July 23, 2014
Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black. He was 77.
Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola. With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.
Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired paring). Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the title “The American Boy.”
Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.’”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in the unlikely marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.
That studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Lord Love a Duck.
But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked for critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).
Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).
January 31, 2014
Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87. Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.
Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians. He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.
Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926. His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany. As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.
At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930. Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.
The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs. While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man. But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business. It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.” Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.
In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day. Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said. “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’ Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”
Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx. “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him. The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered. “The film looked awful. I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me. It’s my first picture.’ They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly. He didn’t know what he was doing.’ All the pieces were facing the wrong way. All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”
Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said. He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College). The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.
“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled. I’d had awards with my documentaries. I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].” Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them! No matter what awards I’d won.”
Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston. He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.
After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner. The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman. Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader. He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio. (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.) Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time. But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal. Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.
“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked. “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer. They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything. I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’ Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!”
When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them. (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.) Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver. At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints. He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director.
(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)
“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly. “I was not cut out for it. I liked to freelance.” Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette. That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche. This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later. By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing). Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes. Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.) Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes. But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.
On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles. He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round. Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point. How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?
August 6, 2013
Character actor Nate Esformes died on June 19, according to the August edition of the WGA bulletin Write Now.
Born on June 29, 1932, Esformes came to prominence in the late sixties and seventies, usually playing characters of Latin American ethnicity. He made what may have been his television debut as a gangster in “Legacy For a Lousy Future,” a 1966 episode of the New York City-based cop drama Hawk. (As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database incorrectly puts Esformes in a different Hawk episode, and also has his date of birth wrong.)
By 1968, he had relocated to Los Angeles and his career began to take off in concert with the ascendancy of adventure shows that could make ample use of ethnically ambiguous villains: It Takes a Thief, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible (which used Esformes five times), Ironside, The Six Million Dollar Man. Esformes also did multiple guest turns on Run For Your Life, The Flying Nun, Mannix, Police Story, and Hunter, and appeared in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. He played one of the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men, and most of his other films have achieved either critical acclaim or cult fame: Petulia, Marlowe, Black Belt Jones, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Battle Beyond the Stars, Vice Squad, Invasion U.S.A.
If you’re wondering why Esformes’s death was reported by the Writers Guild, it’s because he had a story credit on a single Naked City episode early in his career. That’s the only produced or published work by Esformes that I can find, apart from a 1983 Los Angeles Times story lamenting the closure of the famed Schwab’s Drug Store. In fact, I wasn’t able to produce much of anything else on Esformes, either – not a single profile or interview. That’s surprising, given how much we movie fans cherish our character actors.
If anyone out there knew Esformes, here’s the place to tell us about him.
Above: Esformes (right) with Jennifer West and Larry Haines in Hawk (“Legacy For a Lousy Future,” 1966). Top: Esformes in Kojak (“Close Cover Before Killing,” 1975).
June 11, 2013
The Writers Guild of America has noted the death of television writer Norman Borisoff on April 21, just five days short of his 95th birthday.
Never especially prolific, Borisoff notched an odd grab bag of dramatic TV credits on both sides of the Atlantic: scripts for The Saint, Man of the World, and Herbert Brodkin’s spy anthology Espionage in England during the early sixties, then episodes of Ironside, Judd For the Defense, and I Spy (his only teleplay was also the only two-part episode) back in the States. Prior to that, Borisoff – who had been the editor of UCLA’s campus newspaper The Daily Bruin in 1938! – wrote documentaries; afterwards, he became a young adult novelist.
Among the other odds and ends among Borisoff’s TV credits are one of the final, filmed episodes of the newspaper anthology Big Story, and an adaption of the F. Marion Crawford story “The Screaming Skull” (which had been filmed in 1958) into a TV special that aired early on in ABC’s late-night “Wide World of Entertainment” block. Per Variety, it was one of four horror-themed telefilms, part of an effort to “adapt the techniques, pacing, and stylized acting of the daytime soap operas to the spooky genre.” (Translation: Probably coasting on the success of Dark Shadows, some New York-based producers, in this case veteran ex-Susskind and Brodkin lieutenants Jacqueline Babbin and Buzz Berger, bid on those slots and filled them with low-budget videotaped programs.) Alas, Variety declared The Screaming Skull (1973) “a complete, interminable bomb.”
