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Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.

Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years.  By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.

The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it.  “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death.  At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively.  He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science.  But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either.  Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.

That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon.  “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it.  A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory.  Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting.  The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos.  Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his.  “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully.  Ain’t that the truth.

Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes.  In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating.  Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks.  A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton?  The ending feels uneasy.  Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier.  (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)

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Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season.  McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama).  Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.

(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man Fron U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)

The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin.  Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department.  McNeely told me that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.

Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms.  (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)

I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House.  Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career.  That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.

How did you get started writing in television?

The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that.  I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall.  So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something.  I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.

Then you had to sell it.

It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story.  I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim.  So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?”  Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it.  Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”

So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her.  Flora Roberts was her name.  [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets.  They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].

She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed.  And she submitted it to every other show in town.  Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed.  Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it.  People used to ask me: How do you break into TV?  I’d say, “It’s very simple.  You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”

I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about.  When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day.  That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was.  One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read.  She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention.  Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.”  That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.

I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier.  And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff.  I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it.  Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax.  Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.

But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast.  Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry.  What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.”  There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.

Had you gone to New York for Studio One?  What was that experience like?

Yes.  The experience was mindblowing.  My jaw was hanging open most of the time.  Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors.  I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice.  I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air.  So I paid my own way once, as I recall.

I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be.  It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist.  Only if you lived on one coast or the other.

Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing.   The International Teleplay Competition, they called it.  They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else.  As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000.  It was substantial, for that day and age at least.  So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition.  They had hundreds, I heard later.  Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.

A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me.  We had mutual friends.  She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here.  And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”

Well, I didn’t win the contest.  I won second place.  George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten.  He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.”  George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it.  He did want to do mine.  So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.

So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?

Yes.  So, again, from nothing.  My career was non-existent and stalled.  Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue.  I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling.  Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare.  He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work.  And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].

How long did you stay in Chicago?  When did you finally move to Los Angeles?

Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences.  I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A.  Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.

So you were still teaching the whole time?

Yeah.  An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.

That was really unusual at that point.

It was.  I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year.  They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go.  I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award.  So I didn’t go, and won it!  And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!

What script was that for?

I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.

What was that about?

And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background.  I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau.  It was a folk fantasy, sort of.  Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately.  They’re very religious.  They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door.  A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door.  He says, “I’m an angel.  The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help.  So I’m here to get you some water.”  The people are dazzled, confused.  There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black.  They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White.  Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village.  And each claims that he’s going to save the village.  The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide.  Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match.  [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence.  It just isn’t done any more.”  This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match?  If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.”  So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match.  They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser.  And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.

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Is there a twist at the ending?  Do you remember how it ends?

Oh, I remember how it ends.  They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle.  The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water.  And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning.  The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest.  Linus, the agnostic, says, “No.  Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.”  That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them.  But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?”  And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water.  It’s a sweet little story.

Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?

Oh, yes, I was.

Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?

No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan.  The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.”  So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew].  It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was.  It got wonderful reaction.  Time magazine did a piece about it, and me.  John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review.  If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.

Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?

I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference.  It was the first time I’d ever been to California.

What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?

A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught.  The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course.  His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade.  The professor says, “I can’t do that.  I can’t just give you a grade.  You really flunked this course.”  So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor.  But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.

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And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?

Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area.  Rainstorm.  He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body.  Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man.  He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing.  Just breaking up.  It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say.  Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified.  When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him.  The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him.  He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.”  It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.

There was a four-year gap between those last two shows.  Were you writing spec scripts during that time?

Yes.  But none of them sold.

Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?

To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first.  I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels.  I did a season of summer stock.  But I was married.  We had a child.  My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor.  And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense.  So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position.  I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing.  I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests.  So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that.  It all fell into place.  I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.

Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer?  Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?

Yes, it was.  The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such.  I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.

Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?

I’d have to say no.  There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so.  Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing.  I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s.  He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic.  I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.

Rod was something of a celebrity by that time.  He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful.  The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least.  We couldn’t pay them a fee.  I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it.  He just did it as a courtesy to me.

Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling.  Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.

How would you divide your time between your two jobs?

I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer.  One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings.  By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world.  I got my full professorship at a very young age.  So I had done what I wanted to do there.  I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer.  Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer.  That was a very easy step.  The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step.  Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air.  That was painful.

Why?

Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done.  It will be different.  It may be better, but it will be different.  If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control.  You can do it the way you had envisioned it.

Do you mean in terms of casting?  Rewrites?

As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control.  You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure.  Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office.  But all of the decisions [were the producer’s].  The use of music always has been very important to me.  My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.

Can you elaborate on that?

I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process.  One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia.  The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire.  The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it.  The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner.  John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying.  He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey.  It’s such an incredibly touching moment.  I can’t watch it today without bawling.  And David Shire proposed something very startling to me.  He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”

So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”

He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey.  Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down.  As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.”  It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it.  And he did.  But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it.  I wanted to be a part of it.

It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.

Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare].  And David Victor, who was the executive producer.  Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.

Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?

Yes, I did.  And I enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections.  I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job.  So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.

A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.

Marshall was a doctor.  He contacted me.  He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship.  He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing.  And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.”  They let me try it, and I did.  So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.

The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.

That, I would say, is deliberate.  That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.

So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.

Yeah.  Right.  Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.

“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.

We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her.  It was her real nose.

Really?  Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.

No.  You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous.  But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life.  It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”

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Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?

No.  It was a dramatist’s invention.  I didn’t get it from her, certainly.  She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.

I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!

Well, yes.  I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.

Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.

I understand what you’re saying.  I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton].  I think that accurately describes my work.  I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.

Because that’s what interested you about writing?  More than plot or character?

Yes.  Right.

A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?

I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first.  I really think it was all part of the package.  If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important.  And useful.

Useful in telling the story?

Yes.  And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain.  I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.

Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral?  For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.

No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game.  It was toy time.  For me.  I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E.  It was fun.  I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit.  I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows.  But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre.  A bad show.  It’s got to be a bad show.  And that’s the premise of The Producers.  So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.

My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form.  I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music.  I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great.  I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in.  Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music?  No way!  All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.

GlassVegas

One of the great faces on the margins of your television screen belongs to the man pictured above: Seamon Glass.  Initially a boxer and a stuntman, Glass became a familiar figure in movies and television episodes as his imposing, 6’3” physique and rough features made him a go-to guy for thugs, bums, and various other tough guys and ne’er-do-wells.

Along with his dozens of guest parts on television, which included a fistful of Perry Masons and a bit part in the famous Star Trek episode “Mudd’s Women,” Glass appeared in films including Spartacus, Deliverance, Slither, Damnation Alley, and The Rose.  Early in his career, he played the lead role in 1962’s This Is Not a Test, a strange independent film about nuclear war that has a small cult following today.

Last fall, I watched an episode of Vega$ (yes, there was a reason; long story) in which Glass (above), mute and clad in a black turtleneck, made a strong impression as a gunsel doing the bidding of top-billed baddies Cesar Romero and Moses Gunn.  What kind of an off-screen life does an actor like that lead? I wondered, and looked up Glass’s number.

Amiable and forthright, Glass hastened to point out that his memory had been somewhat impaired by a stroke a few years ago.  But if some of his days as a day player had become fuzzy, Glass was still able to answer my main question, as he filled in some of the fascinating backstory behind his part-time life as an actor – and the dozen or so other professions he pursued to supplement his celluloid pastime.

 

How did you get into the movie business?

I was a boxer.  I had about 41 amateur fights and about six professional ones.  Sort of at the end of that, there were actors and producers and directors that would come to the gym on 4th Street, and they wanted to learn how to box, but they didn’t want to get hit.  They didn’t want to get hurt.  So I would work out with them.  So I got my first job on You Asked For It.  I used to work out with the director, Fred Gadette.  He got me started in AFTRA.  I worked on Divorce Court, Day in Court, and I did one movie [for Gadette] which was called This Is Not a Test.

A couple of other actors and directors got me into SAG.  My first job was Spartacus.  I worked on Spartacus as a stunt man.  I never met any of the principal actors at all, though.  We did it on the beach about thirty miles up from where I live in Santa Monica.  We rode out [into the ocean], came back in, and they’re fighting on the beach, and a horse takes a crap between the camera and the boat, so they said, “All right, do it again.”  So we do it again, and the second time we come in we’re broadside.  You know what that means?  On a boat if you come in sideways, it doesn’t look good.  So we did it a third time – there was about ten of us on the boat, all dressed like Spartans – and they gave each of us about 600 bucks.  It cost about 250 to get into SAG at that time, so I thought, “Should I join SAG or should I just go out and have a ball?”  The best thing I ever did – I joined SAG.  And after that, I started getting a number of shows and it went on and on.

Did you do a lot of other stunt work?

I did fight stunts, because I used to be a boxer.  I did some of those, and then I started getting picture work, small stuff.  I’m not a trained actor.  I did go to a couple of classes after I started, but I never became a dedicated actor, let me put it that way.

Well, you had a very distinctive face – I imagine that was an important asset.

That helped.  I had a face that they liked.  Then they liked what I did, so they gave me another job.

If you weren’t a dedicated actor, how did you make a living?

I was a teacher and a counselor for three different districts, but I retired from L.A. Unified.  I spent about 27 years with them.  But I had two teaching jobs before that with two years apiece, so altogether I put in about 31 years.

How did you balance that with the film jobs?

Well, it did get in the way.  For instance, I worked on that Elvis Presley show, Kid Galahad.  They wanted me for a week.  Then it went for two weeks, and then they wanted me to go for three weeks.  I went for three weeks, and then they said they wanted me to go for six weeks, and the principal said, “Either get back or you’re finished.”  I thought, “Well, I’m not going to become an actor,” so I quit, and all the actors said I was crazy.  Maybe I was.

Are you still in the movie?  How did they work around your departure?

I’m in the movie, but they had to cut out part of my lines.  At the beginning they show me boxing, that’s all.  They were really pissed off.

Where there other times where that happened?

Yeah, another time it happened with Captain Newman, M.D.  I was kind of like a psycho in the hospital.  Same thing.  They said a week.  Okay, I did a week.  Went to two weeks.  Then they wanted me to go six, seven weeks and the principal said, “Either that or [teaching].”  And I never felt like I was going to be an actor, since I wasn’t trained.  There’s a lot of time in between when you get called, and I just didn’t like the idea of sitting by the telephone all the time.

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Glass (right) as a criminal in an episode of Lawbreaker (1964).

Did you have an agent?

Yeah.  I’m sure you never heard of him, but his name was Hugh French.  He was a friend of mine.  He’d always call me and he wanted me to go to a striptease joint or a bar or something.  He was an Englishman, and he lived in the Malibu Colony.  He really supported me.  I was the only nobody he had.  He had all big stars.  He had Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  One day he calls me – this is before Richard Burton did anything in the United States – and he says, “Did you ever hear of Richard Burton?”  I said, “Never heard of him.”  He said, “Nobody has, but everybody’s going to hear of him.”  Do you know where Chez Jay is?

Oh, yeah, that little dinky place ….

That dinky place near the pier.  I live a couple of hundred yards away from there.  Hugh says, “I want you to meet Richard Burton.”  I says, “Yeah, all right.”  I was in the merchant marines and I’d just got off a giant freighter.  I said, “Hugh, I just paid all my bar bills and I’m broke.”  He said, “I’ll pick up the tab.”  Well, he wasn’t the type of guy that picked up tabs often, so I went with him.

Richard Burton, we’re drinking there together, and I thought I could drink.  This guy buried me.  Triple shots, he was drinking.  [French] said, “I’ve got a proposition for you.  Richard Burton’s going to become big, and he needs a bodyguard.  How about the job?”  Well, I had just gotten off a ship and I had gotten a teaching position.  I thought, if I go with this guy, I’m going to be drinking and carousing.  So I turned it down.

So you were an actor, a teacher, and a sailor?

You know what the merchant marine is?  You don’t wear a uniform, but you work on ships.  You don’t get paid like the military do, you get paid very well.  I shipped out in the merchant marine off and on for about twelve years.  I would start getting bored.  I used to teach and I’d get tired of it and ship out.  I liked sitting on a ship and I liked going to see all these foreign, exotic parts.

Hugh French became my agent, and you know why he dropped me?  When school was out, I went down to the harbor to sign up, and there was what they called a pierhead jump: Get on the ship right now, because it’s leaving and they’re shorthanded.  So I took it.  And when I got back, a couple of months later, everybody in every bar in town – I used to drink a lot – and in every bar in town they were saying, “Hugh French was looking for you.”  He had me where I didn’t even need an audition and I had a job on a John Wayne movie, and I blew it.  He was so upset he dropped me as a client.

Wait, now, this just occurred to me: You were a seaman and your name is Seamon.

It wasn’t spelled the same.

But, still, it must’ve been a subject of mirth among your fellow sailors.

Oh, yeah.  In the Marine Corps they really gave me hell about it.

It’s an unusual name.

My mother and father were born in Poland.  They told me it comes from the Bible, the Old Testament, but I’ve tried to find out [and] I can’t do it.

Was Glass derived from a Polish name?

Well, they were Polish Jews.  Their ancestors came from Germany.  I think it was originally Altglas, which means “old glass” in German.

Did you go to school on the G.I. Bill?

Yeah, I went on the G.I. Bill.  I had a disability from the service, which I still do.  A hearing aid from a bombing attack in the Marshall Islands.  I was in the Marines during World War II.  I had my 18th birthday in British Samoa, which is now Western Samoa.  Robert Louis Stevenson is buried on top of the mountain there.  Then I spent my 19th birthday in the Marshalls, and my 20th somewhere at sea.  I was a good Marine but I was in the brig four times.  And for nothing that I was ashamed of!

