Ben and Zal

February 4, 2012

Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time.  But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common.  Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity.  They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.

The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return.  Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain.  Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.

A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles.  It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life.  In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing.  He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man).  This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian.  Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story.  And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.

Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days.  Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories.  But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward.  The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture?  Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich.  In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack.  But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting.  “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.

Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate).  A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar.  The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”

A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”).  At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook.  It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer.  Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom.  King stole the show from him.  He was one of the most open actors of his generation.  As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show.  King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old.  Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure.  His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again.  Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.

The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face.  Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.

King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine).  Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve.  The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.

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15 Responses to “Ben and Zal”

  1. michael Says:

    I hadn’t seen the similar style between the two, but you are right. Now I am trying to think of a woman with the same acting method.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      They’re different in important ways, too, of course — King was moody in a way that Gazzara never was.

      The woman thing is interesting; now I’m trying to do it, too. Cherry Jones, maybe. Patricia Neal? Colleen Dewhurst?

  2. Jorge L. Perez Says:

    Although it’s true that too often Run For Your Life dove into espionage and detective/police/lawyer stories, the series did have a lot of great episodes that explored existential themes with a profundity seldom seen on TV. And Gazzara was such a great actor that he made even the lamest stories work: it was a one man Route 66 which shared the overall pessimistic outlook of that other great series… although without the great on location shooting.

  3. ray starman Says:

    Ben Gazzara was indeed a very accomplished actor but his performance in the tv series “Run For Your Life” was old school method acting at its most obvious. His highly mannered performance was annoying and any comparison to The Fugitive” is laughable. I said this in my book “TV Noir:The 20th Century”, the first to apply film noir concepts to tv series dramas. (Amazon Books).

  4. Larry Granberry Says:

    I remember absolutely nothing about “Run for Your Life” (except for the opening titles, for some reason), but I would love the opportunity to watch the episodes. Sigh – another case where classic TV is given short shrift by the DVD/Blu-Ray companies.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Well, I know Run For Your Life was running recently on one of those RTN or Me-TV or whatever stations that only air in about six counties nationwide … but, at least, that means there are better-looking copies circulating now than the old WWOR recordings I watched a few years back.

      • Jorge L. Perez Says:

        There should be better copies, but I haven’t found them: there’s a seller that now at least can offer the full series (86 episodes), but video quality is still 6.5-8, so I doubt its off the recent Retro TV telecasts.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        The reality is that this stuff circulates via bit torrenting now. It’s a world with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but there are people on my Facebook feed who post clips from RFYL (and Kraft Suspense, and Police Story), and that’s how they’re getting them.

  5. ray starman Says:

    I commented on Ben Gazzara yesterday and you list 4 comments total which would include mine but it only shows 2 or 3-I assmume you were adding my comment along with the others.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, and I agree that Run For Your Life had some problems, but you’re certainly missing out if you don’t like Gazzara’s subtle, unpredictable work on the series.

      Incidentally, Ray, the reason your comment didn’t appear immediately is that I have to approve first-time commenters, just as a means of keeping out the spam. Speaking of which … I would politely suggest that thread-jacking an obit post (or really any post) to plug your book is, in the realm of netiquette, at least slightly unseemly; and I would also add that the reason I haven’t replied to your many e-mails suggesting I promote your book on this blog is that I had read the first edition, and decided it wasn’t something I wanted to write about.

      • ray starman Says:

        I repect your right to decline to review my book. I respect your right to ignore my emails. I disagree with your judgment of my etiquette. I worked hard on my book, trying to present serious ideas within their historical context. I admit I’ve never liked “Run For Your Life.”. I found it manipulative and imitative. I do appreciate the opportunity your blog allows others to comment on these issues. Take care.

  6. Jeff Wildman Says:

    I will always remember Zalman King doing a guest shot in the pilot episode of the quickly-cancelled, quickly-forgotten 1978 NBC series W.E.B. He portrayed an arrogant, overrated and under talented “artistic producer de jour”, who was producing a major, multi-night miniseries for the fictitious TAB network’s fall season premiere…and delivered an unusable piece of junk too close to the air date for the network to plan substitute programming.

  7. Jorge L. Perez Says:

    There’s a great web site for Run For Your Life (http://www.run4.us/index.htm) that has that has a full episode guide and a few minutes of video for most episodes (that can also be seen on Youtube).

  8. quasiblu Says:

    I am a huge fan of both actors, although I have a particular fascination with Zalman King’s performance in Blue Sunshine. In precisely the same way as you have identified, he underplayed the role in intriguing ways. His quietly intense and driven performance I think are what make this cult film so admired.

  9. Mark Speck Says:

    They both died around the same time…for Gazzara, there were a myriad number of mainstream clips that I could grab from YouTube and share on Facebook (which I usually do when an actor I admire passes away). I shared a scene from Run For Your Life and also scenes from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (which impressed some of the hipper FB friends of mine) and Roadhouse. On the other hand, I couldn’t think of anything King did which would have been suitable for Facebook sharing (I REALLY would’ve gotten slagged by a host of people if I put clips of Two-Moon Junction or Red Shoe Diaries up)…I later posted the clip of the Standells on The Munsters on the 45RPM music group on FB and pointed out that Zal was the beatnik in the scene and that he had just passed away.

    The point of all this is…I’m glad you found a way to tie these two guys together. I could NEVER have thought of some connection between the two, and it’s great that you could!


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