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Lion hearted

Omens, writers and stars — one man's behind-the-scenes memories of Siegfried and Roy’s animated Father of the Pride

Omens don’t beg for attention in Las Vegas. Everyone’s on the lookout for them. You come to town on Flight 18 and it arrives 18 minutes early, your roulette bet is sealed. Your cab driver from the airport strikes you as looking like a taller, thinner, younger, Latino version of Bill Belicheck and you’re beelining it to the sports book and betting New England.

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In fact, it’s omens ignored that are subversive in Sin City. For instance: Let’s say it’s 2003 and you’re an executive producer of an upcoming, super-expensive animated TV comedy about a family of lions who perform in the legendary Siegfried and Roy Show at the Mirage. And let’s say, after performing the show for decades without incident, Roy Horn is mauled to within an inch of his life just weeks before you go into production.

You would think, This is a bad omen. Maybe this is Las Vegas’ way of telling you this TV program is just not meant to be.

You would think that, wouldn’t you? After all, that’s a far superior omen than seeing Britney Spears in a 7-Eleven and resolving to never play craps again.

But Hollywood isn’t Las Vegas. If NBC says it will air your sitcom pilot, all omens go out the window. You will do anything to get that show into America’s living rooms.

Let me back up a moment. The situation described above is exactly what happened 11 years ago. I had a contract with DreamWorks to create TV shows. (I had previously been a writer for Seinfeld.) My intrepid and beloved boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had an idea to make an animated show about Siegfried and Roy’s lions. It would be called Father of the Pride.

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“Don’t you wonder what those lions and tigers must think about when they’re being trained to jump through flaming hoops in front of thousands of cheering tourists?” Jeffrey asked as he implored me to come on board as a writer.

Actually, I’d never had that thought and, frankly, didn’t think the idea was “in my wheelhouse.” But my own previous pilot flopped and pleasing Katzenberg was very high on my to-do list.

“That’s a great idea, Jeffrey. Count me in.”

Don’t get me wrong: I knew there would be some fantastic benefits to this project. The first was when the writing staff boarded the DreamWorks jet for a trip to Las Vegas, where we’d get an exclusive backstage tour of Siegfried and Roy’s domain.

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I’d been on the DreamWorks jet once before, two years earlier when Katzenberg recruited me to help with the writing on the animated movie Madagascar. (You’re sensing a trend here? Yeah, well, let’s see you refuse Jeffrey Katzenberg!) At the time, the role of Gloria, a hippo in the Central Park Zoo, was being voiced by Madonna. From time to time, when new scenes were written, we’d need to record her lines. Madonna was on tour, with a stop in Detroit. A sound studio was booked, a few hours of the pop diva’s time was blocked out and a dozen DreamWorks people flew to Detroit. The moment we arrived at our hotel, everyone’s cell phones rang at once.

Madonna didn’t feel well and canceled the recording. We flew home and Madonna was fired.

It should be noted that I never had the thought that taking the DreamWorks jet could be a bad omen. No, no, no. Transportation that luxurious and hassle-free couldn’t have any downside. When we touched down in Las Vegas, Siegfried and Roy welcomed us into their posh, slightly bizarre world with open arms. They posed for pictures with us and seemed like the happiest people on Earth. In their glitzy headquarters at the Mirage, Roy was wiry and crisply dressed. Without any arrogance, he had an air of supreme self-confidence that quietly said, I am a star. Siegfried Fischbacher was chattier and warmer but also a bit waxy in a Madame Toussaud’s kind of way. His movements were beefier and less fluid than Roy’s. Months later, I entertained a grotesque thought: Having watched a lot of nature shows, I’d have thought if one of the tigers decided to make a meal of Siegfried or Roy, he’d definitely zoom in on Siegfried.

As previously mentioned, this project had huge side benefits. One was meeting Bernie Yuman, a schmaltzy, old-school showbiz guy who had managed Siegfried and Roy for years. In trying to get some insight into our soon-to-be-animated heroes, Bernie mentioned another long-term client: Muhammad Ali. A few weeks later, back in L.A., he invited me to breakfast with the champ at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Ali’s speaking was reduced to a whisper, but it was the thrill of a lifetime.

For a time, I was really liking this project.

Siegfried and Roy granted the writing staff an up-close tour of the lions and tigers. Very up-close. In fact, we were told that no outsiders had ever been given such intimate access to the feline living quarters. From five feet, the magnificent but (thankfully) caged beasts were breathtaking and terrifying. Their baleful gazes froze our blood. A yawn/roar sent us backing off in spite of knowing we were utterly safe.

The tigers in particular seemed somewhat edgy, perhaps thanks to the odd smell of strangers in their habitat. But when Roy glided in, the whole attitude of the animals changed. Roy’s presence made them seem relieved in the way you’d imagine American hostages relaxing at the appearance of Navy Seal Team Six. The affinity he had with such feral predators was palpable and extraordinary.

