May 27, 2008
After a pretty public battle with cancer during the past year, Sydney Pollack left us on May 26 at the age of 73. That’s not exactly young but it comes as a bit of a shock still, because Pollack had been so robust in recent years, so visible within the industry, and so active (and marvelous) as a character actor in movies like Eyes Wide Shut and Michael Clayton. Word of Pollack’s illness first emerged last August when he dropped out of Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 presidential election that premiered a day before he died. (Jay Roach of Austin Powers replaced him.) Pollack had sworn off television the second the had enough clout to do so, after he won an Emmy for directing a Chrysler Theatre segment called “The Game” back in 1965. Recount would have been the first thing he directed for television in 43 years. Obituarists like me would be remarking about what a long path he’d taken to come full circle.
I wish I could say something positive about Pollack the man, who I found rather smug and standoffish during my only encounter with him, or about his movies. Pollack’s films tended to garner praise for their “adult” good taste and their classical, old-fashioned style. I thought they were banal and middlebrow, and that none of them excepting a few of the earliest ones did anything to stimulate the senses or the intellect.
But Pollack was an ideal episodic television director, and for a short time, a tremendously important one. Between 1961 and 1965, Pollack enjoyed a meteoric rise from assignments on a few journeyman westerns (Shotgun Slade and The Tall Man) through the top episodic dramas (Ben Casey, The Fugitive, The Defenders) and into the handful of remaining anthology hours (Kraft Suspense Theatre and the Chrysler Theatre, both shot on film, not staged live) still on the air in the mid-sixties. That wasn’t as unusual an accomplishment as it sounds. In television at that time, one tended to either get stuck in the episodic rut for a long haul, or make the leap to features quickly; ambitious young directors and their agents understood that the clock was ticking. Stuart Rosenberg, Elliot Silverstein, Robert Ellis Miller, and Mark Rydell were the Big Five along with Pollack who vied for the top TV jobs throughout the early sixties and then got their first important movies between 1965-1967; if one compares their television resumes, the chronologies and the shows that crop up look a lot alike. But Pollack was younger than any of them and among his contemporaries he may have the record for the smallest number of TV segments done before the pole-vault into the big leagues was achieved.
Pollack in a rare leading role (he began as an actor, but mostly in supporting parts) in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock Presents segment “The Contest of Aaron Gold”
And how does the early work stand up today? Energetic, inventive, youthful, far livelier than the most TV episodes of the time, but notably devoid of personality. The shows are kid-in-a-candy-store exercises in technique, all tracking pull-backs and crane shots, most of it just restrained enough to complement the material rather than overwhelm it. Pollack’s Cain’s Hundreds and “The Black Curtain,” a flavorful, seedy Cornell Woolrich adaptation for The Alfred Hitchock Hour, are experiments in noir lighting and composition, deliberate studies in a particular style.
The film critic Scott Foundas, one of the few to write about Pollack’s TV period, describes a “dazzling … cubistic montage of bustling street scenes to suggest the disorientation felt by a timid Native American boy ill at ease in the big city” in the Ben Casey “For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses.” “Karina,” a Frontier Circus, begins with an abstraction, a harlequin against blackness, walking straight into the camera. A moment later a shot of Elizabeth Montgomery’s gartered legs glimpsed in a crystal ball ripple-dissolves into the real thing. Then a shot of her as a black-clad wraith, cape swirling, running into and over the camera. That’s all in the teaser – and everything after the opening titles is routine. These sound like gratuitous, indulgent flourishes wedged incongruously between whole acts of standard rhythmic shot-reverse shot framing that Pollack couldn’t vary and keep to his tight production schedule – and that’s exactly what they are. But the truth is that so much of television looks so monotonous, one tends to take the visual pleasures where they come without dwelling too much on how unmotivated or immature they might be.
Since Pollack was working on the best TV shows in Los Angeles, the material was very good – the writers Pollack worked with, Howard Rodman and Stirling Silliphant and S. Lee Pogostin, put more of a personal stamp on the episodes than he did – and so were the performers hired to guest-star. That was Pollack’s saving grace: he was good with actors. “King of the Mountain,” a Cain’s Hundred, is a fine three-character piece with Edward Andrews as a corrupt cornpone bigwig and Nashville‘s Barbara Baxley as his sullen, suffering wife. Robert Duvall, not always his subtle, reliable self this soon, has key early roles in that segment as a crooked, slow-moving sheriff’s deputy who finds the buried vestiges of his decency, and in Pollack’s Arrest and Trial (Rodman’s “The Quality of Justice”) as a child killer. There are delicious riffs from Pat Hingle as a smiling, straight-out-of-Jim Thompson psycho lawman (Cain’s Hundred‘s “The Fixer”) and a Vegas high-roller in a string tie (Kraft‘s “The Name of the Game”); and Cliff Robertson, going from broken-down fighter pilot on Ben Casey (“For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses”) to a compulsive gambler on the Chrysler Theatre (“The Game”). And, of course, there’s “A Cardinal Act of Mercy,” the Ben Casey tour de force in which Pollack coaxed perhaps the finest of Kim Stanley’s few recorded performances out of the fragile actress. She won an Emmy. Already Pollack was forming, not a stock company of character actors, but a model in miniature of the succession of crucial star relationships (with Robert Redford, famously, but also Jane Fonda and others) that would drive his movie career.