I never finished high school, so I had to go to junior college and get my high school credits.  I went to Santa Monica Junior College.  I became the heavyweight champion of Santa Monica Junior College, which got me into boxing.  Then when I went back to sea – I was doing some commercial fishing too; actually, poaching lobsters – I got some kind of illness, and I went back to live with my mother in East L.A.  Belvedere, near Boyle Heights.  My father passed away when I was eleven.  He was an engineer.  Then my poor mother had to put up with me all the time.  I went to East L.A. Junior College as I recovered and graduated there, before I went to Cal State L.A.  In between I would ship out.

What subjects did you teach?

I taught in elementary school for about fifteen years, and then I took a couple of classes and went into a junior high school Pacoima.  It’s a tough neighborhood in the Valley.  Then I went to Lawndale, [where] all the students were from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.  Their families were following the fruit, and then they got jobs in the airplane [factories].  When I went to [interview] for it, in those days if you were a teacher you had to wear a tie, in every place, but not in Lawndale.  So I took the job there, and it was the biggest mistake, because they gave me what the kids called the tough class.  Every third day some kid’d come in and say, “I want to get into the tough class.”  I’d say, “Well, we’re all filled up.”  Then they’d go out and act up and so they’d put’em in my class.  So after two years, I went back to sea.

Then when I came back I passed the test for L.A.  But my first job was in Alturas, which is a small country town where Oregon and Nevada touch the California line.  The reason I took that job is, I got a paper from the principal that said “Hunting, fishing, skiing, small town.”  I’d never been to a small town.  I’m from Brooklyn!  I left when I was thirteen to come to California, but I was born in New York.  So I went there and it was two great years of teaching, except they were all lumberjacks and cowboys.  Real cowboys.  And railroad men, but there were no railroads that went through the town.  They threw me in jail one day, and guess who bailed me out?  The PTA.

Then the last phase of your teaching career was at Fairfax High in Hollywood.

Yeah.  I went in as an English teacher, but I didn’t particularly care for English as much as I liked social studies, so I ended up teaching social studies.  And in the last fifteen years I was a counselor.

Which of your television appearances do you remember?  You were on Perry Mason a number of times.

About eight times.  There was a producer who lived in Malibu, Art Seid, and he used to get me most of the jobs there.  I knew him socially.  I used to play chess with one of the Perry Mason regulars, and he got really pissed off because I beat him – William Hopper.

I did a couple of The Beverly Hillbillies.  When I was a kid, Max Baer himself would come walking down the beach, and he was a very impressive-looking guy.  This was after he quit boxing.  Max Baer, Jr., was a big, nice guy, but nothing like his father as far as being physically intimidating.

Ron Ely used to come to the gym to learn how to box.  Basically he got better than I was.  Then he got Tarzan and he said, “If I ever get a chance, I’ll get you some work.”  So one day he called me from Mexico.  Then he got me a job in Mexico City, and I was the heavy, the bad guy.  We fought, and of course he beat me up in the picture.  I was there about three or four weeks.  It was a really good job.

Don Murray’s another guy I met at the gym, and boxed with him without hurting him.  He has a couple of kids, and I was teaching them how to box.  He got me a couple of jobs.  He got me a job and I was supposed to ride a horse.  I’m not too comfortable on a horse, and this was bareback!

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Glass (center, top) in Kojak (“The Chinatown Murders,” 1974) and Mannix (“To Quote a Dead Man,” 1973).

And what about your feature films – which ones stand out for you?

I had an on-camera fight with Woody Allen.  Sleeper is where he wakes up in the future.  I’m chasing him, I’m a guard.  Then we’re fighting and I’m really knocking myself out, because I didn’t want to hurt him.  In fact, he bloodied my nose, because he made a mistake.  He was very apologetic.

I was in Enemy of the People, with Steve McQueen.  I was a stuntman.  I did about a week on it and took us all out of the movie.  [The original director] got fired, and they fired all of us.  They fired anything that George Schaefer hired.

You know who Charles Pierce was?  I did about six movies for him.  I liked him.  He was an absolutely non-Hollywood type.  He’s from Texarkana.  He saw me in Deliverance, and that’s how I got the [first] picture.

You were in The Norsemen for him ….

One of the worst pictures that was ever made.  It was horrible.

Ha!  Why?

Well …. Charlie was a con man, but really a likeable one, not an evil one that’s gonna hurt anybody.  The Norsemen, we went to Florida to do it, and – do you remember who Deacon Jones was?  A black football player.  I said, “Charlie, you can’t have a black Norseman.  They didn’t have them!”  He said, “Okay, we’ll make him a slave.”  So he did.  But Charlie was one of the luckiest guys, and a con man of the first order.  He’d go into these studios and talk ’em into sponsoring a picture.  He could sell.  I really liked him.  I did a picture in Montana with him, and two in Arkansas, I think.  Hawken [retitled Hawken’s Breed] was Tennessee, but I don’t think it was ever finished.  They ran out of money or something.

What was it like when you’d share a scene with a big star or a renowned actor, like Henry Fonda?

I wanted to do a good job, but I wasn’t awestruck.  There were some of them I just didn’t care for, personally.

Such as?

Well, I didn’t like Tony Curtis.  Just because one time I walked out of the studio door and I didn’t know he was behind me, and the door slammed in his face and he really got upset about it.

Which movie stars did you like?

Gregory Peck, I really respected him.  Even though I never got to converse [or] get social with him, I just liked his demeanor and the way he did his business.  I thought he was very mature, and a gentleman, put it that way.  I liked Elvis Presley.  I thought he was a good guy.  He gave me a pair of boxing shoes.

What did your students think about your acting career?

[Chuckles.]  They went to see everything I did.  A couple of those backfired.  They wrote a criticism – the director really jumped all over me about it.  They wrote a fan letter.  They said, “It was a lousy picture, but Mr. Glass was good!”  The director really got pissed off at me.   I went up for another part with him [and] he told me about it.  I said, “I didn’t do it!”  He thought I [had written the letter].

I’ll bet you have lots of “on the fringes of Hollywood” stories.

You remember Anna Maria Alberghetti?  I got called in by Hugh French one time.  Her agent was there.  They said, “Anna Maria Alberghetti, we gotta promote her, and she needs a fighter.”  So I became her fighter.  I’ve only had six professional fights, but she was my manager.  Got a lot of publicity.  I trained, and I fought Big Bob Albright.  He eventually fought for the title.  I went out there and I thought, “Gee, if I can knock this guy out, I’ll really go someplace.”  But I lost.

(From an AP story of April 29, 1960, entitled “Flyweight Anna Maria Enters World of Pugs”: “She’s a fight manager.  She is also very well-known as a singer – at the Met in New York, the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and other plush joints.  ‘Yes, it’s true.  I’m a manager now,’ said Miss Alberghetti, her big, brown eyes shiny.  ‘That’s him, over there.  He’s a young prospect, they say.’  ‘Him’ is Seaman Glass [sic], a heavyweight.  Miss Alberghetti happily explained that her manager, Pierre Cossette, figured she ought to invest a few dollars in something other than real estate or banks or the entertainment business.  ‘So we got him.  Isn’t he wonderful?’  Glass came over and offered a huge paw to shake …. She posed for a photographer, with Seaman pressing a glove against her cheek.  Later Anna Maria whispered, ‘Those gloves sure do smell, don’t they?’ …. Seaman was boxing around here long before she wore pigtails, and … in 1955 he retired after getting flattened in a preliminary on the Art Aragon-Vince Martinez card …. [Now], at the age of 34, Glass was attempting a comeback …. ‘Yes, I’m 34 but I like to box,’ said good-natured Glass.  ‘But somehow I get tensed up in the ring.'”)

I was Darryl Zanuck’s daughter’s bodyguard.  Her name was Darrylin.  Bobby Jacks, a producer, was a friend of mine.  When he and Darrylin separated, before they got divorced, he asked me to be her bodyguard.  So I lived on a Malibu ranch with her for a number of months.  I had just got off a merchant ship.  Pretty soon she needed protection from me!

What do you mean by that?

Darrylin was driving up and down Santa Monica Canyon in her convertible, and I was sitting in one of the restaurants, and she was yelling, “Seamon Glass is fired!  Seamon Glass is fired!”  I went outside and said, “You can’t fire me, Darrylin.”  She says, “Why not?”  “Because I quit!”  But we got along pretty good.  She was very pretty, and a very skilled surfboarder.  I never met Darryl, but she said that he had people following me.  Then about a year later she opened up a dress shop in Santa Monica Canyon and asked me to be the maitre d’, because she had a lot of important people coming in.  She called it the maitre d’, but I was a bouncer.  She hired me to be in it when they opened up for four or five days, just so there wouldn’t be any drunken actors – I don’t want to repeat their names – they came in.

And Chez Jay sounds central to your life and career.

I started tending bar at Sinbad’s, which is on the Santa Monica Pier.  A lot of actors went in there.  Jay [Fiondella] and I were tending bar and I was, modestly speaking, the second worst bartender in town.  Jay was the worst.  But he was a good-looking guy, and the girls would just flock into that place.  Some really wealthy guy [whose] hobby was opening up bars and putting people he liked in there, he put Jay in there [in Chez Jay].  Jay was giving the joint away.  His mother, who was about 70 years old, was a teacher in Connecticut, and she came and straightened the whole place out.  Everybody idolized her.  I was among the guys who sent her a Mother’s Day card for twelve or thirteen years.  She was crossing the street one day and some associate producer who was a total idiot went around a car and killed her.  He was in a hurry to get to the airport.  Jay was lost without her.

Jay (using the name Jay Della) was a part-time actor, too, right?

Oh, he started way before I did.  He did a lot of acting.  But they usually cut him out, because he was a terrible actor.

You also practice yoga, and you wrote a novel (Half-Assed Marines) about World War II.  What other vocations have you had?

For about seventeen years, while teaching, as a summer job I worked as a harbor patrolman on the pier.  I wrote for the local newspaper for twenty years.  It went belly-up about five or six years ago.  First it was called The Santa Monica Independent, then it was called The Good Life.  I had a whole column.  I wrote about all the losers and characters in town.

In the early eighties, your acting career came to a fairly abrupt halt.

About 1983, somebody – an American – wrote me a letter from China and said there was a job teaching English as a second language in China.  I’d been to Hong Kong, which had belonged to the British at the time, and so I took it.  I went to China, taught for a year, in a place called Hangzhou, of which Marco Polo said in the 5th Century, “It’s heaven on earth.”  It really is a gorgeous place.  And I met a girl there, came back, then took another job in China, in Guangzhou, where they don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese.  So I went there and I married the girl that I’d met in Hangzhou.  We’re still married; that’s twenty years.  She’s a lot younger than I am.  In fact, I got her into show business – when she came here, she got a national commercial on the Superbowl, and then a couple of other things and a couple of modeling jobs and then she said, “I don’t want to do this any more.”  Her name is Yan Zhang.

Did you enjoy acting?  Was it satisfying creatively?

Yeah, it was, but it was nothing I wanted to devote myself to.  You know, I did a couple of plays with guys that were really good, devoted, dedicated actors, that loved to do the stuff.  I never loved it.  I enjoyed it because it was a change from the regular routine.  I never got into the social life of acting, and producing, and directing.  I never got friendly with them.  There’s a lot of kissin’ ass in that business, let me put it that way.  I can understand people doing it, but it didn’t attract me at all.

Munnecke Credit

During the final two seasons of Playhouse 90, Joy Munnecke was a story consultant (and, more broadly, an all-purpose staffer) for the segments produced by Herbert Brodkin.  In a recent interview, Munnecke talked about working for Brodkin, the famous “Judgment at Nuremberg” censorship, and how women functioned in fifties television.

How did you get started on Playhouse 90?

At that time I had been working at Studio One, which transferred from New York to Hollywood.  I was with Norman Felton’s unit.  Norman and I both came from Herb Brodkin’s production company in New York.  When Studio One went to Hollywood [in 1957], Herb did not want to go.  I don’t know whether they asked him; I don’t think they did.  But his second-in-command, Norman Felton, was going to go.  When Studio One [went] on hiatus in the summer, Norman Felton took over, and many of the people, particularly the producers, took a vacation.  So Norman Felton stepped up one notch, and [associate producer] Phil Barry went one notch and I went one notch.  My notch was from secretary to assistant story editor.  We did the summer ones, and then it went to Hollywood.

When Herb Brodkin was asked to do [Playhouse 90], he pulled us all together again.  The first one I worked on was, I think, “The Velvet Alley,” which is 1958, I think it was.

One of the things Herb did that I thought was very big and wonderful: In New York Herb Brodkin and a director by the name of Alex Segal.  He was pretty much of a genius, but very hard to work for.  I was a production assistant for him.  When I say hard to work for – they yell at each other, you know, in the theatre sometimes.  And it’s difficult.  There were articles about Alex, because he was a very emotional director.  He was doing The U.S. Steel Hour and Herb was doing The Elgin Hour.  The rivalry was tremendous, because of how many people were tuning in, and who was getting which stars, and what were the budgets.  They were very competitive.  But in Playhouse 90, Herb, for the first time, asked Alex to come and direct one of the shows.  Alex came and everything was fine, no problems.  It was a lovely experience to see two people who had been such rivals growing up, as it were – saying, okay, we can do it together.

How did the Playhouse 90 producers – Brodkin, John Houseman, Fred Coe, and to a lesser extent Peter Kortner – divide up the episodes?

The four producers didn’t work together.  They had different offices, different staff, and so forth.  Our offices were right next to Fred Coe’s unit, so you’d kind of overlap.  You knew people.  But we were really kind of competitive about who’s got a better script, and who knows which writer, and that sort of thing.

