May 13, 2010
Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin. First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it. This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed. These matters are important to an actor. Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet. If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy. More on them in a minute.
Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors. Wingreen is not a small actor. He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize. Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it. One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.
In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties. The actual total may be well over 500. A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons. Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo. The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit. His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.
Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color. With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians. It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles. They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results. But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs? Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results. Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.
But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice. It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time. Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed. They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts. In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up. I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College. In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college. Which took about an hour and a half, approximately. Each way, going and coming. Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education. We didn’t have an automobile.
What did you study?
I majored in English and Speech. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter. I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball. I was a skinny little kid. In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake. For me. I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me. The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.
At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year. The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn. His name was Arnold Moss.
Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.
He was a dynamic teacher. So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches. I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class. I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked. That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.
Was your family affected by the Great Depression?
My father was a tailor. He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach. There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father. They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed. And that way my father was able to get through the Depression. It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.
My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music. When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR. Classical music, all day long in the store. My sister grew up with that too. My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years. She is five years younger than I am. She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her. She went to Juilliard, and on from there. I would say she’s the real talent of the family. I’m just an actor.
From where does your family name originate?
It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian. My parents both came from Lithuania. We’re Jewish. The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen. They did that with all immigrants in those days. My father met my mother when they were both in this country. It was an arranged date, by the families. My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old. Alone. He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn. He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.
So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?
I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers. Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year. I graduated in June 1941.
At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.” That was their slogan. Well, I got my job through The New York Times. I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production. No experience necessary. Must have driver’s license.”
Well, I had a driver’s license. I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor. So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan. So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice. They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles. It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes. It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter. They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey. Stepan was the booker. He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts. They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books. The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.
There were two companies. I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman. The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her. Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart. Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director. He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.
The war then came. I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds. Can you picture that? And they put me in 1A! 1A. I couldn’t lift a barracks bag! However, I did my time in the army, in the war. I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk. Dirty job, but somebody had to do it. I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day]. You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.
I kept records of the flights, and did other things. One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm. When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes. Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep. It had to be done by an enlisted man. I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back? That was my theory. I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.
What did you do after the war?
I was in Germany when the war ended. Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach. I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic. I still wanted to do some writing.
I went back with the puppet company. They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season. Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.
There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them. We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them. Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland. In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912. A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage. The acoustics were so fantastic. It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when. We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall. But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!
When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City. We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it. There was a central group of, at that time, six of us. What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square. I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions. The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs. That was our nucleus. Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.
Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street. He still has it, after all these years. He is the lone survivor of all that group. Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there. I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them. We saw a lot of things in different ways. And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man. He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out. He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.” I said, “You know, you have my phone number. You could have checked with me.” The truth was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.
What do you remember about Jose Quintero? What was he like?
Absolutely brilliant director. Funny kind of a guy. I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired. We got along very, very well.
Did he direct you in any productions?
Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952. In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play. Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene. A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me. So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production. It’s not in the printed version of the play. At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us. I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.
Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed. What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them. We turned failures into successes. It happened on two or three different occasions.
One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks. It was a four part play. The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer. The play was divided into those three elements.
At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .” Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.” So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience. John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother. My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck. I said to him, ‘You see that man? That’s my son!’”
Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really? He’s very good.”
We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square. Totally and completely against the law. Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater. We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.
Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?
Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows. He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice. I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show. I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something. The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me! They were pulling the camera back. Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot. But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera. So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.
Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies. Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role. I played a medical attendant. I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks. Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff. The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name. And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”
He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice. And he said, “Ohhhh, yes. With that bitch Hayes.”
I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Oh, yes. She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.” Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back. She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that. Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role. But she didn’t succeed.
What else can I say about live TV? I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse. The rehearsals were very quick. I liked television very much when it was not live. If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to. I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man. I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon. We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich. Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?” I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.” And she says, “What was I wearing?” And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.
A wonderful scene, right? Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes. Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you. I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t want to do it.” And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times. That’s what I like about TV that’s not live. You could have some fun with it. Live TV was too much pressure. For me, anyway.
Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?
After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening. No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square. We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company. Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.
During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there. We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place. You want to come back?” And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided. Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had. But I don’t care. Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.
How did that come about?
I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox. It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr. The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan. We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded. But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies. He sent for me. Literally said, “Come on out here. I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”
That was the beginning of the big move for me. I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90. I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York. So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode. It was a script written by Rod Serling.
What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show. The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors. Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days. You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over. So I would assist the director in blocking. I’d have the scripts of the various characters. Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on. In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show. So I got double salary. I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part. It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.
Then I got homesick. I wanted to go back and see my wife again. She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle. My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater. She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no. We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.
So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood. Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane. I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.” [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City. It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]
I did the show, and what did I have? One word! Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word. Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?” And I reply with one word. I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was. It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was. And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.
I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!
My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose. I don’t know why. Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made. I didn’t see the original script. All I got was the one that they were shooting that day. Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.
The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados. He said, “Do you ride?”
I said, “You mean a horse?”
So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride. We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”
We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge. He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff. Anyway, down we go. He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”
So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch. Then I went up onto a horse. He’s got a big whip in his hand. He gives the horse a whack, and off we go. I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around. And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it. My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled. We went around a few times and I got off. He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”
We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow. He’s going to kill you sooner or later!” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there. We’ll get somebody else.”
