August 26, 2011
One of the the twentieth century’s great faces, Gerald S. O’Loughlin traversed the usual postwar character actor’s path: study under legendary acting teachers, Broadway and live television experience, middle-aged pilgrimage toward movies and filmed television on the West Coast. If you don’t know him from his regular roles in The Rookies or Our House, then you’ll remember him from guest-leads in a few hundred television episodes or supporting parts in films like In Cold Blood, Ice Station Zebra, and The Organization.
Short, stocky, balding, and with an unmistakably Noo Yawk-tinged voice, O’Loughlin (pronounced O-LOCK-lin) was a casting director’s blue-collar dream. His curriculum vitae is full of cops, hoodlums, jailbirds, GIs. Though many of these characters were tough guys – O’Loughlin himself was a marine lieutenant during the war and then the occupation of Japan, and not shy about pointing that out – some had a more sensitive mien, luckless little guys pushed around by life or fate or bad women. O’Loughlin, Strasberg-trained and shrewd, found the humanity in these stock roles, always playing the unexpected side of the material. He had his roster of Method tics – count how many times, in how many different roles, he folds his arms across his chest. His voice was lugubrious, almost a drawl, but O’Loughlin enunciated his words in an almost singsong way; that habit, coupled with his instinct for underplaying, made O’Loughlin one of the most touchingly straightforward personae on television. On The Rookies, the Aaron Spelling-generated cop drama that made O’Loughlin a quasi-star, the producers seemed to think they were getting a screamer, a dull clone of the square-jawed police boss that Tige Andrews played on Spelling’s similar Mod Squad. Though you could see why the young cops quaked in his presence, O’Loughlin threw in his usual curve. His Lieutenant Ryker was a voice of reason, a veteran who had seen everything and gave out his orders in affirming tones of calm, patience, and resignation.
Active in the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio until just a few years ago, O’Loughlin now resides in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. Scheduling did not permit a visit, but over the course of several phone conversations this spring O’Loughlin shared some favorite stories from his life and work. Just as many of his working-class characters seemed to be closet intellectuals, O’Loughlin was full of surprises, beginning with the fact that he enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than any of the mopes he played on screen. He spoke with a disarming frankness not only about his adventures on the stage and in front of the camera, but of his struggle with alcoholism and his long-term relationship with a movie star nearly twenty years his junior.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
My father was a lawyer and a Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia. Just a brilliant, wonderful guy. Everybody was crazy about him. He had some papers to look up in Cuba, and it was in the middle of the winter. He went down to Cuba, which was tropical, and he contracted diarrhea and amoebic dysentery together. He came back to New York and it went into what is called a dormant period, the dysentery. The following summer, it recurred, and they simply did not know what he had until the autopsy. I think I was four and a half when he passed away.
I was raised by my mother. Her mother was in the house, and an old maiden aunt was there. I was surrounded by a lot of women. A cook, a [housekeeper], a nurse. My father left us well taken care of. My mother never had to go to work. She took care of me and the two old ladies.
I grew up in a house on 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. It wasn’t a brownstone, it was a graystone. They’re a little fancier, a little more luxurious. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a prominent civil engineer, Charles Dodd Ward. He came from an old Jersey City family. When the Army Corps of Engineers was laying their plans for the Panama Canal, my grandfather was, just from a scholarly standpoint, very interested in looking over their shoulders. He looked at the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan, and he recommended that one change be made. The French De Lesseps plan had a thing called the Gatun Dam, and he recommended that they extract the Gatun Dam out of the DeLesseps Plan and insert it into the American one. And that would save the government, in those days, forty million dollars. He delivered this hypothetical paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers, and those hypothetical talks were always put into print and available to everybody. And the Army Corps of Engineers said, “Shit, he’s right. Put it in.” So they did. He got credit for it in many books, but they couldn’t get him a job because Teddy Roosevelt was one political party and my grandfather was the opposing one.
Did you know during the war that you wanted to be an actor when you came back?
Yes, I knew then. I had to gratify my family first by getting a degree, and the easiest thing for me to get a degree in was mechanical engineering. So I spent a couple of years doing that. But once I finished college, I went to an acting school in New York called the Neighborhood Playhouse, also on the G.I. Bill, for another two years.
The Neighborhood Playhouse was dominated by the legendary Sanford Meisner. Tell me what you learned from him.
His key ingredient for actors was, “What do you want?” What do you want in the scene? What do you want from the person? In other words, in its simplest form it would be, “I want to borrow some money.”
So that would motivate your performance of the material.
Yes. You get to do it in a very easy way by improvising. Then later on when you get the lines down, hopefully there’s still some carryover from what you had in the improvisation.
How many other students were there?
I would say twenty-six, perhaps, in each of the classes. There were two classes, like juniors and seniors. Leslie Nielsen was in the class ahead of me.
After that you joined the Actors Studio?
Not immediately. I did some summer stock, and finally Sandy Meisner wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg. I’d done an audition for one of his people, and they wanted me to do another. But the letter that Sandy Meisner wrote Lee Strasberg clinched it. He said, “You don’t have to do another audition. You come highly recommended.”
What did you learn from Strasberg, and at the Actors Studio in general?
Strasberg took us into what is called sense memory. Sandy Meisner just was strictly an action person: What do you want? He was very cautious about doing the sensory thing. But sooner or later I think most of us fooled around with it. It’s a valuable tool.
At the same time you were doing a lot of live television.
Oh, yes. I did a soap that I’ll never forget. I had a scene with a woman who was older than I was. I think she was my landlady. I had a speech like, “You remind me of my mother. You’re a regular such-and-such.” And I couldn’t remember, when we went on the air, what such-and-such was. So I came up with a Jewish expression, “You’re a nudnik!” I solved the problem that way.
I was in another soap when they first started using tape. Somebody accidentally erased the tape – there were two tapes and they erased them both – and we had to shoot two shows in one day. What a mess. I had an offer to do a movie, but [first] I had to get them to let me go. I said, “Could you let me out of my contract so I can do a movie?” He said, “We’d be happy to.” They were so glad to get rid of me.
Oh, I had difficulty with my lines sometimes.
Were there other things that went wrong when you were on the air live?