Dutch angles, not dated at all: Piper Laurie in “Something About Lee Wiley”
As one of the top-of-the-heap young directors, Pollack enjoyed a certain amount of control over the material he worked on, a considerable rarity. It was during the anthology period that he first connected with David Rayfiel, later the most important of his screenwriters, and I’m guessing that Rayfiel’s TV scripts for Pollack bear the director’s clearest thumbprint out of all his small-screen work. “Something For Lee Wiley,” a lush twenties melodrama about a female singer blinded in a riding accident, was a 1963 Chrysler with a terrific star turn by Piper Laurie and some gorgeous color photography (Pollack’s first). Foundas wrote that its “air of dreamy fatalism and a jagged use of flashbacks . . . directly anticipates They Shoot Horses Don’t They?“ That gets at another influence that Pollack’s work begins to show around this time, an influx of dutch angles, freeze frames, interpolated stills, and tricky edits. Perhaps Pollack merits another award: as the director who imported the biggest undigested European New Wave influence into sixties television. The obvious contemporaneous reference point is Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the mid-sixties American cinema’s boldest attempt to grapple with the New Wave form in the raw; Pollack’s most avant-garde TV efforts hold the same fascination as the Penn film, more fascinating objects than real successes. Oh, and there’s the jazz music, another New Wave signpost that Pollack appropriated with as much constancy as possible in episodic TV: “Lee Wiley” was scored by Benny Carter, “The Watchman” (the second Rayfiel script, for Kraft) by Lalo Schifrin. Early harbingers of the inexcusable Dave Grusin muzak to come.
The Pollack-Rayfiel collaboration curdled on “The Watchman,” a talky, pseudo-existential mess that limned the thirty-year relationship between a Spanish guerrilla (Telly Savalas), his Boswell (Jack Warden), and the woman they shared (Victoria Shaw). Pollack pulled off some stunning beauty shots, stumbled over a clumsy expository gimmick (Warden addresses a psychiatrist who remains off-camera), and emphasized the romance between Warden and Shaw. It was the same trick he would fall back on in The Way We Were: duck the half-baked ideas in the script and pour on the emotion.
(There’s at least one more Pollack-Rayfiel effort, an unsold pilot called “The Fliers,” starring John Cassavetes, that I’ve been unable to see.)
Pollack would’ve blanched at my assessment of his film career; he disowned his early films, like the earnest, urgent The Slender Thread, and most especially his TV work. I can guess why: he probably felt there were too many camera moves, too many crude cuts, in comparison to the smooth style of his features. In his book Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley, Jon Krampner got some good, specific quotes from Pollack about that Ben Casey segment, so the memories were there if Pollack chose to dredge them up. But in virtually every other interview I’ve read, when he was asked about his TV work, Pollack copped a superior attitude, putting down both the shows and his own contributions to them. Which is fine if you’re, say, Robert Altman and your style really did evolve into something revolutionary; conversely, if your career has instead yielded sentimental, brain-rotting slop like The Way We Were (which is the blacklist rendered as a Hallmark card) and Out of Africa, then curt dismissals of the rambunctious, promising early impulses might be taken as snooty and ungracious.
I don’t make that comparison arbitrarily, for Altman was another contemporary of Pollack’s who moved up from TV into features in the late sixties. Altman worked on Kraft Suspense Theatre, too – got fired off it, actually; he had a hard head and his ten-year trudge through TV had a lot more detours and tangents than Pollack’s. Altman’s TV segments are eccentric, personal, audacious, while Pollack’s are clever, imitative, pretentious, and ultimately writer- and actor-centric. You can see the blueprint for their film careers right there in the television resumes. Altman, for what it’s worth, seemed to cherish his TV work in his later years, took pride in it alongside his films (almost to a comic extent, considering how powerful some of those are), even recorded audio commentaries for DVDs of his Combat episodes.
In mid-1965, Pollack directed “The Game,” a Chrysler Theatre which was, like his earlier Kraft piece “The Name of the Game,” a taut, claustrophobic gambling story set entirely within the interior of a casino. It’s a remarkable work that I’ll write about in another context later. Even before “The Game” won him an Emmy the following year, Pollack had run into some sort of conflict with the suits at Universal and turned the final editing over to his writer, S. Lee Pogostin. The statue clenched Pollack’s ability to flip the bird to TV for good (he’d already finished The Slender Thread). Robert Altman’s exit from TV came around the same time, when he told Variety that Kraft’s Suspense Theatre was as bland as its cheese (it wasn’t, but no matter) and necessarily had to clean out his office at that enterprise; it was a long winter before MASH. Pollack wafted out of TV on the golden wings of his Emmy. He was 31 – the same age I am now.
Jack Warden (note how skillfully Pollack integrates his shock of red hair into the mise-en-scene) and Telly Savalas in “The Watchman”
February 6, 2008
At the risk of letting this blog become just an honor roll of the dead (never my intention), I have to chime in with a few words about the inimitable Barry Morse, who passed away this past Saturday, February 2.
