EXCLUSIVE: Manny Coto died on July 9th at the age of 62. Nearly 35 years to the day earlier, he and I are on Beverly Boulevard picketing in front of CBS.
I’ve been a WGA member for about four months and Manny for maybe eight. To say we are wet behind the ears is an insult to moisture. As always, we are having a blast because everything we do together is fun. It’s how we have survived trying to break into show business. It’s amazing how doing something alongside your best friend never really feels daunting. Anyhow, we are in one of those long loops that keeps doubling back on itself once you reach the end of the line. And Manny suddenly says, “Holy shit, that’s Harlan Ellison we just passed!” I only know the name, but, along with Gene Roddenberry, Ellison is a particular hero of Manny’s and he can’t believe he is on the very same picket line as a writing immortal. And every 10 minutes or so we pass him going the other way.
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Now Ellison, by all accounts a force of friggin’ nature, is carrying a homemade sign that reads “Nick Is Counter Productive” with the Nick and Counter in red. Two mysteries need to be solved as we march: Who is Nick Counter, and how are we going to get a photo of Manny and his hero? (I have my 35mm camera.) Finally, as we pass for the umpteenth time, Manny has the temerity to call out, “Who is Nick Counter?” Ellison stops short. The picket line stops behind him as Ellison rages at Manny, “Who is Nick Counter?! Who is Nick Counter!? What are you doing here? How can you not know who Nick Counter is!?” The haranguing goes on. And on. Manny hangs his head in shame.
Finally, Ellison marches on, as does the line. Nick Counter – and we will never forget this – is the chief negotiator for the AMPTP. The other fact clearly expressed here is that under no circumstances may we stop Harlan Ellison and ask him to take a photo with Manny. Cut to an hour later as our shift is about to end. We fall out of line into the street and set up a guerrilla operation: Manny stands with his picket held proudly, I pre-focus and get into position, and we wait for the great man of letters to pass. Click. Always meet your heroes. Ellison is none the wiser. Like everything, we are laughing about it all day long.
I was introduced to Manny a year earlier on the set of 976-EVIL, the first film ever made that had my name on it. We had both been signed out of our respective film schools by the same agent, and he had brought Manny to visit the set. Horror movies had turned out to be a great way to break in as they didn’t pay and no one established was all that interested in doing them. We gave them our all as we did all things. Little did the two of us know it, but at that moment we were best friends who had just met. It was a momentous moment marked only by agreeing that, yes, we should have lunch. I had no idea I had just met the funniest, most steadfast person I would ever know. Except … I kinda did.
I was trying to enter a strange new world. I had made my few forays, but as anyone reading this knows: Hollywood doesn’t come with a Lonely Planet guide. Manny was in the exact same situation. We were beyond naïve, which is why we were here in the first place. We actually thought we could move to Los Angeles from Florida and Massachusetts and it would all somehow work out. I mean, only one of four of our respective parents was born in the United States, and the one who was (my father) did not grow up speaking English as a first language. Hollywood was just east of Timbuktu where we came from. But it turned out we both had one enormous connection – we had each other. When I met Manny, a bigger world was born for us both, a world we could navigate together and start to get our hands around. We realized something invaluable; we could control things with our writing.
In 1990 we both felt boxed in by our credits and the perception of us they created. Big action films were taking over, and we were obviously not a part of that move. One night we were on the phone trying to strategize a way out of our predicament and find a way to move up. We knew for a fact that would involve writing a spec. We’d already done one together but failed at it. One of us, it may have been me, said, “Let’s not get off the phone until we come up with an idea for an action movie we can sell for a million bucks.” The other, it may have been Manny, agreed to the challenge. It was certainly not about the money, but the money meant it and we would get noticed. Forty-five minutes and a lot of laughs later, Manny said, “What if a nuclear bomb became sentient?” I asked what sentient meant, and after Manny explained it was something I was not (hahaha), The Ticking Man was born. Another half-hour later he was bouncing back and forth along that phone line like a pinball.
Three months later we sold it for 1 million U.S. dollars, and our lives were changed forever. We got called up to the Big Leagues, the Show, and we were the ones who had done the calling. There’s no reason why anyone reading should know what The Ticking Man was other than it is part of screenwriting lore. It was never made, but it made us. On the eve of it going out (it sold in about 10 hours), Manny decided we should send Ticking Clocks out with the script. We made 30 of them all identical, all spray-painted black with a very cool logo that Manny designed and painted himself (see the photo above). For that reason, the script also went down in hype lore, but it was truly great and we were so proud of what we’d done. We’d also beaten the system without even trying to beat it. That’s what friends could do, and our friendship is front and center in the pages of that script.
Friendship is made by choice, of course; it is a love that is whimsical in a way. You may have a duty to your family, but you are under no obligation to be someone’s friend, nor do they have any responsibility to be yours. No right, no dibs, no claim. Friendship, it turns out, is unnecessary. But freely given, it is a beautiful gift to accept and return. In 2023, when he wants to talk about his vicious cancer, we’re at Barneys Beanery at our usual table. The old haunt seemingly takes years off of us both as we step through the door.
Our careers had evolved in different directions, his mostly in television and mine mostly in film. Our growing apart professionally was always informed by the fact that we started out growing side-by-side. Our roots will always be knotted together, and they always nourished our futures. We just needed to look at each other to know where we came from. And whenever we drifted too far apart, we would write a script together. Not remotely, not “you do this scene and I’ll do that one,” but present in a room, working on every word together. Manny used to say our team efforts were written by Branny Cotland. A talented caricaturist, Manny even drew a picture of what Branny looked like. Sadly, Cotland is now gone into the ether, but the six scripts Branny wrote survive as an affirmation of friendship if not actual physical proof of it. We were best friends after all; we wrote together to be together.
Manny was a comrade and a boon companion. Striving with him made the impossible seem conquerable. Because our friendship made it so much damn fun. I’ve laughed more with Manny than with anyone else I’ve ever known. He’s the godfather of my sons. His death has left a hole in my heart that will never be filled, nor do I want it to be. I would stand alongside Manny anywhere. Ride or die. And as far as the dying goes, it may take the one you love, but it doesn’t take the love.
I love you, Manny Hector Coto, and I always will.
Brian Helgeland is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of L.A. Confidential whose writing credits also include Payback, Man on Fire, 42, Robin Hood and the Oscar-nominated Mystic River script. His latest screenplay is for the upcoming Paramount+ film Finestkind.
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