I don’t think so. [But] I know I walked onstage once, and I had a glued-on mustache. The downstage side of the mustache was separating from my skin. I heard a woman in the first row say, “Your mustache is coming off!” So I put my finger up on my moustache and pressed it back against the spirit gum.
I had a nightmare on stage with Bonnie Bedelia. I was in a play and we were out of town before coming into New York. It was a terrible play, but anyhow. She was sitting facing the audience, and I was sitting sideways to the audience, and we were talking. I was sitting in a chair, and I had my arms out around the arms of the chair and into my pants pockets. I thought it was a quirky, kind of a creative way to sit in a chair, in a play that could use any kind of a crutch that was available. What I didn’t realize was that the chair had recently been glued by the stagehands. They should’ve put it someplace where it couldn’t be used until it dried out, but somehow I wound up sitting in it. But at the same time I had a hangover, and I started to feel a little vertigo, as if the chair was leaning. I said, “Oh, that’s the hangover.” And I kept on talking, and I kept on leaning, and finally, slowly, this chair was pulled apart like taffy. Went down to the floor and tipped over to the left, to my left side, never taking my hands out of my pockets. And I got up and took the broken chair and put it over by the side of the set. Got a good chair, and brought that back to the set. I sat down, and I looked at Bonnie Bedelia’s eyes. She had her hand covered over her mouth. And I have never seen anybody’s eyes so full of water. I mean, they were flooding over with water, she was laughing so hard, trying not to give into it. I think [the play] was Happily Never After .
Do you remember doing Mister Peepers?
Yes, I did one or two. I was a school bus driver in one of them.
You also did a live show with Ralph Meeker, a Goodyear Playhouse called “The Darkness Below” (1952).
That was really terrific. It was about a mine cave-in. These two guys were prisoners in a mine cave-in, and the idea behind the story was, in ordinary day-to-day life, one was a bum and the other was like an Arrow shirt man. When they get into the mine cave-in, they change roles. There was a flashback, and in the flashback I had to [change wardrobe] – I was in a set of overalls that could be removed, and underneath it was a blue serge suit.
Kim Stanley was in that. We had the dress rehearsal, and the director was giving notes after our last rehearsal, just prior to the actual broadcast. He had a little pad in front of him with different actors and what he wanted to say to them. When he came to me, instead of saying it out loud – he was a bit of a prude – he wrote a little note on a piece of scrap paper to the effect of, “When you kiss Kim, do not stick tongue in her mouth.” Which I was not doing. I was just giving her a gentle, affectionate kiss. But he thought I was up to some mischief. So I said to myself, well, this one moment in this show, apparently I’m in good territory with my acting. I’ll just leave it alone. So I gave her a very nice, chaste, affectionate kiss.
Let me ask about some of your theater work. What was your Broadway debut?
The thing that catapulted me from Off-Broadway was a play by Frank Gilroy called Who’ll Save the Plowboy? He’s a terrific writer. It was kind of a very heavy barrage of dialogue, monologue-type dialogue. It’s like learning a piece of music or something. Once I got it down, you could hear the audience respond. Very effective. It was a beautiful piece of writing and I benefitted from it tremendously, as did the young woman, Rebecca Darke.
It was done Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre. Robert Montgomery was in the audience, and as a result of seeing me in that he put me in a play [Calculated Risk, 1962-1963] on Broadway, which was not successful at all. But at least I got cast by Robert Montgomery in a Broadway play! Why it was sort of a weak play was it had been a British television show about the stock market, about a hostile raider in the stock market. I played the hostile raider. That’s when I came on the stage with my mustache flapping in the breeze.
Do you remember doing Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1952)?
Yes. That was an ANTA production. Lee J. Cobb played the father. He was wonderful, just a real force to watch. In the evening after the performance we used to go to the bar and grill, and he was at a table with four or five other people, about ten, fifteen feet away from where I was. I heard the punchline of a joke, and I never found out what the rest of the joke was. But the punchline of the joke, which he told with a thick Jewish accent, was “Fuck around vit Hopalong Cassidy, boy, hah hah hah!” I was so in awe of him, I didn’t have the guts to go up and say, “What’s the rest of that joke?”
Tell me about playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
It was exciting. I played it under relaxed conditions in summer stock one time, up in Boston. Lee Falk had a theater in Boston. It was a great experience, wonderful. The writing is so brilliant, so foolproof. Later on [in 1956] I did it in a not exactly Off-Broadway but not exactly on Broadway, some kind of a delicate thing Actors Equity worked out, with Tallulah Bankhead. Frances Heflin, Van Heflin’s sister, played Stella.
How was Tallulah in that role?
You’d be surprised. She was able to run a gamut of emotions from excitement to abject pity. She was all right. One time we were in Palm Beach, rehearsing. We were doing a technical run-through for the lights and the sound. So we were doing stop and go, stop and go. We stopped, and she and I were standing nose-to-nose. As we were going through our paces, she impulsively gave me a kiss. Now, close up, she looked like my grandmother. She was well on. But I tried not to wince or anything like that. And she looked me dead in the eye, knowing full well what’s going on in my mind, and said, “Just you remember, young man, I had a one-night stand with Gary Cooper!”
Was Tennessee Williams around for that production?
Yes, he was around. He had a little too much to drink once in a while. I heard one time he went out through the audience in the intermission, saying, “Miss Bankhead is pissin’ on mah play!” But by and large he was well-behaved, and so was she. I was glad when it was over, though.
I don’t know, the pressure. She drew enormous pressure. She also drew the gay claque. They would sit way up in the balcony. There’s a moment where she and Mitch come back from a date, and before they go in the house they’re looking at the constellations, and she’s talking about the Pleiades. She said [the line] “Those old girls aren’t getting any tonight.” As she said that, she’s looking right up at the top balcony where all the wild, mischievous gay people are sitting and raising hell. And they go wild!
Did Williams say anything to you about your performance?
I don’t think so. He was probably disappointed in it. Marlon Brando was marvelous.
Did you come up with your own interpretation of Stanley that was distinct from Brando’s?
