February 10, 2012
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.
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.
December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
November 23, 2011
Elinson was best known as a Golden Age gag writer for radio and early television, but to me he was of most interest as the writer, with then partner Charles Stewart, of a slew of early Andy Griffith Show episodes. (His much older brother, Irving “Iz” Elinson, was also a prolific comedy writer whose pen passed occasionally through Mayberry). Elinson and Stewart wrote the first episode following the pilot, “The New Housekeeper,” which introduced mother figure Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and subtly underlined the rarely mentioned tragedy of orphan/widowhood around which the show’s central father-son relationship revolved.
A lot of the Elinson-Stewart collaborations were tentative outings in which Griffith had not yet settled into his pure straight man role, and which focused on failed characters like early love interest Ellie (Elinor Donahue) or the roving musician Jim Lindsey (James Best). But some of Elinson’s work stands with the series’ best, particularly “Barney and the Choir,” in which Barney Fife remains a member of the town choir, even though he “can’t sing a lick,” just because everyone is too nice to point that sad fact out. This is the episode in which Barney (Don Knotts) utters the immortal line, “All God’s children got a uvula.”
As a diehard Andy Griffith fan, I very much wanted to get either its creator, Aaron Ruben (who died last year, at 95), or Elinson to talk to me for my long-in-the-works book on early television writers. But Ruben turned me down, and when I spoke to Elinson on the phone, I detected some issues with memory loss that ultimately led me to back out of doing an interview.
They were both very funny men, but while Ruben’s sardonic wit is on ample display in several long interviews (including this one and Jeff Kisseloff’s book The Box), Elinson remains a neglected figure. There’s a brief, not very good interview with Elinson in Max Wylie’s Writing for Television – so inconsequential, in fact, that I can’t find a single pull quote worth repeating here – and nothing else that I’ve ever come across. I would have hoped that an Andy Griffith Show enthusiast might have gotten to Elinson, and some others among the creative staff. But out of all the volumes published on that series, none of the authors seems to have been particularly curious about the actual circumstances of the show’s production. Richard Michael Kelly’s 1981 book, simply titled The Andy Griffith Show, has a few good chapters on the subject, and I’ve encountered nothing as good since. (Along the same lines, the conventions organized by the show’s fans always seemed to invite the actors, all the way down to bit players and favorite guest stars, but never the surviving writers or directors.) It’s a very regrettable void that can probably never be filled now, unless a trove of the show’s production records exists in the archives somewhere.
Meanwhile, there’s the curious case of Andy Griffith’s autobiography, which was tentatively titled I Appreciate It and announced for publication last year. Since then, it has disappeared from Amazon and all the other places one goes to find books. Griffith’s collaborator, Jim Clark, is the great keeper of The Andy Griffith Show flame; his decades-long newsletter about the series has morphed into the online-only eBullet, the latest issue of which contains a nice tribute to Gomer Pyle star Barbara Stuart. Griffith is notoriously private and Clark’s writings on the show have always hewed toward the fannish, so I took those as cues that Griffith’s book would not be especially penetrating. But, still: I want to read it. What happened?!
November 3, 2011
Tom Donovan, one of the last of the major live dramatic anthology directors, died on October 27 at the age of 89.
Donovan directed at least two fondly remembered classics from the early television drama. One of them, “The Night America Trembled,” was a Studio One that told the story behind Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Golden-voiced Alexander Scourby played Welles, and the huge cast included unknowns such as Ed Asner (as “third reporter”), Warren Beatty (“first card player”), Warren Oates (“second card player”), and John Astin (not even credited, as another reporter).
“Night,” which has appeared on various DVD releases of dubious legitimacy, feels a bit creaky today – there’s no heart amid all the bustle. But “Button, Button,” a famous episode of Way Out, remains vivid in the memories of many who saw its original broadcast, and it still works brilliantly today. A prelude to Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, “Button, Button” takes place entirely in an underground military bunker, where a nervous officer (Tim O’Connor) must decide whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike after all outside communications abruptly cease. In keeping with Way Out’s supernatural theme, there is a character named Sergeant Gee (Warren Finnerty), a new recruit who knows far too much about the men in the bunker and who offers every argument in favor of pressing the button. Is Gee just a warmongering hillbilly, or is he perhaps an agent of something much more sinister? The ambiguity remains at the conclusion. Every element of Donovan’s direction maximizes the viewer’s nuke-paranoid anxiety, not only the claustrophobic staging but also the clever contrast in acting styles between the solid, reassuring O’Connor and the wild-eyed, wheedling Finnerty.
