Donovan at Large (Unpublished 1980)

Treatment for a TV series about the adventures of a happy-go-lucky freelance investigative journalist based roughly on “The Rockford Files.”

An episodic drama with comedic overtones using as its raison d’être the adventures and misadventures of one J.P. Donovan, an itinerant freelance investigative reporter working out of Boston.

Sort of a cross between “The Name of the Game,” “Lou Grant” and the “Rockford Files,” “Donovan at Large” follows our hero as he sniffs out campus drug ringleaders, corrupt government officials, international spies, and miscellaneous white collar criminals — all while harboring fantasies of writing the Great American Novel.

Indeed, it is for the purposes of writing this classic that Donovan quit his full-time position at the Boston Globe in the first place. However, no sooner does he sit down to peck out a few pages at the cozy coastal Maine country cottage rental, than he usually gets a call from his niece and assistant, Jackie Donovan, or his editor at the Globe (for whom he is still working on a freelance basis), the ogreish Hank Foster, cajoling, begging or ordering him to do this one little story. Always reluctant at first, Donovan always manages to turn into a bloodhound, get his man (or woman) and snag a cover story in the Globe’s Sunday magazine to boot. Despite his literary pretensions, he is a reporter at heart.

We believe that this show will be of interest both to those with a serious and marginal knowledge of journalism. But what will really carry the viewers’ interest from show to show will be the delicately balanced working and personal relationships between the three principals, and the finely tuned, suspenseful plots, all of which will be based on true case histories from the files of America’s most intrepid reporters-at-large.

The Characters

James Pollock Donovan, our hero, is a James Garner-ish, Robert Culp-ish, rakishly good-looking Ivy League drop-out. Divorced, in his late 30s, he is Irish, drinks Southern Comfort, drives a ’65 Mustang, enjoys playing practical jokes on his friends. He is quite tall, about 6′ 2″, and the sort of man who has a woman in every port, but nevertheless can’t hold on to any of them for long. His favorite author in college was Thomas Wolfe, whose style he tries to emulate whenever he does sit down to write that novel of his. He is a risk-taker who loathes violence but knows how to handle himself in a spot. He is a perfectionist in his work, but otherwise he is a bit of a slob; his normal attire consists of a sports jacket, jeans, wrinkled shirt and an unlit cigarette. In short he is a bit of a character, and he knows it.

Donovan’s editor at the Globe is one Hank Foster. Sort of a cross between the editor in the “Night Stalker” (played by Simon Oakland) and the Lou Asner character in the recently canceled “Lou Grant,” Foster is a gruff, burly, hard-bitten newspaperman in his mid-50s. Foster, a product of the Depression and a newspaperman to the core, can’t understand Donovan’s decision to quit his position at the Globe for the vagaries of freelancing; if he was tough on Donovan before, he is even tougher on him now. The two are always on the phone, haggling over deadlines and expenses; nevertheless, Foster misses seeing Donovan at his desk, and when he hangs up the phone there is usually a smile on his face. Indeed it was Foster who first hired Donovan out of college and taught him the ropes; he considers Donovan his greatest creation — so what’s he doing going off and writing the Great American novel?

Rounding out this picaresque trio is Donovan’s young niece, the unsinkable Jackie Miller. A recent graduate of Radcliffe who aspires to big city reporterdom herself, Jackie resembles the character Linda Kelsey played in “Lou Grant” (if a younger version of her) while functioning in the same sort of role that Lee Meriwether played in “Barnaby Jones.” Technically, she is Donovan’s editorial assistant, which in Donovan’s case means doing everything from copyediting his misspelled manuscripts and acting as his liaison with editor Foster to trying to tidy up his paper-strewn loft-office and (as we see in the pilot episode) asking the police to keep an eye on her reckless uncle. Occasionally, she also does background research for Donovan when he is in the field; oftentimes, she also functions as Donovan’s editorial conscience, urging him, to say, publish a piece he would rather kill, or follow an avenue of inquiry he hadn’t considered before — in short, reminding Donovan of his own journalistic ideals. She understands Donovan’s “mid-life crisis” more than Foster does, and humors his literary ambitions as best she can, but she is happier to see him on the trail.


Background: this episode, centered around the uncovering of of a major campus-based drug ring operating with the connivance of a famous professor, is inspired by the breaking of a similar case at New York University, in late 1980, when New Yorkers were shocked to learn of a multi-million dollar hallucinogen operation based in NYU’s chemistry labs and masterminded by the nationally-honored NYU anthropology department chairman, whom New York Magazine later dubbed, in its feature story about the case, Dr. Quaalude.

Prologue: A pretty young woman is talking with a 40-ish bow-tie type in what appears to be a deserted student union. They argue. Drugs are mentioned; so is the “chem lab.” The woman leaves in a huff. She is pursued at a distance by two sweatered young men in their early 20s. Suddenly, as the woman approaches a bridge over what appears to be a steep ravine, the two men rush up, grab her and throw her off the bridge….