Then ultimately haunting and incomprehensible.

After that unforgettable tour, there was a change in our group, a transitional feeling that maybe this project could be something special. This shift in attitude is common: In Hollywood, a bonding experience makes everyone feel better about the task at hand. That’s why, as an outsider, you can walk onto the set of a show you think is terrible and find a cast and crew convinced it's doing something great.

With new bounce in our collective step, we wove through the lobby and casino toward one of the endless restaurants. Walking through a casino with Jeffrey Katzenberg was another experience that piqued my curiosity. You see, here’s a fun fact: Before starting his career as a media mogul, Katzenberg was one of the world’s more accomplished card-counters. I’d even heard that, as a young man in New York, a (sort of) syndicate would regularly fly him down to Grand Bahama and enjoy a healthy profit on his return.

But now, years later, his legend was in cement: No casino would let him near a blackjack table. That day, I watched my boss ease through the tables, wondering if he’d betray any longing … perhaps a wistful glance at a string of deuces and treys flying out of a dealer’s shoe. But he betrayed no such nostalgia. No one in this world looks backward less than Jeffrey Katzenberg.

On the other hand, I did stop in the casino. I whispered to one of the writers, “I’m putting down $200 on one hand of blackjack. If I win, this show will be a hit.”

Two nines landed in front of me, and I went double-down against the dealer’s seven. Two face cards won me a lovely $400 in 10 seconds. The show was destined to be a major success. 

Maybe the lesson I didn’t learn at the moment was: You can’t dictate the terms of an omen.

Within a few weeks, the ever-growing team behind Father of the Pride got back on the DreamWorks jet. This time we had a couple of the stars along: big John Goodman, the brilliant actor with the decency to remember the names of everyone he met; and Cheryl Hines, the down-to-earth actress who played the wife of my previous boss, Larry David, on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Before we got the unprecedented tour of the lions and tigers for an unprecedented second time, we got to hang out some more with Siegfried and Roy in their Mirage headquarters. Again, Siegfried was the gracious host while Roy exuded his effortless star power. However (however!), upon excusing himself for some other commitment, Roy plunked his shin into a low coffee table and let out a squelched but audible, “Ouch.” Another writer and I stole a glance at each other as if thinking, Wow. Guess he’s human after all.

Whether you view omens as meaningless or fearsome, they are elusive. We gave the moment no further thought.

That night, we attended the show with its standard packed house. I’d never seen Siegfried and Roy perform but had heard wild numbers regarding the money they brought in. It's a financial juggernaut, and I could see why. The precision performances of seemingly untamable monsters all flowing seamlessly around two defenseless human beings … it was mind-boggling. Gasping questions popped to mind with every trick: How long did it take to perfect this? How do Siegfried and Roy know a wild-eyed tiger is ready for the stage? And, finally, back to Katzenberg’s question: What are these creatures thinking?

I preface this next thought with a warning: Comedy writers are by nature — and necessity — cold and iconoclastic. Irreverence is our defense against the world. If anything affects us in a heartfelt way, we feel duty-bound to make a desensitizing joke about it.

So here goes: What are these creatures thinking, you ask?

Well, on October 3, 2003, in front of 1,500 audience members, a white tiger named Montecore was thinking: You’re making a TV show about the lions and NOT the tigers? Well, we’ll see about that.

The fact is, our emotionally impenetrable writing staff was pretty shaken upon hearing about that tiger’s near-fatal attack on Roy. For weeks, writers would ask me if I’d heard anything. I’d retreat to my office and try to reach Bernie for updates on Roy’s condition. Understandably, the manager of Siegfried and Roy was a tough man to reach at the time.

We did hear that, in the ambulance, Roy said he didn’t blame Montecore and didn’t want anything to happen to him. Not long after, we heard that Roy wanted Father of the Pride to remain in production. He hoped one day to watch the animated sitcom about his beloved cats from the comfort of his home in a state of full recovery.

Despite Roy’s wishes, we had plenty of opportunity to decide, This is just not meant to be. But no: The show aired on NBC in August 2004. The reviews were tepid at best. No matter how much Siegfried and Roy insisted the show go on, the phrase “in bad taste” rang out over and over. Production of the series was halted that November and was, by January, largely forgotten.

Siegfried and Roy’s show was also done forever. The two stars went to huge lengths to ensure the well-being of their lions and tigers, then quietly retired. Occasionally, I’ll hear that Roy Horn, at 69, is still fighting to overcome his injuries. And not long ago it was announced that Montecore died at age 17.

I’ve been back to Las Vegas a few times since 2003 but always avoided the Mirage. Missing a giant omen is one thing. Doubling down by returning to the scene of the crime … that’s just bad karma.


Peter Mehlman was a writer on Seinfeld. His novel It Won’t Always Be This Great comes out this month.