Old Lyme native Janet Roach, from CBS News producer to Hollywood screenwriter
Old Lyme native Janet Roach had spent several years working for CBS News, producing segments featuring reporters such as Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner, when she met John Huston through a mutual friend in the early 1980s.
The legendary movie director/writer liked Roach.
“You know how sometimes you meet people and they are part of your life forever? John was a people collector. I got collected,” she said.
Huston knew Roach was a writer, and at one point, he asked her to try reworking the script for “Prizzi’s Honor,” which he would go on to direct. He led her through the process, talking with her about the screenplay and then having her revise it.
That was how Roach learned to write a screenplay. And this first effort led to her being nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1986 for “Prizzi’s Honor,” alongside Richard Condon, who wrote the book on which the film was based. Jack Nicholson starred in the film.
That movie led to Roach being hired for other projects. Among them: She penned a first draft for the adaptation of the novel “The First Wives Club.” She wrote the script for the television movie biography “The Three Stooges.”
She lived in New York and then split her time between Shelter Harbor, N.Y., and New Zealand. (More on that later.)
But in 2016, Roach, who is now in her 70s, returned to southeastern Connecticut. As she settled back into the area, she become involved with the Lyme Public Hall — and will teach a screenwriting class there starting in March that’s open to the public.
She has plenty of experience teaching. From 1994 through 2014, Roach was a screenwriting professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts, mostly instructing first-year students.
“You can make a bad movie out of a good script, but you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script. I think it was Benny Goodman who said, ‘You can’t play the riffs until you learn the scales.’ I was sort of teaching the scales (at Columbia),” she said.
From Old Lyme to CBS News
Roach said she realized by the time she was in third grade that she wanted to be a writer.
“I knew that journalism was a profession open to women – sort of. At the time, there were very few women who went to law school, very few women who went to medical school,” said Roach, who attended elementary school at St. Rose’s in Meriden and then went to Old Lyme High School.
She also decided in fifth grade that she would attend the Columbia School of Journalism.
“I remember announcing it in a poem in Mrs. Champion’s fifth grade class,” she laughed.
Roach, who was one of eight kids (the second oldest, behind a brother), recalls that her parents subscribed to the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post; as a kid, Janet would read the cartoons in both.
Her father was harbormaster in Old Lyme. Her mother got her PhD in invertebrate biology and eventually taught at Connecticut College in New London.
Roach isn’t sure what it was about journalism that drew her as a youth. But, she said, “I did what was necessary to make myself inevitable. Because I knew (the profession) wasn’t entirely open to women.”
She became the editor of the Old Lyme High School newspaper and yearbook. She joined the Barnard College newspaper as soon as she became a student there. She recalled with a laugh that fellow Barnard student and later author of “Fear of Flying” Erica Jong “would not let me join the literary club because I was too naïve. And she was right.”
Roach’s first real job was as a police reporter for The Day in the mid-1960s.
Then, she was off to CBS News. Her initial gig was as a political researcher, traveling the country collecting statistics of old elections.
She quickly rose through the ranks on the national news scene. By the time she was 25, she was an associate producer for CBS Weekend News. She worked at CBS from 1967 to 1979, at CBS News and for “60 Minutes.”
Her work won several Emmys over the course of her career, including one for a piece featuring reporter Ed Bradley that she produced about the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979, after Cambodian dictator Pol Pot was deposed.
They spent about two weeks on site, and she called it “one of the most searing experiences of my life.” She recalled that the babies in the camps were so hungry, they didn’t even cry.
A Cambodian native worked as their equipment bearer on the project; he had been a student in Paris when Pol Pot took over the country. He wanted to search for his family in the refugee camps. The news team snuck him in, and, miraculously, he found his mother. There were, Roach recalled, “tears of joy and tears of sorrow,” the latter because he learned that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge for operating a small store.
Roach’s work in the news field was wide-ranging. She produced the 1980 “CBS Reports” documentary “The Trouble With Women,” co-written with and narrated by Harry Reasoner, about the struggles and realities faced by women at the time. Roach had worked with Bill D. Moyers at CBS News, and when he left for public television, he recruited her. She worked on “Creativity with Bill Moyers” and “A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers.”
Roach met Huston — whose film credits include classics like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The African Queen” — through a friend, photographer Eve Arnold. It was later in Huston’s life, and he was living in a very isolated area of Mexico.
“John didn’t take movies terribly seriously. He wanted to be a painter -- and I was his model for a number of years. It was a good idea to read the newspaper before you went to dinner because he didn’t want to talk about movies; he wanted to talk about what was going on in the world,” she said.
One of the things Roach could do for Huston was bring him books; he was as voracious reader. She brought him galley proofs of the novel “Prizzi’s Honor,” which Condon has given her. (Roach had become friends with Condon after meeting him working on a TV piece; she was producer on a “60 Minutes” story Harry Reasoner was doing on how certain artists and writers could live tax-free in Ireland.)
Huston became interested in making a movie of it, and Condon sent him a first draft of the screenplay he had written.