Morse remains beloved by TV fans because of his role on The Fugitive, one of the finest dramas on the tube during the ’60s. (Less discriminating TV viewers may remember him from his regular role on Space: 1999.) Morse played the primary pursuer and tormentor to David Janssen’s innocent death-row escapee Dr. Richard Kimble. Every episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble ducking around corners or thumbing for the freeway to elude the local fuzz in whatever backwater burg he found himself hiding in. But the really tense episodes, the ones where the producers (Alan Armer and later Wilton Schiller) wanted to up the stakes a notch, put Morse’s Lt. Philip Gerard on the case.
Gerard was the hometown police detective who busted Kimble in the first place, and who was handcuffed to the alleged wife-killer during the train wreck that set him free. Though he had no special jurisdiction over recapturing Kimble, Gerard would drop everything and hop on a plane anytime word of a Kimble sighting came in over the teletype. When Dr. Kimble saw Gerard sniffing around on his trail, he knew he was in really deep shit that week.
The Fugitive was a show I gorged myself on during my teens, and it was my first real exposure to Morse. Since then I’ve seen a lot more of his early television work, and what I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize is how much of a departure the character of Gerard was for Morse, at least at that time.
Catch one of Morse’s pre-Fugitive TV roles, and more than likely you’re in for a heavy meal of ham. Most of the time, Morse went big. Maybe because Morse was British by birth and Canadian by inclination – he resettled in Toronto in 1951 and did so much live TV they called him “the CBC test pattern” – American television didn’t know quite what to do with him. For much of the early sixties, he was typed within a pretty narrow specialty: bohemian artists and snooty critics.
Morse is pretty hard to take as Fitzgerald Fortune, a theatre critic who tortures people with a haunted player piano, in “A Piano in the House,” one of those generic Twilight Zones in which some mean little man yaps for the whole half-hour about how he’s going to avenge the gigantic chip on his shoulder. He’s even more insufferable in “Who’ll Dig the Graves,” a Defenders in which he chomps the scenery as an alcoholic, junkie beatnik poet. Classically trained (at RADA), Morse was a natural choice whenever some showoffy writer had dressed up a thesaurus as a character, as in the Nurses episode “A Private Room.” Somehow, in the execution of Morse’s performance as Oliver Norton Bell, a misanthropic failed scholar dying of leukemia, the actor and his director, Don Richardson, came to the ill-advised conclusion that Bell’s each and every line should be barked at full volume.
Morse’s other early specialty was accents: English, German (as a defector scientist in another Nurses, “Escape Route”), or simply nondescript Euro-generic. I think it’s supposed to be French in the maladroit Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “A Tangled Web,” in which a toupeed Morse attempts a flamboyant hairdresser whose, er, business partner is Robert Redford. One element of the say-what? twist ending is that Morse’s character isn’t as gay as he’s coded to be; in any case, it’s the nadir of Morse’s over-the-top eccentric period.
If you know Morse only as Philip Gerard, it’s hard to imagine him in these roles. But Stirling Silliphant’s earnestly Freudian Naked City, which used Morse thrice between 1961-62, began to see him in the same way The Fugitive would. In “Portrait of a Painter,” about William Shatner’s homicidal non-representational artist, Morse whirls through in a cameo as an art dealer called in by the cops (with a straight face) to scrutinize Shatner’s canvases and advise as to whether he’s crackers or not. Later Morse starred in Abram S. Ginnes’ complex “Memory of a Red Trolley Car,” as a chemistry professor whose exposure to a deadly poison sends him on a journey of self-exploration, confronting mother, mistress, and estranged wife. It was a difficult role, requiring Morse to verbalize a lot of emotions that would logically have remained subtextual, and he executed it with simplicity and integrity. (It helped that the script incorporated Morse’s own background as an Americanized Englishman.) In both segments Morse got a lot of mileage out of the same thick-rimmed glasses that would become an essential prop for Lt. Gerard.
Gerard: As I write this, I’m watching “Never Wave Goodbye” again. It’s a two-parter, the first Fugitive to give Gerard a personal story parallel to Kimble’s. Look at Gerard’s opening scene, where he gets a lead on a one-armed ex-con (not the right one, it turns out) in L.A. and soft-soaps his boss (Paul Birch as Captain Carpenter) into letting him go have a look. Morse plays it down to practically nothing, all soft-spoken and reasonable-sounding. He had no way of knowing the series would last for four years, but he leaves himself room to build to the fever pitch Gerard would hit before the end. “Never Wave” gives him the character’s first crescendo, the first time he squares his jaw and bails on a fishing trip with his son to go chase Kimble; the first time he barges into some out-of-town police station and starts barking orders at slack-jawed local cops. The first glimpse of Supercop. Or, no: more. Worse.