From September to October, four weeks, would be one producer [staging episodes], and then another producer would do four, or three.  But they all were working at the same time.  While one of us was in rehearsal, the other was looking for scripts, and working with the writers or whatever.  So you had time to really prepare the things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Playhouse 90 was so good.  It’s as though it was a Broadway opening every Thursday night.  You did quite a bit of preparatory work.

What were your duties?  You were a story editor?

Mostly my credit was “story consultant.”  I looked for scripts, [and] to find ideas for plays.  Anything that was submitted would come first to me, except of course for writers who were known to the producer.  When an idea or a story came, it would have to be synopsized and sent to the network executives, who would look at it and see whether they felt this was a good idea.  It would have to pass by them.  Then it would go into a first draft, a second draft, and whatever.  I would be part of the whole situation in the story development, from the idea to the end of it.  In a way, it was a kind of selling of the idea to the network so that they wouldn’t get upset about things.  There were some stories that they never wanted to touch, and those were all because of economic reasons.  For example, the southern states would not want to see anything that would have too many people who were black, or whatever.  So you had all those things to try to get through the network.

Backing up for a moment, how did you first come to work for Herbert Brodkin in New York?

I started in the news department at ABC as a gofer, sort of.  But I did want to go with a dramatic show, because that was my training in school.  The Elgin Watch company wanted to have a show, and Herb Brodkin was going to be the producer.  I said, “Well, I’d like, really, to leave news.”  I was there when they did the Army-McCarthy hearings.  That was a very exciting time.

What were you doing during the hearings?

When I was working there, like anybody just out college, I just wanted to work on a show.  The only show that they wanted to put me into was Walter Winchell’s show, and I would just be in there on a Sunday afternoon for the broadcast.  But I got to know the different people, and I became the secretary of the head of special events, John Madigan.  He had been in radio news.  This was in 1953, and they were putting a lot of people from radio into television.

The secretaries in the programming department had a little earphone on their desk, and you were expected to listen in on all the conversations so that you knew what was going on all the time.  If [the newsmen] had to know something on the telephone, you’d slip [them] a little paper and say “This is what that is.”  Anyway, I kept getting telephone calls, and Madigan kept saying, “No, I won’t talk to this man.”  It was Roy Cohn, the right-hand man of Senator McCarthy.  He wanted very much to get some publicity.  John Madigan said, “No.  Just keep telling him no until I say go.  Then I’ll take the call.”  So the time came when he knew it was right to get the network to cover the hearings.  In those days, one of the three major networks would take the pool, and they took all the equipment to save everything duplicating.  ABC did the whole Army-McCarthy hearings out of their 7 West 66th office, which had been a riding academy.

Anyway, from the news department, then, I started with Herb Brodkin as his secretary.  That was The Elgin Hour, and then he was hired to go over to NBC to do the Alcoa-Goodyear show.  I went over with the Brodkin unit.  They brought the casting people, and I wanted to go more towards the literary end of it, and worked there briefly as a production assistant but then as an assistant story editor, because they didn’t want to jump you too soon.  There wasn’t a story editor, so I was the assistant when there was nobody to assist.  Then they decided to change it to story consultant, because what we found was that most writers don’t like to have an “editor” coming at them.  The writers would say to me, “I like having a consultant.  I can bounce things over with you and it won’t be edited.  It’s not somebody who’s going to want to change my script.”

So I would go through the whole production experience that way, starting with sometimes looking for material and thinking about who might be the good writer to write it.  You see, by coming through the assistant way of being a secretary to someone, you knew what sort of thing they wanted to do.  Herbert Brodkin was particularly interested in doing a lot of things from the holocaust.  And of course I was aware of “Judgment at Nuremberg” from the very beginning.  The story idea was from Herb Brodkin to [writer] Abby Mann.

Really?  It originated with Brodkin rather than Abby Mann?

Yes.  That was really an assignment.  I think they just sort of talked about it.  I can remember that we just called it “the Nuremberg trials story.”  Those things happened that way.

Why was Brodkin interested in the holocaust, particularly?

He was Jewish, and I think he just felt that it should be understood and people should be aware of this, and not just push it under the rug.  He was a very sensitive and very bright man, and very difficult to work with, because he didn’t have any patience with superficial nonsense, if you know what I mean.  I think it was part of his integrity.  Integrity was a very important word with him.  I mean, there was still a great deal of anti-semitism in the country, and he felt that he wanted people to realize that it was pretty horrible in its extreme.

What do you recall about the famous incident of muting the references to the gas chambers?

We knew that this would be trouble.  Brodkin said, “I don’t care.  This story should be told as it is, and if we move people, it’s good.  It’s not bad.”  And I don’t think anybody really thought it through that The Gas Company was our sponsor.

What was the nature of the objections raised by the sponsor?

Someone said this must be very difficult, and someone with an engineering background – On the screen, [a character] said “This must be very difficult,” and someone said “Oh, it’s not difficult at all, all you have to do is put the [gas] through the pipes and so on.”  Instead of saying it’s difficult to kill another human being – oh, it’s not difficult, it’s easy.  That bothered people, I think.  Yes.  Anything that was disturbing, they had to be convinced that it was a good thing.  They don’t want to offend people.  They don’t want to move people too much.  And the artists, of course, all they wanted to do was to move people and to have a statement.  And Herb Brodkin had a very different feeling of these things as being a force for good.  So he would broach no argument from these people.  He would say, “No, this is the way the story is going to be done, and let’s see what happens.”

My feeling about it is that it probably [would have been] a much simpler thing to have done it on a week when The Gas Company wasn’t the sponsor.  But Herb just said to do it anyway.  That’s your problem whether it’s The Gas Company, was his point [with CBS].  So as it happened, at the last minute, it was the network that did it, that took out the word.  Which was stupid, you know.  But on the other hand, I think if anybody wanted to make a splash, they certainly did!

It was very conspicuous.

Yes, exactly that.  It just called attention to it.  And I don’t think the artistic people minded a bit to get the publicity for it.

What was Brodkin’s reaction to the outcome?

That it was just the commercial instincts overshadowing the artistic, and he was quite furious with it.  He had many arguments with these people, and he wasn’t too diplomatic about things.  But he was, as I say, he was always fighting for the integrity of the artists.

Were there any Playhouse 90s that you would personally take some credit for having developed?

Yes, I do remember one particularly.  The short story “Tomorrow,” by Faulkner, came to my attention [from] someone in the story department, and I read it and I said, “How about Horton Foote?”  That was a successful one, and it became a very good film [in 1972].  Before that time, Horton Foote had done one or two shows for Herb, but he worked mostly with the Fred Coe unit.

Which of the major live TV writers do you associate with Brodkin?

Reginald Rose.  Do you know [Rose’s Alcoa Hour script] “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”?  That is the first time they ever said “goddamn” on television.  And that was a horrible problem for me, because I had to answer 2,000 letters from people!

The story in that one was about prejudice against Mexicans; the temporary town was a trailer park, and some girl was upset because she was being accosted by some boy.  They thought it must be one of the Mexican kids, but it turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed blond kid.  It became a riot between these people in this trailer park, and a whole lot of people were storming through the trailers, and Lloyd Bridges had a stick in his hand.  I don’t think many people really know this story this way, but this is the way I heard it told: He hit the stick against the fence or something and the stick broke in half.  And he said “Goddamn it!” because the stick broke, and it came over the microphone.  People wrote in and said, “I fell off the sofa when I heard that on television!”

Well, Herb said, “Let’s just not tell anybody that it was because the stick broke, but just say that he was upset because of [the content of] the script.”  We had to have the star and the script have some basis for swearing on television.

So Brodkin could take a controversy like that and spin it to his advantage.

Yes.  It was a question of survival.

There was a Jewish group in New York called the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, and they gave an award to people who were [fighting] prejudice.  It was a nice monetary award.  It was given in June, and we were on hiatus, but I was still working in the office.  I was asked to go to the luncheon and pick up these $5,000 checks for the three people involved in the production of “Tragedy of a Temporary Town.”  The producer [Brodkin] was in his summer home, and I sent his to him, and the other ones were for the writer and the director: Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet.  So after the luncheon I took the check down to Greenwich Village, where they were in a film studio.  As I came in, the bell rang for silence, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get out,” and Reggie said, “No, no, no.  Stand here.  You’re bringing us these checks – this is good luck!  We’re doing our very first scene in our very first film.”  And it was Henry Fonda opening the window in 12 Angry Men.

Were one of the only woman on Herbert Brodkin’s creative staff?

No, Joan MacDonald was the casting director.  She was outstanding.  Probably my mentor in many ways.  And there were a lot more.  Women were very welcome in television.  Herb was the same with women or men.  Maybe a woman wouldn’t be thought of for a technical job so much or anything, but that was very prevalent in that period.

I mean, it wasn’t quite like the way it is in Mad Men.  I did work in advertising, where [sexism] was more prevalent, as it is in the series.

You mean it’s more sexist in Mad Men than what you experienced?

Yes.  Advertising was more like that, but I didn’t feel that in broadcasting – there were women there.  There were women who were assistant directors.  Particularly at ABC.  That was kind of the tag-along network at that time.  They were a little more informal.

I remember I said to Norman Felton, “I’d like to go to Hollywood.  I think that’s where television’s going to be.”  He asked, “Well, would you like to be the story editor with Studio One in Hollywood?”  I said, “Yes, I would.”  I didn’t know what [salary] to ask; I didn’t have an agent.  So I went to Herb Brodkin and I said, “Norman asked me what I’d like to have in compensation.”  Herb said, “Don’t ask for more money.  You don’t have any leverage for anything like that.  Just ask for a credit.”  So I [asked for] the assistant editor credit.  Then when I worked for Norman and Herb wanted me back to work on Playhouse 90, I went to Norman and he told me what to ask for for compensation.  So they kind of told me how to bargain [with each other], as you do in business to go up a notch.  That was sort of the way people were helpful to one another.

Were you treated as an equal by the men?  By the writers you were working with, in particular?

Being on the team – it’s like a family.  You’re either welcome in the meeting or not, you know?  And sometimes you’re welcome because you smile and nod and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  That doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, but it is, in the way things go in a company of players, you know what I’m saying?  Then you get trusted and then maybe you can say, “But why are you doing that?”

Reginald Rose was so close to Herb, I didn’t have any input with anything he did.  In my experience with Regigie, it was just making things pleasant in the office, and [making certain] that everybody knew what was going on, and that sort of thing.  But it wasn’t that I could touch his scripts.  So I was just in the group to get the coffee and do whatever was necessary.  I wouldn’t have presumed to say, “You’ve got a weak second act” or something like that.

With a more junior writer, like Mayo Simon or Loring Mandel, would you behave differently?

Yes, they would come and maybe tell me a little bit of their problems.  The only thing about creative people that I felt that I could do was to make it comfortable for them, in an intellectual way.  Like a book editor would be.  You’re not going to write the book for them, but you might say, “I don’t know about that thing.”  But these people knew what they were doing, usually.

Did you ever work with Rod Serling?

That’s one of my favorite memories.  When I first was assigned to The Elgin Hour, there was a girl who was working on the thing, and she said, “Oh, some of these people are horrible, hard to work with, these writers, they’re awful!”  And she said, “But, oh, it’s interesting, there’s this one guy.  He’s awfully nice.  Can’t write a thing.  But he’s so nice, you just wouldn’t realize he’s a writer!  You just have to remember, just don’t put a ‘t’ in his name.  It’s not Sterling, it’s Serling.”  I often think of that when people say all artists are temperamental.  He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to know.  Just a regular sort of person who knew everybody’s name and talked to everybody.

What happened when Playhouse 90 ended?

It didn’t end with a bang but with a whimper.  Brodkin went back to New York and he was going to do The Nurses and The Defenders.  He asked me to go back to New York and work on the show, but I didn’t want to.  I wanted to stay in California.  I was still under contract to CBS, to work with the story people.  John Houseman came in to do a show, and some other people were doing shows.  One of the things I would do at the end is, they would have one of the actors come and have a little spiel about the next week’s show, and I’d have to write that.

What did you do after you left CBS?

I had the most horrible time, because you can’t go from the palace, as it were, to start working in something else.  So I got married [to CBS executive Charles Schnebel]!  I worked for a short while at PBS, as a kind of assistant producer, and again in the news department at KCET here in California.  But I never did find a niche in television again, because I think I was really quite spoiled to work on those dramatic shows.  People would say, “We don’t do the anthology type shows any more,” and they didn’t trust me for a series, because it was an entirely different thing.

It was a fascinating and stimulating place to be, and I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t think.

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Ralph Woolsey was born before World War I.

Woolsey, who turned 100 on January 1, is best known the cinematographer on more than a dozen cult and exploitation movies of the 1970s, some of them outliers in the New Hollywood movement of innovative, European-influenced studio filmmaking: The Lawyer; The Strawberry Statement; Little Fauss and Big Halsy; Deadhead Miles; The Culpepper Cattle Co.; The New Centurions; Dirty Little Billy; Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins; Lifeguard; Mother, Jugs & Speed; and The Great Santini.  Woolsey photographed The Mack as well as The Pack, and two features for John Frankenheimer, The Iceman Cometh and 99 44/100% Dead.

Before he transitioned into features, though, Woolsey was a prolific director of photography in television.  He made a comparatively late entry into the medium via Warner Bros., which needed a large corps of DPs to churn out the suddenly popular Westerns and private eye shows that put its TV department on the map in the late fifties.  Fast and cheap, the Warners shows attracted a mix of newcomers and veterans, many of them favored more for speed than talent.

After Warner’s television department faltered in the mid-sixties, Woolsey followed 77 Sunset Strip producer Howie Horwitz to Fox, where he became the original director of photography for Batman.  Next Woolsey moved to Universal, where he worked on It Takes a Thief (for which he won an Emmy) and The Name of the Game.

