Obituary: Mort Thaw (1921-2009)

July 25, 2009

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The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3.  He was 87.

Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater.  It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal.  Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood.  More autobiographical scripts followed.  “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life.  For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.

What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television.  After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High.  He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse.  Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”

Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955.  By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close.  That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers.  For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business. 

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Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”

Thaw fell somewhere in the middle.  He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency!  Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows.  One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death.  But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly.  There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.

(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel.  But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name.  That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)

In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments.  His film career was a succession of missed opportunities.  Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out.  Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon.  In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias).  In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together.  A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.

Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent.  Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election.  It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview.  I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.

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Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”

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