So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady. She had a horse called Pinky. When I went there, she introduced me to the horse. She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen. Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.” Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky. Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around. We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!” And that’s how I learned to ride. Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come. Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”
And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film. Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.
I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse. There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse. Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.” They go and they stop. Mexican horses don’t know those words. They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em! You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it. Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins. That was a nice experience. So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.
I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here. Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it. I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.” So my career out here started. It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts. I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things. A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days. Then the occasional series started.
Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?
She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough. There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that. They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot. They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting. The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit. And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through. He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.
So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head. So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey? Lights get in your eye?”
She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”
So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.” For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty. Then she said, “I’m through. No more movies for me. I want to be a housewife and a mother.”
One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone. What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?
Yes. I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby. I played the conductor on the real train. Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train. I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out. He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed. And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.” I thought that was a terrific episode.
Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest. He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots. They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them. He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being. He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams. Push!” Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.
Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.” I played the director of a TV show. An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it. When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down. So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.” So I played the role sitting down. The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine. He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande. Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”
The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton. This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water. A nice little scene. I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”
Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”
Ah, that’s my big story. I was saving that one for you. It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square. The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk. It was hard to keep the sound of the street out. McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays. He had been rejected. But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.
When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment. Then he’d rev the motorcycle. He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between. During the third time, I was not on stage at the time. I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it. If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.” So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off. But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show. That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.
Now, it’s eight years later, 1960. I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a nice little part. There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me. My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen. We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show. A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.
They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me. Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy. In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way. He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me. Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one. That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff. We’ll choreograph it. We’ve done that Steve before. We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”
So I said, “Okay, fine.”
Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody. You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him. I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way. He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.
So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun. We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me. And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back. That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.
Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions. He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw. Tremendous smash against my jaw. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned. Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this. They rush to see how I am. Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station. I’m sitting in the nurse’s office. The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody. There’s a long line of them that come in here.”
So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much. The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in. He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that. But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.” Which was bullshit. It wasn’t true at all.
I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it. Just forget it.”
And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?” And out he goes. He waited eight years for his revenge!
Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.
April 12, 2010
Robert Culp had a huge head, and it killed him.
Culp died last month, on March 24, after a fall outside his home. Apparently he had a heart attack, but the blow to the head was the actual cause of death. The news gave me a chill, because Culp’s big head was what I always thought of first when I thought of him.
I know that sounds morbid, sensational. But seriously – wasn’t Culp’s massive forehead, towering as it did over his narrow jaw, his beady eyes, wasn’t that his defining physical characteristic as an actor? Because most of his characters had a big head too, in that other sense. They were brainy, smarter than the rest of us, and arrogant enough to let everybody know it. After all, Culp was the greatest of the “supervillain” killers who faced off against Peter Falk’s Columbo – only four times, but so memorably that you might have sworn it was once every season.
Culp could “act” in a conventional sense, and very skillfully. (Take a look at his first Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” where his character’s transformation into a monster gives Culp an excuse to play all his lines against a subtext of suppressed physical pain.) But Culp, who was second only to David Janssen as the definitive TV star of the sixties, fascinated me because he developed an intellectual approach to acting that I think was new, and influential. By the time of I Spy, Culp always made you notice that he was thinking – instead of just playing the material, he seemed to be commenting on it at the same time, telegraphing just what he thought about whatever he was saying with a pause, a twinkle in his eye, or a sly mocking intonation in his dry voice. “Just think the thought – the rest will follow,” was Culp’s only acting advice to his I Spy co-star, Bill Cosby.
It may have begun as too-cool-for-the-room attitudinizing, but Culp found a way to build his distance from the material into his acting in a way that was seamless, and exciting. Unlike most TV people, but like most of us in the real world, Culp’s characters considered their words as they spoke. They slowed down as they formulated a thought; underscored a remark with a note of sarcasm or doubt; interjected a chuckle at something that came out sounding silly.
That was Culp’s breakthrough. It sounds sterile: almost always when an actor’s technique becomes visible, it’s considered a fatal error. But as Culp illustrated the thinking process in his performance, every line he uttered seemed fresh, improvised; you felt like you were watching him think up that line on the spot, in response to whatever else was going on, instead of simply waiting for his cue and spitting out something he’d memorized. You could see the wheels turning, and that made every moment alive when Culp was on-screen. The spontaneity that grew out of Culp’s innovative approach was what made his legendary repartee with Cosby possible, and that semi-improvised, cadenced, clever patter was what elevated I Spy above all the other sixties spy shows.
“We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times.
That language lent emotional meaning to the friendship between Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in an economical way that kept the writers from having to bring it to the surface and play it as conventional melodrama. And it planted their escapades in the real world, unlike all their competition in espionage fantasy-land. Kelly and Scott may have been shooting it out with bad guys in the Greek isles or the Mexican jungle, but they chatted and joked like normal people. (Smart normal people, but still.)
A few of Culp’s contemporaries flirted with the same kind of distanciation in their technique: William Shatner (before the ham set in), rival spies Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, Robert Lansing, George Peppard, Roy Thinnes, Robert Forster. Cosby’s distinctive delivery in his comedy series drew upon rhythms he picked up from his co-star on I Spy. But none of them did it as well as Culp. And, although Culp’s style was too personal and too extreme to ever be codified or taught in an acting school, I believe that a subsequent generation of TV stars picked up on it. James Spader, David Duchovny, William Peterson, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Steve Harris (of The Practice), Jay Karnes (of The Shield), Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck), George Clooney during his ER / Fail Safe period, all have something of that self-reflexive quality, that perceptible duality of actor and character. All of them were kids when Culp was doing I Spy, and I can imagine them lying on the floor in front of their sets, making mental notes.
