Obituary: Walter Doniger (1917-2011)

December 13, 2011

Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94.  He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.

A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera.  Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls.  The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.

Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen.  Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”).  One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending.  Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that

Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick.  As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”

But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding.  “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick.  Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked.  He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.

Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial.  Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC.  The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post.  In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots.  This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.

Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place.  Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.”  But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television.  “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.

In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times.  In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square.  After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot.  (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)

In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas.  Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television.  Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting.  To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.

(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)

In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal.  Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps.  After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.

Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look.  In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:

Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots.  But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it.  He was brilliant.  Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”

“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack.  When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work.  I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”

And yet Serling disapproved.  Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.”  Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words.  Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.

Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman.  This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.

Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director.  (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.)  Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career.  If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger.  Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.

Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).

Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins  (episode 342, June 5, 1967).  In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words.  He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”

Leigh Taylor-Young  (episode 334, May 8, 1967).

Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).

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14 Responses to “Obituary: Walter Doniger (1917-2011)”

  1. Larry Granberry Says:

    Stephen, I have to come to admire your comments and opinions on classic TV. Of interest to me, you mention here that “Peyton Place” is one of the 4 or 5 classics of 1960’s TV. What would you consider to be the others?

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, Naked City, The Fugitive. (Yes, I know that’s one more than I allowed myself.) My heart would include The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Route 66, and East Side/West Side, but my head says they’re too uneven to count as masterpieces in their entirety. The sixties is such a bountiful period for American television, unmatched again until the late nineties/early oughts.

    • Larry Granberry Says:

      I could not agree more – excellent choices. Also agree with your assessment – if the 1950’s was the Golden Age, then the 1960’s was the Silver Age. And yes – few if any masterpieces from the 70’s or 80’s.

  3. bobby J. Says:

    That was a marvellous read, Stephen. I watched the first episode of ‘Peyton Place’ and, with soap-operas not being my cup of tea (unless they are integrated into something like ‘Hill Street Blues’), found it mildly interesting but nothing to get excited over. Those screen captures make me want to watch it!

    I’d say both ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ should belong in there too. The Zone should really have ceased after the 3rd season to maintain it’s quality control. But at it’s best, during those first three seasons, it’s finest episodes rank as pieces of film – for me at least – with the best of big screen fantasies, such as ‘It’s Wonderful Life’, ‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Beauty and the Beast (1946) and ‘Dead of Night’. I’d say that ‘Outer Limits’ was cancelled just in the nick of time. I count at least 10 classics of the first order in the one and half seasons. And that’s with me being really picky. And I’d rate those with finest SF films of the century, the film equal of reading a brilliant novella. With 49 episodes, that’s a ratio of one in five – a remarkable average for the most demanding format, basically a new mini movie every week.

    Anthology drama gives a different kick to normal character sustained TV fare (which can coast on it’s cast), in which the lead protagonist can get whacked, it reaches higher and can fall lower because it’s nature. By the criteria you’ve set, it’s quite possible that only ‘Jim Henson’s The Storyteller’ and the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ would be the only ones anthologies to enter the fabled corridors of a Television Hall of Fame.

    I’d add ‘Star Trek’ too, if only for five first season classics and one second. If it had been cancelled by the end of the first season and a half, it would belong there with ‘Outer Limits’.

    And one other would have to be, ‘The Addams Family’.

    But even the immortal ‘Sgt Bilko’ was inferior in it’s 3rd season and bland in it’s 4th season, after Nat Hiken had departed, with not a 1st rate comedy classic in those two seasons.

    Anyway, keep up the great work.

  4. Nick Caputo Says:

    A wonderful and informative discussion on a very underrated director. Having had the opportunity to watch Peyton Place in the last year or so I concur that Donniger brought freshness and excitement ot his work. That, coupled with some great writing and acting made this series very special and unique.

  5. Richard Maguire Says:

    Stephen, surely The Virginian is another 60s tv classic?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I wouldn’t say so, I’m afraid. There are some standout episodes, but even from the beginning it always felt padded to get to that ninety-minute length. (My pet theory is that none of the 90-minute TV series are very good because TV writers were conditioned to writing in 30- and 60-minute blocks, although writers always get pissed off any time I suggest that.) And The Virginian became pretty much unwatchable after Lee J. Cobb left. I am (mildly) curious about The Men From Shiloh, which I’ve never seen.

      My favorite sixties westerns are The Loner, Outlaws, Have Gun Will Travel, the Kowalski-Geller Rawhides, and … what else? I’m drawing a blank. I haven’t seen Gunsmoke or The Big Valley since I was a young teenager, so I’m hesitant to pass judgment on them.

      • Todd Says:

        Stephen, The Westerner certainly belongs on your sixties westerns list. I’m surprised to see you can’t quite include Route 66 or The Twilight Zone on the masterpiece list, but have included The Andy Griffith Show (perhaps because it’s so dear to you on a personal level?). I’m really happy to hear that you’ve got a book in the works, I’m looking forward to it.

  6. Larry Granberry Says:

    Stephen, you should definitely check out “The Big Valley” again. I think it’s one of the unsung TV westerns. Several episodes remind me of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart classics of the 1950’s. I also thought (for a western) that the show had a noirish feel to it – but then, it was created by A. I. Bezzerides, who also wrote the noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly.”

  7. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I do have fond memories of Big Valley, and I hope it will hold up if I ever have a chance to go through the whole series again. The genesis of the show was actually somewhat complicated, and bitterly disputed (Bezzerides deserves some, but not all, of the credit for its creation) . . . which is something I’ll touch on in my first book.

  8. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Todd, The Westerner is a “saving it for a rainy day” show that I haven’t watched yet. You’re right, I’m being inconsistent — I knocked Route 66 and The Twilight Zone out of the pantheon on the grounds of too many lousy episodes, but then you have the color years of The Andy Griffith Show. Such are the perils of listmaking. I also left out Green Acres and Ben Casey!

  9. Larry Granberry Says:

    Stephen, you may hate me for this, but I’m dying to also know your thoughts on these 1960’s shows, and if they come close to being Masterpieces as well:
    Run for Your Life
    Branded
    Kraft Suspense Theatre
    Bus Stop
    Get Smart
    The Monkees
    The Name of the Game
    I Spy
    The Untouchables
    Combat

  10. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Larry, I like all of those to some degree (except for Bus Stop and The Monkees, which I’ve never seen). I think I Spy is probably the best of the American secret agent shows, and Kraft Suspense Theater has some really wonderful hours. If that’s still playing on MeTV or RTN or whichever, people should seek it out.

    That’s all I want to weigh in on in detail, for now….

  11. Todd Says:

    Stephen, You’ll enjoy The Westerner when you do get around to it. It might just qualify as a masterpiece. Bus Stop is most definately worth viewing.


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