Oh, I tried. I tried to do my own colors. It’s beautiful writing. It’s impossible to avoid stopping a show when you play Stanley, when the woman says, “You get up and wash your filthy hands, you greasy Polack!” And he tells them all off: People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks, and what I am is one hundred percent American!” And he swipes the silverware and the plates off the table and says, “My place is clear. You want me to clear your places?” The audience just goes wild. Always stops the show.
You were in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963-64), as Cheswick.
Kirk Douglas. I understudied him, and he wanted to look at the play from out front, so I went on for him once. I look back on my experiences doing that play, a mad, chaotic kind of a scramble. It just seemed to take that form.
What was Kirk Douglas like?
Oh, no way to describe him. He was like a shark. Very aggressive. He held it up; he did his part. He did the part well. That was not really a relaxed, pleasant experience. It was just kind of a mad scramble.
Do you remember A Cook For Mr. General (1961), directed by Fielder Cook?
Not much of a play, but I had such a great part. A compulsive liar, would talk to anybody and tell them a huge lie. At the end of the play, he’s a witness in a court-martial. He tells a huge lie, and at the end of his testimony, he says, “Private So-and-So slipped and fell and lost his balance, and his fist accidentally came up as he was trying to catch his balance and accidentally hit Lieutenant So-and-So in the jaw.” And it proceeded with, “And we were having a very intellectual discussion.” The interrogator says, “I see. And what was this very intellectual discussion?” And I used to go blank. Totally blank, every night. He would whisper it under his breath, and I would remember it and say, “Psychoanalysis.” The audience just went insane.
Why did you go up on that particular line?
Because he was in the middle of a lie. He would be blank. And the reality of that got hold of me! The fellow that was playing the interrogator was nice enough to throw me the line every night. I should have taken him out to dinner, and I never did. And I got such a laugh on that, that the audience stopped the show. They laughed so hard that they went into a round of applause.
You were one of the leads in Lovers and Lollipops (1956; pictured above), a great, New York-lensed independent film by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, who made The Little Fugitive.
That’s the first movie I ever did. I had to pay three hundred dollars to join the Screen Actors Guild. It was sort of fun. They were very loose. It was the second movie they’d made.
Another of your early films was A Hatful of Rain (1957).
We shot the exteriors in New York and the interiors in Hollywood, at Twentieth. I loved Eva Marie Saint. Shelley Winters did [her role in] the play. Harry Guardino was on the stage, but I got Harry’s part in the movie.
What do you remember about Fred Zinnemann, who directed it?
What a lovely, gentle man. A good director in every way. Just a pleasure to be around.
He came out of a Hollywood tradition that was very different from your theatrical training.
He was able to help me with that problem. In other words, there’s a scene in A Hatful of Rain where I’m standing in a doorway, and I spin my head around from right to left. I was snapping it too vigorously, and he commented that that’s okay for the stage, but just turn it in a more slow, normal way. Which I did, and I realized the value of it immediately.
I understand you were close to the actress Sandy Dennis.
Yeah, we lived together for seven years, in New York.
Tell me about her. What was she like?
Extremely gifted, extremely talented, and a lovely, lovely woman.
How did the two of you meet?
We were both understudies in a William Inge play called Dark at the Top of the Stairs. I understudied Pat Hingle, and she understudied two people, Eileen Heckart and somebody else.
She usually played neurotic or high-strung characters. Was she like that off-screen?
No, not really. One time when we lived together – I myself was a dyslexic, and I was going to a psychiatrist, and I was bemoaning my fate – how it was a terrible job to keep a checkbook balanced and accurate, and the psychiatrist said, “Did you ever think of adding a column of figures twice?” And I said no. It was true – I never did. I got through college, I was studying engineering, I took it for granted that I could handle the figures. I never did that. So I started adding them twice, and I was elated at the results. I went out and rented a little electric adding machine, and I loved it! Punch up the combination and then press the button to print, and it would go click-click-click-click-click. It was a ball! I really had a good time. And she came into the room while I was doing it one day, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, I hate that look on your face, when you’re like that.”
I said, “Well, that’s because you don’t bother with that. In your life you” – how did I put it? – “you just go running around to department stores, charging things up and then going on the road, and then I have to pay for them.” She had half a glass of water in her hand, and she threw the water out of the glass at me. I jumped up and grabbed her and shoved her back into the shower with her clothes on. It was all good-natured and fun. But not long after that she left me.
Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians includes an interview with Dennis, in which he suggests that she was bisexual or gay.
I never heard that. I know that she left Gerry O’Loughlin, an Irish alcoholic, for Gerry Mulligan, an Irish . . . he used all kinds of substances. From one to the other. But I don’t know anything specific about her lesbianism.
Were you still a couple when she made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966?
We were not still together, but we were friends. I stopped in on the set and said hello to her one time. We’d essentially split up by that time.
Tell me about Elia Kazan, who directed Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
One day he said to me, “You sound too much like I do.” He was telling me I didn’t have a southern accent. My character was from the South. So I worked on it. But Kazan was an interesting person. The first time I met him, I shook hands with him, and he deliberately pulled me over to my right, forced me off balance. An interesting way of forming a relationship with somebody. But he was very gifted, and accomplished a lot.
Why did you move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties?
I made a lot more money once I moved out here. Living in New York, if you were lucky, you’d get one or maybe two plays a season. Nine times out of ten they’re not successful. Do a little summer stock. So there’s not much money in New York, but the minute I moved out here I was making $40,000 a year. In those days that was good money.
Were there any casting directors who used you a lot, who boosted your career?
Well, I married one. Meryl Abeles was her maiden name. No, actually, her maiden name was Cohen, but she had been married to a guy named Abeles. Then she changed her name to O’Loughlin. She put me in a good part in a two-hour special about the Civil War, called The Blue and the Gray.
What do you remember about Richard Brooks, who directed In Cold Blood?
He’s one of these professional marines, wants to make sure you know he was a marine. Like, I read Truman Capote’s book before I did any work or anything. In the book, the cop that I played, when he got to Las Vegas and arrested the boys, his sinuses kicked up. That’s the reality that took place. So I wanted to play this one scene with a handkerchief in one hand, like I was wiping my nose. Richard Brooks said, “What the fuck is that?” I explained it to him. I think in the end he let it go.