(Another way of looking at it: Culpspeak as an ancestor of Mametspeak.)
Over the last decade I’ve made a close study of early television writers and Culp was one of them, marginally. He wrote for himself as an actor, first on shows he’d guest-starred on (Cain’s Hundred and The Rifleman, the latter a two-parter that became the only show he wrote but didn’t play in) and then seven episodes of I Spy, one of which he also directed. All of them were brilliant except one (Culp overreached with “The War Lord,” setting himself up in an embarrassing dual role as a Chinese villain), which may give Culp the highest batting average in the history of television writing. Not hard to do when you have a lucrative day-job on camera, you might argue, but there were other TV stars who wrote or directed for their own series and most of the time vanity outshone talent.
If you haven’t already, you must procure the DVD audio commentaries that Culp recorded for all the I Spy episodes he wrote. They’re not actually commentaries, just wide-ranging monologues on his whole history with the show that made him a household name. They, and to a lesser extent the Archive of American Television’s oral history with Culp, are far more insightful and revealing than anything the media consumer usually gets from a star. Culp names names, brings up old grudges, talks about his ex-wife France Nuyen (who guest-starred in Culp’s I Spy script “The Tiger,” and married him shortly afterward) in a raw way that makes it clear he never got over her, never forgave her for some unspecified betrayal. He shows off the ego that curtailed his career and the brilliance that scared collaborators away. He proves what you guessed from watching him act: that he was way ahead of the rest of us, all the way.
“The War Lord”: Makeup by John Chambers
February 26, 2010
The piercing eyes, the pockmarked cheeks, the steel-gray hair. If you’re a casting director and you see Tim O’Connor’s angular visage glaring at you from the pages of your player’s directory, you’d cast him as a gangster. Or an Air Force colonel who’s about to drop a lot of napalm on somebody. Or a vindictive prosecutor, tearing into witnesses like a hawk rending a mouse.
But if you happened to see O’Connor at work, you might use him differently. His voice has a gravelly edge to match the face, but it is also softer than you expect. Reassuring, even. His smile is welcoming, when he lets it out, and his gait is looser than any predatory lawyer’s or napalming colonel’s would be. He has a wistful quality, and he is more learned in his demeanor than the rough features would suggest. O’Connor is a collection of intriguing contradictions, and he understands that those contradictions are valuable tools for an actor.
O’Connor first began to gain notice in the late fifties, in the New York-based series produced by David Susskind and Herbert Brodkin. For Susskind, O’Connor played secondary roles in a series of videotaped superproductions, supporting an awesome array of marquee actors including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy, Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. For Brodkin, O’Connor usually played heavies. He had a recurring role as a federal prosecutor in those episodes of The Defenders that dealt with military or national security issues, and played a memorably sadistic pimp to Inger Stevens’s “Party Girl” in an episode of The Nurses scripted by Larry Cohen.
So O’Connor played his share of villains, but gradually he broke out of that ghetto, to find his calling out as one of American television’s great everymen. Early on, before he took off in television, O’Connor’s most important stage role had been in The Crucible. He starred as John Proctor, Arthur Miller’s average man who is swept up and ultimately destroyed by the hysteria of history. Variations on John Proctor, ordinary men bound up in ethical or psychological knots, became O’Connor’s specialty. His first showy role in Hollywood was in The Fugitive’s “Taps For a Dead War,” a cliched story of a damaged war veteran, but O’Connor deepened the material by emphasizing the pitiable qualities that lay beneath Joe Gallop’s malevolence.
The following year, on Peyton Place, O’Connor created his most complex role. He joined the show during its third month as Elliott Carson, a man unjustly imprisoned for murder and the lynchpin in several intricate, interlocking plotlines. O’Connor’s skill alone won a reprieve for Elliott, who had been marked for death at the end of his initial story arc. The series’ writers hit upon the clever idea of turning the local newspaper over to Elliott, so that he had a pulpit from which to evolve into the town’s conscience. O’Connor played Elliott as a sage, a man with a new lease on life and a reason to exude optimism, but during the show’s long run neither he nor the writers neglected the subterranean well of resentment that Elliott nursed over his lost years in prison. O’Connor’s flawless interweaving of these contradictory strands turned into perhaps the most satisfying exercise in character continuity on television during the sixties.
A subsequent generation of TV fans will remember O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer in 1979’s short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and an even later one may recall him as Doogie Howser, M. D.’s grandpa. He still works today, on occasion. But in this interview, O’Connor takes us back to his early days as an actor in live television and on Peyton Place, and shares his secret for creating multi-faceted characters in a medium that favored simplicity.
What was it that made you first start thinking about acting? Was it movies, plays?
Oh, it was movies. Movies, particularly. I don’t remember seeing any theater at all. I came up on the South Side of Chicago, and I remember in eighth grade we had a drama teacher that was getting us together for a play. She was encouraging me, and she felt good about it, I remember. Then suddenly, we weren’t going to do it. They probably ran out of money, or the production was going to be too expensive. And I had a really good part, in a very talky play!