Because, here’s the point I wanted to make about Barry Morse. I think he may deserve more credit than anybody else for the element of The Fugitive that’s truly subversive: the anti-police subtext that made it a counterculture totem. Morse’s Gerard represented American television’s first sustained presentation of the police as essentially maleficent. A lot has been made of how the network oafs all turned down Roy Huggins’ pitch for the show because (no matter how slowly Huggins talked as he explained that Kimble was innocent) they didn’t get how a criminal could be a hero and a cop could be the bad guy. Fine, but that idea was coming anyhow, with the Watts riots and Kent State only a few years away from the evening news. It was Morse who made the ugliness of the police visceral, with his clamp-jawed sneer and his thousand-yard stare. Morse underlined the fact that it was personal for Gerard. He wasn’t a dutiful flatfoot. He was an authority figure whose omnipotence had been flouted, and he wanted payback.
To put Morse’s contribution in perspective, just consider how much tamer The Fugitive would have been with a stolid, conventional cop actor – like, say Tige Andrews, The Mod Squad‘s Captain Greer – in the Gerard role, someone who would’ve played it like he was the hero. Gerard actually had lines like that all the time – modest-sounding dialogue about how he was just a tool of the law, and it wasn’t his problem whether Kimble was guilty or innocent – but the way Morse said them, you knew he was full of it. The sixties were when we first realized that some cops beat people up just because they got off on it; and that often the police function, not to punish the guilty or protect the innocent, but to suppress those who challenge the status quo. (Gerard’s catechism was “The law said Kimble is guilty. I enforce the law.”) On its face The Fugitive was never this topical – not even close – but Morse’s performance smuggled the idea in.
“Never Wave Goodbye” was also the first episode in which Gerard went rogue (he jumped ship in a little rubber raft after a coast guard skipper wouldn’t continue pursuing Kimble in a thick fog), and from then on you can pick any episode and find Morse personifying some new wrinkle in martial arrogance. A few weeks later, in the great “Nightmare at Northoak,” the one where Gerard is even haunting Kimble in his dreams, Gerard crashes town to pick up the fugitive after he saves some kids from a burning bus. Kimble is the local hero and the small town folk all loathe the condescending Lt. Gerard. Morse plays it totally oblivious. “Now, look, son, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says to the little boy who got Kimble captured, just oozing smugness.
As the show went on, Morse built on this notion, turning the character more tight-lipped and tightly-wound, more short-tempered and monomaniacal. Stephen King wrote about it in his intro to Ed Robertson’s Fugitive companion book, how Morse made it possible to track Gerard’s progression, in King’s words, “further and further into freako land.” The idea was always there in the premise – The Fugitive was what TV writers used to call a “haircut” of Les Miserables – but I’m convinced that without an actor as intelligent as Morse in the role, someone to recognize and emphasize the connection to Hugo’s Javert, the show’s anti-authoritarian strain would have evaporated. No one else could have built it in as subtly, and who would have fought to jam it in at the surface? Not Quinn Martin, and not ABC.
Even Morse’s physicality was a kind of innovation. He didn’t look like any movie or TV cop that came before him. With his small frame and slighly outsized head, his receding hairline (with the odd, birdlike tufts in the back), Morse seemed more like an accountant or an academic than a tough guy. And the actor cultivated that look. Morse told Ed Robertson that, during the shooting of the Fugitive pilot, he chucked the cliche wardrobe (trenchcoat and fedora) that the costumers dug up for Gerard behind a bush and stuck to off-the-rack suits for the rest of the series. Gerard was an unprepossessing figure, a quotidian cop, and that tied into the show’s concept of law enforcement as a malevolent force cloaked in a bland guise. The Fugitive took care to identify Gerard as a quintessentially American character, a suburban dad and wife, and that mythology became part of the nightmare. Gerard takes his son hunting, and the kid runs into Kimble and ends up bonding with him instead (in “Nemesis”); later Gerard’s wife, explicitly cracking up because of his obsession, leaves him and almost falls into Kimble’s arms too (in “Landscape With Running Figures”). And Morse plays this baroque material with a stiff upper lip: his Gerard, his übercop, doesn’t have the imagination to do anything but nurse his wounded pride and wait for his day of vengeance.
Which never comes. It’s a tribute to Morse that he hovered over The Fugitive as an ominous presence even though he only appeared in about a third of the 120 episodes (plus the weekly opening title sequence). He was sufficiently formidable to personify the relentless presence of law enforcement even as the producers kept him off-screen enough so that Gerard didn’t become a joke, always tripping over Kimble just as Gilligan was always almost getting off the island. The big payoff in the final episode was not Kimble’s exoneration, which didn’t even happen on-screen, but the final encounter between Janssen and Morse. An anti-climax? You be the judge.
In the late nineties I knew a video entrepreneur who recorded Morse introducing some Fugitive episodes for a VHS release. He told me that Morse (by all accounts a thoroughly nice man) was not well and despondent over the loss of his beloved wife, so I was surprised that he lived as long as he did. He used his final years well, completing an autobiography that I hear is worthwhile and a cute video promo for it.
If there’s an afterlife for TV characters, then Richard Kimble’s just got a lot more complicated. He’ll be looking over his shoulder again after a long breather . . . but then again, he’s got some company for the long, lonely journey now.
That thousand yard stare (from “Nightmare at Northoak”).
