Obituary: John McGreevey (1922-2010)
February 12, 2011
“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003
Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year. His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time. McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week. “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.
John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades. Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors. Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output. He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard. His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems. Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies. According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”
When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family. Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.
“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”
Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen. As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students. Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies. But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing. Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.
Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start. McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected. Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures. His wife was a frequent co-star.
Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York. John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter. But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim. He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions. Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz. (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)
In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work. One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.
At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles. McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work. McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.
A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959. A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half. McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson. He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade. For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful. They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”
Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside). McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week. “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey. McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series. “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.
During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run. Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie. McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.
The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner. Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain. Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series. Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.
According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show. Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.” But the identification was more complex than that. At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).
McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy. McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series. “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on. They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.
Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses. McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.
The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series. Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials. His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.
When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing. Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back. “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey. “It was liberating, almost.”