But at that time, I never dreamt of being an actor. I discovered it in the service as something that I would like to do, but I never dreamed that I ever would. I thought I would become a lawyer. But then I ran into an old schoolmate of mine and he said he was going to a radio school, and I still had some time on my G. I. Bill and it just hit me. I said, Jesus, do it. Go down and try. So I went down to this radio school and signed up and started. This school just taught radio acting, radio engineering, radio announcing. But in three months, I had gone on to the Goodman Theater. I got a scholarship there and finished that up, and then in the third year I started working in local television.
What television shows do you remember doing in Chicago? Were you ever on Studs’ Place?
I did work with Studs Terkel in, oh, three or four different locations. He won an award for this show, on drugs seeping into the communities and kids getting hold of them, and I played a young man hooked on drugs who became a dealer.
Another show he had that ran for a year was improvised. He’d hire a couple of actors – and I was still in drama school doing this, my third year of drama school – and he would just give you a part and give you kind of what the scene was, and then you’d start making up lines about what was supposed to happen with your character. That’s how we made up a script. He jotted down lines, recorded lines, and then he gave the script to us at the end of three or four days, and we memorized it and shot the TV show.
Then there was another show that was very good. It too was improvised. It was an hour show, and it was to do with law and trials. The producer would hire real attorneys and get a real judge, a different one for every week’s show. And then they would cast the rest of us as actors, and give us the premise, a general premise of who everybody was, what they had done, why they were here. Then we would improvise this whole thing.
I remember, I got so very good at this improvisation, that if there was something the show was lacking in, this particular producer-director would signal so that I could back out at a certain time, beyond the camera. Somebody would tell me what I was to do, and then I’d get back on stage again. Once I just had to create a scene, because it was awfully dull, or he needed a little more time or something. So I turned against my attorney when he had me on the stand, and then I jumped off the stand and leapt across the prosecutor’s table and at the prosecuting attorney, and slid across and crashed onto the floor. They tossed me back, and the producer-director was down on the floor behind the cameraman. He looked at me and he went: enough. He had enough time. And I went back to the [script].
What did you do after you left the Goodman Theater?
I did some summer stock in Chicago. I did a film there, and then I went into a stock company that played summers in a community in the north side of Chicago, in Highland Park. It was called the Tenthouse Theatre. And also in Palm Springs, California, in the winter, so I did summer and winter stock for about three years, and then went to New York and began to work there Off-Broadway. I guess it was about 1953.
Then somebody saw me and I picked something up on television, and then I didn’t have any time for the stage any more, except once in a while. One year, the [New York] Journal-American had gone in and done some research to find out who was the most working actor in New York City, and it turned out to be me. I never knew that they were doing this – they came to me and told me, and interviewed me.
Was there any particular show that represented a breakthrough for you?
Yes. There was a fellow there, a big-time producer named David Susskind, who produced his own television series, and it was all classic shows. He usually hired English actors to do the big one or two leads, and would then complement the rest of it with actors in New York.
These were essentially specials, broadcast on the DuPont Show of the Month or Family Classics series.
That was it. These shows were taped, with a very early taping device. They only had one in New York City, so that all these various shows had to take turns. So you’d do a scene, and you’d tape it, and you’d want to redo it if something went wrong, but you had to wait. Some other show was waiting in line, and then they’d get back to you and what you were doing. That was it. There was no editing anything at that time.
Tell me about some of those roles in the Susskind adaptations.
I played Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.” In “Billy Budd,” I played the next character that was just underneath [the villain Claggart], who was a violent person and who hated the captain, and helped Billy. Eventually Billy kind of turned him to his side because Billy was so nice a guy. I had violent, violent scenes that I provoked and carried off. [I had to] swing around and throw myself at people, bring people down. And work with knives. It had all been worked out, and then of course the show begins and the energy is extraordinary. I don’t know how some of us escaped being hurt!
Do you remember Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”?
I remember that very well, yeah. I had a death scene, and I died with Laurence Olivier there, tending me as I die. Do you know that show? It’s about a priest that’s in Mexico, and he’s running because the police are after him. George C. Scott is the head of the police department after [Olivier], and he races and he gets out of the country to the States and escapes. But then this guy, me, I play the Gringo. I’m dying and I’m calling for a priest. He’s just across the border and he hears that, and [despite] his fear of George C. Scott, he comes back anyway to attend my death, and to hear my confession.
I finished up that scene, and we were shooting and we were awfully late. Sir Laurence was planning to be on the Queen Elizabeth on a certain day, two or three days later, and back to England. By this time they had that new tape, so they were able to redo and redo scenes that they thought they could do better. That was my last scene. The stage manager dismissed me and off I went and I changed my clothes, and I was just about ready to leave and I hear this raging down on the stage. I opened up my dressing room door and stepped out, and there was Sir Laurence, and boy, he was really pissed. They had decided to redo my death scene. They thought that there was something else that they thought they could do better, where they had missed a shot on it. They told him that they were going to do it again, and he just raged: “I’m going to be on the Queen Elizabeth Sunday morning, and I don’t give a damn about any of this stuff!” He’d had it. He was probably exhausted, because he was in every scene.
Another of your big videotaped shows was Playhouse 90’s “John Brown’s Raid,” with James Mason in the title role.
We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days. Sidney Lumet directed. The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop. The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days! So there was a big stink about that. We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement.
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black. It was just so funny. But they broadcast it – they put it on!
Do you remember your first leading role in television?
