July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more controversial. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently arrived on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.
February 26, 2008
Last year Stewart Stanyard’s terrific new book Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone opened up a new avenue into television history when it published a huge cache of never-before-seen production photos from fifty or so Twilight Zone segments. It was the first glimpse I’d ever had of many of the series’ soundstages, props, makeup effects, directors, and crew members. The text of the book wisely supplements rather than rehashes Marc Scott Zicree’s definitive Twilight Zone Companion, mainly through new interviews with surviving Zone participants who testify at greater length than they did for Zicree. (There’s an accompanying website with a lot of additional material, although the frame-based design quickly gave me a headache. The webmaster, “tzoneman,” is apparently Mr. Stanyard.) Between these two books, the website, and the extras in the DVD collections (which I’ve barely begun to dip into), The Twilight Zone has become the only important television show of its vintage for which we have exhaustive, multi-media documentation of its production.
I wouldn’t plug Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone if I’d found many mistakes in it, but one thing did nag at me when I first read it. In this photo on page 229 from the taping of the segment “Long Distance Call” (the one where Lost in Space‘s Billy Mumy talks to his dead grandma on a toy phone), the caption identifies the bald man standing behind Mumy as the episode’s director, James Sheldon:
But Sheldon has become a friend since I approached him for an interview a couple of years ago, and this fellow in the picture didn’t look at all like James – even though, given the difference of over 45 years, who could really be sure? The uncertainty bothered me enough that I finally showed the book to James, who confirmed that he is not the man in the photo (and that, for the record, he still has all his own hair).
And then I became very glad that I had asked, because James pulled out one of his scrapbooks and showed me several photos from his private collection that were taken on that set on that same day in 1961. He has graciously allowed me to reproduce a couple of them to clarify matters. Here’s an image of Mumy standing behind the same table. James Sheldon is the man in the white shirt right in the center of the photo. (He couldn’t remember the name of the young man at right, standing directly behind Mumy, but thought he was the stage manager. “Long Distance Call,” you’ll remember, was one of the six videotaped episodes, which had technical crews more akin to live broadcasts than filmed series.)
Now I was curious as to the identity of the bald man in the original photo. If he wasn’t the director, who was he, and what was he saying to Mumy as the child actor dipped into his ice cream? I spotted him in the background of a few of James’s other stills. Here’s one in which James is giving direction to Lili Darvas, the legendary Hungarian stage actress (playing the grandmother).
The bald man is in the background, and seems to be directing his attention to the cabinet behind Ms. Darvas. It’s purely a guess, but I’d wager he’s the prop man. In that case, if I’m not mistaken, Mumy’s ice cream would also fall under his jurisdiction.
Of course, I present this small correction not as a knock against Mr. Stanyard’s fine research, but as a supplement to it. One of the ways in which the internet can be useful (and in which, unfortunately, outposts like Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database often tend to be counterproductive) is as an arena for like-minded aficionados to share data and comment upon each other’s work. I’ll continue to use this blog periodically as a forum for this sort of exchange whenever the opportunity presents itself.