What was the atmosphere like on the set during the hanging scene at the end?
Well, it was just like you would imagine it was. I must say I read the book carefully, and somewhere in the book, during the hanging, it mentions that in a hanging it usually takes nineteen minutes before they can get a reading of no pulse. I didn’t mention that to the director, because I didn’t get along with him too well, but I did mention it to John Forsythe. I told John Forsythe about the nineteen minutes, because we were getting ready for the second hanging and so forth, so he told Richard Brooks, and nineteen minutes was a consideration [in the staging of the scene].
It was a little shocking, going to the actual places where the murder took place in Kansas. It was a little spooky. We actually shot the murders in the actual house where they took place. I was still drinking, so I had hangovers sometimes.
You struggled with alcoholism during your career, didn’t you?
I’m not supposed to broadcast that I went to A.A. But I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I found a way to stop drinking.
Was that becoming a problem for you professionally?
Probably. You can’t hide it. I did come to work drunk once. Shortly after that I stopped.
That was during Ice Station Zebra (1968)?
One day they passed out the call sheets for tomorrow morning. I looked at the call sheet and I had nothing to do but stand around. I was nothing more than an extra, literally. I came in with a – not even a hangover, I was still drunk from the night before. They had decided that I was behaving myself so well before that that they were going to do me a little favor, and write a little scene for me, where Rock Hudson had gone up on the ice cap and I took over the submarine. And I just was incapable of even doing a half-assed job of it. It was a terrible feeling. So that really broke the camel’s back. Not long after that I came to A.A.
Patrick McGoohan, who was in Ice Station Zebra with you, was a famous drinker.
He always had a light odor of scotch. Not overpowering. I’ve been up against heavy [drinkers]; he sipped mildly throughout the day. Never caused any trouble; always knew his lines. I was very impressed with him. He was a terrific actor.
What do you remember about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, another movie with an all-star cast and a military setting?
The movie was not that great, but I have a scene in that – the idea is that Charles Durning was the president of the United States, and I was like Alexander Haig had been for Nixon. An old buddy. I have a scene with Charles Durning where I bawl him out – he’s my boss, but we’re old friends. It’s a great scene. I’ll tell you how good it was. They had a little debut in Washington D.C. for that movie, and there was a top brass, an admiral in the navy, and he and his wife and I were introduced to each other at a little cocktail party before going in to see the movie. We were very stiff with each other and not comfortable at all. Then we went in to see the movie, and when the movie was over he threw his arms around me and he said, “You were terrific!”
What do you remember about Robert Aldrich, who directed it?
Terrific! There’s the other director I would nominate as an all-time great. He’s a terrific director, and a very warm guy. I had a special toupee made. There was an assistant director, and he had a crew cut, and I wanted a toupee that looked like that. This guy, a wigmaker in the Valley, he made me just what I wanted. A kind of a half-assed crew cut. Siegfried Kreike, he came from a wigmaker family in Germany. Robert Aldrich came up to me and said, “I’ve got to tell you, ordinarily, I hate toupees. But that one is great.”
How did you get the part on The Rookies?
The casting director was an old friend of mine, Bert Remsen. I knew him back in New York. He just said, “I’m putting you in that part.”
Bert Remsen is better known as a character actor. Tell me about him.
You may have heard how he had his accident that forced him to walk with a cane. He’d been working as an actor on that set the day before, and the day before that, but he was through. But he happened to be in the neighborhood, so he stopped by and walked in to say hello. And he saw this Chapman Crane starting to fall, and he shoved four or five people out of the way and it caught him. He was a real hero. And because he wasn’t working, he could get no medical benefits. Because he wasn’t supposed to be there as part of his job that day. He was in the neighborhood and he stopped by to schmooze.
Who were some of the other actors on The Rookies?
There was Georg Stanford Brown. Sam Melville. Michael Ontkean, who eventually left and was replaced by somebody. Kate Jackson. I think I was sort of a father image, and was a little bit distanced from them, but on good terms.
Do you feel like you were ever typecast in a certain kind of role?
Not really. I sort of enjoyed being a lieutenant on The Rookies. Maybe because I was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After The Rookies, they offered me The Love Boat. The part that Gavin MacLeod got.
Why did you turn that down?
Because I was insulted. This is a dilemma that only an actor can get into. I play lieutenants with the police department, I don’t play captains on an excursion cruiser! Playing The Rookies was so embedded in me, I scorned the other one. Today, I wish I had not reacted that way. I’d have a couple of million more dollars. I think they ran for eight years.
Does that mean that Aaron Spelling, the executive producer of both those shows, was a fan of yours?
Not really. He was the one that came to me and tried to get me to do it. It was the network, I think. Aaron Spelling would have been glad to get rid of me, but the network wanted me to do the captain of The Love Boat.
Why would Spelling have been glad to get rid of you?
I don’t know know. I never felt that he liked me that much. Maybe it’s because I didn’t like him that much! Just chemistry.
The Rookies would have run two or three more years, but ABC got a new president, and he came in with a lot of pet projects. So The Rookies just suffered the consequences.
Was Our House as good an experience as The Rookies?
Not quite as good, no. I had more fun on The Rookies. More demanding scenes to play.
Tell me about Wilford Brimley.
He’s a fine actor.
Were the two of you close, as your characters were, during Our House?
You directed episodes of The Rookies and Family, another Aaron Spelling production.
I directed two, but directing turned out to be not so good for me. I’m a dyslexic. I can’t think fast. Being a director is the hardest work in the work in the world. You have to plan the scenes, how you’re going to shoot them, how many cameras. It was really tough work, trying to shoot at least twenty pages a day. I directed two shows and I was happy to leave it up to somebody else. You’ve got to work your ass off the night before, you work all day long, and you go back and start it all over again. Actors are spoiled. When an actor is working, during the day, if he’s not needed for half an hour, he goes to the trailer and gets a little snooze. You can’t do that when you’re directing.
SIDEBAR: FIVE GREAT GERALD S. O’LOUGHLIN PERFORMANCES
The Defenders “Kill or Be Killed” (1963) The famous urban legend about the death row inmate (O’Loughlin, of course) who kills a guard in an escape attempt just as he’s cleared of the original crime. O’Loughlin seizes upon the man’s justifiable paranoia about the legal system in this classic Larry Cohen teleplay.