In June of 2012, I spoke with Woolsey about his career by telephone.  Although many of the shows and the stars (especially at Warners, where DPs rotated among a dozen different shows instead of settling in on just one) were a blur, Woolsey had some fascinating, detailed recollections of the nuts and bolts of his profession and of many of the directors with whom he worked.

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How did you get involved with Warner Bros. in the early days of its television operation?

The first show was Maverick.  Basically, I was a freelance cinematographer, while I was teaching in the cinema department at USC.  I did commercials and things like that.  I had an agent who, one day, got me a fill-in job at Warner Bros.  I had never worked at Warner Bros., and it seemed like I was just a short replacement for somebody who was sick.  I went out there, and Warner Bros. was practically shut down at that time.  There wasn’t much going.  Television was just getting started.  There was sort of a legend around there that television was like poison, and they didn’t want anything to do with it.  There were stories about Jack Warner firing actors when he found out that they had TV sets in their dressing rooms.

But anyway, they were at the point that they weren’t making any features.  They were gearing up to do some television shows.  The reason that I got this call was that the cameraman who was going to shoot it – he was a well-known Hollywood guy – was sick.  Not only that, the director, who was another well-known Hollywood guy, also got sick.  So my job was to replace the cameraman, and the guy who was to replace the director was a well-known figure named Howard W. Koch.  He had quite a career at Paramount.  

Now, all the people were hired and the sets were built and the actors were ready and the makeup people were all geared up to go on my say-so.  This was the situation that I stepped in to.  So we went to work and everything went along very smoothly.  Howard Koch was extremely knowledgeable and didn’t waste any time.  As a matter of fact, we were going home on time, which was by most standards of that time was early.

Of course, the camera crew tested me like they would a stranger.  The new boss steps in and takes over, which meant that I had to deal with the art director and the sets that he had arranged and all the other stuff.  But the crew was top-notch and as you might expect at a major studio, the equipment was as good as you could ask for.

Then you started working there full time?

Well, the way it turned out, yes.  We went ahead and finished that show and started another one.  On about the fourth day, my agent, whom I hadn’t seen yet at all, didn’t even know the guy, he showed up on the set.  He came over and he said, “What the hell are you doing here?”  I was puzzled.  I wondered if he had heard some negative comment or complaint or something.  I said, “What do you mean?”  Well, he says, “I don’t know, excepting that the studio wants to sign you for five years.”

And it went on from there.  I did a lot more, but that particular show happened to be Maverick, and that was Warners’ lead show in the television market.  It was a big success.  We were using feature picture sets, which actually made some of the very first shows look fantastic.  On the other hand, you paid a price, because it took longer to work with those sets.  They were more elaborate, took more lighting, and all that.  Eventually, of course, they built sets on separate stages just for the television division.

Did you get to know the producer of Maverick, Roy Huggins?

Well, obviously, he was an organizer.  We people in production didn’t actually brush up against [series producers] that much.  We didn’t have much personal contact with those guys.  Maybe sometimes when you walked out of the screening room you would pass like ships in the night.  As long as everything was going fine, you’d never hear from any of them.  Which was just as well.

At Warners, weren’t you rotated among the different shows rather than staying with a single series for every episode?

That’s true.  Now, you may have had preferences, like I had, for working with certain directors, and I’m sure that some of the directors had the same experience.  Everybody had their favorites.  They scheduled everything out, and it was always fun if you were teamed up with a director that you liked, because that director probably would be more inventive.  

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Which directors did you like working with?  Let me mention a few: Leslie H. Martinson?

Les Martinson made good shows, and I enjoyed the results from working with Les.  But he was one of these guys who was always crying about things are taking too long, or [something else].  It was a yes or no situation.  You liked to work with him because he got good shows.  They were assigned to him and they usually turned out pretty well, but you had to go through a certain amount of hand-holding and all that stuff with him.  Like, one day, he said to the assembled group: “I wanted to do this shot but Mr. Woolsey didn’t think it would be a good idea.”  I don’t know what effect my – he was just looking for an excuse not to make the shot himself.  But that was kind of petty stuff, you know.

Why couldn’t he make that shot?

I can’t remember the details, but he – early on, while we were using the big sets that were left over from the features, he would see a beautiful staircase in like a hotel lobby and would immediately want to have several people be featured coming down the staircase.  Later on, on a television set, there wouldn’t be such a thing at all, because everybody knows it’s a time-consuming element for lighting and action and everything else.  So you don’t put that into shows where you want to make some time.

He did funny things.  He was kind of a crybaby about getting his stuff.  Like, he hit his thumb with a hammer one day in a little fit of temper.  It almost seemed deliberate, because it swelled up and over the weekend it was worse.  Monday morning, instead of having gone to a doctor over the weekend or something, he brought it to the set looking absolutely horrible, [to] reinforce the terrible state that he described himself in.  

There were some people that [if they] heard they were going to be teamed up with someone, they would refuse to do it.

It sounds as if that was a difficult relationship with Martinson.

One time I was working at another studio later on when my contract was up, and he was doing a show and he actually asked them to get me.  But as soon as I got to do the show, he was the same old guy.  However, we respected each other’s limitations, I guess.

Douglas Heyes?

Oh, Doug Heyes was one of my favorites.  He a talented writer, because he wrote some of the best shows we ever did.  He was top-notch.  He was a lot of fun.  On a personal level, we got along very well, and we sometimes would see each other outside of work.

He was always very sure of himself.  For instance, when he was directing something like some of the Warner Bros. TV shows, he would come in late, with an armload of doughnuts or cookies or something like that for the crew.  But he would always be late.  The studio production guys didn’t like this at all, and they would lie in wait for him, so when he came into the studio they would have all the lights turned out or something, and then start trying to teach him: “We like what you’re doing, but you’ve got to be on time!”

Did things like that put you in between the director and the production department?

Not really, but of course if they get behind, they’d look for anybody that they could blame.  If, say, the producer came over and said, “What the hell is taking so long?” you would be an idiot if you said, “Well, the director just goes on and on and on, doing rehearsals and this and that.”  Because there is a true saying that of the entire production, the crew and everybody, only the director and the cameraman are in every shot, and you and the director had better get along.

Arthur Lubin?

I enjoyed working with Arthur.  He was particularly talented working with actors.

Richard L. Bare?

Yeah, he was good.  Workmanlike.  Nothing flashy.  Just did the job.

George waGGner?

He would probably be my top favorite.  We used to call him George Wag-ig-ner, because of the double G.  He got into directing films accidentally.  He came to Hollywood from somewhere up north, and he said, “I didn’t even know this was going on.”  But George was a very thorough director.  He gave a lot of attention to every detail.  The sets and the decor, and interesting ways to open a sequence.

So you were aware of some of the regular Warners directors as being more visually creative than others?

Oh, yeah.  That’s certainly true.  There were some where you could do a scene in six different ways and they would be just as happy.  But somebody like George who would have a definite way he would want to open the scene, by looking through some piece of architecture or maybe a bit of closeup action.  Just kicking it off in a more spicy way.

Did the directors mainly leave the lighting to you, or did some of them have input into that?

The directors had nothing to do with the lighting.  No, the lighting was the cinematographer’s bailiwick.  And at Warners we had crews who had been working on pictures for years.  So sometimes they would tend to be a little too fancy or elaborate for a television show.  In other words, you had to say, forget the frosting on the cake and let’s take care of the meat and potatoes first.  But there’s always an opportunity where you can make a set sort of perform on its own.

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Did you prefer some of the Warners shows to the others?

Well, first of all, you had to take the attitude that whatever the assignment was for the next two weeks, that’s your favorite show.  If they said you had to shoot only these shows for the rest of your life, which ones would they be?  You’d probably pick the ones with the most interesting actors.  [Or] the longest schedules, which give you more opportunity to concoct something interesting.

Which was your favorite among the Warners shows?

Probably Maverick.

Tell me about your departure from Warner Bros.

I shot the first color [TV] show there at Warners, Mister Roberts.  That was our first color show.  [Then] I went over with the producer of Sunset Strip started a show – well, that was Batman.  I went over and started that.  I think I shot a dozen shows.

Did you like doing Batman?

Yeah.  Mainly because it was something different.  We had split-screen situations, with this character Mister Freeze, for instance.  Half of the screen would be frigid and the other half of the screen would be normal.  And it was always fun working with those actors, because they knew the characters that they portrayed.  People like Burgess Meredith, for instance, who played the Penguin, was outstanding.  

I borrowed the Penguin’s whistle, and he used to blow it with a sort of “honk, honk” sound that everybody knew.  I brought it home and blew it for my kids.  The other kids heard about it and they all came over and they were nuts about it.  Naturally, I had a hard time keeping it from getting stolen, and I had been warned that if that whistle did not come back the next day, I was in deep trouble!

Why did you leave Batman?

Because I got fired.  

Why?

I think we did a dozen or so.  They hadn’t been on the air yet, and everybody was running scared about this or that.  There was some talk about taking too much time preparing some of the shots.  Well, it later turned out they had some prop guys who were drunk half the time, and they were supposed to be preparing or fixing some of the tech-y props that were used on the show.  And you had to wait for them really much too long.  So somebody had to go, and it happened to be me that time.  Fortunately, there was a job [waiting].  I went right back to Warner Bros.  Howard Schwartz came in and took it over.  So I can claim the first dozen or so of Batman.  But people, even today, associate me with Batman.

Were you instrumental in devising the visual signature visual of Batman – the extreme tilted camera angles?

I don’t know, I was not so crazy about it.  I know what they were trying to do – they were trying to give an off-kilter look to the show.  But compared to doing things like that later on, just a few years later we had equipment that would make it much easier to do that.  It was very clumsy, making those few shots.

Do you have any memories of Adam West and Burt Ward?

Well, everybody on the crew used to say, “Those two should save their money.”

Then you shot the pilot for It Takes a Thief.

That grew out of a [made-for-television] feature that we shot up in Montreal during the Expo, with Robert Wagner.  We went up to the Expo and shot the picture for Universal, and it was sold to one of the networks as a pilot for what turned out to be the series It Takes a Thief.

And you stayed with the show.

Yeah, I did maybe a dozen or so, along with some segments of some other TV shows they had going there.

What do you remember about It Takes a Thief?

The Montreal location for the movie was very enjoyable.  Leslie Stevens was the creator and the director.  We were friends to begin with, so we could tell each other if something was lousy, or whether we loved it.  Talk about ideas, you know.

What was he like as a director and producer?

A very creative guy.  Stoney Burke was one he did, and The Outer Limits.  Conrad Hall worked on that, on both of those in fact, and before him, Leslie hired a great cameraman whom we both admired a great deal, Ted McCord.

Right, McCord was Conrad Hall’s mentor, I think.

That’s correct, because Connie was his operator, and he took over when Ted more or less retired.  Connie had graduated from USC Cinema just a year before I started teaching there, so we met a few times but I didn’t get to know him personally too well until somewhat later.

Did you expect to become a cinematographer, or had you planned to remain a teacher?

I think the teaching came accidentally.  I was a cinematographer.  During World War II, I was shooting training films for the U.S. Air Force.  I was not in the military; I was working for an aircraft company, Bell Aircraft.  They were developing the first helicopter.  Before we were in World War II, they were selling planes to Russia, and we were making training films as to how you took care of the planes and serviced them.  So when we got into the war, that program just got magnified.  That’s what I had been doing, so at the end of the war I could call myself a cinematographer.  In fact, I was the head of the unit.

I came to California, and how I got to USC – let’s see, I knew some people who were shooting non-theatrical films.  My working at USC was sort of an accident.  I went down there to see the head of the department about something else, and while I was there the head of the department invited me to do some temporary work.  There were a bunch of servicemen, Navy people, who were using the G.I. Bill.  They had to go back to service and they weren’t getting done, and they hired me and a guy named Irving Lerner to direct these things.  The two of us finished all of the projects for these servicemen.  Just shot them ourselves, and then Irving edited them.  Then the guy who was teaching camera had to leave for some commitment, and they offered me the job of teaching his class.  So I did.  But I had an arrangement where I could shoot stuff on the side.

You won an Emmy for It Takes a Thief.

Yeah, that’s true.  That was the pilot.

What about your work on that show caused it to win, do you think?

Well, do you want me to be truthful or inventive?  I think if the show is different in its concept or its location, the way the location is used, I think that does a long way to making it of great interest to the nominating [committee].  And of course, that show was shot as a movie.  So there was a lot more spent on it.

Do you mean it was a feature film, or a made-for-TV movie?

[It was] meant for TV, but we did shoot it in a rather sketchy way.  In other words, we went there with inadequate lighting for some of the night shots that we did, so we had to get inventive.  We pulled off some pretty good night shooting, and I think had some special processing done on the negative, which of course the studio and the camera department fought me on tooth and nail.

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In the 1970s you moved exclusively into shooting feature films.  How did that differ from the work you did in television?

There are things that I could and did do in shooting television that I wouldn’t do in shooting a feature.  In other words, I could experiment more, and I did.  When I was shooting some of these black-and-white Warner Bros. westerns, like Maverick, I fooled around and I even used what some of the people in the production department thought were my secrets.  At least, I never told them how I did some of the things to get a certain kind of look.  

For instance, all the old buildings, the wooden buildings in the backlot that you’d use in a western, like the western street.  If you look at real old black-and-white pictures, the buildings all had a certain kind of a look, and it was because the film was colorblind.  The sky would be white and anything blue would be pretty white, and anything red would be pretty dark.  The more common film, orthochromatic, was sensitive to blue and green but not red.  