Condon couldn’t keep working on the script because of health issues, so Huston handed the draft to Roach and asked her to read it overnight. She did, and they talked about it next day.
“What I didn’t know was that he was doing his last three movies for his children, and this one was for Anjelica (Huston, who would portray Maerose in the film). He wanted the parts of the women to come up from what they were. I did not know that. But he knew I was a feminist, and he knew that I had a fresh mouth,” she said with a laugh. “After we talked about it, he said, ‘How’d you like to try your hand at rewriting this, honey?’”
Her response? She said she figured she was earning her keep as a houseguest. But Huston, of course, knew Roach could write. And the documentary work she had done required her to know some of the same elements necessary in narrative film, such as understanding structure and creating dramatic points.
Still, this was her first try at screenwriting. As Roach said: Imagine having John Huston as your personal screenwriting instructor. They would go over a couple of scenes, and she would rework them. They would review them again.
“If they were right, he’d say, ‘Very good, honey.’ And if they weren’t right, we’d go over them again, and I’d rewrite. And thus did I learn,” she said.
Asked what it was like to be nominated for an Oscar for her first screenplay, Roach talked instead about someone else.
“Anjelica won (for best supporting actress), and that thrilled me. She was very good to me, she was very generous,” Roach said.
After “Prizzi’s Honor,” Roach worked on numerous screenplays.
She wrote a first draft of “The First Wives Club” for executive Sherry Lansing.
“That was another case of writing sassy women,” Roach said.
Lansing was giving Roach notes on the draft when Lansing stopped to take a call from Sumner Redstone. He offered her the presidency of Paramount Pictures.
Once Lansing got off the phone, she asked Roach if she should take the job.
“I said, ‘You can always be an independent producer. You can’t always be the head of Paramount Pictures. Go for it,’” Roach recalled.
The advice ended up being at Roach’s own expense. Lansing did take the job, and the next producer on “First Wives Club” was Scott Rudin. “We weren’t a good match,” Roach said, and he brought in a new writer.
Among Roach’s other projects:
Roy Disney hired her to write about the first all-women crew to sail the Transpacific Yacht Race, although that movie ended up not being made.
Roach wrote a television movie about the Three Stooges. “The Three Stooges” was made in Australia and starred Evan Handler, Michael Chiklis and Paul Ben-Victor.
“I was hired to write it because most women don’t like the Three Stooges because it’s too violent. They hired me to write it because the things that were funny to women would then be accented. Since television audiences are majorly women, the wanted to appeal to that audience so they hired me,” she said.
New Zealand idyll
Roach moved back to Connecticut — to Lyme — in 2016 with her husband, D. Gordon Potts. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she needed the support of her family. “I have a brother and two sisters here, and they were very, very good to me,” she recalled. (Potts, who had been a neuroscientist, died in March of 2021.)
They had wed in 1996, and, until 2012, Roach and Potts split their time between New York — they had a home in Shelter Island, and she had a faculty apartment at Columbia in the city — and New Zealand, where he was originally from. “I never knew where the mustard was,” she joked.
Once they started spending time in New Zealand, Roach made an agreement with Columbia that she would do all of her classroom teaching during the fall semester. That way, she and Potts could leave in December for New Zealand, returning to the states in March or April.
“The adventure of New Zealand was fabulous,” she said.
Potts owned 100 acres, and they lived in a garage that they turned into a cottage. They were ensconced in nature. It was 45 minutes to a grocery store, and the duo went out about once every two weeks.
“There is no such thing as marriage-lite under such a circumstance. The nearest neighbors were a mile and a quarter away, through the bush, if they were there,” she said. “We had skylights over our bed, and we could see the Milky Way. It was heaven.”
Back in Connecticut
Since returning to Connecticut, Roach has edited the Lyme Public Hall’s newsletter and took a memoir writing class there from Joan Motyka, who, she said, “is a wonderful teacher. It was a great inspiration because I had not written anything serious in several years. It got me cranked up again.”
Roach is working on a memoir and has written articles for Estuary magazine, a quarterly publication centered around the Connecticut River.
From March 6 through April 10, she will teach six two-hour Monday sessions on screenwriting at the Lyme Public Hall. The classes will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Enrollment is limited to 12 students, and the cost is $100 for Lyme Public Hall members and $125 for nonmembers. To enroll, email email@example.com.
The classes at Lyme Public Hall will be open to all levels of experience.
The students in her class will learn, among many other facets, that, with screenwriting, “the only access you have to character is action, so characters are what they do. That makes it hard because writers generally are verbal and they all want to write dialogue, and dialogue is the last thing that you write,” she said.
Another element to recognize: movies get “written” three times.
“They get written by the writer, and then they get written by the director, who is writing with the camera. And obviously the cast are involved in that, but the director is the guy or woman who is the head of that army. Then it’s written by an editor. And that means the writer doesn’t have to do everything. You don’t have to know the color of the vase. It’s not like a novel where you have to describe the room and what the floor felt like and what it smelled like,” she said.