There are two ways of looking at the indisputable fact that John Schulian has written for six newspapers, countless magazines and a dozen TV dramas, co-created the international hit Xena: Warrior Princess, had one novel and three collections of his sports writing published, edited or co-edited four anthologies, delivered commentary on NPR, and tried college teaching on for size: Either he was in demand or he couldn’t keep a job.
Born January 31, 1945 in Los Angeles and reared there and in Salt Lake City, Schulian spent his youth sleepwalking through school and dreaming of a career in professional baseball. But when his professors at the University of Utah told him he possessed the talent that could carry him to the other side of the mountains, he finally conceded that he was better at writing than he ever would be at hitting a curveball. He earned two journalism degrees – a BA at Utah (’67) and an MS at Northwestern (’68), did a brief turn as the only copy editor at the Salt Lake Tribune who wasn’t in AA, and served two years in the Army editing the post newspaper at Fort Sheridan, Illinois and watching the collapse of the 1969 Cubs from a bleacher seat in Wrigley Field. He hired on as a news reporter at H.L. Mencken’s old paper, the Baltimore Evening Sun, in 1970 largely because he wanted to explore a city where he passed Shilinski’s Lithuanian Sausage and the Bromo-Seltzer Tower on the way in from the airport. In five years there he wrote about everything from pool hustlers to political corruption to rock and roll, and found time to freelance his first national magazine story, a Sports Illustrated profile of a boxing promoter who had a gym over a strip joint.
Though he never made any secret of his desire to write sports full-time, it wasn’t going to happen in Baltimore for a variety of reasons. It was probably just as well because one day in 1975 the Washington Post’s sports editor called Schulian out of the blue, and the next thing he knew, he was covering pro football and basketball and writing long features for the paper that had brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt regime. The Post was a place to put down roots, one of those papers that made careers and reputations. Schulian stayed eighteen months.
When he left, in 1977, it was to become the lead sports columnist at the Chicago Daily News, which had been at death’s door for years. But a column was a column – indeed, for a sports writer, there seemed no better job. So he took the risk, and though the Daily News folded just thirteen months later, he came away from it thinking he had been part of something noble. He took his column to the Chicago Sun-Times, where his star continued to rise. The Associated Press Sports Editors twice named him the nation’s top sports writer, and he won a National Headliner Award and the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism. His column was syndicated nationally and his boxing writing was collected in his first book, Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists (1983). Life was so good in fact that he turned down an offer from the New York Times to become the heir apparent to its legendary sports columnist, Red Smith. But when press baron Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984 and proceeded to cheapen it almost beyond recognition, it was soon apparent that Chicago wasn’t big enough for both of them. Guess who left?
Schulian took refuge at the Philadelphia Daily News, long the home of one of the country’s most provocative and well-written sports sections, but he soon felt he was only repeating the same things he had done to establish himself in Chicago. The thrill was gone. Less than four months after he had landed in Philly, he began looking for a way out, and the longer he looked, the more he realized it was time to pursue his fascination with Hollywood. He ended up writing to Steven Bochco, a co-creator of the seminal series Hill Street Blues, and including a copy of Writers’ Fighters with his letter. Long story short: almost a year to the day later, Schulian arrived at Twentieth Century Fox to begin work on the first script he had ever written. It was to be the ninth episode of a series about, as Bochco put it, “God help me, lawyers.” The name of the series was L.A. Law.
Schulian survived the experience and moved on to Miami Vice, where he and Dick Wolf, who would later create Law and Order, joined forces to write a two-parter about boxing. The next thing Schulian knew, he was a staff writer on Vice and would soon become a story editor. What he didn’t know until he began getting his bearings was that he had leapfrogged thousands of writers in the process. True, he had brought something to the party, but he had also been exceedingly lucky. And his luck held out when he moved to write for The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story, the only dramedy on his resume, and the brilliant crime drama Wiseguy and the underappreciated Midnight Caller. Not until Schulian worked on Reasonable Doubts did the road get rocky. There was an unhappy attempt to resurrect The Untouchables and a Mike Tyson biopic at HBO on which he was the writer until a new network executive sandbagged him.
When filmmakers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert entered the world of syndicated TV, they hired Schulian as co-executive producer of their first hit, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The show’s greatest contribution to pop culture turned out to be Xena: Warrior Princess, which grew out of a character Schulian concocted for Hercules and became an international phenomenon. Schulian left the Raimi-Tapert juggernaut after a falling-out with the star of Hercules. He moved on to write a succession of TV pilots and unproduced screenplays, do hard time on a justifiably short-lived cop drama called Lawless, serve as a consulting producer on the long-running hit JAG, waste his time on the resurrected Outer Limits, and write a weekly pop culture column for msnbc.com. His last stop in episodic TV was as co-executive producer of Tremors, which was adapted from a cult monster movie and convinced him that his Hollywood career had at last gone from sublime to ridiculous.
Schulian returned to the world of journalism by writing for GQ, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Oxford American, and Deadspin. In fall 2004, as a distinguished professional in residence at the University of Utah’s communication department, he taught classes in literary journalism and the art of storytelling. His sports writing was collected in Twilight of the Long-ball Gods (2005) and Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand (2011). He edited The John Lardner Reader (2010), The Fighter Still Remains (2011; with George Kimball), and two Library of America anthologies, At the Fights (2011; with Kimball) and Football (2014). Schulian also began writing short fiction and had stories published on the websites Thuglit and The Classic and in the Prague Revue. A Better Goodbye, an L.A. noir, is his first novel. In the wake of its publication, Schulian was named the winner of the 2016 PEN ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing.
- Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand
- Twilight of the Long-ball Gods
- Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists
- Football: Great Writing About the National Sport (editor)
- At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (editor, with George Kimball)
- The Fighter Still Remains (editor, with George Kimball)
- The John Lardner Reader (editor)