December 21, 2007
There were a fair number of women writers in the early days of television, but not so many that they don’t all deserve some measure of credit for their perseverance and patience in the face of discrimination. I’ve made a concentrated effort to include as many as possible in my research, and Gail Ingram was the first. Long retired and living in obscurity in San Diego when I contacted her by phone, Gail, who died on April 13, told me some remarkable stories.
Born Gail Austrian in New York City, she went to Vassar and then got a job as a receptionist at a radio station in 1948. From that she transitioned into writing “bridges” between program segments, and then into freelance writing. Gail married Harry Ingram, a successful writer for The Shadow, Big Story, and other shows. They started to write as a team, and to transition into live television.
Then, in 1952, Harry Ingram dropped dead in their Connecticut backyard at the age of thirty-seven, after suffering a heart attack. Suddenly, Gail was a single parent and one of the few solo women writers working in television. Fortunately, the producers of Big Story, who knew the Ingrams from radio, were willing to use her on her own, and she ran up a number of credits on the TV version of that series. From there she became a staff writer for Mama, under the wary eye of the prickly head writer Frank Gabrielson, whom Ingram outed to me as one of TV’s first (to use a succession of modern terms) openly gay showrunners.
During the ’50s Gail wrote for anthologies like Tales of Tomorrow, Robert Montgomery Presents, Matinee Theatre, and, after moving to Los Angeles, G.E. Theatre, One Step Beyond, and The Millionaire. During our chat, she recalled the premise of The Millionaire, and then told me how, while a single mother writing for the show, her son asked why John Beresford Tipton didn’t bring her a briefcase containing a million dollars.
The Millionaire was produced by Don Fedderson, who remembered Gail when he launched a family-friendly sitcom called My Three Sons. It ran forever and Gail wrote more than a dozen scripts for it, but apparently her more significant contribution was as a longterm, uncredited rewrite consultant. Even after she left the business and moved to San Diego to concentrate on her family, she continued to polish scripts for My Three Sons – especially those by younger writers, like cast member Don Grady – and possibly other Fedderson series (Family Affair, etc.). Evidently disillusioned with the TV factory, or the quality of its output, Gail turned down offers to write for The Beverly Hillbillies and My Mother the Car. The last credit of hers that I could verify was on the 1965-66 sitcom Tammy.
Gail didn’t buy into it when I asked if she’d been treated badly by a sexist TV industry. ”If you could produce, they would buy your script,” she told me. But she added a great caveat about the glass ceiling. Sometime during the ’50s, the writer Robert J. Shaw was a tenant of hers in Connecticut, and when they compared notes they discovered they’d gotten assignments on the same show, and that Shaw had been paid more for no apparent reason other than that he was male.
Unfortunately, my conversation with Gail won’t ever appear among the oral histories published on my website, because it was the victim of a tape recorder malfunction. (I realize that, after the mishaps I related in my posts on David Shaw and Lonny Chapman, I run the risk of depicting myself as the Inspector Clouseau of TV historians.) I’d always meant to call her again after some time had passed and try to recapture lightning in a bottle, or perhaps to drop down to San Diego and meet her in person, but she became ill before I got around to it. That’s another link in my own personal Jacob Marley chain of missed opportunities, and it weighs heavily on me indeed.
December 21, 2007
Bernard L. Kowalski died on October 26. He was one of the most creative director-producers of the ’60s, whose passing rated more attention in the press than this sole, belated Variety obit. I guess his primary claim to fame is having directed the Mission: Impossible pilot, and later several of the good, early Columbo segments.
Mission was the culmination of a brief, productive collaboration with its creator, Bruce Geller, with also included some good episodes of The Dick Powell Show and one amazing, postmodern, ahead-of-its-time season of Rawhide. (Too ahead of its time: they got fired.) Sam Peckinpah made their partnership a trio for a time, but he was too volatile for it to last.
The year that Bernie launched Mission: Impossible, he directed or produced a total of five successful series pilots – for Mission, The Monroes, The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Rat Patrol (Kowalski produced, Tom Gries directed), and NYPD. I can’t imagine that’s not a record. The NYPD pilot would never be broadcast; Kowalski’s show featured Robert Hooks, Frank Converse, and Robert Viharo as a multiracial team of young detectives. When the show went to series a year later, Viharo was gone, replaced by Jack Warden as an older police captain.
Bernie had two flirtations with feature careers – early on, as a director of low-budget sci-fi and action films (Attack of the Giant Leeches) for Gene and Roger Corman, and for a while in the late ’60s and early ’70s after his TV career had peaked with that string of hit pilots. Those movies (Krakatoa – East of Java, Macho Callahan, SSSSS) were eclectic but not very good, and Bernie slid back into episodic TV. His credits include long stints on a raft of classics or, at least, popular hits: The Rebel, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Banacek, Columbo, Baretta, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Jake and the Fatman. The conclusions one draws from that list, I guess, are that Bernie had a skill for handling masculine action material, and that he was a good man to call in if you had a temperamental star who liked to throw his weight around. Bernie was an easygoing guy, but he didn’t take any crap from anybody.