Perhaps more distinguished than his fiction scripts were Borisoff’s documentary credits, which included the 1950 feature The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (an English-language reworking, supervised by Robert Flaherty, of an earlier German film); Victor Vicas’s 48 Hours a Day (1949), a “proud tribute to the Hadassah nurse,” shot in Israel; segments of Conquest (a CBS News-produced, Monsanto-sponsored series of science-themed programs that alternated in a Sunday afternoon timeslot with See It Now and The Seven Lively Arts) in 1957-1958; and the Emmy-nominated NBC film The Kremlin (1963).
I contacted Borisoff in 2004, after I had a hunch – based on his credits abroad during the McCarthy era, and his return to the U.S. around the time the Red Scare cooled off – that the peripatetic Borisoff might have been blacklisted. But I was wrong: Borisoff informed me that his globe-trotting was all done by choice. We never connected for a full interview, but I did enjoy seeing footage of Borisoff, then 89, walking the picket lines during the 2007 Writers Guild strike.
February 27, 2013
Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house. The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner. Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen. Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.
A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News. A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players. The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York. Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.
A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk. Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train. Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.
A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns. In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on). Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo. Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the Defense. Peyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories. It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”
As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy. It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day. It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.
Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937. Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy. When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.
The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life. Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train. Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent. They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones. On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio. They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together. For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm. “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.
Day’s love for horses led her to the track. She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck. A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes. And remained ever under the spell of the movies. “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande. Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That was a really good film . . . .”
October 23, 2012
Winrich Kolbe, director of nearly fifty segments of the 1980s-1990s Star Trek series, including the two-part final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the pilot for Star Trek: Voyager, has died at the age of 71. Kolbe, who retired from directing in 2003, had left a teaching post at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2007, apparently due to illness. His death, noted in the memoriam column of the November DGA Monthly, was not reported by any major news source or Star Trek fan outlet. Kolbe’s sister, reached by telephone on Tuesday, confirmed that Kolbe died in late September but could provide few other details.
Born in Germany in 1940, Kolbe (above, with Denise Crosby) began his career in Hollywood as a Universal staffer in the seventies. At Universal he moved up from associate producer (on McCloud, Switch, and Quincy, M.E.) to director in 1977, with an episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries. His other early credits included single segments of Battlestar Galactica and The Rockford Files (the last episode, in fact, although the abrupt termination of the series due to James Garner’s rift with the studio meant it was not a true finale), but Kolbe his stride in the eighties as a regular director for several testosterone-rich action and crime series: Magnum, P.I., Knight Rider, Hunter, and Spenser: For Hire.
In 1988 Kolbe began long associations with two successful successful dramas, In the Heat of the Night and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it was the latter that would become his main late-career meal ticket, as “Rick” Kolbe became a franchise favorite who continued on to the Star Trek spinoffs Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and (briefly) Enterprise. Kolbe directed several first-rate Next Generation episodes, including “Darmok” (with Paul Winfield) and the finale, “All Good Things…”, but his chief claim to fame within the Star Trek universe may be his three-year relationship with Kate Mulgrew during the early seasons of Voyager. (Kolbe was married at the time, and the romance made the tabloids.) This article offers a detailed look at the filming of one of the director’s Voyager segments, and provides a useful snapshot of how Kolbe worked.
Kolbe also directed episodes of T.J. Hooker, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Millenium, Angel, 24, and Fastlane, among others.
(Updated with minor changes on October 28, 2012.)
July 20, 2012
Michael Lipton, a prominent Broadway and daytime television actor who dabbled in film and prime-time over the course of a five-decade career, died on February 10 at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 86. Although his death was reported locally, it seems to have been overlooked by the film and soap opera communities. I learned of Lipton’s passing only by chance, while researching the obituary I wrote for the writer Edward Adler last month. Adler’s late wife Elaine was Lipton’s sister.
Lipton’s most substantial television work came in soap operas, where he had a long run playing Neil Wade on As the World Turns; according to this blog, from which I have shamelessly cadged the photo below, Lipton (right, with Peter Brandon and Deborah Steinberg Solomon) was on the show from 1962 to 1967. Lipton went on to star in Somerset for its entire run (1970-1976), and did a stint on One Life to Live in the eighties.
Lipton made his Broadway debut in 1949 as, essentially, a spear carrier in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and went on to larger roles in Inquest (1970) and Loose Ends (1979-1980). But the bulk of his theater work was done Off-Broadway and on the road, in stock and in touring companies of shows like The Moon Is Blue (1954) and Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady (1973). It was in the 1969 Los Angeles production of The Boys in the Band that Ralph Senensky spotted Lipton and decided to cast him as a warlock in a Then Came Bronson episode (“Sibyl,” pictured at the top) he was about to direct.
He played Harold, the role Leonard Frey had played in the [Off-Broadway] production and in the movie, and Michael was brilliant,” Senensky wrote via e-mail last month. “The Bronson shoot was not a happy shoot. But I remember Michael as being very open, talented, and versatile to work with before the camera.”
Actually shot in Phoenix, “Sibyl” was one of Lipton’s last forays to the Coast. His few films are all noteworthy – Leo Penn’s A Man Called Adam; Hercules in New York, the infamous “two Arnolds” (Stang and Schwarzenegger) indie; Network (as one of the executives); and Windows, the only feature directed by famed cinematographer Gordon Willis – and all made in or around New York City.
Lipton’s first brush with Los Angeles, a feint at becoming, perhaps, a television star, had not gone well. In 1959 he accepted a male lead in Buckskin, a western whose real focus was on a fatherless child (Tommy Nolan). Child labor laws required Lipton, cast as a teacher, to play many of his scenes opposite Nolan without the boy present; he would ask the director for guidance, and be told to play the scene off a nearby flower pot. “To make sense while conversing with a flower pot that doesn’t answer,” Lipton told reporter Lawrence Laurent, “takes a lot of acting.” Lipton hung around long enough to play one more really good guest role, as a dandyish writer who confounds Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall in Wanted Dead or Alive, and then moved back to New York.
June 22, 2012
Any cinephile worth his or her salt has been made morose this week by news of the deaths of two great cult character actors of the seventies and eighties: Richard Lynch and Susan Tyrrell. Tyrrell was not only a fearless, full-out performer, but also a close friend of one of my high school pen pals, the film historian Justin Humphreys. I hope Justin publishes his astonishing stories about “Susu” someday.
Tyrrell made her film debut in 1971 and the scored the Oscar nomination that put her on the map a year later, in John Huston’s Fat City. She was also a guest star on Bonanza and Nichols around this time, but members of the Susu cult may be surprised to learn that she turned up on TV fully seven years earlier, while still a teenager, in a pair of fairly obscure prime-time guest shots. I noticed this before there was an IMDb, and was gobsmacked to discover this young version of Susu, who by the seventies looked and usually played older than her actual age.
Those two television roles consisted of a bit part on The Patty Duke Show – above is the best look you get at her, standing behind Patty’s right shoulder and registering surprise – and a star-making turn on Mr. Novak. In “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” a McCarthyism allegory written by Martha Wilkerson and directed with his usual forcefulness by Richard Donner, Tyrrell plays a girl suspected in the Menendez-type killing of her parents. Acquitted in court, she transfers to Jefferson High and finds herself ostracized and whispered about by everyone, even the teachers, except of course for the gallant Mr. Novak. It doesn’t help that Tyrrell’s character is cold and brilliant – there’s an amazing scene where she rips some twerpy boy’s interpretation of Billy Budd to shreds.
At nineteen, Tyrrell understood that the idea worked better if her character remained unbowed and aloof; she never softens and courts the viewer’s sympathy. Donner knew what he had in his star and frames her in a series of lengthy, beautifully lit, close-ups, many of them in full or three-quarter profile, one in a darkened hallway with Tyrrell’s heavy-cheekboned face dominating the left and Mr. Novak (James Franciscus) shrunken and out of focus on the left. The good directors did that all the time in the fifties and sixties, but it’s hard to think of many television shows today (even the best ones) that have the courage to let an important scene play out on an uninterrupted talking head.
I don’t know what Tyrrell was doing between 1964 and 1971 – she has many theater credits in that period, but it’s still weird for an actor to disappear from the screen so thoroughly and then re-emerge so triumphantly. I also wonder if there are other, unnoticed television appearances from her spurt in 1964. Commercials, soap operas, Divorce Court? There are still plenty of uncharted regions on the TV history map.