The F.B.I. “Ordeal” (1966) O’Loughlin drives a truckload of nitro across a treacherous mountain pass, in this near-one-man show, swiped from Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear and directed by our friend Ralph Senensky. O’Loughlin “had a terrible time learning how to shift gears in a truck. I never did pick it up.”
Mannix “Comes Up Rose” (1968) O’Loughlin does his take on Elisha Cook, Jr. in this neo-noir, the best of his several variations on hen-pecked nobodies who take up a life of crime to please a femme fatale (in this case, hubba hubba Sheree North).
Hawaii Five-O “The Box” (1969) Playing a hard but smart lifer, O’Loughlin (above) faces off against the man who took his Love Boat role – a giggly Gavin MacLeod – in this tense prison riot story.
The Rookies “Time Is the Fire” (1972) In the first episode to focus on O’Loughlin’s character, Lt. Ryker suspects that a young kidnap victim is the long-lost daughter he gave up for adoption. O’Loughlin’s big scene is a long, Emmy-caliber monologue in which he lays out Ryker’s tragic backstory to nurse Jill (Kate Jackson).
Correction, 9/6/11: O’Loughlin’s military rank has been corrected in the second paragraph. He was a lieutenant, not a sergeant. Thanks to Charlie Ziarko and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to arrange this interview.
July 18, 2011
Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York. On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.
Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films. Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein. At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.
After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle. Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career. What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director. Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955
His was a quintessentially American story. He was the ultimate self-made man. Sidney was always going forward. He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality. He was the most immediate person that ever lived. Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.
Sidney and I met when we were eighteen. He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress. Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David. That was his last acting part. He replaced Marlon Brando.
He lived with his sister at the time. He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay. Fay brought him up. Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet]. But I liked his father. He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough. A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time. He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.
Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street. We still weren’t married. My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor! I modeled, and that paid the rent. Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.
At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop. I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct. Why don’t you be a director, too? I mean, you’re so good. You can do everything.” So he became a director. And we just had a jolly good time. We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture. Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?
Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special. This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child. Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.
His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste. Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties. I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me. He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing? How’s Sidney?” And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?” I said, “What a great idea. Call him tonight and ask him.” I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS. It’s a new medium.” He said, “I’m not interested. I really like being a teacher.” I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney. I think this is an opportunity.”
Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.” I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!” It was a very funny conversation. He said, “All right, I’ll come down.” And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it. He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.
The intensity of the control room was just his tempo. The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him. He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile. He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors. Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director. Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.
I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times. One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead. But I had my own career. There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses. One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star. I met her on the set of You Are There. That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney. She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.
I was at CBS all the time. I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes. Sidney was in such total control of everything. He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell. Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney. Anything Sidney said, went. We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter. Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot. Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney. She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.
Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality. Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him. He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs. He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality]. Sidney was very stubborn. Sidney always had to win his points. He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself. He was a tough little fighter. That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.
We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall. We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us. Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live! So we got married. It was a lovely wedding, actually. It was at my mom and dad’s house. Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends. Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button. That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned. His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.
Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married. It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home. He was a lousy cook, but I was worse. Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present. I started digging in and doing all those those things. It was a young, fun marriage. We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
Sidney and I first met on Danger. First of all, he was my age. We were exactly the same age. He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre. His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.
On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director. The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt. And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director! Sidney was a wonderful assistant director. He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated. He was right on time. I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production. You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously. So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in. And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.
What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which. I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit. I’m not sure why. The position of the director was open. Sidney did not get it automatically. It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while. And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors. And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.
Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house. We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out. I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing. He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here. But otherwise we didn’t really socialize. We just were different people.
I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental. We did a lot of experimenting in those days. Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects. I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now. If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up. I always knew I could depend on Sidney. He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.
Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan. We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest. The rule in those days was you could never use white. Blue was the equivalent of white on television. Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that. I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry. I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue. Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.” Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that. Sidney didn’t fight me. He said, “Let’s give it a go. Let’s try the white.” I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that. It’ll give us a lot of trouble.” So we did the scene white, literally white. What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies. It integrated beautifully. And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”
I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan. They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera. One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up. And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?” They were good days.
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)
Sidney was wonderful. He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper. First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people. But more than that, he was never at a loss. In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong. Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that. He deserved it, and they gave it to him.
But you knew he was an actor’s director. They all loved working with him. Because Sid was spontaneous. Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge. That’s the way they were going to do it. Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to. He wasn’t locked into it.
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)
He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home. We were dear, close friends for many years.
I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other. Isn’t that amazing? I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.
He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work. It was always personal, always just the two of you. He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.
Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)
The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School. I had no ambition to be an actor. My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially. There was no show biz mom or so forth. A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show. But it paid for my tuition. I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.
On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory. It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.” I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me. Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed. Cut to commercial. The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop. And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day! I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding. Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.
Sidney was tremendously invitational. Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors. Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions. He was not disciplinary in any way.
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)
I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.” We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan. But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator. Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor. Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.
While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head. He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist. The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes. Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue. And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.
He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled. And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side. He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide. But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.
On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play. There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.
Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts. Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.
I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication. I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue. He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.
Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men. I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine. Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so. Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency. And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose. I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.
The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003. We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy. He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy). Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me. He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led. I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both. But my admiration for him is immense.
Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows. We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood. The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster. Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.
12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature. I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows]. The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that. When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset. They said, “Gee, that’s not good. In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.” They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.
I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did. Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while. Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer. He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies. He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront. And so I was left hanging. I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime. If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have. And I understood. But I was hoping for more than that.
In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it. I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy. And I was the fall guy. [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back. Tell him.” I said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”
My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it. Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me. I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”
I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer? Who is taking my job?” He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television]. Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition. But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.
Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney. I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me. I walk in. I say, “Hi, Sidney.” Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?” I said, “Oh, Sidney. I knew you’d get me one way or the other.” Then he and I laughed. I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”
But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all. We worked together a lot, even after the movie. We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.” The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other. He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.
Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)
He was a little crazy, but very nice. He was an ex-actor himself. He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors. He knew the pressure that we were under. Everything was live then. You didn’t get a break.
One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff. He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”
He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?” And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good. Let’s use it.” Or, “Let’s try something else.” Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy. He said, “Let’s have you faint.”
So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something. There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.” I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].
[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy. Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.” So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.
He was a lot of fun. A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension. I did A View From the Bridge. He directed that. One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back. So Sidney would break up. He’d never get mad at anybody.
He gave me my first big break. He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that. The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker. That was my first big part. I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake. This is one of the lead roles. When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?” I did a lot of extra work. I was a very busy extra. And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.” No audition or anything. He said, “I want you to do it. Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”
When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part. He gave a big shot in that. There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role. But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something. So he got a very nice review for me doing my part! He got my review. They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part. That was kind of heartbreaking.
[Technically] he was perfect. He’d say, “Cut two seconds.” Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.” He had a mind like a clock.
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)
David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre. He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him. Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie. Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type. The two were just real opposites. I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him. Sidney got along well with [both of them]. He knew how to handle people.
Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head. He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.” It was just hysterical. People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed. Everyone loved Sidney.
When he was working, he was just the opposite. He was intense. He was super-serious. Technically brilliant. He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right. He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance. I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone. Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast. He really kept an arm’s length. But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer. He kissed everybody. Sidney combined everything good.
“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter. Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type]. I liked Neville a lot. Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.
Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party. Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place. I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived. I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street. It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes. Everybody came. Susskind came. Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife. The apartment was just jammed. People were having a good time. Music was playing. Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap. I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out. Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?
Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her. All the shards went up into her back. We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.” I went in to see how she was. When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood. So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up. I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.” I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock. I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party. All I cared about was Georgine.
Georgine lived in Princeton. I said, “You’ve got to stay over here. You can’t go back to Princeton.” We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it. And everyone was there! It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door. He said, “You know what, Chiz? All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run. They were scared. And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.” Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay. Don’t run from this.” That was his code. I think it came right out of the war, out of battle. You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for. I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)
There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One. My son was about to be born at that time. We reached the dress rehearsal. My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth. But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out. Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here? You belong with your wife. Get out of here.” I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.” But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days. It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The rules got suspended somehow. But not him. He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation. I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part. But he was a gambler.
I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side. He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.” I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that. I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor. He would say, “Keep that in.”
In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.” I was walking on air after that one.
We were a company. We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people. We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors. I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.
Sidney did an interesting thing. He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too. He said, “Which one would you like to play?” He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least. And I chose a different part. I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio. Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.” And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part. It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one. That’s easy for me. I know how to have fun with that.” I was wrong. If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.
We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down. The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made. He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy. Authentically crazy. And I had trouble with that one. So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things. One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion. Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed. I don’t know if it worked or not. But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.
He directed me on stage, too. He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater. I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him. There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors. Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.” He had another category called his “New York actors.” And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category! We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York. I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language. I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it. I couldn’t change his point of view. But I saw his point.
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)
Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination. I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity. He was all over the place. He knew everything. He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov. He fiddled. Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew. He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else. Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors. But always at an intense, high decibel.
I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio. Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it. We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them. It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.
He was a Method director, of course. All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting. What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand. The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about. That’s not the way he worked.
[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all. I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on. Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all. I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly. It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing. A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.
When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it. He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem. He was that kind of friend, that’s all.
Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them. Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.” He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances. He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look. There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.
All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).
May 31, 2011
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s title. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible since of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gopher, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
December 8, 2010
Leigh Chapman doesn’t look like any seventy year-old screenwriter you’ve ever seen. Auburn-haired and svelte, she arrives for coffee clad in tight jeans, a loose-fitting blouse with only one button fastened, and designer sunglasses. Two young women stop to admire her knee-length boots, which are black and metal-studded. “My Road Warrior boots,” she says.
It’s apt that Chapman would identify with Mad Max. Her resume reads like a long weekend at the New Beverly, as programmed by Quentin Tarantino. Chapman tackled just about every subgenre now enshrined in grindhouse nostalgia: beach parties (A Swingin’ Summer), bikers (How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?), car chases (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), martial arts (the Chuck Norris campfest The Octagon). She did an uncredited polish on Robert Aldrich’s lady wrestler opus, …All the Marbles, and a treatment about a caucasian bounty hunter that morphed into the blaxploitation howler Truck Turner.
“I wrote action-adventure,” Chapman says. “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it. I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die.”
Chapman arrived in Hollywood at a time when women fought uphill to succeed as screenwriters, and rarely specialized in masculine genres like westerns and crime pictures. She fled her South Carolina hometown (“a humid, green version of The Last Picture Show”) after college and found work as a secretary at the William Morris Agency. Chapman had minored in theater, and the agency sent her out on auditions. She landed a recurring part as the spies’ Girl Friday on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Screen Gems signed her to a six-month contract and cast her as a guest ingenue in episodes of its television series, including The Monkees.
“They thought I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn,” says Chapman. “Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”
Acting wasn’t her bag anyway. Congenitally nocturnal, she hated the 5 A.M. makeup calls, and recoiled at the notion of revealing her inner self on the screen. While moonlighting as a typist, Chapman decided she could write scripts as good as the ones she was transcribing. Television jobs came easily. Her favorite shows were those that let her think up clever ways to kill people, like Burke’s Law (an exploding tennis ball) and The Wild Wild West (a gatling gun in a church organ).
One of Chapman’s last casting calls was for the legendary movie director Howard Hawks. Hawks was instantly smitten. Only years later, after she caught up with Bringing Up Baby and Red River, did Chapman understand that Hawks had seen her as the living embodiment of his typical movie heroine: feminine and pretty, but also tough, fast-talking, and able to hold her own in an otherwise all-male world.
Hawks had a fetish for deep-voiced women, and he started Chapman on the same vocal exercises he had devised to give an earlier discovery, Lauren Bacall, her throaty purr. “I was supposed to press my stomach into an ironing board, to make my voice lower,” she remembers. “It only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board.”