A lot of the old pictures, even some of the early movies, were shot with that kind of film.  That had the property of making all the reds look dark.  For instance, you would be crazy if you shoot close-ups of a woman with that kind of film, because her lips would go black, or very dark.  But there were advantages in getting that look, too.  The old buildings really looked old.  In the western street scenes, I used a filter combination to get that look.  And I didn’t tell anybody what it was.  I’d put it in the camera myself, and take it back home with me at night.  And in the camera department, they were furious.  They wanted to know what it was.  Of course, for scenes where I’d shoot close-ups of women, I wouldn’t use it.  But it did lend a very authentic kind of an old-time look to the buildings.  

And there was another big problem: the streets were always photographing extremely light or even white because they were yellow.  Every now and then they’d bring in a truckload of [dirt] and smooth out the street, and it was yellow.  To make it darken down, they used to run a water wagon through the set before anybody worked on it.  They’d create a little mud, and that made it unpleasant to work on.  But with my system, they didn’t have to do that.  People would say, “How come you got those streets darkened down and we didn’t have to water it?”

Who do you remember among the many other cinematographers working at Warner Bros. at that time?

Harold Stine had previously worked in special effects at Paramount or one of those studios, so he was really an expert on the technology.  He gave me one of my best compliments one time.  We actually used to compliment each other, because they would bring some of these guys in and some of their work really was pretty lousy.  But if they had a reputation of being fast, that was evidently how they got the job.  Anyway, Hal said to me one day as we were laughing about that: “Well, one thing about your work: It always looks finished, right up to the corners.”  He said, “Some of these guys, they just light the center and let the rest go.”

Mav4

The images above are taken from the three first season episodes of Maverick that Woolsey photographed and the pilot for It Takes a Thief.

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He only played one decent-sized role in a movie, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called that performance “unforgettable.”  In John Cassavetes’s sophomore film, Too Late Blues, the villain, a weaselly musician’s agent named Benny Flowers, is played by a casting director and fledgling producer named Everett Chambers.  Crewcut, compact, and contained, Chambers is truly terrifying as a cunning manipulator of fragile egos who seems to be just barely in control of a nearly psychopathic rage.

But Chambers himself thought Too Late Blues was “self-indulgent,” and his own independent films as director (a short, The Kiss, and two features, Run Across the River and The Lollipop Cover) received little attention.  The cinema’s loss was television’s gain, as Chambers became the primary non-writing producer of a succession of smart, well-made series: Johnny Staccato, Target: The Corrupters, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Peyton Place, and Columbo, not to mention an infamous unsold pilot (Calhoun: County Agent, the subject of writer Merle Miller’s mocking, juicy book Only You, Dick Daring) and a number of worthy made-for-television movies.

In a 2005 telephone interview, Chambers shared some candid and often very funny memories from his four-year stint as the producer of Peyton Place.

Tell me about your transition from in front of the camera to behind it.

I started first as an actor in New York in live television, and then I worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway.  I wanted to be a director; I didn’t want to be an actor.  But when I got out of drama school I looked like I was twelve years old, and I played twelve years old until I was about twenty-two.  Eventually I went to work as a casting director, first as an assistant to Fred Coe’s casting director on Philco Playhouse [and] Mister Peepers.  I worked there with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn and Tad Mosel – all these people who were working on Philco Playhouse.  Fred Coe was the premiere live television producer at the time.

I came out from New York.  John Cassavetes did that, brought me out to produce Johnny Staccato.  Forced me onto Revue/MCA, and they did it.  I stayed with that for the year, and then I stayed in California and got a divorce.  Why not?  I did other things, and then Paul Monash called me a couple of times.  He called me before Felix Feist [the second producer of Peyton Place], and didn’t hire me, and then when Feist died, he did.

What you did on Peyton Place, relative to Paul Monash and the other members of the production staff?

First of all, I’m doing all of the casting, all the hiring of the actors.  Most of the time we had the same revolving directors, but from time to time I would change them.  I cut all of the pictures with the editors, and we did three of them a week most of the time.  When we cut to [broadcasting] two a week, I still convinced them to shoot three, so that we could all get some time off.

Did you institute any major changes when you first came in on the show?

Well, there were some rocky things.  The sound quality of the show wasn’t very good.  It was cut, I think, very slow.  The style in which it was shot, which was a lot of camera movement up and down and sideways, and a lot of dolly shots and masters of maybe five, six, seven, eight, ten pages.  On the stages at Fox, which were very old, that was noisy.  They put up with it by bringing the people back and having them loop the lines, which to me was very expensive.  So I integrated new carpets on all the sets to kill the sound.  And started using radio mics, which they hadn’t used before, and instituted a lot of lighter weight modern equipment, because we were all using this antiquated equipment that was there as part of the facilities of Twentieth Century-Fox.  They didn’t want to buy new lighting equipment and stuff, but eventually we did.  Then we went from black and white to color, and we segued.  Every week, as we were getting to know when we were going to broadcast in color, I would change three or four sets, until we had them all in color.  All of that was part of my responsibility.  

Paul was also making movies and making a couple of other pilots and shows.  That’s why eventually, when [writing producer] Dick DeRoy left and [story editor] Del Reisman moved up, instead of bringing somebody in he said, “You do it.”  So I went down and I plotted it out with them and worked on that.  I didn’t do any of the writing; I just plotted.

When you came in, was there a sense that Mia Farrow was the breakout star of the show?

Mia was probably the most popular one on the show, next to then Ryan [O’Neal] and then Rita, who was played by Pat Morrow, and then the other guy, the brother [Christopher Connelly].  Wherever they would go, they were mobbed.

Did the network, or Monash, direct you to place a greater emphasis on the younger characters?

No.

Who were some of the actors you cast personally in the show?

Well, I was watching The Long Hot Summer when I saw this gorgeous Lana Wood.  We had a Christmas party, and she was dancing, and holy shit, look at that!  So I manipulated them getting a part for her.  I can’t remember how that all happened, but I got her in there.  Then there was also this – Myrna Fahey, I thought she was gorgeous.  I thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.  I got her in there in a part, and I used her a few times later.  I thought both of them would be bigger than they were.  Stephen Oliver, I found in an interview.  I brought in Leigh Taylor-Young.  I found her.  Then she and Ryan started messing around, and he knocked her up.  He was married to Joanna Moore.  That was a problem to work out.  When Mia left, we had a number of different women come in to kind of replace [her]: Joyce Jillson, Tippy Walker.  Leigh Taylor-Young was the most interesting one.

Leslie Nielsen came in for a while and played a double part.  Susan Oliver came in.  I don’t know if you know who Don Gordon [the star and co-writer of Chambers's 1965 film The Lollipop Cover] is, but he came in for a while.  Then of course Lee Grant, and there was John Kellogg.  He was a character actor, a bad guy from the thirties and forties.  Dan Duryea, we brought in for a while.  Generally, we didn’t lock them in.  Gena Rowlands I had to lock in, because she only wanted to work until so-and-so, and then I said, “Okay, you’ll just do this amount of episodes and then out.”  Some of them were just [bit players] – Richard Dreyfuss used to play the newspaper boy!  There was a black policeman, Sergeant Walker: Morris Buchanan.  And then there was a guy that ran the lobster thing on the pier, Frankie London.

Ah, now I’m seeing a pattern – not just Gena Rowlands but Buchanan and London were all actors who had worked often with Cassavetes, as you had.

Yeah, Frank was one of John’s.  He was in Too Late Blues, as I was.  

To what extent did Paul Monash give you a free hand in producing Peyton Place?

Generally, as he had confidence in me, after about six months, then he just let me alone.  You didn’t need to run any casting [by him], except major people like Gena or when Susan Oliver came in.  [For those roles] I would tell him who I would like.

Did you have much to do with the network?

No, I did not have much to do with the network.  At that time the guy responsible for us was Tony Barr.  I talked to him every week.  He would want to know what’s going on – who’s this, what’s that.  And we would clear things with him.  We were so much in advance – we were ten weeks, probably, filmed in advance.  So that means our material was even more weeks [ahead] than that.  So they knew where we were going way ahead of airtime.  If there was any red flags, we would get them early.  But it was too successful to have much problem.  In those days, there weren’t as many people muddling in everything.  I’ve been on flops where they’d beat your head in every day.  On Johnny Staccato, Lew Wasserman wanted a forty share.  We couldn’t get there, so he was on my neck all the time.

Whereas on Peyton Place….

It was already in there!  I mean, in the summertime, we were one, two, and three [in the ratings].  So you don’t mess around with success too much.  Now, they meddle in everything, even if you’re successful.

Was it a good experience for you?

It was terrific!  From my background, it wasn’t the most exciting kind of drama.  About the sixth or seventh month of working on the show, I came out of the dailies one day and say, “Well, that was a pretty good show.  That was pretty good stuff I saw there today.”  I says, “Uh-oh.  I’m in trouble!”  I mean, I had just come from Fred Coe, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann.  You have a sense of value and quality that’s a little different.  But you learn to adjust: hey, wait a minute, it’s a soap opera.  It’s television.  You do the best you can.  And that I did, then, for the rest of my career.  I would do the best I could with what I had.

Tell me about how the writing staff functioned.

They had a deal with the Writers Guild that was complicated.  They had about nine writers, right?  How did they get credit?  So what they did is that we would plot these things out, and Nina [Laemmle] would alternate with Del [Reisman], writing up the plot.  Nina would do one act and Del would do the other act.  Then they would give that outline to a writer, whoever it was.  They would write it.  Doesn’t mean that they got the credit on that episode.  Just everybody got credits, but they didn’t always write what was there.  Sometimes somebody’s name would be on something that somebody else wrote.  But I would know who wrote what.  And I was most impressed by – Carol Sobieski was very good, but Lee [Lionel E.] Siegel was the best of all of them.

What do you remember about Peyton Place’s directors?

Ted Post was my first directing teacher, back in New York.  He and Walter Doniger had the same technique.  Walter was much more rigid than Ted.  Ted was the kind of director, no matter what it was, you said, “We’ve got this thing we’ve got to shoot here, these twelve pages over here, Teddy….”

“Well, I haven’t read ’em….”

“Well, it starts over here….”

“Okay, thank you!”  And he just goes and does it.  He could do anything.

I really admired the long takes and elaborate compositions in Doniger’s episodes.

Well, that wasn’t Walter’s style.  It was the style of the show.  Teddy Post shot that way.  It was actually a live television look.  If you went back to the soaps and things of live television, they had a lot of movement in a single camera.  And that became part of the style, mixed, of course, with the film technique.  So we had a lot of movement.  Sometimes 23 or 24 or 25 moves in one scene.  They would be in a two-shot, move to a close-up, move to an over-the-shoulder.  Not the actors, the camera is doing it.

I’m getting the sense that you were not a big admirer of Walter Doniger.

Walter knew nothing about acting.  He would say to the actors one thing: “Don’t do anything!  Don’t do anything!  Don’t feel anything, don’t do anything.”  That was his direction.  Teddy was more Method-oriented.

I have a Walter Doniger story you may not like, but….  Walter was a very rigid control freak.  I had talked Gena Rowlands into coming in to play a part for ninety episodes.  She would come in in episode so-and-so and ninety episodes later she would leave, because she was [at] the beginning of a movie career.  But I happened to know John needed the money to finish one of his pictures [Faces, 1968].  I knew her from New York, before, with John.

Anyway, her first day happens to be with Walter Doniger.  Now, I have had my problems with Walter Doniger from time to time, when I would ask him to do something specifically and he wouldn’t do it.  It would annoy me, but I wouldn’t come down on him.  I would get annoyed and the next time something would happen I would bring it up, but he would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.  It wasn’t that big a deal, but this became a big deal.  

Gena’s first day.  Now she’s a friend of mine, right?  It’s about a six, seven, eight-page scene.  So they start shooting it.  I’m not there; I’m in the office.  Somewhere, Gena goes up.  Now, she wasn’t used to doing seven or eight page masters.  She was used to doing a piece of a master and then maybe some coverage, then another piece of a master.  But she wasn’t used to doing seven, eight, nine moves, ten moves, fifteen.  It was a whole new technique and she was just starting, right?  So she did it and stopped.  Then he started all over again.  And then did it again, stopped.  Maybe they did that three or four times, and then finally she said, “Couldn’t you just print and pick up?”

He said, “Who’s the director, you or me?”  

She says, “Oh, okay.”  She said, “Excuse me, I have to go to my dressing room.”  

She went to her dressing room and called me.  Now, Gena is a lady.  She is the daughter of a state senator.  Her mother is elegant.  You don’t swear in front of Gena, right?  She got on the phone and she said, “Everett, I’ve got to talk to you right now about this prick, Walter Doniger.”

Oh.

She said, “I’ll be in my dressing room.  Come.  And my agent is coming, and my press agent is coming.”

So I went in to Paul and I said, “Paul, we’ve got a small problem.”  

He said, “Go down and talk to her.”  

So eventually what happened is that I went up to the set and said, “Walter, you’ve got to go down there and eat some crow.  Because she’s going home.”  I think we called him up to the office, as I recall, because Walter and Paul and I were [all talking].  

So I took him down to Gena and took her into the dressing room, and by then her agent, Jack Gilardi, had arrived.  They went in, and [Gilardi] and I went out to the end of the corridor and sat down on the steps and we heard Gena ream … his … ass.  “You son of a bitch, you no-good fuck, you….”  [Laughs]  She really worked him over the coals.  Then, when that was done, he ate some crow, and she went back on the set and finished.  

But Walter Doniger and I didn’t cut it from then on, and I replaced him.  

Really?  Is it accurate to say that you fired him?

When you replace somebody that’s been with a show for about three years, I would think so.

When I interviewed him, Doniger made it sound like he’d left of his own volition.

No, he did not.  When his option or whatever it was came up, I told Paul I don’t want to work with him any more.  Because that was just one incident on top of these other little ones.

