April 14, 2012
Time once again to give myself a little breathing room by turning your attention to some other TV-related stuff on the internet that’s worth readin’.
In this piece about one of the great forgotten comedy series, The Bill Cosby Show, Mark Holcomb briefly acknowledges my own blog post about the show, and further flatters me by reusing the screen grabs I took. But that’s all the credit I can hog, because Holcomb’s insights into why Cosby’s first self-named series was so eccentric and wonderful are much sharper and more detailed than my own. Dammit.
I guess The New Yorker can’t afford copy editors for its blog content, since this piece about The World of Henry Orient misspells the name of its screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson, and identifies its producer incorrectly (it was Jerome Hellman, not Jerome Hill). Nevertheless, the writer, John Colapinto, dug up something truly fascinating in the message boards of the Internet Movie Database (one of my secret sources for tracing obscure people, or finding scurrilous gossip about them). Although one of its unknown stars, Tippy Walker, did have a minor television career in the sixties (chiefly in arcs on the serialized Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place), The World of Henry Orient is a movie, a good, eccentric, unclassifiable movie about two teenage girls and their precarious interactions (sexual, parental) with the adult world. The film becomes all the more poignant, or disturbing, when one realizes that its director, George Roy Hill, was boinking the seventeen year-old Miss Walker during and, briefly, after is production. (In yet another editing error, Colapinto is inconsistent about Walker’s age at the time, but seventeen seems to be correct.) Colapinto’s discovery was that Walker herself quietly fielded questions from fans for several years on the IMDb boards, writing with poor spelling but spare, moving honesty about her troubled life as a starlet who never quite made it. Colapinto mines a potent contrast between the fragile Walker and her co-star, Merrie Spaeth, who went on to a very public life as the hand up the felt-lined asshole of various Republican politicians and CEOs. (If that made you think, “Yecchhh,” well, join the club.)
The other thing that bothers me about Colapinto’s reporting is that he seems to be declaring both actresses as officially found. But Walker’s IMDb posts ended abruptly in 2008, and a lot can happen to someone in four years, especially someone who casually admits to having gone through “periods of homelessness.” I’d say it’s a “whatever happened to…?” file that remains very much open.
Here’s an entertaining interview with one of the most ubiquitous of sixties-and-beyond lead guest stars, Bradford Dillman. Dillman, a slim Anthony Perkins type, played a lot of neurotic and often flat-out-crazy bad guys in his day. He’s now a writer and has enough wit to weave his way through what almost becomes one of those “wait, I was in that?” sessions. It’s very tough to mine the good stories from actors who did one of everything but rarely had a job that lasted more than a week.
The only thing better than a TV actor interview is a TV writer interview, and here’s one with longtime soap opera scribe Sam Hall. Hall’s claim to fame is his long stint on Dark Shadows, and while that material is covered in revealing detail (Hall’s complicated relationship with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis is particularly noteworthy), the interviewer, Jay Blotcher, was thorough enough to quiz Hall on his earliest days as a live television dramatist, too.
Fernwood 2Night is a self-reflexive seventies comedy I’ve never seen, a sort-of spin-off from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I’ve also never seen. But from what I’ve read, I suspect I’d have a hard time disliking either. Here’s a recent appreciation, by Richard Metzger, of Fernwood, a piece that is valuable in particular for the brief recollections offered by Bob Illes, one of the show’s writers, in the comments section. Illes clarifies some misconceptions about the series and gives a lot of credit to Alan Thicke, the actor-writer-talk show host who remains the butt of a lot of doofus jokes, years after his career sputtered out. Here’s another of those credibility-demolishing declarations: I always thought that Thicke’s clueless dad routine on Growing Pains was fucking hilarious, a knowing spoof of the fifties Ward Cleaver archetype.
Just another reminder that my old pal Ralph Senensky is still going strong at his curiously named (since it’s mostly about television) blog, Ralph’s Cinema Trek, with great new stories about the TV episodes he directed. In a sad coincidence, Ralph’s latest piece, on the Waltons episode “The Firestorm,” mentions his friend Barry Cahill, who died this week at 90. Square-jawed and solidly built, but not menacing enough to play heavies, Cahill was the definition of the all-purpose actor. He was married to Rachel Ames, a one-time television ingenue later famous for her long run on General Hospital.
So CBS, home to that notoriously Fugitive-averse legal team, has in its lawyerly wisdom cease-and-desisted an amateur group’s filming of an unproduced Star Trek script by Norman Spinrad (author of the classic episode “The Doomsday Machine”). I was with the fans on this one until I got to this passage:
“These executives should be phasered on heavy stun,” said Harmon Fields of Manhattan, who called himself “a ‘Star Trek’ fan of galactic proportions.”
If you want some new TV coverage, check out this detailed interview with Mad Men’s set decorator, who reveals the inspirations and sources for many of the pieces in Don Draper’s swanky new apartment. I’m not touching Season Five until it’s over, and I also haven’t yet seen Luck, which shockingly is over, thanks to a cruel slash-and-burn campaign by the typically out-of-touch-with-reality PETA. (Luck was cancelled due to the widely-reported deaths of three horses during production, even though the American Humane Association signed off on the show’s safety procedures, and Luck’s standards may have exceeded the production accorded to equines in the actual horse racing industry.) Here’s a very measured, thoughtful consideration of the ethics of Luck’s unenviable situation by Matt Zoller Seitz, who also snagged a revealing interview with the show’s creators, David Milch and Michael Mann. (I’m a big fan of Mann’s work but I think Milch is a ponderous fraud, so I have no idea what I’ll think of Luck.)
Seitz, incidentally, has emerged as perhaps our finest television critic of the moment. I was not often in tune with Seitz when he reviewed films for the New York Press (in a section that included two other talented writers, Armond White and Godfrey Cheshire); he was perhaps best known for his obsessive love for the director Terrence Malick, who may be the only poseur in Hollywood with an emptier head than David Milch. But Seitz is a very knowledgeable and thoughtful television reviewer, who invented (I think; am I wrong about this?), or at the very least helped to popularize, the episode-recap style of reviewing on his blog The House Next Door (since handed over to other minders). I’m dubious about the value of that kind of instant-impressions writing (David Simon, creator of The Wire, took a jab at it in this recent interview), but I’ve been enjoying Seitz’s imposing Mad Men write-ups this month, confident that the best bits will seep into my subconscious and emerge to enrich my experience of Season Five when the Blu-rays come out in a year or so.
A reader wrote in a few days ago asking me to “demolish” this blog post in which Macleans critic Jaime Weinman argues that – well, I’m not sure what he’s arguing, exactly, since he equivocates all over the place. But the question at hand is whether modern television ROOLZ, YO! when compared to older television, which may be “too limited and convention-ridden to qualify as ‘great.’”
Nothing here strikes me as terribly new or interesting but, since someone asked, I’ll say that I didn’t react with the expected outrage (classic TV shows must be defended against the heretics!) but with a kind of weary sadness that bloggers so often feel impelled to weigh in on a subject in which they don’t seem to have much interest in engaging. Does the beast really need to be fed that badly? I don’t disagree with all of Weinman’s points. He overstates the exceptionality of HBO (is he unaware of all the network and basic cable shows, from Veronica Mars to The Shield, that have expanded the boundaries of television just as much?), and sees Twin Peaks as the beginning of an era of quality television drama that actually extends back to Hill Street Blues and especially St. Elsewhere. but Weinman is right in that good television has a trajectory. The medium demands more of its audience now; it has had to break new ground to remain vital. The Wire isn’t a better series than The Defenders, but it is more complicated – more characters, longer stories. I know television enthusiasts who can’t make that transition. Their taste remains excellent up to a certain cut-off date and after that, they just can’t cope with some element of newfangledness, whether it’s dramas without heroes (like The Sopranos) or sitcoms without laughtracks.
Weinman’s post comes in response to a similar screed by another blogger, one Rose Woodhouse, that is so condescending, self-contradictory, and blatantly attention-seeking that it doesn’t bear serious examination. What strikes me most about Woodhouse’s piece is how transparently the author clings to her comfort zone. Even though her post is called “Old TV Is Bad TV,” and she argues that “almost all TV made before the 1990s is crap” and “the last ten years totally trumps the previous fifty,” Woodhouse offers not one single early television show that she personally despises, or that she considers undeserving of a reputation as a classic. There is, however, a long and faintly apologetic list of exceptions that Woodhouse enjoys, including The Prisoner (“pretty cool”), Your Show of Shows, and “the TV movie of Marty” (by which I suppose she means the live broadcast of Chayefsky’s original teleplay).
The question that comes to mind is why, if fourteen television programs made between the fifties and the eighties gave her some degree of pleasure, Woodhouse doesn’t feel the urge to explore those decades further, in the hope of finding more to like? I guess it’s just easier to put those fourteen on permanent repeat (or perhaps file them away, with due self-congratulation, as dutifully-endured classics) and just dismiss everything else as crap. I wouldn’t ordinarily single a relatively obscure blogger over this (and a teacher, no less, although hopefully not of writing, since she employs phrases like “love me some Dick Van Dyke” and “Roots and All in the Family are the best on non-cultural information merits,” whatever those are). But last year the New York Times ran a specatularly dim-witted and instantly infamous op-ed piece called “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” in which some dunce named Dan Kois gave himself a high-five for failing to understand and/or avoiding altogether certain modestly demanding films, such as Meek’s Cutoff and Solaris. It seems to me that incuriosity is never a defensible stance for a critic to take – and while that is a terribly obvious, Criticism-101 observation, it is apparently one that the Times either doesn’t get or will gladly disregard for a shot at going viral. At least Kois got paid handsomely to rationalize his disengagement. Any of us who write for free and take the same attitude should maybe think about taking a nap instead.
November 16, 2011
Seeing as how I probably won’t have a new piece ready this week (I was going to run the Warren Oates Fried Egg Monster pic again, but I’ll spare you), go read this instead. It’s not the first time I’ve heard a fan, a collector, or a reader of this blog bemoan the absence of a post-TV Land channel devoted exclusively to old TV shows. But Noel Murray, of the A.V. Club, makes perhaps the most thorough and articulate case possible for such a thing. Here’s hoping.
October 16, 2011
Today is special day for our friend Ralph Senensky. If you visit this space regularly, you know that Ralph is a former television director of some note as well as a blogger and an occasional commenter here. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Ralph’s debut as a television director. On October 16, 1961, he stepped onto the set for the first day of shooting on his first television episode, a Dr. Kildare called “Johnny Temple.” Congratulations, Ralph!
As it happens, today also marks a milestone for the Classic TV History Blog. WordPress tells me that this is my 200th post. It’s been almost four years, and I haven’t been cancelled yet! This seems like a good time to thank everyone who reads this blog, especially the subscribers and the commenters. If you didn’t keep coming back, I wouldn’t bother. There’s still a lot of television history to cover, and I guess I’ll keep doing it for a while longer.
June 21, 2011
Like Warren Oates on The Outer Limits, I’ve been having a bit of a problem with my eyes lately.
My prognosis is better than Warren’s turned out to be. However, my recreational viewing came to an abrupt halt about three weeks ago, and that hiatus will probably continue for a while longer.
I hate blogger sob stories, but I want to offer this as a partial explanation as to why a particular type of piece I often undertake – the kind of bread-and-butter criticism whereby I watch some TV series or episode for the first time and offer some reactions to it – has been missing in action lately. It occurred to me that some regulars here might notice that I’m not actually writing much about old television at the moment and suspect mission drift or television fatigue. Alas, the actual reason is more prosaic. I’ll still be publishing aplenty, but I’m not happy about the balance of content at the moment, and that will probably remain a bit out of whack for another couple of months or so.
And, er, if you’ve sent me a review copy of something, it’ll take even longer than it usually does for me to get to it. As Warren Oates might have said, “Sorry.”
Carry on with your watching.
May 17, 2011
Regular reader Mitchell Hadley has launched a new blog about classic television, called It’s About TV. Not much content there yet, but elsewhere Hadley has a long piece on the history of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the “first made-for-TV opera,” which should serve as a preview of things to come. Hopefully It’s About TV will take the place of the lamented TV Obscurities blog, which has kept its promise of going dark.
Also newly blogging: radio and television historian Martin Grams, Jr. I enjoyed Grams’s most recent piece, on the history of the 1966-1968 Batman TV series, which (like his books) draws on extensive archival research. Indeed, because of the source, it’s more a history of the Batman that wasn’t: actors who almost guest-starred as Batvillains (Greer Garson?!), movie sequels that weren’t (Batman vs. Godzilla?), off-screen shenanigans (Shelley Winters was a bitch). Grams explains why John Astin briefly replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and reprints a survey of the popularity of the series’ recurring villains, which Catwoman wins by a wide margin (crotch vote!) .
In his Twilight Zone episode guide, Grams deliberately avoided critiquing the series, but he pronounces the sixties Batman “stupid.” He prefers the recent Christopher Nolan films. I wish he’d expand those opinions into a longer editorial. I adored the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman when I was a kid, but I have to admit that I wasn’t as impressed when I stumbled across it again during college. And while I thought Batman Begins was awful, I liked most of The Dark Knight. So I guess I’m ambivalent, or agnostic, on the subject of screen Batmen.
Grams’s essay includes scans of about a half-dozen documents from Batman‘s production files, which are taken from his personal collection of some 3,000 such items. Those are fascinating to look at, and come with a hilarious screed warning “obsessed fan boys” (shouldn’t that be one word?) not to bother asking for copies. Grams doesn’t say where he acquired these documents, but I’d wager that they come from to the archives of the University of Wyoming, which holds the papers of Batman executive producer William Dozier. (If you’re wondering, why Wyoming? I’m told it’s simply because for a while the archives there were actively soliciting the papers of people who worked in movies and television.) I’m somewhat less clear about why an individual would want to amass a roomful of paperwork on a TV show he doesn’t even like.
I just noticed this small but remarkable trove of behind-the-scenes photos from The Andy Griffith Show. It’s been around for a couple of years, but now the people responsible for it are on Facebook, apparently with some new images that are exclusive there. (That link probably won’t work unless you’re a member of Facebook, and already signed in). Andy Griffith Show director (and former character actor) Bob Sweeney is prominent in a number of the photos, and I wonder if perhaps they originated from his personal collection.
Related to that is this wonderful, thorough site devoted to the Desilu (formerly RKO) backlot, where The Andy Griffith Show was filmed. You may tear up when you see downtown in various stages of disrepair, prior to its demolition in 1976, on this page.
I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing a favorite photo below, from the 1963 episode “Mountain Wedding.” Andy looks like I feel most days.
January 3, 2011
Reader Bobby J. has pointed out to me that bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri will be following up their completed “Thriller a Day” project, in which they offered Siskel-and-Ebert style kibitzing on each episode of Thriller, with a similar rundown on The Outer Limits. They’ve already started with the pilot, “The Galaxy Being,” and some introductory notes that promise guest essayists and other surprises.
I wrote last fall that Enfantino and Scoleri’s Thriller reviews worked better conceptually than in the execution, and I have a feeling that their Outer Limits coverage may turn out the same way. (Enfantino describes Cliff Robertson’s “Galaxy Being” character as “a handsome science geek . . . a good-natured dude” and Jacqueline Scott as “our first Outer Limits babe.” Oy.)
However, the project seems to have been godfathered by David J. Schow, the author of The Outer Limits Companion, and Schow has left lengthy and revealing comments on each post so far. I’m curious to see what Schow will have to say as he revisits The Outer Limits in print some two and a half decades since his book was first published. Among other things, Schow teases “upcoming news of a very important Outer Limits-oriented ‘screening event’ to take place in the LA area in February.” That could be any number of things, but if it turns out to be the Holy Grail — The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, a horror-themed pilot that Joseph Stefano made during the run of The Outer Limits – then, well, my flight is booked.
One other thing I learned from the new Outer Limits blog is that Schow’s (and Jeffrey Frentzen’s) book on the series is now out-of-print, and collectible. It’s distressing that such an important reference work isn’t easily accessible (but not surprising; most of Pauline Kael’s collected reviews are long out of print, too!). The 1998 revision of the book goes for big bucks on Amazon now, and that is a surprise, because I finally thumbed through a new copy of it for the first time (as I noted here, I remain nostalgically committed to the pulp-paper first edition) in a bookstore less than a year ago. (No, I’m not telling you where.) Schow has generously permitted the reprinting of pages from the second edition on Enfantino and Scoleri’s blog, and his comments there hint at a possible third edition. Let’s have it, Mr. Schow!
UPDATE: “Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” it is, screening at the the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater on February 20. I don’t know all the details, but apparently a print resurfaced at UCLA in recent years. From the program calendar:
Martin Landau stars as a Los Angeles-based architect-cum-paranormal investigator who specializes in assessing and exorcising old homes. Stefano here weaves together vengeance, hallucinogens and a “bleeding ghost” in a gothic telefilm that was deemed too frightening to air by network executives. Stefano’s only directorial effort, this extremely rare pilot never aired in the U.S.
Producer: Joseph Stefano. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano. Cinematographer: William A. Fraker, Conrad Hall. Editor: Anthony DiMarco. Cast: Martin Landau, Judith Anderson, Diane Baker, Nellie Burt, Tom Simcox. 16mm, b/w, 52 min.
Meanwhile, the mysterious blogger behind the TV Obscurities blog, which I praised only a few months ago, has announced his retirement. Blog fatigue: it’s a killer. There seems to be a point around the two- or three-year mark where bloggers hit a wall and hang it up (TV Obscurities’ archives go back to November 2008), and I get why: what was novel at first turns into a grind. Writing obits and reviews turns formulaic; the subjects are different, but the process is the same.
You may have noticed a slowdown in this space over the last few months, but in case you’re wondering, I am, so far as I know, still here for the long haul. I’ve been writing this blog for just over three years now (yikes!), but I’m still having fun. Finding time to write them remains a challenge, but I have plenty of ideas mapped out for 2011, as well as more oral histories for the main site (which has been neglected for too long) and hopefully some announcements about work that will appear in other venues as well. So I hope that my regular readers — and yes, I do keep tabs on you via your comments and the software that WordPress uses to track site visitors — will stick around, too.
October 9, 2010
I don’t know why I feel compelled to apologize when there’s a lengthy gap between posts (hey, it’s not like you guys are paying for this stuff). But I feel guilty in spite of myself. Anyhow, there will be a lot of new content coming here soon, particularly in the DVD and book review categories. In the meantime, as has become the custom when I’m busy, I’m going to vamp for time by redistributing some links.
Like everybody else in the movie-and-TV blogosphere, I felt like the Grim Reaper was punching me in the face all last week. Actually, it goes back a little further: First we lost Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, both on September 11. McCarthy was one of my favorites, underrated in particular as a villain, and yet doomed to be remembered mainly for one role, his atypical starring turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here’s a sentence from the penultimate paragraph in the Los Angeles Times obit for McCarthy: “He was a founding member of the Actors Studio.” Talk about burying the lede.
Gould was one of those all-purpose character players who always seemed to me to be doing the same thing (which was: not very much) no matter what kind of part he was playing. I don’t think Gould ever surprised me. Judging from the tributes, Gould had a lot of fans, and more power to them; but every time he made an entrance, I always felt a twinge of regret that the producer hadn’t cast a more exciting actor. We all have a few actors who make us feel that way, I’d wager. I remember, back when I was a college student and had discovered Pauline Kael for the first time, feeling relieved by her irrational, unfair hatred of Hume Cronyn, who she singled out for ridicule every time she reviewed one of his films. Not that I had a problem with Cronyn – I don’t – but because I’d been waiting for permission to write about actors in that way, with the gloves off. Sorry, Harold.
Then there were Arthur Penn, one of the last of the important live television directors (more on him in a separate post to come); Tony Curtis, who did some significant television work on The Persuaders and Vega$ as his movie career began to decline; and Art Gilmore, a legendary narrator and voiceover artist who, like a lot of voice artists, enjoyed a secondary career as a character actor. Gilmore was one of Jack Webb’s repertory company, and when I was fourteen or so, I (like all teenagers) spent a lot of time trying to distinguish him from Clark Howat and the other blandly authoritative actors who played police lieutenants or captains all the time on Dragnet and Adam-12.
Somewhere in there came (or rather went) Joe Mantell, famous for a pair of best friend roles: he was the sidekick to both Martys, Rod Steiger on television and Ernest Borgnine in the film, and then to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown. He delivered iconic lines in both but managed to remain anonymous, as only character actors can. A lot of people seem to remember Mantell for a tour-de-force in a Twilight Zone I always forget, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” When I sought him out for an interview around 1998, he was more like a crabby man in an Encino bungalow. Mantell talked to me on the phone, reluctantly, for a few minutes, but clearly did not care to reminisce. There’s a modern character actor with a similarly ferrety face named Michael Mantell, who I always took to be Joe Mantell’s son, but the obituaries seem to have disproved that hypothesis.
Finally there was Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of all time. I’m aware that Cannell has a few credits with some heft to them (The Rockford Files, of course, and one friend of mine swears that Wiseguy, which I’ve never seen, is a masterpiece), but basically I thought of him as Aaron Spelling with a little more of an edge. The Los Angeles Times reports that Cannell had a “golden touch” (I would’ve said, “golden tan”) and that he produced 1,500 television episodes and wrote 450. I’ll buy the 1,500 but can anyone point me toward a list of 450 produced Cannell teleplays? I’m also dismayed to learn that I’ve been mispronouncing Cannell’s name for decades (it rhymes with “flannel”). That’s going to take a long time to re-learn. Anyway, Lee Goldberg has a short but warm reminiscence on his blog.
Lost amid all the high-wattage names was a belated report of the death of television writer-director Clyde Ware, who is probably best remembered as a prolific Gunsmoke contributor for a couple of years around the time the long-running western series shifted to color. Ware also wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. that became the second episode to be expanded into a feature film (The Spy With My Face), and two exceptional Rawhides from the revisionist Bruce Geller-Bernard Kowalski season. Later in his rather unpredictable career Ware did stints as a story editor on Bonanza and a producer-writer on Airwolf. Not long after he was established in the business, Ware turned auteur, writing and directing the made-for-television movies The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, with Martin Sheen in the title role, and The Hatfields and the McCoys. Prior to that Ware made a pair of independent feature films, both starring Sheen, that I’ve always wanted to see: No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Through. I believe these were both released on VHS decades ago, but apart from that they’re among the many American films of the 1970s that have fallen into utter obscurity.
The only obituary for Clyde Ware appeared in Variety, an important source for that kind of information that has fallen off the internet-aggregation site radar since it began partially firewalling its content earlier this year. Variety ran the obit on September 16 and as of now the Internet Movie Database still hasn’t recorded Ware’s death, or updated his birthdate (to December 22, 1930; Ware had successfully subtracted six years from his age in all the reference books).
I must give a shout-out to Tom B. of the Boot Hill blog, which was the first place to reproduce the text of the Ware’s Variety obit – in violation of copyright, I suppose, but in compliance with today’s netiquette, like it or not. For over a year now, Tom B. has been archiving death notices of anyone who ever worked on a motion picture western. And since almost everybody who worked steadily in the movies prior to 1980 passed through a western at some point, Tom’s blog has become a handy general reference for movie fans and historians. It’s a great example of a specialist’s narrow interest taking on a value beyond its original domain. For instance, it’s only due to the Boot Hill site that I’ve learned today of the death of Anabel Shaw, a minor ingenue of the forties and fifties. I only vaguely remember Shaw from a small role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it seems that she also had a key supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis’s astonishing film noir from 1949, Gun Crazy.
CBS’s repurposing of the title of its towering sixties legal drama The Defenders to a bland-sounding new legal drama starring Jim Belushi this season made me mildly grumpy. But since it gave Sara Fishko’s WNYC radio show an excuse to devote a program to the real The Defenders, all is forgiven. Excerpts from Fishko’s interviews with Defenders vets David Rintels, Ernest Kinoy, and Ellen Rose (a secretary in the Defenders office who married its creator, Reginald Rose, during production) are here.
Kliph Nesteroff, who wrote a great piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis that I linked to a while ago, is back with another amazingly well-researched story, this one on the politics of the writing staff of Laugh-In. I know even less about Laugh-In than I did about Al Lewis – I’ve only seen a few clips here and there – so this was an even more fascinating read. Nesteroff’s argument is that, in contrast to the outspoken The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In was a totally unthreatening show, an establishment-friendly outpost that appropriated the look of the counterculture as “smoke and mirrors” to conceal its lack of political commitment or, indeed, even a covert right-wing agenda. The evidence that Nesteroff marshals, especially regarding Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes, is jaw-dropping.
And yet Laugh-In retains a reputation as a politically relevant program. That’s probably one of those canards that proves very obviously inaccurate whenever anyone who actually sits down and studies the facts, but remains enshrined in the historical record thanks to lazy journalists and historians. Sort of like that nonsense about how Reagan “won” the Cold War – a lie that comes to mind because it seems particularly central to the beliefs of one idiot who litters my comments section with a litany of retrograde conservative talking points any time I write something even tangentially political. I’m guessing this graph means we’ll be treated to another dose of the same.
My own review copy must have gotten lost in the mail, but ever since the entire Thriller series came out on DVD last month, bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have been reviewing an episode a day in a conversational, Siskel-and-Ebert-style format. There are sixty-seven episodes of Thriller, the terrific Boris Karloff-hosted anthology of crime and gothic horror stories that ran from 1960 to 1962, and as of this writing the pair are about halfway through. It’s a neat idea that has drawn some overdue attention to Thriller in the pop-culture blogosphere.
Initially, reluctantly, I wasn’t going to link to their blog because most of Enfantino’s and Scoleri’s dispatches struck me as jokey and not very insightful. But then they had an even better idea, which was to intersperse their episode critiques with interviews with the many historians and other Thriller enthusiasts who contributed audio commentaries to the DVD set, and those posts are worth reading. They offer some very frank examples of the minutiae of creating supplementary materials for DVDs, and of the almost insurmountable challenges that prevent these extras from being as good as they should be. The interviewees thus far are Steve Mitchell, Gary Gerani, David J. Schow, Larry Blamire, Alan Brennert, and Lucy Chase Williams.
The extras on the Thriller set are copious and worthwhile. But they are still limited in value, largely because only a few of the surviving participants were called upon to participate. (They include Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, and Arthur Hiller.) The executive producer William Frye and a key writer, Donald Sanford, are both still living but neither is in evidence on the DVDs. Frye, who lives in Palm Springs, told me recently that he was available for interviews, but not over the phone (which is why you haven’t heard from him yet in this space).
The interviews conducted by Scoleri and Enfantino shed some light on the reasons behind the obvious omissions in the Thriller extras. Apparently Image Entertainment, which released the DVDs, gave the extras producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani, only three weeks to get everything together. From what I’ve heard over the years, that is a typical scenario. If you think about this too hard, you’ll start to weep for all the priceless documentation that could’ve been added to the DVDs of your favorite shows if the corporate types at the top actually gave a damn.
These interviews have a significance beyond Thriller. They’re a snapshot of a fin de siecle moment, as the dominent mode for home video is shifting from DVD to internet streaming, and the whole idea of supplemental material (and for that matter, acceptable image quality) are going the way of the dodo. Maybe I’m just projecting, but the interviewers’ comments seem suffused with awareness that they’re participating in the end of an era.
Corrections Department, Part 5.1: Matt Zoller Seitz has a pair of articles on Salon in which he nominates the twenty best television pilots, ten dramas and ten comedies. They’re structured as slide shows, which is irritating, but it’s worth clicking through twenty times to see Seitz’s choices. Most of them are predictable, but Seitz’s arguments are persuasive. Although this criterion remains implicit in the text, Seitz only showcases pilots for series that were artistically and/or commercially successful. I’m tempted to respond, at some point, with a list of great pilots for lousy shows: things like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters or Crime Story or Flash Forward, which set up a promising premise that the producers and writers couldn’t figure out how to sustain.
I’ve praised Seitz’s work here before and so I hate to have to point out a major error in his piece. Contrary to the headline, Seitz has come up with a list of nineteen pilots and one premiere episode. Out of Seitz’s twenty selections, the most inspired may be Sam Peckinpah’s mournful, short-lived The Westerner, which ran for thirteen weeks in 1959. The pilot for the series was called “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” and as was common in the days of the dramatic anthology, it was broadcast as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater in the spring prior to The Westerner’s fall debut. But the “pilot” that Seitz describes at length is not “Trouble at Tres Cruces” but the first regular episode of The Westerner, “Jeff.”
Referring to a television show’s debut as its pilot is a kind of lazy shorthand that drives me up the wall, sort of like when a journalist attends the “taping” of a show that’s being shot on film (instead of, you know, tape). But, as we see here, the pilot and the first episode of a series are not always one and the same. Remarkably, Seitz’s review of the non-pilot of The Westerner has gone uncorrected on Salon’s website (and unnoticed among the more than one hundred reader comments) for more than two weeks. Early television history has become the province of obsessives, I guess, and copy editing is even deader than DVD extras.
June 8, 2010
I don’t often link to other writers’ work in this space. It’s not because I’m a snob – it’s just that I can barely stay on top of my own pieces. (Case in point: I don’t have anything on tap this week.)
But I would be remiss if I didn’t direct everyone to this terrific piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis by one Kliph Nesteroff (who should display his byline more prominently). I haven’t watched The Munsters since I was a kid, but since then, I’ve come to know Lewis for his dramatic roles in some live television during the late fifties, and then as a frequent guest star on Naked City and Route 66. At that point, Lewis was a classic “New York” type of character actor, often playing gangsters and other menacing roles (he was taller than you’d guess). He’s credible in those parts even if you only know Lewis from the comic side of his career (The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54, The Munsters), which seems to have outlasted the rest.
“Grandpa,” it turns out, was full of shit. He padded his resume and his personal life with a lot of lies, and the discrepancies regarding his age were reported widely when he entered politics. Only after Lewis died was it established with some certainty that he had (for reasons that remain murky) added thirteen years to his age. I had read about all of that before, but Mr. Nesteroff has applied some thorough legwork toward investigating which of Lewis’s fish stories are bullshit and which aren’t. The results may surprise you. I was gratified to learn, for instance, that Lewis’s credentials as a lifelong progressive activist mostly check out – a fact that goes a long way toward redeeming a personality that otherwise sounds kind of insufferable.
I was also intrigued by the anecdotes in Nesteroff’s piece that involved Lewis’s Munsters co-star, Fred Gwynne. Gwynne, it would appear, was a darker and more complex fellow than his most famous character, the amiable Herman Munster. If we’re lucky, Mr. Nesteroff will next turn his attention to Gwynne’s life story.
Al Lewis menaces Martin Milner on Route 66 (“The Thin White Line”).