We join our hero as he is hurriedly clearing his desk at the Chronicle in anxious anticipation of his quest, and his new career. Former colleagues stop to offer their congratulations — or, in Foster’s case, his condolences. No one can quite believe it: after 15 years behind the typewriter and two Pulitzer Prize nominations, Donovan is really heading off for Maine to write the novel he’s been audibly dreaming about for God knows how long. To one friend, he bequeaths his telephone books; to another, his trusty old bulldog-shaped ash tray; and so forth, until he is left with just enough for Jackie and him to stagger out carrying.

Before he leaves Foster calls Donovan into his office for one last drink and one last plea to stay at his journalistic post; Donovan is the best investigative reporter he has, as well as his adopted son; amidst the laughter we can see the love each has for the other. Foster, anxious to retain Donovan’s services at any cost, broaches the idea of having Donovan freelance for the paper. “You never know when you might stumble across something,” he cautions. “Once a bloodhound, always a bloodhound.” Donovan is noncommittal, however; mentally, he is already in Maine.

As Foster and Donovan are talking they are joined by Jackie whom Donovan introduces to Foster as his “favorite niece” and “gal Friday” — at which Jackie shoots him an icy, feminist glare, followed quickly by the two men’s conspiratorial laughter. However Jackie promptly asserts herself and put the two men on the defensive with a quick tracer stream of questions about the Chronicle’s coverage of women and minority issues; she also points out several copy editing errors she had noticed in yesterday’s Chronicle.

“At least she knows how to spell,” Foster offers, after an embarrassed pause. Jane fumes. However Foster knows that he needs Jackie’s help in getting Donovan to keep on writing for the paper, so he quickly backtracks as best he can, offering Jane several other paternalistic — if well-meant — pieces of advice about Donovan’s peccadilloes as uncle and niece make their exit. Finally, with Donovan out the door, Foster takes Jane aside and proffers a bribe of sorts: if she can keep Donovan in line — and keep him on the beat — there may be a job for her at the Chronicle someday (which, of course, is exactly what Jackie is aiming for). But Jackie isn’t so easily co-opted. “Yes,” she retorts, “I understand that you’re supposed to retire next year.”

Donovan, for his part, is raring to get to work on his novel; he’d like nothing more than to hop into his Mustang right then and there. However, as Jane reminds him in the Chronicle elevator, before he can run away and play author he still has one outstanding commitment — a speaking engagement before the Quill and Ink Society at his alma mater. “Oh yeah,” he remembers, what am I supposed to talk about? I’m not very good at that sort of thing,” whereupon Jackie gives him a copy of a speech which is entitled “So You Want To Be a Journalist?” which she has taken the liberty of writing up. Donovan groans.

As we rejoin Donovan, tooling up the tortuous roads to Cornell University, singing the old fight song in his open Mustang, it is clear that he is in a nostalgic mood. He hasn’t been back to the Ole Alma Mater since he dropped out (to take up Foster’s offer to work at the Chronicle) some 15 years before. To get to campus, he has to cross one of the fjord-like gorges which bound the sprawling Ivy League campus — the same gorge which became famous (or infamous) in his day as an undergraduate lover’s leap.

On campus, on foot, crossing the Arts Quad on his way to meet the faculty adviser of the Quill and Ink Club Donovan and we get a quick panoramic glimpse of college life: students tossing footballs and Frisbees around, or dutifully filing into the library. He exchanges some banter with one cluster of kids. Not much has changed in academe, it seems, Donovan shrugs to himself. However, if he had looked closer he would have noticed one of the groups of students playing Frisbee was tripping on hallucinogens. A Frisbee drops near him. He tosses it back. He is in a devil-may-care mood by now.

Inside, in the student cafeteria, Donovan scans the dead hour crowd for Elizabeth Garvey, a literature professor and the faculty adviser of the Quill and Ink Club. He only knows that she is wearing a red dress. He seems surprised when his host turns out to be a ravishing redhead in her late 20s: this is Donovan territory, the emerging smile on his craggy face tells us. The two immediately hit it off. Donovan regales Elizabeth with tales of his campus antics; she in turn gives him a tongue–in-cheek rundown on the burning issues on campus today, although she turns a mite serious when she mentions the spreading drug problem on campus. The two are so enamored of each other that they practically forget Donovan’s lecture.

The lecture, before an audience of 30 or 40 more or less bushy-tailed student reporters, goes awkwardly at first, as Donovan dutifully reads from Jackie’s written text; the celebrated reporter seems to be something of a bore. However, the audience springs to life when Donovan throws away his text and decides to take questions, to which he gives a series of casual, off-color, self-deprecating responses. Thus, to a question about working equipment, he replies, “Depends who I’m working on — usually just a pen and pencil–and maybe a voodoo doll.”

