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Norman Steinberg: From Copyright Lawyer to "Blazing Saddles"

Norman Steinberg

March 07, 2012

Norman Steinberg spoke about his transition from copyright lawyer to screenwriter at the law school on March 7.

Upon graduation from the University of Maryland, a young Norman Steinberg enrolled himself in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law uncertain of where law school would take him, Steinberg told a group of students during a lecture at the Earle Mack School of Law. After law school, Steinberg practiced copyright law in Manhattan making $100 per week and hoping it would lead to a more lucrative career in entertainment law. Even though he worked on some interesting music publication transactions, such as "She Loves You," one of the first Beatles song released in the U.S., Steinberg said he was never satisfied with the law.

Steinberg claims his life and career changed when he met Mel Brooks at a Chock full O’Nuts café across the street from his Manhattan law office. Steinberg remarked that he seized the opportunity, hounding Brooks for a chance to get into screenwriting. Eventually, Brooks relented and arranged for Steinberg to draft a script for “Get Smart,” a popular television show in the 60s and 70s, Steinberg said.

The network cancelled “Get Smart” the year Steinberg submitted his script, Steinberg recalled. However, Steinberg said the letter notifying him of the cancellation propelled him forward.  “The postscript said ‘keep writing, write anything’.” And so, Steinberg said he did just that, leaving behind his legal career and writing for a series of publications and television shows. His pursuit earned him an Emmy and the chance to write with, and for, such entertainment legends as Bill Cosby, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson and, eventually, his mentor, Mel Brooks, with whom he co-wrote “Blazing Saddles.”

Steinberg offered the students some advice telling them, “you have to learn to take a punch,” because success comes from persevering through rejection and “a bit of luck.” He also implored students to be unafraid to approach those who can help, as he did with Brooks.

Steinberg, inspired by mentors who urged him to pass their generosity onto others, created, and currently teaches at, the “TV Writers Studio,” a masters of fine arts program at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus.