Fate Moves Its Huge Finger

September 11, 2013

MorseFinger

And now Barry Morse is flipping me off, too!

Next week marks the fiftieth (!) anniversary of The Fugitive, one of the four or five TV shows that got me into this racket.  Here’s my new piece about it for The A.V. Club.  Let’s hope you like it more than Lt. Gerard seems to.

The Bird Is the Word

August 23, 2013

Finger

Delays, delays, delays, but as promised there are some good interviews and Ben Casey leftovers coming in the next week or so.  In the meantime, if you haven’t, check out one of the reasons for those delays: my take on Breaking Bad for The A.V. Club, which ran last week.  William Daniels (seen here on Quincy, M.E.) looks like he just read it.

BC

My 2,500-word overview of Ben Casey went up today at The A.V. Club.  It’s one of two one and one-eleventh bylines I’ll have there this week (which is one reason things have been a little sparse here lately).

The A.V. Club’s commitment to vintage TV is not new — my editor, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote about The Defenders and Route 66 under this “100 Episodes” umbrella last year.  But, still, I remain impressed and somewhat astonished that they’re introducing their vast readership to shows like Ben Casey, which are not just old but, in this case, not especially easy to see at present.  So please give it a read, and leave a comment there if you’re inclined, because I think the number and quality of comments are sort of like the A.V. Club version of Nielsen ratings.

(And the Ben Casey piece was originally meant to include some rare clips from the Classic TV History Archives — otherwise known as some boxes in my closet — but largely due to a snafu on my part it’s looking like that won’t happen.  Sorry.)

If you’re wondering, last month’s epic study of Vince Edwards, Director, was actually in the works before the A.V. Club piece materialized.  But, let’s go with it anyway and declare this The Summer of Ben Casey at the Classic TV History blog!  There are a couple of time-sensitive things in the pipeline first, but over the next few weeks I’ll loop back to Ben Casey and run a few “sidebars” here, comprised of odds and ends from my research that were too tangential to make it into the A.V. Club piece.  Also, if you haven’t already, now would be a good time to read my old interviews with the last surviving star of Ben Casey, the wonderfully irascible Harry Landers, and my favorite Ben Casey writer, Norman Katkov.

As long as I’m in plugging mode, I’ll also point out that a documentary on which I worked as the primary archival researcher, Casting By, premieres tonight at 9PM on HBO.  (I believe it’s also available on HBO on Demand.)  The director, Tom Donahue, was also foolish enough to put me on camera as a “talking head,” but if you keep your hand poised over the fast-forward button during the first fifteen minutes or so, you may be able to dodge that particular bullet.

Seriously though: Casting By focuses on two important early casting directors, Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster, both of whom got their start in television . . . so there’s enough material in there about shows like Kraft Television Theatre, Route 66, Naked City, and Gunsmoke that the film will be of interest to anyone who reads this blog regularly.  I’ve also gotten to know the filmmakers — particularly Tom, with whom I spent two icy days plundering the archives of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, but also the producers, Kate Lacey and Ilan Arboleda, and the cinematographer, Peter Bolte — and have had the privilege of tagging along on parts of their journey through the festival circuit to this impressive pickup.  (Said journey culminating in a premiere party last week where, appropriately, we all geeked out over the presence of favorite character actors like The Good Wife‘s Zach Grenier and Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche.)  I think the results are very impressive.  So check it out.

Old TV

Homework

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

A TCM For Television

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.

Anniversaries

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.

B.E.M.

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.

Channel Surfing

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.

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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.

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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.

Lost in the Outer Limits

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:

THE HAUNTED
(a.k.a. The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre)
(1965) Directed by Joseph Stefano

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.

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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.

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