By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
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In his spare time, for lack of a better term, he co-produces the NBC series Third Watch.In Ridley's voracious and highly efficient imagination, nothing goes unconsidered; the merest ideas get his full follow-through, and a high percentage of those wind up seeing the klieg lights of Hollywood, if not the interior fluorescence of a Borders. Ridley is financially comfortable enough not to have to write anything else ever again, and yet he talks on about fields left to conquer, muses about the feeling that he's just getting warmed up. At one point I joke that he must write on cocktail napkins; it turns out that he does ("for posterity," he deadpans). He doesn't consciously write in categories -- high art, low art, politics, pulp, crime, black-themed fiction -- he just writes. All the time. "There's nothing beneath me," he said once. "I would do an Etch-a-Sketch if somebody asked."
As of this writing, Ridley had three television pilots under consideration (none were picked up, but he's characteristically biding his time). In frequent commentaries for NPR's Morning Edition, he speaks to everything from 9/11 to presidential politics to small-town beauty pageants. During his ascent in the business -- which doesn't appear to be over -- he got married and had a child and authored five books.
If he had to scale down, Ridley says he'd quit everything except radio and books -- low-paying but most creatively accommodating -- but he hasn't started complaining yet about doing it all. Doing it all is what he does. He has taken two wildly opposed attributes -- a total openness to all ideas and total focus -- fused them neatly together, and turned them into gold. And as we've seen, the stock market can bottom out, ä but gold only goes up in value; where mere mortals may have optimism at best in the worst of times, John Ridley has guarantees. "In the end, nothing he does surprises me," says Ed Bernero, Third Watch's producer. "I'd never be shocked by anything he does. But I'd be impressed."
Ridley doesn't appear to fathom why anybody would be impressed by what he does. He says he churns things out not to satisfy some great, rarefied muse, but simply to better the chances of making a sale. "It's not hard," he says over lunch, shrugging. "Math is hard." Nor does he understand why anyone would lose sleep over suffering by comparison. "It's my own mania," he continues almost apologetically. "Just because I do it doesn't mean anybody else should. You can't judge things that way."
Tall and rangy and eminently approachable, Ridley has understandably acquired a certain mystique in Hollywood, yet he comes off as anything but mysterious. He's an Everyman with a fondness for jeans and baseball caps, and a genial, laid-back air you don't expect from a guy who never stops working -- and who's also reputedly tough as nails in negotiations. "It's funny," he says. "I was once in a parking garage, and there was this little sign that said, 'You can't measure success by the things you've accomplished, you got to measure it by the things you haven't accomplished, despite your ability to do so.' I always look at the things that I really, really want to do that I haven't done yet."
THERE IS, OF COURSE, MUCH MORE to John Ridley than his output, even things bigger than his output. He's a black man comfortably established in Hollywood, an industry with a power structure that's still famously inaccessible to blacks. He's comfortably established in book publishing, an industry that is pathologically fond of marketing black writers to a niche black market, which is impossible with the multivalent Ridley. He hacks his own career path and defines himself at will when most other industry hopefuls, to say nothing of black hopefuls, swim mightily and eternally upstream.
“We in Hollywood have the
opportunity to do really good
stuff, and people do crap.”
(Photos by Ted Soqui)
He is also a family man. "The only spectacular thing I ever did was have a kid," he says. "Kids give you the chance to do all the things you ever wanted to do. Go to Disneyland, open toys. It's great." He's getting distinctly weary of meetings, those high-level film and television development confabs that other screenwriters would kill to have oneof. "I have to run around town a lot," he says gloomily. "That's really starting to get on my nerves, because I like to write. Now I have to nail my writing down to between 11 and 4 in the morning." He sighs. "I sleep between about 4 and 10. I try not to schedule anything before 11, because I can't get anything done. I can spend time with my son, with my wife." He runs down a typical day: "This morning I ran, worked out a little bit. Showered, changed, met you. I've got a meeting at 3:30, a meeting at 5 and another at 6. I'll fight traffic and get home about 7:30. I promised my wife I'd let her go and get a massage tonight. Which is good because it'll force me to pay attention to my son while she's gone. I'm glad for that. Then I'll spend time with my wife, watch TV, do something together. She goes to bed about 11. And from 11 to 4, I write."
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