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.

Susu

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.

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.

The actor C. Lindsay Workman (often billed without the “C.”) died on April 24 at the age of 88.  Aptly named, Workman was a busy bit player in the sixties and seventies, most often playing authority figures: doctors, judges, clerks, clergymen.  He had a recurring part on Here Come the Brides (above), as the town minister.  A lot of other series used him often, but in a different role each time: Perry Mason, Bonanza, Bewitched, The Donna Reed Show, and eventually doing voices on the cartoon Garfield.

Eminently recognizable but rather colorless, Workman wasn’t an attention-getter like, say, the fussy James Milhollin or the hyperactive Jonathan Hole.  He was a good man for delivering exposition without attracting too much attention from the stars.

Workman also looked quite a bit older than he actually was – he’s only 44 in the image above.  In my line of work, I generally know who’s alive and who isn’t, but I have to admit that Workman caught me by surprise.  If I’d known he was still around, I would’ve tried to plumb his memory.

*

Other folks whose recent deaths did not accrue enough comment: the veteran character actors George Murdock and Walter Mathews (both of whom also looked and played older than their actual ages), and the television writers Stephen Lord and Henry Denker.  Somehow I’d circled around all four of them for interviews, but there’s never enough time.

“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago.  “The combination was rather difficult.”  But the effort was worth it.  Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.

Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week.  He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.

Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous.  His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality.  Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.

And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian.  Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney.  (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)

Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death.  Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.

In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season.  His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time.  Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin.  (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)

A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer.  He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him.  He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour.  Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.

Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling.  The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.”  Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975).  After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.

On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history.  Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work.  In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity.  Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.

*

Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?

I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post.  This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training.  I covered crime stories, bank stories.  And about six months on what was then called ship news.  This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat.  The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat.  We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.

That was really where I started.  In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week.  Everybody had been cut back.  An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star].  My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”

Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day.  So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting.  After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.

The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.

That was interesting.  That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote.  We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all.  So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady.  Rather nasty!  It didn’t go, the show.

David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners.  What do you remember about him?

He was a newspaperman, too.  We met working on the Post.  A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper!  That’s how we met.

Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it.  Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play.  I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson.  He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them.  I did more shows, I think, than most.  About 125 shows over about four years.  That was the TV version.  It started, I think, as a radio show.

What were the rules for writing Mama?

It was a warm, lovable family show.  Nobody could do any wrong.  Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too.  Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship.  Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days.  We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.

There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes.  This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract.  But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike.  It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.

You were also involved with the Television Academy.

Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s.  Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan.  [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever.  Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.”  Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.”  This was the Academy.

Did you know Ed Sullivan well?

Not very well, no.  I can’t remember where we met.  I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days.  I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason.  I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.

How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?

A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time.  This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show.  Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito.  This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels.  I had my whole family out one summer.  Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool.  Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.  That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.

When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East.  I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper.  And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A.  It was shocking.  Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.

Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?

I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good.  The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out.  “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.

On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?

At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York.  [I wrote plays that] tried out.  Nothing that ever reached Broadway.  I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received.  And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.

Actor Morgan Jones died on January 13 at the age of 84.  Jones logged more than a hundred appearances on television and in a few films from the early fifties through the mid-eighties.  Like many dozens of actors, he capped his career with a Murder, She Wrote role.  Jones looked older than he was, so you probably thought he’d died long ago.

Some of the obituaries will call him a character actor, but I don’t think that’s quite right; that term should be reserved for actors who had meaty, attention-getting parts in most of the things they did.  Jones, on the other hand, was emblematic of a different tier of actors – the familiar, comforting faces who didn’t get cast as characters with backstories or inner lives, but as narrative avatars who delivered exposition and moved the plot along.  Jones specialized in bland authority figures, military men or police officers, along with the occasional reporter or blue-collar working man.  The hierarchy is important here: if Jones played a cop, odds are he was the number-two detective, the one who stood in the background with a notepad and answered questions from the better-known actor playing the other detective.

Back, and to the left: Jones (with Arthur Franz) on The Invaders (“The Life Seekers,” 1968).

It should come as no surprise that Jones played federal agents in some Quinn Martin shows (The F.B.I. and O’Hara, U.S. Treasury).  He was also a regular on something called The Blue Angels (as a Navy officer), and a semi-regular on Highway Patrol (as a cop); The Rat Patrol (as an Army captain); The Young Rebels (demoted to a sergeant); and, extending his range to the max, as an Intertect researcher-cum-computer technician during the first season of Mannix.

I hope none of the above sounds condescending, because actors like Morgan Jones are favorites of television aficionados.  They perform a specific and rather hard-to-describe role in creating an alternate televisual reality across different shows, different genres, multiple decades.  When Jones’s solid frame and slightly beefy, slightly squinty face appeared on the screen, it announced a certain subliminal meaning: a piece of information was about to be conveyed, or a villain momentarily impeded.  Some of that came through Jones’s physique, or the various uniforms he often wore; but if you watched a lot of television, the idea came across even more clearly just through the frisson of recognition.

Finally, the usual refrain: Jones was on the list.  I would have loved to have interviewed him for this blog, but never got around to making the call.  Faster, I must move faster.

Ben and Zal

February 4, 2012

Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time.  But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common.  Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity.  They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.

The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return.  Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain.  Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.

A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles.  It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life.  In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing.  He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man).  This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian.  Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story.  And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.

Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days.  Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories.  But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward.  The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture?  Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich.  In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack.  But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting.  “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.

Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate).  A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar.  The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”

A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”).  At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook.  It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer.  Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom.  King stole the show from him.  He was one of the most open actors of his generation.  As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show.  King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old.  Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure.  His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again.  Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.

The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face.  Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.

King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine).  Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve.  The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.

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