June 15, 2012
Edward Adler, a television writer who lived in and wrote about New York City for most of his career, died on June 8, in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91. Adler, who was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1920, had suffered from dementia in recent years.
Adler’s early work ran the gamut of sixties New York dramas, from an initial feint on The Nurses to a quick pass at Mr. Broadway to significant contributions to East Side / West Side, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D. Fittingly, he capped his career in the eighties with producing stints on two hard-boiled street shows, the vigilante drama The Equalizer and Night Heat (which was lensed in Toronto, but liked to pretend it was a New York cop show).
“He was the most lovable guy I guess I ever met in my life,” said Buck Henry, a friend for nearly fifty years. “I don’t know anyone who knew Eddie that didn’t want to protect him, because he always seemed like an innocent. Eddie was a great example of someone who always lived close to the ground, so to speak. He wandered through life with his eye and his ear on a kind of New York that doesn’t exist any more.”
Past forty before he ever typed a script page, Adler was something of a literary sensation in the early sixties. After a succession of odd jobs – short order cook, furrier’s assistant, Catskills chauffeur, numbers runner for a Brooklyn pool hall owner – Adler spent eight years as a New York City cab driver. During that time, he produced a novel that was published in early 1962. Notes From a Dark Street was a Joycean compendium of Lower East Side eccentrics, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, favorably or neutrally, no less than six times during the first half of 1962. One review compared the book to Hieronymous Bosch; another declared it “a carnival of the senses” and proclaimed Adler “the literary find of the year.”
“Most of the greater New York writers of the twentieth century recognized how good it was. Philip Roth was always ready to lay a quote on it, and Mailer read it and liked it,” recalled Henry.
Adler was not of the intellectual class – his parents were Eastern European immigrants and shopkeepers in Brooklyn, and Adler himself only had two years of college on the G.I. Bill – and the press made much of his self-taught talent, cultivated through avid wartime reading of Dante, Conrad, and Beckett. Years later, Adler told me how ridiculous he felt when a Time magazine photographer posed him atop a Checker Cab – holding his typewriter.
Notes From a Dark Street sold fewer than three thousand copies and it looked like it was back to the garage for Eddie Adler, until television came calling. Adler palled around with musicians and writers and Greenwich Village characters; two of his friends were George Bellak, a television writer who was then story editor of The Nurses, and beat scenester David Padwa, whose ex-wife, Audrey Gellen, was developing the new social work drama East Side / West Side for David Susskind.
The Nurses fizzled out – his script, “Many a Sullivan,” was rewritten by Albert Ruben, possibly among others, and the New York Times described Adler’s experience as “bitter.” But he kept pounding the keys because, as he told the reporter, “Things were not going so good on the hack.”
Fortunately, Adler was a perfect match for East Side / West Side and, in particular, for its initial executive producer Arnold Perl, a blacklist survivor who wanted the series to be as bluntly progressive as possible. Adler wrote three terrific, tone-setting scripts for East Side / West Side, all of which number among the most downbeat and street-literate tales mounted by that series. “The Passion of the Nickel Player” covers the world of small-time numbers runners, which Adler knew well. “One Drink at a Time,” about a pair of truly desperate, derelict Bowery binge drinkers, may be one of the most depressing and sordid hours of television ever made. (That’s a compliment.)
But the most important was the first, “Not Bad For Openers,” which drew upon Adler’s inside knowledge of the hack racket. Curiously, he bypassed this obvious subject for his novel and saved it for his first fully realized television story, a study of a cab driver (Norman Fell, probably an apt Adler surrogate) with a gambling addiction. Adler, who hung around the Long Island City location (a garage out of which he himself had worked) as a technical advisor, was cagey about how autobiographical the script was. “I knew a couple of people like the lead in the show,” Adler told me, but also conceded that much of his own experience made it into “Not Bad For Openers” (originally, and more vividly, titled “An Arm-Job to Oblivion,” an arm-job being a taxi ride for which the driver doesn’t turn on the meter).
Adler continued writing his slice-of-life stories for Hawk and N.Y.P.D., both late-sixties time capsules of the New York streets. A fast writer, he served as an uncredited rewrite man on the first series and an official story editor on the second. “Larry Arrick [a producer of East Side / West Side] used to say, ‘Here comes the fireman,’ which meant that I rewrote very fast, and that carried over into another series that Susskind did, a half-hour cop show called N.Y.P.D.,” Adler said when I interviewed him in 1996.