Hawks deemed Chapman hopeless as an actress, but liked the sample pages she gave him. He put her to work on a Vietnam War script (never produced), and for a while Chapman shuttled out to the director’s Palm Springs home for story conferences. Finally, Hawks made a tentative pass, and Chapman shied away. “That was the end of it. He had too much pride,” she believes, to persist.
Hawks wanted her to write Rio Lobo, the John Wayne western that would be his swan song. Instead, Chapman “dropped out” and moved to Hawaii, where she spent a year lying on the beach and taking acid. It was one of many impetuous, career-altering moves for Chapman. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” she collected dangerous hobbies: motorcycles (Hawks taught her how to ride dirtbikes), fast cars, guns, skiing, and even momentum stock trading, which pummeled her portfolio when the dot-com bubble burst. In 1963, she spent her first paycheck as a professional writer on a Corvette.
Skeptical about commitment and children, Chapman favored passionate but brief affairs, some of them with Hollywood players. Her U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn and the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison are two that she will name for the record. Any time permanence loomed, Chapman bailed – a response more stereotypically associated with the male of the species. “My alter ego is male,” she says. It is a credo vital to her writing as well as her personal life. “I decided early on that guys got to have all the fun. Women don’t interest me.”
Today, Chapman keeps a low profile. She lives alone in a Sunset Boulevard high-rise, drives a vintage Mercedes, and burns off pent-up energy at the gym. It is the lifestyle of a professional assassin awaiting an assignment, although Chapman, at least so far as I know, has never killed anyone. Her final film credit, for the 1990 thriller Impulse (one of her only scripts to feature a female protagonist), preceded a decade of turnaround follies. She was attached briefly to Double Impact, the camp classic in which Jean-Claude Van Damme played butt-kicking twins. The Belgian kickboxer hired her to flesh out another idea (“Papillon, but with gladiatorial combat”), but that script was never made. Later Chapman rewrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, but she fell out with the showrunners and substituted her mother’s name for her own in the credits.
“One day,” says Chapman, “I woke up and just said, ‘If I write another script, I’ll puke.’”
Now she channels her energy into underwater photography, a hobby she took up about five years ago. She hopes to arrange a gallery showing of her photographs, which she alters digitally into exuberant, kaleidoscopic whatsits. Scuba diving began as another kind of thrill for Chapman, but what she loves about it now is the feeling of weightlessness that comes as she drifts among the reefs.
“It’s the most serene I will ever get,” Chapman muses. “Which is not very.”
Above: Leigh in her television debut, an episode of Ripcord (“Million Dollar Drop,” 1963). Top: Promotional still from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (courtesy Leigh Chapman). Photo captions and Ripcord image added on 10/31/13.
Author’s note: This piece was commissioned last year by LA Weekly, but spiked after a change in editorship. A longer question-and-answer transcript, focusing more on Chapman’s television work, will appear next year in the oral history area of my main site. Below are two of Leigh’s underwater photographs, with her titles (and the note that these images have minimal digital manipulation, relative to some of her other work).
October 11, 2010
“If Clurman had the fervent years in theater, these were the fervent years in television. I don’t think the people involved ever felt as great about themselves again as they did then.”
– Arthur Penn in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961
I feel obligated to write something sweeping and substantial about Arthur Penn. In terms of his contributions to television as a medium, he is the most significant of all the recently deceased people mentioned in my last post. But it’s too daunting a task, in part because of the pesky problem of access, which is something that the estimable Jonah Horwitz gets at in his television-oriented Penn obituary.
Horwitz enjoys tantalizing access to a significant archive of kinescopes at the University of Wisconsin, and in his piece he offers tantalizing (did I say that already?) descriptive details of a couple of Penn-directed live dramas. Penn finished his tour in live television with a few early segments of Playhouse 90, one of which, William Gibson’s 1957 Helen Keller biography “The Miracle Worker,” became Penn’s first commercially successful film five years later. But Penn did his most substantive television work for The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse. He was one of three alternating directors during a two-year period (1953-1955) when that series, produced by the legendary Fred Coe, was ground zero for the intimate “kitchen dramas” that came to represent, for critics, the pinnacle of live television.
As Horwitz notes, the original Playhouse 90 staging of “The Miracle Worker” – which preceded both the stage and film versions, and features different actors (Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack) in the roles made famous by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – exists, but it is not in wide circulation. In fact, so far as I know, “The Miracle Worker” does not reside in any private collections, and neither does “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the other Playhouse 90 which became a hugely successful film (and also, with its bleeped-out dialogue concerning the gas chambers, the most infamous victim of censorship in the history of television). I have been told that the rights issues surrounding Playhouse 90 are “very complicated.” But the absence of a commercial rerelease for these shows, after three decades of home video and a dozen years in which it has become customary to pair items like these with their big-screen cousins on DVD, is tragic.
The extent to which live television is a forgotten medium is humbling. Not only are some of the shows lost altogether; not only are many of the extant ones (like “The Miracle Worker”) inaccessible; but in many cases, as I realized while researching this piece, even the basic data remains to be compiled. Horwitz estimates that Penn directed “likely over 100” television segments during his five years (1953-1958) in live television. That number might be a little high, but I’m certain the actual tally is far greater than the thirty-four live dramas currently listed in Penn’s Internet Movie Database entry. I’m not aware of a published source that does any better. To fill out any more of Penn’s television resume, one would have to delve into archival collections or old newspaper and trade reviews. That’s a pretty profound knowledge gap, considering that Penn was one of the top practitioners of what was once considered a serious art form.
Penn’s film career was uneven and diverse, but I love about half of them: Mickey One and The Chase, with their exceptional supporting casts of character actors from TV; the twinned genre revisions, Little Big Man (which examines the Old West as a construct of media, celebrity, and identity politics) and Night Moves (a detective story without a resolution); and the nakedly emotional Four Friends, which orbits around a fearless, uninhibited performance by the forgotten Jodi Thelen.
One obit (which I can’t find again) suggested that it’s difficult to reconcile what Horwitz calls Penn’s “deliberately unshowy” television style with the more forceful imagery of his films (in particular, the bold, sometimes jarring editing). The answer to that riddle is that in between television and movies Penn, who had spent time in Europe as a young man, fell under the influence of the New Wave. Dave Kehr’s New York Times obituary has a great quote about how Penn was “stunned” by the extent to which The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical debut film about a troubled, semi-delinquent teenager, reflected Penn’s own childhood. At least on the surface, Penn’s key films (especially Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde) borrow more from the style and mood of French, Italian, and Japanese New Wave films more than they do his own early television work.