Beginning his career as a stage manager and bit player on Broadway in the late forties, Donovan transitioned into television with a meager staff job at CBS. “I was offered $20 a day, on call, with no guarantee of days to be worked,” Donovan said in an interview for the Directors Guild of America. “Joe Papp, a fellow stage manager at the time, described the four steps of promotion at CBS: stage manager, assistant director, director, and out.” Essentially, Donovan matriculated as predicted, remaining at CBS for nine years and spending much of that time as an associate director.
Though he may have directed for Danger and other CBS programs as early as 1954, Donovan’s first significant work as a director came on the prestigious anthology Studio One during its final two years (1956-1958) on the air. Donovan was also in the directing rotation on The United States Steel Hour during its vestigial years (1960-1963), during which time that series came to enjoy the distinction of being the last prime-time show to be broadcast live on a regular basis. (It, too, had gone to tape by the end.) In the meantime Donovan helmed a few series episodes – for Hawk and N.Y.P.D. – but was in greater demand as a director of live and videotaped dramatic specials.
Among those specials were: a musical version of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1959), with Claudette Colbert; a remake of “Ninotchka” (1960); a take on “The Three Musketeers” that starred Maximilian Schell and Vincent Price; a production of Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1960) in which boxer Ingemar Johanssen was recruited to play Swede (“his movements were unnatural and indicated that . . . Donovan had overcoached him,” wrote one reviewer); “The Man Who Knew Tomorrow” (1960), a fantasy for U.S. Steel with Cliff Robertson as a writer whose characters come to life; “The Dispossessed” (1961), a liberal drama in which the black actor Juano Hernandez played Native American leader Chief Standing Bear; “The Law and Lee Harvey Oswald” (1963), a panel discussion about the Kennedy assassination; the football-themed “A Punt, a Pass, and a Prayer” (1968), one of the first contemporary, original dramas done on The Hallmark Hall of Fame; and “The Choice” (1969), a David Susskind-produced drama for Prudential’s On Stage about the moral implications of the then-new technology of heart transplantation.
“I had a few turkeys, but most of the stuff I was pretty proud of,” Donovan recalled.
If the list above does not speak for itself, here is another one, which may imply that Donovan enjoyed a reputation as an actor’s director. These are some of the performers he worked with in one-off television productions, all of them armed with enough clout to choose their material and their directors: Edward R. Murrow (in “The Night the World Trembled”); Jackie Gleason (in Donovan’s only Playhouse 90, a 1958 adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life”) and Art Carney (in two taped dramas from the mis-sixties); Helen Hayes and Patty Duke (in a 1958 Christmas episode of U.S. Steel); Edward G. Robinson, in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1960); Henny Youngman (in a 1961 U.S. Steel); Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, headlining the final U.S. Steel in 1963; and Richard Burton (in Donovan’s lone feature, Lovespell). That’s not to mention the many young actors Donovan helped to bring along, including Gene Hackman (in at least two U.S. Steel Hours, the earliest in 1959), Richard Harris (in 1958’s “The Hasty Heart”), and Jill Clayburgh (in “The Choice”).
Like David Pressman, who died in August and whose career somewhat parallels his, Donovan faced a choice in the mid-sixties: either move to Los Angeles or move into soap operas, which were virtually the only dramatic programming originating out of New York. Donovan chose the latter. He became, in 1964, the original director of the long-running Another World, and also originated Our Private World, a short-lived prime-time spin-off of As the World Turns that tried to cash in on the Peyton Place craze. Eventually producing as well, Donovan spent nearly four decades in soaps, during which time he passed through Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Hidden Faces, A World Apart, Where the Heart Is, Ryan’s Hope, and General Hospital.
Robert Collins, who died on October 21 at the age of 81, was an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and producer. He was perhaps best known as the creator of Police Woman.
Police Woman was a more commercial spin-off of Police Story, the acclaimed anthology of cop tales that became one of the most unanticipated outliers of quality television in the seventies. Collins was one of that show’s first and most valued writers. “He just can’t miss. Every Collins script is off-beat, right-on, and sparkling,” wrote Police Story creator Joseph Wambaugh in a memo to the producers. The most famous of those sparklers was probably “Wyatt Earp Syndrome,” a well-researched look at a peculiar psychological phenomenon whereby beat cops, in their fourth or fifth year on patrol, grow restless and begin to take chances and initiate confrontations. The only compromise in Collins’s script was the title: the actual term among police was the John Wayne Syndrome, but legal squeamishness compelled a silly change.