One other thing about Walter Doniger: every day he sent his dailies to Dick Zanuck’s screening room, hoping that Zanuck would like the dailies and give him a movie.

Some of the other actors on the show found Walter charming, though.

Well, he could be that too.  It’s just that when you’re a control freak, and I’m a control freak, something’s gotta give.  Who’s gonna run the show, is what that comes down to.  And it was kind of a battle from time to time about who was.  A dear friend of mine is Jeffrey Hayden, and we had the same problem.  It was about wardrobe with Barbara Parkins.  We had decided what we wanted her to wear and he changed it.  I had it [with Hayden] on The Lloyd Bridges Show, also; it was something to do with [guest star] Diane Baker.

So you hired Jeff Hayden after having worked with him on that series.

I did indeed.  John Newland was the third director when I came on, and I looked at a couple of his shows and I thought they were shitty.  I knew John, also, from New York, so I went down on the set and I said, “John, could you and I have a conversation please?” 

He says, “This is all crap!  The show is crap!  Everything about it is crap!  Don’t talk to me about it, it’s crap.”  

“John, that’s a bad attitude.  I want your best.  If you can’t do your best, you can’t do it.”  

He said, “Then I don’t do it!”  

So he left and Jeff came in.

I’ve talked to some talented people from Peyton Place (like Franklin Barton, one of the original writers) who looked down on it.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around doing a soap opera.

All television is soap opera.  We’ve tried to make it look like something else, but it isn’t.

Who were you closest to among the cast?

Well, I hung out a lot with Ryan.  And there was a guy, William Allyn, who was the associate producer.  He and I knew each other; he was an actor in New York.  He and I and Ryan would go to lunch a lot.  And Ryan is very funny.  We really had a lot of laughs with him.  After he got out and started making movies, I ran into him once and it was like he didn’t know me.

Were there others among the actors with whom you didn’t get along?

I did have some run-ins with Barbara Parkins.  Her agent, and I can’t think of his name now, they were very pissy.  She and Lee Grant were both nominated for an Emmy, and the Emmy committee called and said, “Would you pick a film for them to show to the Actors’ [Branch], so they could vote for them.”  You know, you send material over, the actors look at the material, and then they vote.  So I picked an episode that both of them had real good stuff in.  Then one day I get a call from her agent and he said, “We want to sit down with Barbara and pick out material.”  

I said, “Well, you can’t, because it’s gone.  It was three weeks ago they asked for it.”

“What do you mean, they asked for it?”

“Well, they asked for it.  I sent the material.”  

Well, she had a fit.  She didn’t speak to me until I was working on Columbo, and she was over there on some movie of the week or something.

She really didn’t speak to you again during the entire run of Peyton Place?

She didn’t speak to me for at least two years.  Well, I directed some [episodes], so she had to talk to me at that time.

One other thing was: Dorothy Malone was never on time.  Never.  Never did her hair.  She would come in and not have her roots done, and we’d have to stop and fix her roots and do her hair.  And one of the stand-ins was her spy.  If she had an eight o’clock call, or a ten o’clock call, he would see where they were and call her: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to get to you till eleven.”  And so she wouldn’t come in.  And then she got sick and I replaced her for a while with Lola Albright, and Mr. Peyton got sick, George Macready, and I replaced him for a while with Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Macready was terrific in that part.

Yeah, he was terrific.  And he was never one of my favorite actors, but I really liked him [on Peyton Place].

Peyton Place went through some interesting changes during its last year on the air.

We were [on] during the Vietnam War, but we were in limbo, never-never-land, in terms of reality.  The war was never spoken of.  And in the fifth year, [the ratings] may have been weakening a little bit, so Paul and I had a meeting and decided to get into something more contemporary.  He came back and wanted to introduce a black family.  I said, “Okay, if we do that, are we going to introduce the war, are we going to introduce rock and roll, something more contemporary with the kids?”

“Yes.”  

So we started to make a transition.  Paul put out a press release about the black family coming in, with a son who’s in love with a white girl.  Hate mail came.  This is 1968, right?  Hate mail.  One letter I got said that if you have this black boy with this white girl, I will nail you up to my garage door.  And I was very uncomfortable with that myself.  I said to Paul, “Let us get a black sociologist or psychologist, or somebody, to advise us.”  Because we were totally lily-white.  Everybody on the show was lily-white.  We cast Ruby Dee and Percy Rodriguez and Glynn Turman and another girl [Judy Pace].

Did you keep the interracial relationship angle?

Absolutely not.  First of all, I knew Ruby Dee and her husband [Ossie Davis] from New York, and when she got the job both of them came out and wanted to talk about where we were going.  Both of them were very oriented in not making it look bad, not making the black family look ridiculous.  It was ridiculous enough that we made him a brain surgeon, [of] which there were only nine in the United States!  Nine black neurosurgeons at the time.  We had an interview with one of them, who came to talk to us.  Anyway, eventually, I was able to stop the black-white [interracial romance] thing, bring in a doctor of psychology, get a couple of black writers.  We had rap sessions every week with the writers about what could be done with the black family to keep it from being distasteful and [depicted as] white fantasies, which is what it would have been if we’d have continued it without that kind of help.

It seems like the look of the show got a little more contemporary — more “mod,” so to speak — in the final year.

Yes, it did.  We put in a disco.  We had a rock and roll band in the disco, called The Pillory.  Jerry Moss at A&M Records was a friend of mine, so I said, “Can you put together a group for me?”  So he sent over a bunch of groups and we auditioned them.  One of them was The Carpenters.  And I said no, I cannot see a rock and roll band with a female drummer.  Needless to say….  Anyway, we put together an ad hoc band and they would do all the music, and then we’d just send it over and do it to playback.

Did you get to know Paul Monash well personally?

Yeah, sure.  I mean, I spent four years with him.  He was a strange, mercurial man.  He was very ego-oriented.  When I came in there, I was working at the time at a place called International Productions, with Robert Brandt, who was Janet Leigh’s husband.  When I left, he just dissolved the company.  We had a PR firm working with us, and I said, “Well, we have this commitment and I’ll take it with me.”  

I called Paul, because I knew he was PR-oriented.  You always saw his name [in the press] about whatever happened on Peyton Place.  He got his name there first.  I said, “Is it all right if I use [a publicist]?”  

He says, “It’s okay.  I’ve gotten all the publicity I need.”  

Right?  And then when he starts seeing my name casting so-and-so, and my name doing this, he got pissed.  In fact, they did a special with him moderating it about Peyton Place.  He never mentioned anybody but him.  Not one of the directors.  Not one of the producers.  Nothing.  It was all him.  So, knowing that, and having worked with Aaron Spelling, who was the same kind of PR-oriented person, you don’t infringe.  You just stay cool.

Did you think Monash was talented?

Oh, he was the best writer on the show.  The best.  He also was a good director.  He did one episode.  He would rewrite stuff, and write stuff, yeah.  He never took any credit for it.  He would just do it.  Once in a while they would get stuck and he would do something.

Someone else who worked for him intimated that Monash would avail himself of the casting couch.

Oh, he was fucking everything that walked.  Everything.  Truck drivers, if they were female – anything.  He was just terrible.  One of my friends I got on there as a secretary, and they used our beach house once.  She said, “He’s like a rabbit.”  You know, Fox has another gate on the west side of the lot.  It was a temporary gate, but mostly it was a set.  He had an apartment over there, right across the street.

I guess that wasn’t uncommon at that time.

I guess, but it was like a cliche.  He was, in his own way, very insecure.  He had, I believe, a very dominant father, who never gave him any recognition.  He was a little driven by that.  And he was married to this one woman when we were doing that show, then later he married a writer, Merrit Malloy, who had one hand.  Lee Philips, who was in the original Peyton Place [movie], was also a buddy of mine; I had brought him in in the later years as one of the directors.  Then Paul was making movies at CBS, and he gave Merrit some of these movies to write or something, and then Lee became one of the directors.  Lee and Merrit became an item, and Lee’s wife found out and she threw him out.  They got a divorce.  He came and stayed with me, because I was single at the time.  It was a mess.  And Paul found about it – he was chasing all over town looking for Lee Philips.

I think the photography on Peyton Place is gorgeous, and I neglected to ask you about the cinematographer, Robert Hauser.

Yeah, he was a wonderful cameraman.  Bill Cronjager was the operator.  After Bob Hauser left, I made him the cameraman.  And he worked with me also on Columbo, and Partners in Crime.  We shot it in San Francisco, with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter.  I used to call the show Cagney and Cleavage.  It was a terrible show.

It seems like people of your generation had fewer opportunities to do meaningful work in the seventies and eighties than in the years before.

It started to flatten out a bit.  It got so controlled by the networks that I quit and moved back to New York in 1980, for four years.  I couldn’t take one more meeting with one more twenty-four year-old Wharton School of Business executive telling me how you do drama.  Now it’s worse.

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Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).

Everybody Loved Ed Lauter

October 18, 2013

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The news of Ed Lauter’s death on Wednesday came as a shock, not so much because he was terribly young — Lauter was 74 — but because he’d looked about the same for the whole of his forty-year career, and often (especially in recent years) played characters much younger than his actual age.  Tall, sharp-chinned, and prematurely bald, Lauter sketched in a lot of thankless authority figures (as a fire chief, for instance, in several episodes of ER) but acquired a cult following through juicier turns as a gamut of bad guys, from the coolly sinister to the outright terrifying.  Lauter died of mesothelioma, a form of cancer, but he remained active until the end, logging a recurring role on Shameless this year and completing several features scheduled for release in 2014.  It seemed like we’d have him forever.

I met Lauter in January 2011, when I sat in on part of his interview with director-producer Tom Donahue for the documentary Casting By.  Lauter appears in the film just briefly, to relate a memorable anecdote about his first meeting with Marion Dougherty (a story that always gets a big laugh at screenings). But Tom questioned Lauter at length, covering much of his early life and career, and even solicited the skilled mimic’s impressions of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne.  Lauter, it turned out, was an admirer and amateur historian of classical Hollywood acting, as eager to relate a second-hand story about one of his performing heroes as an anecdote from his own experience.

Lauter:  One of my favorite actors, Montgomery Clift, does The Search and he turns around and at the end of the movie is looking at this woman who finally found her kid after all these years, and he does three emotions at once, in one look . . . . I heard that Alan Ladd was in the commissary one day and they said, “Alan, how’s it going today?”  And he says, “Today I made a great look.”  Sometimes a great look sells everything.

Like most of the rest of the internet, it seems, Tom and I are big fans of Lauter’s, both as an actor and an all-around nice guy.  We wanted to share some of Lauter’s remarks that landed on the proverbial cutting room floor, and so Tom has graciously allowed me to use his interview for background and to quote from it at length here.

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Like Judy Garland, Lauter was born in a trunk: His mother, Sally Lee, spent four years as a Broadway actress.  She gave it up to raise Ed and his two sisters (largely as a single parent), but Ed caught the acting bug from her stories of working for or alongside the likes of David Belasco and the Shuberts, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire.

Before he was a movie star Lauter was something of a basketball star, first at his high school in Long Beach, Long Island, and then (from 1957 to 1960) at LIU’s C.W. Post Campus.  After graduation, Lauter moved to Manhattan to begin what would be a decade-long struggle to establish himself as a performer.  He studied, briefly, with the great character actor William Hickey.

Lauter: A lot of acting teachers can be a little hard on actors and Bill was the complete opposite.  He nurtured us.  He would always say listen.  Listening is very important for an actor.  Grant Mitchell was one of the great listeners.  He was an old character actor.  Spencer Tracy was a young actor and George M. Cohan says, “We’re going to go to a play tonight; we’re going to watch Grant Mitchell.”  He says “Grant who?”  “Grant Mitchell.”  He says, “Why are we going to watch him?”  “Because he listens in scenes.  Watch him listen in a scene.”   If you ever watch an old movie you’ll see Grant Mitchell, he’s great.  He’s like George C. Scott does an Anatomy of A Murder, with Jimmy Stewart.  A lot of times George has got to listen to Jimmy Stewart and you can hear, you can hear George listening.

In 1964 he married one Future Fulton (real name: Wanda Mae), an actress and singer who was nearly twenty years his senior.  Future guided his career during Lauter’s lean days, but died of cancer just as he began to enjoy some success.  Lauter chased  stage and TV roles during this period and even played some stand-up gigs.  He made his earliest appearances on camera in TV commercials, for cigarettes and TWA (two things they don’t make commercials for any more).

Lauter: Future was kind of like my guru.  She taught me.  She had a five-year scholarship to the Actors Studio, so she gave me all that information that she picked up.  I met people like Jason Robards through her.  And finally we were about down to fifty dollars and I got a commercial for Bayer Aspirin and, hallelullah, out of that commercial they made four commercials.  They made one one minute, two thirty seconds, and one fifteen second [commercial] that they would play.  I remember the time the first royalty check came in and I said Future, it wasn’t that much – a couple hundred dollars.  She went nuts: “Whoa!”  And every few weeks this check would come in, and that was great, and then we’d go to shows.

Lauter’s breakthrough came when he was cast in several small roles in the 1968 Broadway production of The Great White Hope.  When he interviewed for the job, Lauter fielded more questions about his athletic background than his acting skills; the director, Ed Sherin, was putting together a baseball team for the Broadway Show League and wanted to win.

Lauter: When I was doing The Great White Hope, I understudied a lot bigger part and I got a chance to play it for three weeks.  One night I went out there, my scene was with Jane Alexander and I was out there, just Jane and I alone on the stage, and I did the scene and I came off and I don’t even remember doing it because I was in such a freaking zone, you know?  And it’s like magic.