(The other x factor is that Penn, far more than any other ex-live television filmmaker, was an important Broadway director. The extent to which Penn formed his style on stage, especially in his work with actors, is another key subject for further research.)
Kehr, incidentally, is one of the best American film critics, and yet he doesn’t quite get the television section of Penn’s career right. Kehr refers to Penn’s first film, The Left-Handed Gun, as “an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic”; but really, it’s an extension of the Philco aesthetic. (The Left Handed Gun was, in fact, derived from Gore Vidal’s Philco teleplay “The Death of Billy the Kid.”) The distinction is important because Philco embodied the intimate, performance-driven New York style of live drama, whereas Playhouse 90, telecast from the spacious CBS studios in Los Angeles, placed a greater emphasis on size and spectacle. Positioned at live television’s fin de siècle, Playhouse 90 aimed to be cinematic and, as such, was actually a partial repudiation rather than a continuation of the Penn-era Philco aesthetic. Penn told the scholar Gorham Kindem that CBS’s decision to set up Playhouse 90 on the West Coast represented
the transition from the New York theatre and the New York actors to the Hollywood actors and the Hollywood names. When I went out there to do “The Miracle Worker,” it was an accepted fact that it was going to have to be with people from the Hollywood community.
Penn seemed to accept that shift grudgingly; he felt that Patty McCormack was “too old” to play Helen Keller, and preferred Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan to Teresa Wright’s. In The Box, Penn told Jeff Kisseloff that he took Playhouse 90 for the money (“I had a couple of shirts where the collars were almost gone”). Even after the success of “The Miracle Worker,” Penn had no desire to continue on the series beyond the initial batch he agreed to direct for producer Martin Manulis. “Those four were enough for me,” he told Kindem. Penn realized that the theater and movies – even movies made in Hollywood, where Jack Warner took The Left Handed Gun away from Penn and recut it – offered better opportunities to create the kind of reality that he had achieved in his Philco work.
The New York Times followed Kehr’s official obituary with a penetrating appraisal of Penn’s work by Manohla Dargis. Dargis places unexpected emphasis on Penn’s debut feature, The Left Handed Gun, and she finds more in it than the tortured Method acting and self-conscious anti-genre posturing that I recall. (I’m going to find time for a second look.)
The Left Handed Gun derives so thoroughly from Penn’s television beginnings that it compels Dargis to devote some space to Penn’s pre-history in TV. She relates a funny anecdote about Penn’s initial blocking of The Left Handed Gun, which presumed a multiplicity of cameras, as Penn was used to in television, rather than the single one used in motion picture photography. There’s also a marvelous quote from Penn on how directing live television was “like flying four airplanes at once.” That analogy echoes a famous remark by the director George Roy Hill, who flew bombers during World War II, that calling the shots in a live television control room was a lot like commanding a B-29.
Dargis also dredges up a quip from Gore Vidal, who called The Left Handed Gun “a film that only someone French could like.” I’m not sure whether that’s a dig or not, but Vidal’s remark underlines the possibility that his teleplay and the subsequent film may have been quite different from one another. The Left Handed Gun may bear the handprints of television, but a feature film made at Warner Bros. is still a big leap in scale from a sixty-minute live television broadcast. Plus, there’s a significant remove in authorship. “The Death of Billy the Kid” was written by Vidal and directed by Robert Mulligan; The Left Handed Gun was adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens (the future creator of The Outer Limits) and directed by Penn.
One tends to think of group of directors who moved from live television into movies as having made that transition with a film adaptation of one of their own TV shows. For instance:
- Delbert Mann directed “Marty” on Philco, and then as his first film.
- Fielder Cook directed Rod Serling’s “Patterns” on Kraft Theater, and then as his first film.
- John Frankenheimer directed “The Young Stranger” on Climax, and then as his first film.
- Ralph Nelson directed “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then (a full five years later) as his first film.
But it was actually just as, if not more common, for a television director to do what Penn did: to adapt as his debut feature a property that someone else had done on television. Consider:
- Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, which had been staged live on Studio One by Franklin Schaffner.
- Robert Mulligan directed Fear Strikes Out, which had been staged live on Climax by Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
- Martin Ritt directed Edge of the City, which had been staged live on Philco (under the title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”) by Mulligan.
I’m not sure if that proves anything, except that by 1955 the film industry viewed live television as a prime commodity. The movie industry imported talent and material in bulk. After “Marty,” it wasn’t individual teleplays, with director and actors attached, that got scooped up by Hollywood. It was any property, and any director, that could attract a movie offer.
Those personnel switches may amount to trivia now – Mulligan, we see, was a two-time bridesmaid before he got to bring one of his teleplays to the big screen – but I’ll bet that at the time they were colored by personal rivalries and conflicting perceptions of having compromised or sold out in order to matriculate into filmmaking. Penn, for one, seemed acutely conscious of that concern. In interviews, he was always eager to define, and to champion, the New York aesthetic of acting and storytelling. In The Box, Penn explained that
our mission on Playhouse 90 was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and “Marty” them. Hollywood’s way of dealing with New York was, “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The challenge for fans of Penn’s films is to find the connective tissue between them. Dargis is vague: “a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life.” Maybe the difficulty in pinning down Penn is that he was always reacting against something: traditional ways of depicting violence or a subculture in the movies; conventions of individual genres; phoniness in general. Substitute “movies” for “Playhouse 90” in the quote above, and you’ll see what I mean.
One final tangent of Arthur Penn’s legacy is that he married a woman who auditioned for him on Philco, and in doing so he took a talented actress off the market. She survives him. Her name is Peggy Maurer, and she retired in 1964 after having done quite a bit of live television and only one film (the 1958 horror curio I Bury the Living). I’ve only seen three of Mrs. Penn’s few recorded performances, but in at least one of them, an important segment of The Defenders called “Ordeal,” she pulls off a leading role of considerable emotional complexity. She was also rather pretty.
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.