Sunday, December 04, 2016

A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part One

This interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. The interview was conducted by phone from his home in San Marino, Calif.

(Above, William Peterson in poster art from the 1985 film TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., directed by William Friedkin and co-written by Petievich, based on his novel).

WALLACE STROBY: Why was it so hard to find your books for awhile?

GERALD PETIEVICH: I had a number of my books first purchased and published by a place called Pinnacle Books, and they went bankrupt. So I was in litigation for years trying to get (the rights) back.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1984) was an Arbor House book – they owned all the rights – and they sold softcover rights to Pinnacle like two weeks before Pinnacle went bankrupt. That meant they could not resell those rights again to someone else. So here you had a movie out that had $5 million worth of advertising, and there was not one book in any store. I was real overjoyed about that.

Q: Do you mind if I tape this?

A: No, sure. Go ahead.

Q: Good, because I actually started a few minutes ago.

A: (laughs) You got me.

Q: So you’re just writing full-time now?

Q: Yes, I am. I quit the Secret Service three years ago.

Q: How long were you with them?

A: Fifteen years. I was assigned to the Los Angeles Field Office. I was assigned to the Organized Crime Strike Force for five years, and to the Paris, France, field office for two years.

Q: What did you do there?

A:I was working with Interpol on international counterfeiting cases. I traveled all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. You work out of an embassy and you travel most of the time, so what I was as doing was coordinating counterfeit cases. Sometimes I worked undercover when they needed an American to work undercover somewhere.

(At right, Petievich's jacket photo and bio from the hardcover edition of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Click to enlarge)

Q: Did you do protection duty when you were in the Service?
A: Yeah, all Secret Service agents do that, but I did my best to avoid it as much as I could, because it’s the most boring job in the world. People think that when you’re on the running board it’s like this exciting job. Well, it can be for about five minutes at a time. But the rest of the time, like between midnight and eight when the president is sleeping and you’re standing in a hallway, that’s not exactly a real charge.

Q: Did you do any presidential duty?

A: Yeah, I had various temporary assignments with various presidents from Nixon on. I went to Russia with President Nixon in 1972 on a round-the-world tour. I protected Marshal Tito, and Mrs. Marcos of the Philippines, Somoza of Nicaragua. Just endless numbers of people, like the president of Fiji and various details like that. I did a lot of work on Henry Kissinger when I was in Europe, because he was traveling a great deal there at the time. So everybody gets assignments like that. But it wasn't my specialty, which was working counterfeit cases.

Q: Did your duties rotate, is that how it worked?

A: You just get assigned temporarily. For instance, during the campaign of 1980 I was on the Reagan detail for six months. I was a supervisor at that time, and I had a shift of agents that would go all around the country living Reagan’s life, working an eight-hour shift wherever he is.

Above, Petievich (upper right) keeps a watchful eye out while guarding Henry Kissinger in Europe in the 1970s.

Q: Why’d you leave the Service?
A: Well, you know I started getting up at 4 a.m. in about 1976 to write fiction. And I finally got to the point when the movie (of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) came out that I could afford to live a good life without my government paycheck, so that’s why I left.

But I always wanted to be a writer. I came on the Secret Service in 1970, and I really made my decision when I was in Europe. I just decided that I wanted to be writer. And at that time, you know, I had to learn how to write.
So I started taking classes. I took classes at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts , and then when I was transferred back to L.A. I took classes at the UCLA Writers’ Program at night. On weekends I’d set up a writing schedule, and I spent a number of years writing my first novel.
The Secret Service is a demanding job with odd hours, and I figured the only way I could write was to get up at four in the morning, so I did that. I did that for ten years.
Q: Had you done any writing at all before that?

A: I always had a way with words and I think in high school I‘d written for the high school magazine and and so on, but no, I was really full-fledged law enforcement. I went into the Army and I was in Army Intelligence, so I was an investigator there. Then, when I got out, I went into the Secret Service.

(Below, the omnibus edition of Petievich's first two novels, MONEY MEN and ONE-SHOT DEAL)

Q: What years were you in the Army?