In Casting By, Lauter describes the clever ploy he used to infiltrate the office of Marion Dougherty, then the top casting director in New York.  Dressed in his security guard’s costume from The Great White Hope, Lauter impersonated a postman with a special delivery letter for Dougherty; and although the gimmick went awry, the tale was passed down by Dougherty’s assistants and became a minor Hollywood legend.  It wasn’t the only trick Lauter used to get casting directors’ attention.

Lauter: Another time I heard that Peter Sellers had impersonated some famous actor’s voice and got a job for himself.  I said, that’s a good way to do it.  So I picked up the phone one day and I called Buzz Berger, who was one of the casting directors for Trials of O’Brien, the Peter Falk thing.  He picks up the phone and I said I was George C. Scott.  He says, “Oh, hello, George.”  “Buzz, hey Buzz, how are ya?  Listen Buzz, I went down to see an actor and that guy’s name is Ed Lauter.  I want you to take a look at him.  I think he’s going to be good!”

Although Dougherty would eventually use him in the excellent The Last American Hero, it was another important casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, who launched Lauter’s film career.  Trading on his connection to Edwin Sherin, Lauter talked his way into a reading for Sherin’s debut feature, Valdez Is Coming, with his eye on the small role of the “bony man.”  He didn’t get the part (it went to the forgotten James Lemp), but Lauter made an impression on Stalmaster, who was the film’s casting director.

Lauter: Lynn used to be an actor, so he knows what it’s like.  He did a couple of movies.  So he has empathy.  Some casting directors are a little – they want to be actors, they’re jealous of actors.  Lynn really likes actors.

Stalmaster encouraged Lauter to come to Los Angeles and quickly cast him in a cluster of high-profile films, all of them released in 1972: Dirty Little Billy, The New Centurions, Hickey & Boggs, and The Magnificent Seven Ride.  Lauter became one of the key faces of the New Hollywood, appearing in a dozen or so of the best American films of the seventies.  Alfred Hitchcock saw him in Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard and became fixated on Lauter with some of the intensity he usually reserved for icy blondes.  Hitch featured him in a key role in Family Plot and penciled Lauter in for the third lead in his next film, The Short Night, opposite Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann.  But Hitchcock’s failing health compelled the cancellation of that project, which might have elevated Lauter above the familiar-face plateau where he would remain for the rest of his career.

Lauter: I’ll tell you one thing that Hitchcock said that [I think of] when I’m out of work and I’m walking around and feeling [down].  His secretary, Peggy Robertson, said after we worked [together] that he said to Peggy that I was the best character actor that he ever worked with.  I said, “Peggy, run that by me again.”  “Best character actor he ever worked with.”  Wow, man.

For more essential Lauter reading, check out Chuck Stephens’s appreciation from Film Comment and Anthony Petkovich’s Shock Cinema interview.

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Top: Ed Lauter on Hawaii Five-O (“The Golden Noose,” 1980). Above: An early headshot, probably from the mid-1960s (courtesy Ed Lauter).

The Nurses of Ben Casey

October 16, 2013

Like most medical dramas, Ben Casey employed a technical advisor both on the set and in the wings to fact-check scripts.  Many shows – including Casey’s rival, Dr. Kildare – hired doctors for this role, but Ben Casey was somewhat unusual in that it employed a young nurse as its primary technical advisor.  In a November 1961 profile of Ben Casey’s creator, James E. Moser, The New York Journal American’s Jack O’Brian wrote:

Alice Rodriguez, R.N., veteran of six County Hospital years, checks all scenes involving nurses.  She also steps in camera range during operating room scenes, because surgical procedures take months, even years, to learn.  Wife of a doctor and mother of four, Nurse Rodriguez says actresses couldn’t possibly duplicate the “precise sterile techniques drummed into us nurses until they become automatic,” and notes her presence saves time.

“A scrub nurse is to her surgeon what a football quarterback is to his backfield,” she said.  The moves and timing must be perfect.”

When I was researching Ben Casey for The A.V. Club, I tracked down Rodriguez, who is still a practicing nurse (she works with breast cancer patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California).  Rodriguez proved to have a fantastic memory of events on the set of Ben Casey, and she also put me in touch with another (now retired) nurse, Christina Hutson, who joined her during the later seasons.  Although Rodriguez largely left the television industry after Ben Casey, Hutson (credited as “Chris Hutson”) went on to several of the most prominent medical shows of the seventies and eighties.  (And Hutson’s protegee, Linda Klein, followed in her footsteps, working as a producer on Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Nip/Tuck, as well as playing a funny recurring role in the latter.)

Although Rodriguez’s name appears in the cast lists for a half-dozen Ben Casey episodes in which she played small roles (usually as an operating room nurse), neither she nor Hutson received screen credit for their work as technical advisors.  Had it not been for that brief mention in O’Brian’s article, I would never have learned of the significant role that the two women played in the making of the series.  The following transcript integrates remarks from Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Hutson, made during separate telephone interviews recorded in July and August 2013.

How did you connect with Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: I had my nursing school training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband.  When I was a student and also after I graduated, when I was working at L.A. County, I worked with a neurosurgery resident named Max Warner.  Max was discovered, quote-unquote, by Jim Moser, when Jim was researching Casey.  He saw Max and thought he was a great character.  Max had finished his residency, but he had gotten a deferment from the Navy to complete it, so he knew that he would be taken into the Navy pretty soon and he didn’t start practice.  Jim Moser hired him to work on the pilot and the first ten scripts.

When my husband went into practice, he got a letter from Max that told him a little bit about what he was doing, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a minor way.  That’s how I got in.  I was asked to come in to do the scrub nurse role in the first season.  The first show I did was segment number four, and I remember it so well.  The title of it was “I Remember a Lemon Tree,” and the [guest] actor was George C. Scott.

I did probably three or four, not many, and Max was called into the Navy about show number seven.  The producer was Matt Rapf, and Matt called me in and asked if I’d be interested in being a technical advisor on the set, for the medical scenes.  I said, “Well, only if I had some backup.”  They had a panel of neurosurgeons, two or three, from L.A. County, who were out in practice.  They were reviewing scripts, but I was on the set.  I was there all five seasons.

The last season and a half, I had a nurse classmate alternate shows with me, because I commuted from Costa Mesa and later Newport Beach into Hollywood, and I had four small children.  So it was pretty rigorous.  But I loved it.

Hutson: I think I came in around ’62, the first part of ’63.  Alice and I were classmates from L.A. County Hospital, and our husbands were interns together and very good friends.  Alice was asked by a neurosurgeon to help him on the show, to do more on set, because doctors didn’t want to give up their time to sit around and wait.  But he went in the Army, and they decided instead of getting another doctor [they hired Rodriguez]. Her husband said, either you need help, or quit, because the hours were so long.  So she asked me to help.  We rotated shows until the show ended.  I think it was [for] three and a half seasons.

Were you a movie buff before your career took you into Hollywood?

Rodriguez: Not particularly, no.  I grew up in a family that was fundamentalist in terms of religion.  So, as a child, we didn’t do movies.  I think my mother took me to two Shirley Temple shows, and that was the extent of it until I was in high school.  Finally, they relented on an occasion now and then – my brother and I could see a show.  But it was very [much] not focused on that kind of thing.  And even now I’m not one to run out and see the next movie.

Is it accurate to say that the character of Ben Casey was based on Max Warner?

Rodriguez: Yes.  Oh, yeah, he was.  Max was, in some ways, a non-conformist.  He had his own opinions.  He was brilliant.  He was a bright, bright person.  He was born, I think, in China.  His parents were missionaries.  So he came up with a background and an education in the Bible, and he used to quote the Bible at the drop of a hat.  He was a character.  That’s what made him attractive to Jim Moser.  Because Jim spent a year living in the intern residents’ dorms at L.A. County, soaking it up.

It’s amazing that he invested that much time in something that might not have gone anywhere.

Rodriguez: Mm-hmm.  Well, you know, he did Medic a few years before, and it wasn’t a [character-driven] drama.  He wanted to do a drama.  So that’s why he developed, I think, the Ben Casey character.

What else do you remember about Moser?

Rodriguez: Jim was Jesuit-trained.  He started out in the Jesuit seminary, and then decided not to become a priest, is my understanding.  He was always very studious.  He liked jazz.  You know, he was mainly a writer, and a lot of writers are not very outgoing.

I particularly liked Jim Moser’s scripts.  I remember the actors saying, “His dialogue is so easy to learn, because it’s so natural to the character.”  He just wrote that way.  At his house, he had a guest house out back, and they used to put him out there and lock him in, because he was always behind schedule.  They had a trap door – they put his food in to him, but he had to finish that script.  But he just had such beautiful stories, and the characters were so real.

How active was Moser in the show after the pilot?

Rodriguez: Jim Moser was pretty active, particularly the first season and a half to two seasons, while Matt was there.  Matt left after the second season.  Jim was around – he wasn’t always on the property.

Tell me more about what, exactly, your job as a technical advisor entailed.

Rodriguez: I learned how film is made.  Part of my duties was going to all the production meetings, and I worked with the film cutters on the operating room scenes, so that the sequencing was correct.  I also took new directors and new writers over to L.A. County and took them on a tour, just to kind of initiate them into the atmosphere.

The writers knew that they could call me with any research questions or that kind of thing.  I always got the next week’s script ahead of time, and I would review the scripts and make any comments at the production meetings that might affect wardrobe or makeup or any of those things.  The head of each of those crafts would be at the production meeting, so it was ironed out [there].  And Matt Rapf was the final word.

Did you also spend a lot of time on the set?

Rodriguez: I didn’t have to be there if they were doing something in a living room or something like that.  I was only required to be there for the medical part that was being filmed.

Hutson: Ben Casey was a neurosurgeon, so when he finally did the surgical thing, we’d set up the whole surgery.  Any time there were props that they needed, we’d make sure they had the proper ones and they were used properly.  We would work with the actors as far as dialogue – go over medical terms that they might not know how to pronounce [and] he way their hands work.  We’d have to stage it so it was believable, so that in surgery they wouldn’t wipe their brow with their hand.  Just things that actors wouldn’t think about or even know about.  And we would consult on wardrobe.  Back then interns had a code – they were all in white.  Residents had beige slacks and a white top.  Hair and not much jewelry on the nurses.

Were the actors receptive to your advice?

Hutson: Oh, yes.  Most actors are extremely intelligent and care a lot.  They wanted to look the part and they wanted to act the part.  The only one that I had a little problem with was Patrick McGoohan [on Rafferty].  He was a little bit insulting.  I don’t know whether he was trying to do me a favor or not, but he came up one time and he said, “You know, you’re prostituting yourself.”  I said, “What do you mean by that?”  He said, “By doing this kind of work when you could be working in a hospital.”  I thought, well, that’s one take on it.

Rodriguez: You know that show Bing Crosby had on for a season [The Bing Crosby Show, 1964-1965]?  He shot that next door at Desilu Gower.  It was a closed set, so I asked if I could go over and visit. They said yes and I got in and watched a scene.  Crosby came over, and he knew who I was and where I came from.  He said to me, “Boy, this sure beats the hell out of passing bedpans, doesn’t it?”  Referring to my job.

Hutson: There was a situation where I’d done a pilot for Jerry Thorpe called The Lazarus Syndrome, with Lou Gossett, and a pilot for Frank Glicksman called Trapper John.  In Hollywood, if you happen to do a pilot and it’s bought, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to wait around and see what else is coming.”  So they bought Jerry Thorpe’s, and I took it.  I had already done seven seasons of Medical Center with Frank Glicksman, and he said, “Well, we want you on Trapper John.”  I said, “Well, I can’t do both.”  He said, “Yes you can.”  So we worked it out.  I hired an intern who had already done his internship.  They said, “We’ll pay you; you pay him.”  And I came on the set one day and it was a scrub room scene, and Pernell was scrubbing without his mask on.  They had done one take.  The intern’s name was Stuart and I said, “Stuart, how come…?”  He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to wear his mask.”  I said, “Well, Stuart, he’s got to wear his mask.”  He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to.”  So I went over to Pernell and I said, “Hey, Pernell, you really are supposed to be wearing a mask.”  He said, “Well, I asked Stuart and he said it was okay.”  I said, “Well, he’s trying to please you.  Put your mask on!”

Was accuracy a major preoccupation on Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: They were really adamant about being [medically] correct.  They went to great lengths to try to be correct, so that no one could point the finger.

Hutson: When you’d get a script from the writers, sometimes they’d know what they’re talking about and sometimes they’d just leave it up to someone else to correct the medical part of it.  So you’d get the script, and then you read it and you highlight what’s your business and what you have to take care of – that the dialogue’s correct, and that the props are attainable.  Like, some guy could read something in some Scientific American and write a story around it, and it’s something [that won’t really exist until] twenty-five years later.  So I would ask Wilton Schiller’s secretary when I could talk to him – and Alice did this too – about the script.  Then I’d give him my corrections.

Rodriguez: I remember one incident where one of the writers had seen something in a medical journal or something that was kind of on the research side, and it had involved the use of a stereotactic device to pinpoint treatment for Parkinson’s or that kind of thing.  So he came with that idea and it came up in a production meeting: how are we going to get one of these things?  So I did a little research with the team of neurosurgeons we used, and they said, UCLA has it.  They’re testing it over there.  So we made an attempt to get it.  Well, you’ve never heard such a brouhaha as was created at UCLA.  The lead person on the research called me one day on the set and [said], “How dare you?  How did you get this information?  And your show is just making fun of me and…”  It went on and on and on.  I said, “You know, doctor, we don’t even know who you are.”  And he was kind of silent for a minute, and then he began to tell me how nice the show was, and how perfect it was.

