In Memoriam: David Shaw (1916-2007)
December 17, 2007
Later this month I’ll compile a roundup of the important early TV people who died over the course of 2007. In the meantime, I’m going to post some reminiscences this week concerning a few of them who I was fortunate enough to have known personally.
David Shaw, who died on July 27, was one of the last of the live television playwrights, specifically, one of the last survivors from the group of young writers nurtured by Fred Coe at the Philco Television Playhouse. (Only Horton Foote and Tad Mosel remain.) Shaw was one of the older and less celebrated writers among the illustrious group that came to include Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Sumner Locke Elliott, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Gore Vidal. He was often tapped by biographers and rarely written about himself. During the 1970s, he turned his back on writing and took up his first love, painting. Shaw received better writeups than I expected in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but I don’t think anyone quite grasped that he was essentially a comedy writer. Nowadays everyone thinks of the live anthologies of the fifties as dramas, but in fact they were porous enough to accomodate many genres, and most of David’s originals (like “Nothing to Sneeze At,” based on his misadventures at a Catskills resort) were comedic in tone. Shaw could thrive quite well writing for legal dramas (The Defenders) or westerns (the TV version of Shane, which he produced), but he also made contributions to Coe’s Mister Peepers, and both of his Broadway credits were musical comedies.
Speaking of light comedy, my own relationship with Shaw began with a meet-cute. Given his historical significance I had wanted to interview him for years, but my letters through the Writers Guild went unanswered. I knew that he was married to the actress Maxine Stuart, and that author Jon Krampner had interviewed him at length for his Fred Coe biography, so I did have some rather labyrinthine alternatives for tracking Shaw down that I hadn’t pursued.
In the meantime, though, I ran into him at the mall. One day in 2004 I was killing time at the Century City shopping center while I waited to meet someone when I spotted Stuart’s unmistakable face – she’s the landlady in the famous Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” among other things – and I was sure that the elderly gentleman with her had to be Shaw. So I followed them into a drugstore and, while a bemused David collected their prescriptions, introduced myself to Maxine (who couldn’t have been nicer), got their phone number, and made arrangements to vist them during my next trip to L.A. I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve walked past a writer or director on the street, someone whom I’d like to meet, and not recognized him because only the name, not the face, was known to me. Here was a instance which suggested that it might be happening all the time, exposed in this case only because the writer in question happened to be married to a recognizable actress.
David was a tough interview. He was a very nice man, but as I anticipated from someone who had sworn off his television career long ago, he wasn’t falling over himself to engage with my questions. If I asked him anything speculative or too detailed, he’d just say he didn’t remember and wait for my next pitch. I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting. Jon Krampner, asking mainly about Fred Coe, got much more vivid material from Shaw, and I think it’s both because Shaw was essentially modest – more willing to talk about others than himself – and because Coe’s genius was one of the subjects that got him fired up.
When Shaw died, the Archive of American Television posted its oral history with him online, so I got the chance to see how their interview compared to mine. It turned out that the two interviews were only done about a month apart, and that the Archive had roughly the same amount of time with David that I did, so it made for a good case study in comparing techniques. On the whole I’d say that we came out about even. I was a little relieved to see the Archive’s interviewer, Gary Rutkowski, get a lot of the same disinterested one-word answers that I got, although I think by the end Gary persevered and elicited a few more good stories out of Shaw than I did. But both of us should have asked David about a show that I hadn’t seen then, but now think is his magnum opus, a Defenders script called “Ordeal.”
“Ordeal” is the story of an adulterous couple, genuinely in love, who turn on each other after they’re arrested for the murder of the man’s wife and pursue the ill-advised strategy of a joint defense. Shaw shows us the actual crime in the prolog: it’s actually a hit that the unhinged wife takes out on herself, although no one but the audience ever gets to know that. It’s a neat structural trick that clears the way for Shaw to focus not on plot but on the nature of love, namely, whether its essence is selfish or selfless when the chips are really down.
Most of what’s good about “Ordeal” speaks for itself, but one thing nags at me now: Shaw’s decision to make the protagonist, who’s basically a self-involved heel (or at least the performance by Robert Webber, who specialized in such characters, tips him that way), a television writer by profession. Boy, is that on the nose – a television writer penning a television script about a television writer. But I can’t quite get the message: Was Shaw inscribing something autobiographical in the generally sensitive treatment of adultery (then a fairly rare topic on television), which comes across as not unreasonable behavior for people mired in loveless relationships? Or was he just blowing a big raspberry to his chosen profession in making this spineless, cheating sleaze a TV writer? Or am I reading too much into Shaw’s cynicism, and the television milieu was just a way to slip in a few clever in-jokes (especially about the onerous New York-to-L.A. commute)?
Of course, it’s possible that if I had asked David all of that, he would’ve looked at me skeptically and said he didn’t remember – but the point is, I missed my chance, and now we’ll never know.