I met Bernie in January 2006, and we spent more than three hours at his Northridge home, just covering the pre-Krakatoa years (plus a little bit of Columbo). His memories were vivid, funny, and forthright (he admitted, for instance, that the visual style of Mission: Impossible was cribbed straight from The Ipcress File). Plus, it’s always a bonus to talk to someone in the house where they’ve lived for many decades. At one point Bernie gestured toward the front lawn as he was telling me a story about a fistfight that erupted between Sam Peckinpah and the writer James Lee Barrett, and I realized I was sitting in the same den where Peckinpah and Lee Marvin and many others had caroused with Bernie over the years.
Bernie and his wife Helen were very warm and hospitable that afternoon, and I wish I’d stayed in touch; I still don’t even know how Bernie died (he seemed in pretty good health two years ago). It’s a common occurrence for an historian, but it still makes me sad.
December 19, 2007
Lonny Chapman died on October 12. He was a very good character actor with dark hair, beady eyes, and heavy jowls – he looked a lot like Richard Nixon. But because he had a strong Oklahoma drawl, Chapman became typecast not as a shifty politician, but as a curmudgeonly hick. His resume is full of ignorant, overall-clad farmers and crooked cracker sheriffs.
You wouldn’t guess, from the unimaginative way Hollywood used him after he moved to L.A. in 1968, that Chapman had been a stalwart New York theater actor with an astonishing list of credentials. A member of the legendary Actors Studio since its second year, Chapman performed in plays by William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote. Lee Strasberg, Daniel Mann, and Harold Clurman directed him on Broadway. He made two films for Elia Kazan, East of Eden and Baby Doll, the latter in a part tailored specifically for him by Tennessee Williams.
During the same time he began appearing on live television, starring in a short-lived series called The Investigator and later becoming a favorite of producer Herbert Brodkin and his staff, who cast Chapman often on The Defenders, The Nurses, and For the People (on which he was a regular, as a detective working for prosecutor William Shatner). He estimated his final tally of television roles at over 300.
I didn’t know Lonny well. But when I realized that he lived in the same Studio City neighborhood where I had an apartment briefly in 1999, I asked him to have lunch with me and brought along a tape recorder. It got off to a bad start, because he thought we were meeting at Art’s Deli and I thought it was Jerry’s, and by the time we ended up at the same place I didn’t have much time to spend with Chapman.
I never published the results of our hurried conversation, partly because Lonny was so taciturn that I didn’t think there was much meat to it. (When I asked about his World War II service, he said just one word, “Guadalcanal,” and changed the subject.) But as I reread it this week, I found more substance there than I had remembered, and I’m doubly glad I had the chance to record some of Chapman’s memories. Here are some of the highlights.
When did you begin acting?
At the University of Oklahoma, I got into drama. That’s where I got the bug. I was going to be in athletics. I was going to be maybe a coach. I was a track man. Then I answered an ad in the Liberal Arts building for some tryouts, auditions, because they didn’t have that many men in the drama department. I went over and auditioned, and they gave me the leading role!
In ’48, I got my first Equity job in Mister Roberts. It was the Chicago company. It had opened on Broadway already, and they formed a Chicago company. I was in that for a year. John Forsythe played Mister Roberts. I was one of the sailors. I was the guy that looks through the glasses [binoculars] and sees the girls and gets into a fight and all that.
Not long after you went to New York, you joined the Actors Studio.
I was in the Actors Studio the year after it was formed. I didn’t get in the first time. Elia Kazan saw the audition and said, “I think you’re a little green.” He said, “I like you. You go down to this other off-Broadway group,” and he gave me their name and I went down and I got into this little off-Broadway group that was full of Actors Studio people. Then I auditioned again, and I got in. That was even before Lee Strasberg was there.
What impact did Strasberg’s teachings have on you?
Well, I think I learned a lot from Strasberg. I didn’t care too much for him on a personal level, but he was very good. Strasberg had a sense of . . . a theory of acting, all of the aspects of relaxing actors and using themselves, from his knowledge of the theatre. He’d rather talk about acting, great acting, and it rubbed off. I learned a lot from him. Because I was there all through the 50s. I was doing scenes, boy, I was up there almost every week doing a scene. In fact, he got tired of seeing me. He said once, “You again?”
Do you consider yourself a “Method” actor?
Well . . . . Not in quotes – the “Method.” I think I was brought up, once I got to New York, in the so-called “Method.” But I do other things. I don’t follow any rules like that.
Yeah, a lot of it. Although I taught acting at my own school for eight years in New York, and it was that way of working. Sense memory – using yourself. But sometimes you have to bring in other things. Whatever works for the actor, that’s what I believe in.
Your first big break on Broadway was in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, as Turk, in 1950.
Yeah, I knew Bill quite well. We drifted apart once we were out here. I liked him a lot. He was a very closed-in person. Very sad, a very sad person, yet very likeable. But he had a sadness about him.
I played that for almost a year. From then on, I was in twelve more Broadway shows.
Tell me about some of the highlights.
I was in two Broadway shows with Kim Stanley, written by Horton Foote. One was Traveling Lady; I played her drunken husband. The other one was The Chase, which they later made a movie of. A great actress. Being on stage with her was the greatest experience I ever had. She was so giving, so alive, on stage. I don’t know of any other actor in this business I that I enjoyed working with more. Of the moment, everything was of the moment. She didn’t change blocking, but every night the nuances were different from the night before. Not that she was making up different things; it would just come out different, because she was so great.
I was in the first Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, with James Daly, Lois Smith, and Helen Hayes. I played the Gentleman Caller. I did the first revival of The Time of Your Life in New York, with Franchot Tone. He gave the prop guy money to give him real champagne. He’d sit there and sip it throughout the show. Never missed a line.
The last Broadway show I did was a flop, General Seeger, by Ira Levin, with George C. Scott. He directed it and played the lead, and I had a fight with him. William Bendix played General Seeger, but he couldn’t get along with George. But George was directing this. The reason I didn’t think he was a good director was because he would act out the parts. He’d get up and act it out and play the whole scene. He never did it to me except once, when I was on the witness stand. It was in this courtroom scene, and I’m on the witness stand, and he got up there and delivered my lines. I walked out and walked to my dressing room. He didn’t see me, and he went through the whole thing, my part. But I wasn’t there to see it! I came walking back in, and he realized I hadn’t seen it, and he looked at me and he says, “You son of a bitch.” And that’s all he ever said about it. But he was one hell of an actor. He fired William Bendix, and took over the part.
Do you remember the first live TV show you did?
The first one was a series called Captain Video. That was my very first live TV show, in late 1949. They didn’t even have a regular union at that time – that was before AFTRA took over. Then I was in The Gabby Hayes Show, which was very early TV. Then all the big ones started – Studio One, Philco. I made the rounds – all of them.
Did any of those famous on-air mistakes happen to you?
Oh, yeah. Actors went up on their lines in the middle of a scene. I went up a couple of times. I’ll never forget this time on a show that was in three acts. The second act and the third act started similar. So I started it, and I realized I had started the third act [instead of the second], and if I continued we would skip a whole act. So the other actor looked at me [with wide eyes] and stiffened up, and I realized, so he asked me the question again and I got back on track.
When did you first come to Los Angeles?
For East of Eden. It was my first trip. I knew James Dean quite well. He was a fascinating kid. He was really talented, he had just a knack. He had the best relaxation of any actor I’ve ever seen. You didn’t even know for sure if he knew his lines or not.
Personally, what did you think of him?
I liked him. A lot of people didn’t care for him. I helped him discover Woody Guthrie. I was a big Woody Guthrie fan. He [Dean] never even knew who he was, and I had all his records. I introduced him to who Guthrie was. He wanted to do shoot a film, a movie [about] Woody Guthrie. He said, “I’ll go to Kazan first, and ask him.” I was standing there when he went up and asked him, “Lonny and I got this idea to shoot a movie about Woody Guthrie.” James Dean would have been a very good Woody Guthrie. Kazan was at that time, busy with his [House] Un-American Activities [Committee testimony]. I don’t think he wanted to touch a guy who’d been accused of being a communist, Woody Guthrie, a left-wing kind of guy!
Kazan was a great director. The best one I ever worked with.
Because he was so good with actors. He just had a way with actors. He wanted you to try things. He’d say, “What do you wanna do? Let’s see it. Don’t talk about it, don’t tell me what you’re gonna do, I want to see it. Go ahead.” And we’d rehearse it. If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you try this this time?” He wouldn’t say, “I didn’t like it.”
What about Hitchcock? How long did you work on The Birds?
I was on the film for four weeks. They had several times they went back to that restaurant; it wasn’t just one scene, and they didn’t shoot them all at one time. He’d go back, and then he’d go back there again.
Hitchcock was not an Actors Studio type of director.
Oh, no. He was very precise. He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot. He knew exactly what he wanted you to do, and he’d tell you. He was great – very sharp.
Who was your favorite of the television directors you worked with?
Leo Penn was probably the about best relationship I had, of the TV directors, because I knew him in New York, I knew him when he was an actor. He and I had been friends for years, and he was very easy to work with. Gives you a lot of leeway. I did a couple of Andy Griffith’s series with him, Matlocks, and some other things too. I directed Leo in a show in summer stock, when I had my stock theatre.
Were the parts as good in television?
I got some pretty good parts in television. I did a big guest-star thing on Bonanza one time, playing a drunken poet. I did a couple of Gunsmokes. The Big Valley, I used to do, and that Chuck Connors thing – The Rifleman.
Do you think your accent influenced the way you’ve been cast over the years?
Well, yeah, for a while, because I did some Okie-type parts, talking like Dennis Weaver did in Gunsmoke. That’s why I got cast in those kinds of things. Although, in stock, I played all kinds of stuff – Shakespeare, and everything. But in business . . . I don’t think there was a western, maybe a couple or three, [that I wasn't in.] I made the rounds of all of them. I always played outlaws, or sometimes a sheriff.
That must have been less interesting than what you were doing in the theatre.
Yeah, it was. Although anything is interesting – I give myself to everything I do, whatever it is, if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world.
When you moved out to Los Angeles for good, did you do so reluctantly?
I was twenty-one years in New York, from the first time I had my first job, Mister Roberts. So, yeah, reluctantly. About 1967, I realized I hadn’t worked in New York, had a New York job, in three years. Every job I had was out here. I was a commuter.
Do you consider yourself fulfilled, or are there things about your career you would change?
Well, in films and television, I never got into that area where you could pick and choose. I never got to that. I would like to have got to that. I don’t mean becoming a big star, not that, but at least having a sort of a clout in the business. I never really got to that. I’m just an actor who worked a lot, in the ’60s and on into the ’70s.
December 17, 2007
Later this month I’ll compile a roundup of the important early TV people who died over the course of 2007. In the meantime, I’m going to post some reminiscences this week concerning a few of them who I was fortunate enough to have known personally.
David Shaw, who died on July 27, was one of the last of the live television playwrights, specifically, one of the last survivors from the group of young writers nurtured by Fred Coe at the Philco Television Playhouse. (Only Horton Foote and Tad Mosel remain.) Shaw was one of the older and less celebrated writers among the illustrious group that came to include Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Sumner Locke Elliott, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Gore Vidal. He was often tapped by biographers and rarely written about himself. During the 1970s, he turned his back on writing and took up his first love, painting. Shaw received better writeups than I expected in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but I don’t think anyone quite grasped that he was essentially a comedy writer. Nowadays everyone thinks of the live anthologies of the fifties as dramas, but in fact they were porous enough to accomodate many genres, and most of David’s originals (like “Nothing to Sneeze At,” based on his misadventures at a Catskills resort) were comedic in tone. Shaw could thrive quite well writing for legal dramas (The Defenders) or westerns (the TV version of Shane, which he produced), but he also made contributions to Coe’s Mister Peepers, and both of his Broadway credits were musical comedies.
Speaking of light comedy, my own relationship with Shaw began with a meet-cute. Given his historical significance I had wanted to interview him for years, but my letters through the Writers Guild went unanswered. I knew that he was married to the actress Maxine Stuart, and that author Jon Krampner had interviewed him at length for his Fred Coe biography, so I did have some rather labyrinthine alternatives for tracking Shaw down that I hadn’t pursued.
In the meantime, though, I ran into him at the mall. One day in 2004 I was killing time at the Century City shopping center while I waited to meet someone when I spotted Stuart’s unmistakable face – she’s the landlady in the famous Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” among other things – and I was sure that the elderly gentleman with her had to be Shaw. So I followed them into a drugstore and, while a bemused David collected their prescriptions, introduced myself to Maxine (who couldn’t have been nicer), got their phone number, and made arrangements to vist them during my next trip to L.A. I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve walked past a writer or director on the street, someone whom I’d like to meet, and not recognized him because only the name, not the face, was known to me. Here was a instance which suggested that it might be happening all the time, exposed in this case only because the writer in question happened to be married to a recognizable actress.
David was a tough interview. He was a very nice man, but as I anticipated from someone who had sworn off his television career long ago, he wasn’t falling over himself to engage with my questions. If I asked him anything speculative or too detailed, he’d just say he didn’t remember and wait for my next pitch. I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting. Jon Krampner, asking mainly about Fred Coe, got much more vivid material from Shaw, and I think it’s both because Shaw was essentially modest – more willing to talk about others than himself – and because Coe’s genius was one of the subjects that got him fired up.
When Shaw died, the Archive of American Television posted its oral history with him online, so I got the chance to see how their interview compared to mine. It turned out that the two interviews were only done about a month apart, and that the Archive had roughly the same amount of time with David that I did, so it made for a good case study in comparing techniques. On the whole I’d say that we came out about even. I was a little relieved to see the Archive’s interviewer, Gary Rutkowski, get a lot of the same disinterested one-word answers that I got, although I think by the end Gary persevered and elicited a few more good stories out of Shaw than I did. But both of us should have asked David about a show that I hadn’t seen then, but now think is his magnum opus, a Defenders script called “Ordeal.”
“Ordeal” is the story of an adulterous couple, genuinely in love, who turn on each other after they’re arrested for the murder of the man’s wife and pursue the ill-advised strategy of a joint defense. Shaw shows us the actual crime in the prolog: it’s actually a hit that the unhinged wife takes out on herself, although no one but the audience ever gets to know that. It’s a neat structural trick that clears the way for Shaw to focus not on plot but on the nature of love, namely, whether its essence is selfish or selfless when the chips are really down.
Most of what’s good about “Ordeal” speaks for itself, but one thing nags at me now: Shaw’s decision to make the protagonist, who’s basically a self-involved heel (or at least the performance by Robert Webber, who specialized in such characters, tips him that way), a television writer by profession. Boy, is that on the nose – a television writer penning a television script about a television writer. But I can’t quite get the message: Was Shaw inscribing something autobiographical in the generally sensitive treatment of adultery (then a fairly rare topic on television), which comes across as not unreasonable behavior for people mired in loveless relationships? Or was he just blowing a big raspberry to his chosen profession in making this spineless, cheating sleaze a TV writer? Or am I reading too much into Shaw’s cynicism, and the television milieu was just a way to slip in a few clever in-jokes (especially about the onerous New York-to-L.A. commute)?
Of course, it’s possible that if I had asked David all of that, he would’ve looked at me skeptically and said he didn’t remember – but the point is, I missed my chance, and now we’ll never know.