AliceRodriguez

Although her face was usually hidden behind a mask in operating room scenes, Alice Rodriguez (above) played a physical therapist in one episode of Ben Casey (“Then, Suddenly, Panic!” 1965).  (Incidentally, “Then, Suddenly, Panic!” is usually listed as the final episode of the series.  But it features Sam Jaffe and was clearly shot during season four and left on the shelf for a year, for reasons I’ve been unable to learn.)

What would happen when dramatic license became a factor, and they needed to take liberties with the medicine in order to make a story work?

Rodriguez: There was quite an incident with Peter Falk, when he came to do a segment.  They happened to cast him in a story [in which] the character with the disease was highly infectious, and it meant that people going in and out of the room had to wear not only a gown but gloves and a mask and a cap.  Well, Peter Falk had a glass eye, and the cinematographer said, “This is going to be really difficult, with his glass eye, to always get him on the proper side and with the proper lighting, et cetera, so that that doesn’t show up.”  So they discussed it and said, “Well, we just won’t have him wear a mask.”  And I said, “Well, that’s part of being correct.  That’s part of what you’re telling the audience with this particular disease, you need to go to these measures.”  They decided they were going to do it anyway, and not do the mask.  So I called the infectious disease nurse over at L.A. County – I had known her – and she said, “Well, just have them wash their hands a lot.”  [Laughs.]  So that’s what we did.  We put a basin outside the door of the room and had them [use] the basin of water.  So that’s how we handled it.  And I don’t remember that we got many comments about it.  But usually there was a way to work it out.  I got a little bummed about some of it, because I was looking at it from the standpoint of education to the public.  But most of the time it worked.

Hutson: Sometimes you set up the room and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do another angle,” and they’ll move the monitors that you had on one side of the room over to the side they’re shooting.  And they say, “They’ll never notice it.”  So some things you let them get away with, because you know that the audience, if they’re worried about the machinery, then they’re not following the story.  You want to [fight] the battles you want to win.  Sometimes the director will say, “I don’t want to see them in their masks.”  That happened to me when a friend was doing a show at Fox, and the director even called the producers down, and they said, “Nope, the masks stay off.”  My girlfriend was on that show and she said, “Please come up and help me out.”  Because they had everybody without a mask.  So I backed her up.  Long story short, the thing is shown and they get all kinds of calls about – it’s ridiculous, it’s mostly people that want your job – but they had so many and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us how important it was?”  And you just roll your eyes and walk away.

What did you think of Vince Edwards?

Rodriguez: I liked him.  He was an interesting character.  He loved the horses.  And I got along well with him.  He was the kind of person [to whom] you couldn’t say, “This is how you’re going to do it.”  My approach to him was to just always be beside the camera, when we were blocking out a scene, because when he’d get to a piece of business with the medical equipment, he didn’t know what to do with it.  And right away he would yell for me.  So I’d go in and I’d say, “What’s up, Vince?”  He’d say, “Well, what do I do with this?  Show me.”  He had great manual dexterity.  I’d just show him a couple of times and he could handle anything.  And that involved the surgical, too.  He was very adept.  And he was a quick study.  He had a photographic memory.

Did you observe his rather legendary bad behavior on the set?

Rodriguez: He had a couple of challenges with actors who came on as guests.  I can’t remember the name of the [actor] who really gave him a piece of his mind, because sometimes Vince, if the horses were running in the afternoon, he’d take off and not do the off-camera for the guests.  And this actor really told him [off].  He refused to do his on-camera until Vince was there, and they had to do it the next day.

Did you feel that Edwards’s behavior on the set was out of line?

Rodriguez: Well … I think that he acted in some ways that were not very mature.  But you have to consider, when he came on the show, when they cast him, they used to tell the story that he was so poor he didn’t even have a pair of socks.  I guess he made it big, and he just was not mature enough to be able to handle it well.

Hutson: He would leave for lunch, and we would have a pool about what time in the afternoon he’d come back.  He never took a one-hour lunch that I can remember.  And he would do other crazy things.  For example, he knew I skied and he said, “I want to go skiing at Mammoth.  Help me out.  Make me a list of the things I need.”  So I made a list, and he gave it to the prop master and the prop master went out and bought everything for him.

He was a very personable man.  He was like a teddy bear.  But he didn’t have a lot of – what would I say? – he took liberties with his position.  Most people, if they make a pretty good salary, they’d just be thankful that they could afford it themselves and not send the prop man out to buy everything.

Edwards also had an entourage that spent a lot of time on the set, didn’t he?

Rodriguez: He did.  There were a couple of guys that were with him, and one of them was a sleazebag.  I remember walking out with [guest star] Percy Rodriguez -

A wonderful actor.

Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful.  A wonderful person, too.

And he shared your name!

Rodriguez: I know.  We went to lunch one day at the commissary and somebody asked if we were married.  And we said, “No.  To other people, but not to each other.”  But, anyway, we were walking out this evening, with Bettye Ackerman’s auntie – I was driving her auntie down to a relative’s house in Costa Mesa.  So we were all walking out to the car, and here came this sleazebag that was in the entourage for Vince, asking Percy if he needed someone to spend the evening with.  That he had contacts for him.  And he just said, “No, thank you.  My evening is taken.”

So he was a pimp!  Do you think he did that with everybody, or are you suggesting that he treated Rodriguez a certain way because he was black?

Rodriguez: I have no idea.  I think that he just saw himself – well, he was one of these guys that wore lots of jewelry, and …

I assume this is Bennie Goldberg you’re talking about.

Rodriguez: Yeah, it was Bennie.  There was another person that was with Bennie all the time, and he was a little slow – you know, not as intelligent.

Was that Ray Joyer?

Rodriguez: Yeah.  He was a sweet person, but he just was a little slow.

What about the rest of the cast?  Do you remember Jeanne Bates, who played the head nurse?

Rodriguez: On two of our summer hiatuses, I took Jeanne to L.A. County.  We spent two weeks over there.  She wore a uniform and she shadowed the nurses.  She was a very thorough actress.  She wanted to see what really happened.  And she really struggled, because she felt like she should have a more prominent role.  And it just never happened.

And Nick Dennis?

Rodriguez: Give him a scene, and he added dialogue, and they’d have to stop and say, “Now, Nick, that’s not in the script.” Yeah, he was a character.

Did you know why Sam Jaffe left the series before the final season?

Rodriguez: No, but I knew that he was not happy.  He didn’t like the character, I guess, or maybe it was that he didn’t like Vince that much.  I think he felt that it wasn’t the level of acting that he preferred.  And everybody kind of knew that.

Hutson: Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, they considered themselves actors, and Vince just kind of fell into the role.  He wasn’t an actor of the caliber that Sam Jaffe was.

What do you recall about Wilton Schiller, who replaced Matthew Rapf as the “showrunner”?

Hutson: He was easy to work with, approachable, had a good sense of humor.

Rodriguez: “Uncle Wilty,” I think we called him.  He always was jovial, and he liked to kiss everybody, so that’s what we kind of called him.

Which of the show’s directors do you remember?

Hutson: There were some you liked better than others.  Alan Crosland was a pilot, and I’m a pilot; I have an instrument/commercial rating.  He came to dinner at my house one time, and he flew his plane into Long Beach.  He wanted to take me flying and I said, “Well, ask my husband.”  And he said sure.  My husband was an anesthesiologist at Long Beach Memorial.  Anyway, we went up and the door wasn’t shut right, so it was pretty noisy.

Rodriguez: Some of the people who went through there . . .  Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, from New York.  And Sydney Pollack.  I think Sydney was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he started with us.  After I got to know Sydney well, there was one scene where it opened with the boom high and coming down, and he had me ride on that boom with him and help him direct.  So that was a great thrill.  Mark Rydell - I took him to L.A. County, and I had no idea that he had been so popular on the show in New York [The Edge of Night] that he had been on.  We were down in the orthopedic clinic, and all of a sudden these nurses’ assistants came running over, shouting the name he had had on the show!

Hutson: John Meredyth Lucas was always walking around with a little bag of corn nuts.  That was his favorite snack.

What do you recall about the production crew on Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: The crew was just fabulous.  Most of the crew members stayed the whole five seasons.  The person I worked beside a lot was the script supervisor, Betty Fancher.  Betty was an old-timer.  She had worked with a man named Eddie Small, and I guess Eddie Small was of the time when silents were going to sound.  She had been in the business for years and years and years, and she knew everybody.  She was an extraordinary script supervisor.  She had become quite heavy in her later years, and because of that it was hard for her to get around the set sometimes.  On an operating room scene, they’d have several takes, and I used to tell her the one that was the most correct.  And she would make notations.  She plotted things out on the scripts, and of course those scripts went to the film cutter.  I learned a lot from Betty.

What about the director of photography, Ted Voigtlander?

Rodriguez: He was a delightful man.  He would always show me the film strips when they’d come in so that he could look at them.  He and Eddie Blondell, who was the head lighting person.  They would look at these strips – each time they would come in, they would have several to look at, and they would pick the ones that were, they thought, the most natural.

Teddy went to bat for me.  They had one director that was early on, and I had been answering a question somewhere, but anyway they blocked out a scene and they had somebody taking a patient in the elevator feet-first, so that the head was toward the door.  And I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t the way we do it.  We turn the patient around and put them in head-first so the feet are at the door in case the door closes.”  Well, the director just ranted and raved and cussed at me.  Teddy went in and he took him by the shirt collar and he said, “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.”  That director never came back.  I can’t remember his name.

That taught me a lesson too, and that is that when they’re blocking out a shot, that’s when you catch the possible errors.  So you want to be there so you can put in a word before they go through the lighting and all of that.

I think the look of the show is very interesting.  Was there anything specific about the imagery that the producers were trying to achieve?

Rodriguez: Well, I think they wanted it to look like L.A. County.  The set decorators and the set designers actually went over and measured the operating room and the patient rooms and all that.  Then they reconstructed the sets, reducing them by a third, is what they told me.  The ceiling was open most of the time, unless they were doing low shots in a room, and then they’d put the little fake ceiling up.  L.A. County, in those years, had an autoclave right in the operating room, so they actually went and got the lid off the autoclave, and they had that in the room.  They also used a rack where the nurses would take the used sponges and hang them, so that they could count them.  It was ten across.  They did everything they could to use the furniture and the look of L.A. County.  And I think the lighting and the paints, painting the sets, all of that was [based on] L.A. County.

You implied earlier that the producers drifted away from the commitment to accuracy as the show went on.

Rodriguez: I think they were more inclined to be a little more on the dramatic side and less on the crisp medical type environment that they presented at the beginning.  I remember hearing the term: “Oh, well, that’s poetic license.”  Or: “That’s a story point – we can’t change that.”

There was a big [incident] with one of the writers, where he wrote a script where he had Casey going against the attending physicians.  Which was not unusual – he did that often in a script.  But in this particular one, they had him using somebody else’s name to take him to the operating room, because the staff had said no, not to go to the operating room.  When I read that script, I just blew a gasket.  And I couldn’t get to Jim [Moser] personally, so I called one of the neurosurgeons, who was on the staff at Good Samaritan.  I told him the crux of the story, and I said, “It is wrong.  We can’t do that, for the sake of the public.  It’ll just destroy trust.”  He said, “Send me the script in a plain envelope.”  So I did.  He was able to get to Jim, and they changed it.  But those were things that were more apt to come up in the later years.

Did the other nurses and doctors you knew like the show, or not?

Rodriguez: Some of them did.  Almost all of them commented on how authentic it was.  They didn’t like Casey’s character very much.

Why not?

Rodriguez: He was too against the grain, they thought.  I just thought, that’s the real world.  Not everybody goes along like sheep.

And it’s not as if that was inauthentic, since Casey was based on a real person.

Rodriguez: Sure, but not a lot of people knew that.  I think some of the people, of course, in our circle of friends at L.A. County, they knew, because they knew Max.  But down in Newport Beach, where my husband was in practice, they really didn’t.

Why did Max Warner switch his specialty from neurosurgery to psychiatry?  That’s kind of an unusual career move, isn’t it?

Rodriguez: Well, it is, but apparently the neurosurgeons did not like the show, and Max’s feelings were that he could never be approved.  He couldn’t get his certification as a neurosurgeon because of that.

Really?  That was Warner’s own view, that Ben Casey hurt his career?

Rodriguez: Yeah.

How did you hear the news when Ben Casey was cancelled?  What was your reaction?

Rodriguez: I wasn’t surprised.  It was a sad time, because everybody kind of knew.  In their spare time, when they could get a minute or two, they were always calling their agents and trying to look for other things.  The crew was doing the same thing.  We had been almost like a family for five seasons – four and a half years – and it was very sad.

What did you do next?

Rodriguez: After the show was over, I found a private company that was producing records and little tapes and slides for nursing education, and it was the first of its kind.  It was a company called Trainex and I was the second nurse they hired.  I worked for them for about four years.  And I worked for several private industries that were producing instructional material.  [Later] I was offered Medical Center, with Chad Everett.  I worked the first and the third shows.  But I was committed to a federal program in stroke treatment and education, so I decided I wouldn’t take the show.

Hutson: My husband died in 1969.  Actually, he became ill in ’65.  It was Hodgkin’s Disease.  He’d work and be ill, and then work and be ill.  Anyway, in 1969, after he died in May, I got Medical Center.  Alice was on it, and then she called me.  She didn’t even want to rotate.  I did seven years of Medical Center and eight years of Trapper John, and I did a whole bunch of movies in between seasons of those shows.  I never wanted for work.  When I did Lazarus Syndrome with Lou Gossett, that didn’t fly.  They locked the stage up for three months.  That was some of the first medical equipment I bought.  After Trapper John went down, I started a medical rental business back to the motion picture industry.

Rodriguez: Those were interesting years, and it was really a unique and valuable experience for me, because it added to my professional career.  In many ways – not just being able to work in private industry, but also having learned how to work with a variety of people with a variety of skills.

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