Finally, one student, an attractive, albeit grim-faced co-ed, asks Donovan whether he had ever been scared of a story. “Nope,” he replies, quite seriously. “Of course,” he continues, turning tongue-in-cheek, “there was that time and I looked up to see a pretty mean-sized I-beam coming down at me. That was pretty scary — even thought about pulling it for a moment. But the piece had already been filed, and anyway, I needed the exercise.”

Afterward, as some of the students congregate around the lectern, Elizabeth briefly introduces this last questioner to Donovan, asking the student, Melissa Holbright, how that big story she was working on for the campus paper as part of her compet is doing, and receiving a sly smile in response. Then, Donovan and Elizabeth exit for a chummy date at a quiet place off-campus — and a chaser at her place….

All in all, Donovan has had a pretty swell time paying his respects to the Ole Alma Mater, and is packing his bags in his guest room at the faculty house when Elizabeth walks in and informs him that Melissa is dead; they found her body at the bottom of the Hiawatha Gorge last night.

When we rejoin Elizabeth and Donovan, Elizabeth is trying to convince Donovan to look into Melissa’s death. The coroner has called it a suicide, a verdict the campus community accepts; after all, students have been “gorging out” ever since the school was founded, and Melissa, a hard-driven, lonely type, apparently had as many reasons as any of them. Nevertheless, Elizabeth has a Quincy-like hunch that her death was not a suicide — that it had something to do with that story she was working on. She wants Donovan to check it out. Reluctantly, he agrees, and calls Jackie about the delay. Of course, she encourages him.

A series of interviews with Melissa’s classmates seem to confirm the received opinion about Melissa’s death. Her editor at the campus newspaper informs Donovan that Melissa did seem to be under a lot of pressure; she really was worried about making the cut. No, he didn’t know what story she was working on — only that it would be an exposé of sorts. Of course, there were no witnesses to Melissa’s death, but no one — not even Donovan — can quite believe that she would be murdered. Anyway, there hasn’t been a murder at Cornell in decades.

Donovan, in fact, is about to give up the pursuit — to the relief of two graduate student types who have been shadowing him from a distance — until he returns to Melissa’s room, which has been cleared of personal effects, and accidentally brushes against a hard object under her bed. The object turns out to be a typewriter case. Donovan opens it and finds the half-finished first page, which reads something to the effect that “For the last five years, a multi-million dollar drug ring has been operating out of a university laboratory with the active connivance of one of Cornell’s most distinguished scientists…. ”

Once again, Donovan, his reportorial instincts finally alerted, retraces Melissa’s movements on the evening of her death. Finally, he comes across one student who saw her in the corner of the student union having dinner with one of her professors.

Donovan interviews Melissa’s chemistry professor, a tweedy type in his early 40s. Yes, he admits brightly, he had had dinner with Melissa that night. He claims that she has ranted to discuss one of her exams. He is very helpful — too helpful….

Once he has made sure that there is no else on the floor, Professor Thorndike makes a phone call to one of the ringleaders to talk about the interview with Donovan. “Are you sure you destroyed her notes?” he queries, and anxiously asks to meet the two confederates at the chem lab at midnight.

Donovan, meanwhile, is listening in on the conversation with the aid of a long range microphone borrowed from the physics department. He will be there, too.

Donovan gets to the lab at 11:30, squeezing himself into a chemistry locker. Enter professor Thorndike and the two dopers. The two confederates try their best to pacify Thorndike — even if Donovan is on to us, they tell the alarmed academic, he doesn’t have any evidence — and they’ll make sure there aren’t any witnesses. “Why don’t we just lie low for a while,” they advise. “It’ll blow over. Donovan has no credibility here…”

But the guilt-stricken professor wants to tell all, and storms out of the lab, leaving the two dopers arguing about what to do next: you can’t just off a professor….

Donavan, meanwhile, surreptitiously makes his way out the lab, intent on protecting Thorndike.

He overtakes the professor on the bridge.Thorndike tells all. He recounts the story. We see in quick flashback how he was extorted into allowing the graduate students to use the lab for drug manufacture, how he was co-opted by agreeing to take a share of the profits, about the dinner with Melissa. “But I didn’t want her killed,” he insists. Donovan listens stoically.

Suddenly a car appears at the end of the bridge, going 70 or 80 miles an hour. It runs up the sidewalk. Donovan hurtles Thorndike across the road while he quickly grabs the railing and leaps off the bridge, still holding on.

The murderous vehicle continues into the night.

However, in the distance, we see two campus police cars quickly form a roadblock and bring the murderers to bay. Jackie, worried about Donovan, had called the campus police and told them to keep an eye on her uncle.

Donovan returns to Melissa’s room and finishes her story.

Elizabeth and the campus police thank Donovan for his help.

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