“There’s a goddamn episode [of Hawk] that I wrote over a weekend. Paul Henreid directed this episode, and there wasn’t a script for him ready to shoot. They called me up and I came in and I wrote a script in twenty-four hours,” added Adler. But he had left his glasses at the summer cabin where his family was vacationing. “By middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. They ran me down to Delancey Street and I got an emergency pair of glasses in fifteen minutes. And finished the sceenplay and was blind for about three weeks!”
“The big thing about Eddie was that he came through all the time,” said Bob Markell, the producer of N.Y.P.D. “His writing was kind of Group Theatre writing. He was the working man’s writer. It was tough and gritty. Great sense of humor; very biting. I loved some of the things that he did.”
Adler left N.Y.P.D. at the end of its first season to work on a screenplay for Susskind’s company, a daring story about race and the police based on Paul Tyner’s novel Shoot It. The film’s director and star would have been George C. Scott and Al Pacino, respectively, but it fell apart at the last minute. In the early seventies, Adler partnered with his friend Buck Henry – whom he had met during East Side / West Side, when Henry and Mel Brooks were creating Get Smart in a nearby office – on two other movie projects, during the period after Catch-22 and Milos Forman’s Taking Off made Henry an especially hot property. One, Seven Footprints to Satan (later renamed Cells), was a generally indescribable effort that the New York Times attempted to describe in 1970 as “a black comedy about kidnapping and assassination” (“more of a melodrama,” Henry says now); the second, Bullet Proof, was, as Henry told the Times,
about an 18 year-old boy and his relationship with his girl and with other citizens of a Long Island community – particularly the members of the local branch of the American Legion who give him a bang-up going away party when he’s drafted . . . . The title refers to the bullet-proof Bibles that are issued to G.I.’s.
“It was fun to write with him, because we spent an awful lot of time, like writers do, goofing off and laughing and watching the ballgame,” Henry told me yesterday. “I’ve never had many partners; I don’t write well with partners. But sometimes when we were working together, because we were both highly pretentious literature fans, we would stumble onto something that made us laugh for a day or two. We wrote a script once in which we were really stuck for a series of pieces of pretentious monologues, so we just got a copy of [Sartre’s] Being and Nothingness, turned to whatever page our fingers went to and copied a paragraph from it.”
The “director of record” for Bullet Proof was Milos Forman, but neither that nor Cells was made. In the end, Adler never had a feature credit, just the tell-tale gaps that turnaround projects and unsold pilots leave amid a writer’s credits.
“He was always going toward jobs that he was completely unsuited for,” Henry said. “He got a job on a soap about ten years ago. He came out here to L.A. to write the bible, as they say, on it. The first day he was here he opened his car door into traffic and saw it ripped off and dragged a mile away. Eddie never was able to figure out Los Angeles. It was a mystery to him, as it is to many hardcore New Yorkers.”
Adler held out in New York as most of the other television writers moved west. He made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles twice a year, to pitch stories, but drew the line at a permanent relocation – even when a lucrative offer to head-write a soap opera was made. His credits from the seventies are thin – Gibbsville, a portion of the Benjamin Franklin miniseries, several unsold pilots, and Death Penalty, a made-for-television movie about Salvador Agron, the “Capeman” killer – in part because Adler devoted more and more of his time to his union, the Writers Guild of America, East. Adler served on the Guild’s council for thirty-two years and was its president from 1983-1991.
Adler’s wife, Elaine Lipton, died in 2003. (The main character in Death Penalty, played by Colleen Dewhurst, is named for her.) He is survived by two sons, Tony (a first assistant director) and Joe, and one novel, which “should be always in print, but it isn’t,” as Buck Henry pointed out. You can buy a copy of Notes From a Dark Street from Amazon for a penny.
And what of a second novel? True one-book writers – as opposed to writers who wrote only one famous book, or one good one – are rare (and there’s a great documentary about them, in particular one named Dow Mossman, called Stone Reader, by Mark Moskowitz). Edward Adler is a member of that small fraternity. There were notes, scraps, various false starts, according to Joe Adler, but nothing ever came together.