had a shortage of cash when it came to giving the picture the green light. Shopped around for many years prior to production, Jurgen Wolff’s script generated a ripple of polite admiration from potential suitors, but no concrete deals.

“It took thirteen years between writing the script and it going into production,” explains the London-based Wolff. “Along the way it was optioned by companies representing Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Leonard Goldberg, Buck Henry and a few others I don’t recall. Each time something went wrong: either the financing fell through, or the star decided on a different project, or the producer left the company. Frustrating – but at least I collected a bunch of option fees along the way!”

Finally, in the mid-’90s, when Paul Brooks’ British company, Metrodome, hooked up with Christopher Zimmer’s Canadian outfit, Imagex, the wheels were set in motion – but even then they were prone to falling off. After the less than stellar box office of Clockwork Mice (1995), Proteus (1995), and Darklands (1996), Metrodome found themselves in a transitional period and edging towards a slightly tweaked business model. Brooks, who was at that time the chief executive and largest shareholder of the lauded indie, was actively looking to move away from production and focus solely on distribution, which led to The Real Howard Spitz being snared in a moment of indecisiveness.

Slated to debut at the London Film Festival in November 1997 under its original – and Wolff’s preferred – title of ‘Writer’s Block (or Is it Crafty Cow?)’, The Real Howard Spitz was unceremoniously pulled at the last minute without explanation. Unsubstantiated rumours suggested that star Kelsey Grammer was less than satisfied with his performance and withdrew from promotional duties which subsequently scared off additional distributors.

On its second attempt to make a big screen bow, when it was poised for a nationwide British theatrical run, Metrodome swerved and announced they would take it direct-to-video; a move that irked the picture’s Bristol-born director, Vadim Jean. Having worked closely with Brooks and his company since his critically acclaimed debut Leon the Pig Farmer (1992), Jean elected to personally finance four prints to be struck at the cost of a grand and a half each. He was incredibly proud of the way the film had turned out, so he felt that by taking this unusual step it might generate some momentum to aid its release in other territories.

Alas, despite gracing the plush interiors of the Odeon on Holloway Road and the Virgin Trocadero for a few weeks at the back end of August ’98, Jean’s ambitious plan did little to encourage the film’s U.S. distributor, Live Entertainment, into giving it cinema space. Instead, The Real Howard Spitz was labelled as a ‘busted theatrical’: a term once given to movies with a named actor that were intended for theatres but failed to find a buyer. It made its debut on American video on 19th September ’98 before a rather indignant TV premiere the following March via the Fox Family Network.

Such chicanery casts a rather dark shadow over The Real Howard Spitz, which, irrespective of its baggage, is actually one of the most underrated comedies of the decade.

Grammer plays the titular character, a hack of a hardboiled detective novelist whose sales are on the floor, with his agent (a wonderfully dry turn by Joseph Rutten) bemoaning how, “These days it’s all self-help books”. A chance encounter at a bookstore introduces him to the world of Theodora Winkle, a children’s author whose work is shifting by the bucketload. Keen to muscle in on this lucrative market, Spitz gets to work on Crafty the Cow (‘By day she gives milk, but by night she’s a detective’); but in order to be successful, he has to reach out to the one demographic he can’t abide, kids – specifically, an eight-year-old girl called Samantha (Genevieve Tessier) who could well hold the key to both his happiness and prosperity.

“Writing a sitcom isn’t hard,” declares Spitz in one scene. “You just need a bar in Boston or a psychiatrist”. By the tail-end of the ‘90s, that location and that profession very much defined Grammer’s career. Shot during a pause in Frasier, it’s fair to say that the esteemed Dr. Crane had struggled to shrug off his boob tube persona, with his sole box office dalliance of the decade, Down Periscope (1996), just about managing to break even. Here, though, Grammer is brilliant as a curmudgeon with a triple-cooked chip on his shoulder, coaxed towards amiability by an adorable moppet. As part of his journey, Spitz agrees to help find Samantha’s absent father, much to the irritation of her mother, Laura (Amanda Donohoe). You can see where it’s all going – but this heart-warming threesome of damaged souls make for charming company, and I’d urge anyone to make the effort to spend ninety-four minutes with them.

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