A: From 1967 to 1970. I was regular Army. I joined and went into the Army Intelligence Corps and I was stationed in Fort Holabird, Maryland. Then I went to language school at the Defense Language Institute, where I learned German. I spent nine months there, and the rest of my tour was in Europe.

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I grew up in Los Angeles. My father is a retired policeman from the Los Angeles Police Deportment. My brother now is a detective for the LAPD, so I come from a police family.

Q: How come you didn’t end up in LAPD?

A: After being in Army Intelligence, I was qualified to get a job in the FBI. I had a college degree when I went into the Army, and I talked it over with my dad, as a policeman, and he said “Don’t waste that college degree. Go ahead and get something in the federal government that pays more.” And that’s pretty much why I did it.

I could have though. I could very easily have been an L.A. policeman.

My father and brother are both in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. My father had a walk-on. My brother had a speaking part. He says the first words in the movie. He played the part of a Secret Service agent who is relieving Bill Peterson in the hotel scene when the movie first starts. Subsequently my brother's been in, I believe, three other movies with speaking parts.
I was in the film too. I was in the scene in the field office where there’s an agents meeting, and the agent-in-charge announces that an FBI agent has been killed.

(At left, Petievich with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and a copy of the MONEY MEN/ONE-SHOT DEAL omnibus).

Q: Your first novel, MONEY MEN, was published in 1979. What possessed you to try to write a novel, and how long did it take you?
A: It took me a couple years. I tried to write it, and I realized you can’t do it without some form of training or help, so I took classes for a long time and I continued to work on the manuscript. I probably worked on it for well over two years. Then to get it published, I just sent the manuscript in to six publishers at once, and I had offers from three of them.

Q: How happy were you with the book when you were finished with it? It must have been quite a struggle.

A: It was, but I felt confident I would get it published. Mainly because I think before I started writing police procedurals, I read every police procedural in the library. I just felt I knew the genre and I also felt that I could certainly write as well as the worst police procedural writers. So I was confident I would get it published. (MONEY MEN was filmed in 1993 as BOILING POINT, starring Wesley Snipes and Dennis Hopper).

Q: At that time, Pinnacle was best known for its “Executioner”-style macho series-type books. Did Pinnacle just happen to be the place that bought it, or were you actively trying to write for them?

A: No, MONEY MEN was not anything like that. It was a sophisticated crime novel. The only reason it went to Pinnacle was that Pinnacle was the only publisher in L.A. at the time. I also sent it to some New York publishers. But I figured Pinnacle was here, and they were the first one that called me up. I also had an offer from Harper & Row, and then, I believe from a paperback outfit also.

Q: You did all this without an agent?

A: Yeah. Once (Pinnacle) made the offer, I went down and hired Joseph Wambaugh’s attorney, and he represented me in the negotiation.

Q: When you started writing, was it with the idea that you were going to be able to work up enough money to quit the Service, or did you plan to do both?

A: It was just a goal. I wanted to write a book. And I knew most novelists don’t make enough money to live on. It was a hobby, then it became an obsession.

I got very good reviews on my first book, and then I said “I’ll try it again.” And then with the third one and the fourth one, I said to myself, “I want to be a writer.” I preferred writing to doing law enforcement work.

I knew the only way you could do that was to build up a body of work, and that’s what I did. Once you have a movie you can survive out there. And now I do both movies and I’m writing books.

(Above, Petievich's cameo in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. He's center frame in tie.)

Q: Are you getting savvy as far as show business is concerned, or are you mainly there for technical reasons, consulting?
A: Well, I've written screenplays and served as a supervising producer. And what I’ve found about the show business world is that there’s not a great deal of difference between the underworld and the overworld.

Q: What do you mean?”

A: The rules are pretty much the same. It’s all very Machiavellian. It’s very competitive. But I’ve never been shocked by anything I’ve seen in Hollywood because, you know, I had worked in law enforcement for 15 years. You meet a lot of sociopaths there too (laughs). Just like in Hollywood.

PART TWO: Working with William Friedkin, the allure of Hollywood and why truth is stranger than fiction.

Personal photos courtesy of

(Interview copyright Wallace Stroby 2016. All rights reserved)

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