The first one I got, the first really large part, was an Armstrong Circle Theater, when I played a guy making a breakout of Alcatraz. This was a live show, and I did the lead as this guy who arranged this whole escape. After the show the head of the U.S. penal system was to be interviewed for about two minutes, to speak on the subject about nobody had ever escaped [from Alcatraz]. And what happened was that about two days before the show, somebody did escape, and they found his clothing underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. They could not write him off as having been found, or that maybe a shark got him. That’s what they always said, that nobody had ever been able to survive getting across that water to the mainland, but he did. So we did the show, but the gentleman from the penal system did not appear for the interview.
That was late in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the last live shows still on the air. Did you miss live TV, or had you come to prefer working on film?
Most actors, it’s the other way around, but I have always secretly preferred film.
Why is that? Because you had the opportunity to refine your performance, to do it over again until you were satisfied with it?
Yeah, you can do that, you can do them over again. You have an opportunity of seeing downstream and back and forward, of where you’re going, and what you’d like to do in order to get there. Also, I liked doing a job and completing it. No matter how long I had to work, and how many hours – fifteen hours a day – there was an end to it. It wasn’t in a year or so.
I enjoyed the stage very much, but I ended up realizing that I preferred working in film and on television over working in a play, which kept you so busy for such a long period of time. I think the longest run I ever had was nine months, when I did The Crucible Off-Broadway [in 1958-59]. I played the lead in it, John Proctor. I replaced somebody [Michael Higgins] that had played it about six months, and then I left it and another actor came in.
Around that time, you started commuting to Los Angeles to do a lot of television work.
Yes, I was spending a lot of time on airplanes, going back and forth to L.A. What the heck is the name of that hotel, up north of Highland [the Hollywood Tower]? That was the New York actors’ hotel. That was where we all stayed. George C. Scott had a reputation, and I don’t know if it was true or not, that he would go down and rip up the Sunday L. A. Times in the lobby, and throw it down and get back in the elevator and go upstairs.
I suspect that one of the early Hollywood parts that earned you some attention was your role as a disturbed Korean War veteran in your second episode of The Fugitive, “Taps For a Dead War.”
As soon as you mentioned The Fugitive, I thought of David Janssen. We were out on location, it was at night, and we had a scene where he got into a fight with two or three of us. We had marked out the fight, you know, stepped it out, bang, bang. Of course, we were just crashing it up. After the scene was over, he came over and says, trying to apologize, “I’m sorry I hit you so hard in the stomach.” I said that I had not felt it. David was sure that he had actually hit me, though. He was a very nice guy.
Another little story about David. David and I and the director were talking, on another episode of that same series, and I said something, kiddingly, about David, to the director, that implied something derogatory, that he wasn’t terribly good in this particular scene. It was so outrageous that I was obviously kidding. And there was just a very brief pause, and David said to the director, “Who couldn’t we get?” [As in,] I wasn’t selected because they wanted me, but because I was the only one left!
When you got the regular role on Peyton Place, did you decide immediately that you would relocate to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was making a commitment to stay out there. I was travelling so much, back and forth, that I decided just to go and do it. At that time, I had a house on an island in a lake in New Jersey.
It just came up, and my wife and I decided that it sounded like a good idea. We were apartment dwellers and always had been in New York, and this sounded great. It was about an hour out of town, and a long bus ride. I just loved it, the water, the summer and the winters. In the winters we could walk across because it would be frozen. It was our own island, a small island only large enough for one house.
Tell me about your character on Peyton Place, Elliot Carson, and your approach to the role.
Initially, as it came on, he was in prison and he was just being released, but he was not really guilty of what he was charged with. He was a true blue kind of fellow who felt that what he found in terms of Allison and Constance, the love he felt there and that they felt back, and the family feeling that he had, put him in such a positive ground, that he was a force for good. He was there for what he stood for, in the way he wrote his stories and how he ran the newspaper. That was all sort of brought out with his father. His father and he both worked at the newspaper, and had a lot of everyday conversation about what was happening in Peyton Place. So the discussions were a great deal about self-improvement. He was always kind of nagging himself that he could be better.
Elliot had a subtext of anger that was there at the root, and could begin to surface at any time. He really had no in between. His experience of the time he spent in the penitentiary, and his survival in the penitentiary, I think gave him a different sense of being. Although he deeply appreciated where he was and understood what he had, and he did not want to lose it, he wasn’t a person to be bullied. And a couple of shows did come up with that, where that was demonstrated.
You worked more with Dorothy Malone, who played your wife, than with anyone else in the case. What do you remember about her?
I liked her. She was nice, and she was a pro. She’d come from films into this, and I think there was just this little bit of adjustment for her into television. Dorothy had an Academy Award, and she was a very good actress. I seemed to work well with her. We didn’t have a great deal going between each other, but it wasn’t anything that was uncomfortable.
Did you and Dorothy Malone choose to leave the show in 1968?
No, we were written out. They dropped the characters. The problem, as I understood it, was ABC. The cost of the show, after three and a half years or more, was going up and up and up. ABC had a contract they wanted to stay with, and Twentieth [Century-Fox] was beginning to lose money on making the show, as popular as it was. They looked downstream a ways, and just slowly began to release Dorothy and myself and others on the show, and change the format of the show. And within a year it died, it was dead.
When Peyton Place went to three half-hours per week, Fox added a second unit, so that multiple episodes were shooting at the same time. Did that make it more difficult?
We went back and forth, from whatever set to the next, whenever we were needed and whenever we were called. It was really crazy, and very, very difficult to do. We had to be on top of three scripts at a time.
Did you meet with the writers at all, or have any input into how your character was scripted?
No. Maybe the other actors talked with them, but I liked what was done with [my character], and I just kept pushing it. They seemed to write to the person that I thought this guy was. And if I wanted to do something, I just simply did it, and took the dialogue that way, with me.
I remember the first scene that I had on the show. I was in prison and I was talking through the bars. I think it was to my father, [played by] Frank Ferguson. We had this very long scene, which was this character’s introduction, and there were an awful lot of nuances in it. The way it was written was one way. The way I played it [was another]. I can’t remember which director shot it, but he was rather happy with what I did that he hadn’t seen, that element in it that I was introducing. I smiled through it, teased it, and I would indicate just via looks that the character was so strained and had so much internal controversy.
How would you describe the technique you developed as an actor? Were you a Method actor, or in sync with those ideas?
I was probably somewhat in sync with that naturally, just because I never quite thought of myself as working any particular way except to know what I was talking about. To know, thoroughly, the scene. Once I began, I made the lines and the part my own, even though [there were also] ideas and attitudes that were not necessarily my own at all. Which I suppose is part of the Actors Studio kind of thing.
I remember, when I would begin, when I’d start and pick up a script I wouldn’t put it down until I knew it backwards. I’d just work on it and nothing else mattered. Sometimes, particularly with a play, I would walk around the script on the table, around and around it, because once I got involved I knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I would be be on it, and I wouldn’t put it down until I had mastered it. I could remember it on the subway. I mean, on the train, the Illinois Central that I would take from downtown Chicago out to the South Side where I lived, or on the street or walking to the theater, so many times I’d be talking the lines to myself. I’d be on the train, looking out the window, and I’d be talking the lines. Often the conductor would come up and be standing there looking at me, wondering what’s the matter with me.
In Palm Springs, I can remember walking that mile or mile and a quarter out to the theater from town. In the middle, there was a grocery store that was the only thing in that whole mile on both sides of the road going out to the theater. Somebody said, “Stop!” It was a policeman. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And across the street, in front of that store, was a police officer crouched down with a gun in his hand, aiming directly at me. This is at night, and I’m in the reflection of the grocery store. He came across very carefully, never taking that gun [off me]. “Put your hands where I can see them!” And of course I did.
I knew exactly what I’d done: I had been going through my lines and I must have been talking full blast in the dark, nobody around, and I’d got this cop into thinking I was crazy or something. I told him who I was, and he put me in the car and drove me out to the theater. And he believed me, or he would’ve taken me to the station. But they were looking for somebody that was a little nuts, who had disappeared and had committed some crime. This cop saw me walking down the road talking to myself, and he was sure I was who he was looking for.
Would you say that you were ever typecast, for instance, in authority figure roles – policemen, lawyers, military men?
Well, I never thought of it like that. I just took whatever came along. I never thought in terms of type. I played so many different kinds of guys.
How would you approach an underwritten role, where your character was defined as little more than “the cop” or “the father” in a script?
I usually approached it within the same sort of fashion. I would play it against what was written. That’s in every part I’ve ever played, anyplace. Particularly in episodic television: you get a character and you play against it. That was my motto. Even a strong part. Even the bad guy. It was usually written as a classically bad guy. I would play against that, and be a smiling, charming guy, as much as I could. Bad guys were bad guys unless you gave them a little twist somewhere. Or good guys were good guys unless you gave them some kind of twist. I might even be marked right at the beginning of the show, but they would have doubts. I would try to give them doubts.
December 3, 2009
Paradise Cove Is Too Far: It could’ve been the name of one of the sixties TV dramas Paul Wendkos directed, during the years when shows like Naked City and Ben Casey competed to come up with the longest and most cryptic segment titles. “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail” and “The Wild, Wild, Wild Waltzing World” were actual television episodes from Wendkos’s resume.
But Paradise Cove Is Too Far is not one of his credits; it’s a note I found scrawled on my folder for Wendkos, at the end of a set of directions to his Malibu home. I never made the trip to just-before-Paradise Cove. For the last few years, I’d been talking to his wife, Lin Bolen Wendkos (the inspiration for Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, according to rumor, but hopefully not for the more terrifying aspects of that character) about meeting Paul for an interview. But he’d suffered a stroke shortly before I got in touch and remained too frail for the kind of in-depth questioning that I would have needed to toss his way. I kept calling every time I was in Los Angeles, hoping that I’d catch him on a good day, but I never did. Wendkos died last month, on November 12.
Since I started making notes for this piece, good obituaries have appeared in the New York Times and the Independent, so I don’t feel obligated to outline the whole of Wendkos’s long career. He began with a regional independent film, The Burglar, which is a common way for directors to enter television now, but was extremely unusual then. The Burglar is an impeccable film noir. It derives from a novel by David Goodis, the reclusive Philadelphia native whose home town figures essentially in most of his prose. Wendkos also hailed from Philly and deployed his camera along its streets with a knowing eye; he was a perfect match for the material, as was surly sad-sack star Dan Duryea.
The Burglar led immediately to a feature contract and a number of mostly commercial films for Columbia, including Gidget and its two sequels, which led off most of his obits. Wendkos disowned most of his studio films, considering them too compromised, although film buffs make claims for The Case Against Brooklyn and the western Face of a Fugitive. The oddity from among Wendkos’s early films, another indie called Angel Baby, has a small cult following that may grow following its recent sort-of DVD release (in Warners’ new burn-on-demand library). More on Angel Baby further down.
Once he escaped his Columbia pact, Wendkos spent most of a decade in episodic television. He directed for most of the top shows – Naked City (his favorite), Ben Casey, Mr. Novak, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, I Spy, The Invaders, The FBI, the pilot for Hawaii Five-O – and, in the same 1968 interview that found Wendkos dyspeptic on the subject of his feature career, he expressed some guarded satisfaction about his work in the newer medium:
Television is a talk medium. The cinema is basically a behavioral medium, an action medium, people do things to generate a story. [I]n television they talk about doing things. You’re dealing with incredible professionalism in this field. All the scripts are tailored for five to seven day schedules and it’s so much easier to shoot characters talking about something than having them go through the actions. Television has an affinity for the minutiae of emotions as opposed to the broad sweep, the spectacle, the action of a motion picture. The difference is in the complexity of the mounting.
Though he directed a few more theatrical films (including the creepy The Mephisto Waltz, TV producer Quinn Martin’s only foray into features), Wendkos spent most of the seventies on directing made-for-television movies and mini-series, many of which were quite highly regarded. The first of them, a chiller called Fear No Evil, continues to attract obsessive attention; the second, The Brotherhood of the Bell, was a look at a Skull and Bones-type organization that earned Wendkos a DGA award nomination. The Legend of Lizzie Borden, with Elizabeth Montgomery wielding the axe, was a big deal in its day, and The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story netted Wendkos an Emmy nomination. And so on.
I should, at this point, be able to offer some specific insights on what made Wendkos one of the best among his generation of TV directors. But that’s tougher than it sounds, even for a specialist like myself. It’s at least a measurable task to isolate the elements in scripts that make a TV writer unique – the repeated themes, the “voice” of the dialogue, the broader control that can come via elevation to producer or story editorship. But to do the equivalent for an episodic director requires a close viewing of many segments, in close proximity, and even then the common elements may remain elusive, or mislead. How does one grapple with the fact that, as a production necessity, episodic television directors (even the best ones) routinely had less involvement in pre- and post-production than the hackiest of movie directors? How many presumably directorial choices were in fact the director’s, and how many were dictated by the producer or the star or the house style of a particular show? Do his Invaders segments more closely resemble Wendkos’s segments of other series, or those Invaders segments helmed by others? TV movies are easier – one can presume a bit more creative control on the part of the director – but most of them are maddeningly hard to come by these days. Little wonder that the expert cinephiles at Dave Kehr’s blog struggled last month to define the Wendkos touch, even as they agreed upon their admiration for it.
Tise Vahimagi and the late Christopher Wicking, in their book The American Vein, contemplate this authorial question with mixed success, but I think their take on Wendkos is sound:
In his best work, there is a clinical detachment from his characters, which prevents any easy transference from the viewer. His analytic view intensifies the feeling that we are watching insects under a microscope. Some of the insects run bewildered from the various physical and psychological hounds on their trail, whilst others do the pursuing — implacable and imperious. Wendkos’s framing of a cold world is usually meticulously correct, frustratingly proper. It conveys a Langian sense of fate, against which individuals are powerless.
To which I’ll add only that the best dramatic TV directors of the sixties, of whom Wendkos was one, had to be equally proficient in their guidance of actors and in their use of the camera. This is an obvious point. But the fact that there are few television auteurs who managed to specialize in one area to the exclusion of the other (in the way that, say, Kazan was an “actor’s director” or Hitchcock a meticulous planner of compositions) makes it all the more difficult to differentiate amidst their work.
If I can’t offer a full analysis of Wendkos’s mise-en-scene, I can at least shed some light on one mystery which emerged from that discussion on Mr. Kehr’s site. The authorship of Angel Baby has always been disputed in the reference books. Though Wendkos bears the sole screen credit, the project originated with another director, Hubert Cornfield, who had a similarly uneven and interesting early screen career. (Although when Wendkos segued into television, Cornfield simply disappeared). The press reported during the film’s production in 1960 that appendicitis forced Cornfield off the film, without indicating how much of it he completed before Wendkos took over. In that 1968 interview, Wendkos distanced himself a bit from Angel Baby – he claimed he was promised script changes which never materialized – but also neglected to say how much of the finished work actually bore his stamp.
This week I put in a call to Angel Baby’s lovely and talented star, Salome Jens, whose portrayal of the title character, a phony (or is she?) faith healer, is one of the film’s chief assets. According to Jens, Cornfield was fired after one or two days (“he had a lot of ideas, but none of them worked”) and all of his footage was reshot by Wendkos. Of the two credited cinematographers, Jens remembered Haskell Wexler as Wendkos’s primary collaborator; Jack Marta (soon to become the DP on TV’s Route 66) was there mainly to protect the picture’s union status. (Wexler was not yet a member of the A.S.C.)
Angel Baby began shooting on location in Florida and Georgia, but was forced back to Los Angeles by uncooperative weather. That may account for the film’s uneven mixture of steamy tropical authenticity and cramped, flimsy-looking sets. Apart from Jens, the visual energy Wendkos brings to the film – lots of tracking shots and low angles, perhaps to suggest the faithful gazing skyward – is the best thing about it.
“I had a lovely experience with Paul,” said Jens, who also did an Untouchables for Wendkos two years later. “I felt that he enhanced what it was I brought him. I already had ideas about what it was I was going to do, and he was very supportive. I loved Angel Baby. I thought it was a sweet little film.”
There’s one discrepancy I haven’t resolved, and that’s the question of Wendkos’s age. Most reference books report his date of birth as September 20, 1922, but the obits all state that he 84 rather than 87. If I sort out the facts, I’ll report back.
UPDATE, 12/3/09: Lin Bolen Wendkos says that Paul’s birth certificate bears the 1925 date. No one in the family seems to know how that 1922 business got started. Intriguing! Also, Paul was his middle name; his given name was Abraham.
November 6, 2009
Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons. On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series. At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.
For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded. But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.
The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952. Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera. But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.
Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series. Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time. Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”
I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well. He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.” Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!” As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency. Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.
Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format. Houghton did not approve of the change. He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.
Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous. He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company. (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.) The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS. During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos. It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves. This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract. Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star. He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”
Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him. (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.) Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season. He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.
The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television. It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets. Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone. Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television). Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him. According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.
For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home. Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen. He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series. NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on. Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O. Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord. A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.
There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998. Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion. We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine.
For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response. Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.” Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.
Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out. Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause. (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”) If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy. I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.
April 14, 2009
Comedy writer Bob Fisher‘s death on September 19, 2008, has been confirmed by the WGA. Fisher died two days before his eighty-sixth birthday.
One of the most prolific of sitcom writers, Fisher began in television the fifties by pairing up with a veteran radio writer twenty-five years his senior named Alan Lipscott. Lipscott and Fisher wrote the first episode of Make Room For Daddy in 1953, and went on to craft teleplays for The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, Bronco, How to Marry a Millionaire, and others. Following Lipscott’s death in 1961, Fisher began writing with Arthur Marx, and that partnership (which lasted for over twenty-five years) produced episodes of McHale’s Navy, My Three Sons, The Mothers-in-Law, The Paul Lynde Show, and Life With Lucy. Fisher and Marx were also story editors and frequent writers on Alice from 1977-1981.
Fisher also wrote occasionally with Arthur Alsberg (on I Dream of Jeannie and Mona McCluskey) and had three plays produced on Broadway: the hit The Impossible Years (with Marx), Minnie’s Boys (with Marx), and Happiness Is Just a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce (with Alsberg), which closed after one performance.
I had tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to arrange an interview with Fisher, and had heard from other writers that he led a peripatetic lifestyle. So I wasn’t surprised when word of his death surfaced only last month via Mark Evanier’s blog.
Roland Wolpert, a television writer adept at both drama and comedy, died on March 25. Wolpert was another writer who was too ill to be interviewed by the time I contacted him two years ago, so most of what I know about him comes from the death notice in the Los Angeles Times.
Wolpert was born in New York City on December 30, 1923, went to City College, and was a correspondent during World War II. His television career began with a move to Los Angeles in 1961, and he amassed credits on Naked City, Mr. Novak, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lancer, My Living Doll, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Family Affair, Room 222, Dan August, Emergency!, Good Times, and others. Wolpert did not write for The Bold Ones, but had a shared creator credit on the series because the Leslie Nielsen “Protectors” segments were spun off Deadlock, a TV movie that Wolpert co-wrote.
Eventually I’ll publish my interview with writer Juarez Roberts, who died of cancer on February 21. In the meantime, all I will write here is that he was a long-distance friend and a truly larger-than-life character. Certainly, he took up more room than Hollywood was ready to make for him.
Juarez was one of the last writers to break into television by throwing a script over the transom of one of the live television anthologies. In his case, it was a U.S. Steel Hour called “The Little Bullfighter,” which was inspired by stories told to him by a Mexican friend and co-worker at the Los Angeles foundry where Juarez was a foreman. A second Steel Hour script drew upon memories of his Dust Bowl childhood (he was born in Oklahoma in 1923).
After the anthologies folded, he created scripts for popular Hollywood shows like Hawaiian Eye, Adventures in Paradise, and Checkmate. He wrote the teleplay for a pilot based on The African Queen, with James Coburn and Glynis Johns in the Bogart and Hepburn roles. It didn’t sell as a series but the pilot film landed on The Dick Powell Show in 1962.
Six feet tall, with an Okie drawl that led many to mistake him for a rube, Juarez intimidated some producers and baffled others. He fought for his ideas even on escapist work, and often lost; he used a pseudonym (George Stackalee) on Bonanza and took his name off a Route 66 altogether. Forty years after the fact, Juarez was still annoyed that they changed the title of his Channing episode (about boxing) from something provocative (“Blood’s Not Very Red on TV”) to something generic (“Beyond His Reach”).
Juarez’s character was very much formed by his World War II service – he spoke of it often – and I once asked if he’d ever submitted any ideas to the TV series Combat. “Come on, Stephen, you should know better than that,” he replied with disgust. Combat met a lot of television critics’ standards for battlefront verisimilitude, but not Juarez’s.
Those stories should give you some idea of how Juarez’s low tolerance for compromise made a life in television impossible for him. As far as I know, none of Juarez’s work was produced after 1963, although he toiled on some film scripts that were never made. Sometime in the seventies Juarez turned his back on Hollywood and drifted up the coast to Mendocino, and then to Waldport, Oregon, where he died. About a year ago, Juarez completed his first novel, which draws upon his own experiences as a paratrooper. His widow, Sonya, is seeking a publisher, and I hope she finds one.
UPDATE: Sonya Roberts has provided a few corrections (which I have made to the above) and the following photo of Juarez in 1945. I had not seen it before, but I think it amply illustrates the points I have tried to make about his individualism and strength of will.