Part of the problem with the industry today, he adds seriously, is that studio chiefs don't understand what makes a good movie. “They're not as qualified,” he says. “The most important qualification for someone running a studio is knowing good stories. Darryl Zanuck had that, and David Selznick. They were two of the best producers that I knew.”
Sheldon, a native of Chicago, got his first break from Selznick in 1938 while living in a cheap boardinghouse near the Hollywood Bowl with a dozen other aspiring screenwriters, actors and directors. “There was one phone, and every time it rang, everyone would rush for it, thinking it was a job for them,” Sheldon remembers. “So one day, the phone rang and someone grabbed it and looked at me and said, ‘David Selznick for you.’” Actually it was Selznick's secretary, asking Sheldon to synopsize a novel for the producer by six o'clock that evening. He met the deadline and soon got a job as a script reader at Universal Studios. After a brief detour during World War II to train as a fighter pilot, Sheldon sold his Bachelor script to Selznick, then wrote screenplays for Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes and Easter Parade, among others. In 1963, when asked to create a series around Patty Duke, Sheldon declined, unwilling to work in television. But his agents persuaded him to meet with the actress, who'd just won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker at 16.
“So I sat down to lunch at the Brown Derby with about 1,800 William Morris agents,” Sheldon recalls. “Patty sat next to me. She held my hand during the whole lunch, she was so hungry for love. That night, my wife and I had her to the house for dinner. And we were talking, and suddenly we realized that Patty was missing. She was in the kitchen doing the dishes. And I fell in love with her. I said, ‘I'll do her show.’”
Many of Sheldon's stories of Old Hollywood make plain the loneliness and insecurity that so often haunted the era's greatest talents. He remembers being on the set of Easter Parade, chatting with Judy Garland as she was called to shoot her first scene, when he noticed that she was stalling for time. “I said, ‘Don't you want to do this scene?’ and she said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because in this scene I kiss Mr. Astaire, and I've never met him.’ Everyone had assumed that these two superstars already knew each other! So I led her by the hand over to Fred and introduced them, and the show went on.”
In his personal life, Sheldon has been drawn not to fragile, uncertain creatures but to smart, indomitable women, not unlike the heroines of his novels. There was his first wife, actress Jorja Curtright, whom he met in the MGM commissary in 1950. Sheldon, a producer at the time, spotted a beautiful lady lunching with his friend Zsa Zsa Gabor, and went over to say hello.