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'JAG' writer pursues passion, breaks Hollywood's age barrier

Paul Levine needs a new air conditioner.

"I used to sit in a big, cool office with a view of [Miami's] Biscayne Bay you'd kill for," Mr. Levine says with a glance at the stucco wall outside his window and the woeful cooling unit wedged in the frame.

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"But money isn't what drives me," he adds with a smile so direct it's hard not to believe him when he says he's happy with his new station in life: the oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.

At 51, laboring at his first TV writing job in an office on the Paramount lot that clearly says "low man on the totem pole," Levine is an anomaly. After all, this is a town where a 22-year-old actress hedges about her age and a 30-year-old woman blushes in gratitude when told "she doesn't look that old."

Over-50 usually marks the point of burnout for TV writers, the moment when they graduate to writing "their own material," such as novels or poetry. But as the locals say, this 30-year Miami resident has been there, done that. In fact, he's got eight novels on his rsum, including seven featuring his renegade lawyer alter-ego, Jake Lassiter. He's also picked up the John D. MacDonald award for fiction along the way.

That's still not the whole story.

Before his days as a novelist, he was a high-profile partner in a national law firm, with a "cushy life and children in private school." He says his recent move from Florida to work on the CBS drama "JAG" pales in comparison to the fallout from his decision at 40 to leave his lucrative law practice to pursue his private bliss.

"I just realized that I was working strictly for money, and I was not getting satisfaction," he says.

Remembering his days as an anti-Vietnam War protester, he says he had a rude awakening when he found himself defending asbestos manufacturers. "On my scale of social utility," he recalls, "I was a minus."

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He and his wife divorced, he stopped ironing his shirts or shaving daily, and he gave in to his urge to be a full-time storyteller. He tells of the moment he showed his regular FedEx driver a copy of his latest book, to which she replied, "So that's what you do. I thought you were a bum."

After a decade of hanging around the post office for human contact, he got a call from a friend in Hollywood. "JAG" executive producer Don Bellisario ("Magnum P.I.") invited him to come west and join the strange brotherhood of unsung scribes behind network TV.

"So, I decided to take a chance on another change," he says. "I like challenges, to try something new, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity."

Ensconced in a Hollywood Hills home since May, Levine says that so far, the transition has been positive. "I've learned all sorts of things about how to tell a story," he says, and then adds with an appreciative grimace, "and I really have respect for how much work goes into what we see on TV. I had no idea everybody worked so hard. No idea."

"Paul brings a wonderful maturity to the show," says co-executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson. "He has a whole life experience that gives him breadth as a person and depth as a writer." Mr. Johnson himself is a Hollywood veteran whose years in the industry have given him an appreciation for what differentiates a real writer from a competent scribe.

"He already had a clear sense of his voice and sensibility," Johnson says, "and he brings that clarity and just translates it into another kind of writing."

Both freely admit they are in their 50s. In fact, says Johnson, "JAG" may have the oldest writing staff in town. While Levine may be cool about his age (despite his broken air conditioner), his colleagues aren't so calm.

A fellow writer who balks at giving his age, pleads for understanding. "This is not about my vanity, it's strictly a business issue," he says, while admitting one benefit to age: "By the time I reach my slump, it'll be time to retire."

Despite this worry along the hallways of one of Hollywood's most mature stable of writers, others say the future for older scribes is not so bleak.

"Dramas deal with adult issues, adult stories," says Dick Wolfe, creator of "Law & Order." "There are a lot of adults left in this country, and it's hard to write about serious dramatic themes with low mileage on the odometer." As a man who's just added a 3,000-mile cross-country journey to his odometer, Levine says he's happy to stay put for awhile.

"I've always believed your work should be something from which you derive satisfaction," and he adds, "I'd like to be here, doing this for the next 10 years." Although he hopes it won't take that long for the air conditioner to arrive.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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