Collins was past thirty-five when he came to prominence as a writer (television may have been a second career). Immediately in demand after debuting on The Invaders, Collins moved on to The Name of the Game, Dan August, Cannon, Mod Squad, Sarge, and The Sixth Sense. Prior to Police Story, he did his best work on a pair of medical dramas. For The Bold Ones, Collins wrote “A Nation of Human Pincushions,” which wondered whether acupuncturists were healers or quacks, and “A Standard of Manhood,” a moving story of male impotence. Collins also wrote two of my favorite Marcus Welbys: “Fun and Games and Michael Ambrose,” about a diabetic teenager and his seemingly uncaring father (John McMartin), and “Another Buckle For Wesley Hill,” which guest starred the great, underrated Glenn Corbett as a physically active man who must accept that illness will curtail his independence.
I’m pretty sure that “Another Buckle,” in late 1970, marked Collins’s directorial debut. While he continued to work as both a writer and director for hire, Collins was able to direct his own material on Welby, The Sixth Sense, Police Story, Medical Story, and possibly other shows. The roving hyphenate – that is, a freelancer who is able to both write and direct for a series without also being its producer – was and remains rare in episodic television, which isolates direction from story more decisively than filmmaking does. Douglas Heyes (Maverick; The Bold Ones) and Montgomery Pittman (77 Sunset Strip; The Twilight Zone) are the only two writer-directors I can think of who managed this trick for a large stretch of their careers, and being in their company is a feat I perhaps admire more than some of Collins’s more obvious accomplishments.
Via his telefilm scripts, Collins also co-created the trucker drama Movin’ On and developed the short-lived Serpico for television (David Birney was no Al Pacino), but as with Police Woman both were handed off to others once they went into production. His Police Story plaudits launched Collins into the realm of made-for-television movies, where all the brightest TV talents went in the seventies, and he focused on biopics and current events stories: J. Edgar Hoover, The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish, The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro. “Gideon’s Trumpet,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame about a famous Supreme Court case and one of Henry Fonda’s final starring roles, was Collins’s best-known longform. He also directed two undistinguished theatrical features, 1979’s Walk Proud and then Savage Harvest two years later.
The glory days of the trade paper obituary, in which an issue of the weekly Variety might fill two or three full pages with lengthy death notices, are long gone. These days, if the family remembers to send over a press release, it might get uploaded to the trades’ websites – usually with any spelling and factual errors intact. For Robert Collins, The Hollywood Reporter added a few details to a paid death notice that ran in the Los Angeles Times. For Tom Donovan, Variety padded a DGA press release, which properly enumerated Donovan’s Guild service but neglected his creative work, with a few details gleaned from the on-line sources. (Note how tentatively the obit recounts his credits: “episodes of” Danger and General Hospital and Another World on this or that date, because the Internet Movie Database cherry-picks these credits, and the reporter can’t be bothered to do the research that would fill in the gaps and emphasize the most important work.) And once upon a time, Donovan and Collins would surely have merited mention in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, respectively. But both of those publications have become increasingly indifferent to entertainment industry deaths. The assumption, I guess, is that it’s up to the unpaid citizen journalists to cover this beat now – but I’m not sure that’s happening in practice.
Although Tom Donovan recorded an oral history for the Directors Guild of America, he was missed by some of the other major outlets who do that kind of work, including the Archive of American Television and (regrettably) myself. As far as I know, no major interview has been published with Robert Collins, who may be in part the victim of a very common name; as of this writing the Internet Movie Database, for instance, has his date of birth and middle initial wrong, although at least most of the credits it attributes to Collins are actually his. But it doesn’t help that the seventies remain something of a historical ghetto for television, at least apart from the Norman Lear and MTM sitcoms. No one that I know of is doing substantial work on the best dramatic series of that decade – almost all of which were short-lived and underrated – and although the golden age of the made-for-television movie has a devoted cult following, all but a few of the films themselves remain maddeningly out of circulation, an rights-tangled marketing nightmare that no DVD label (save the Warner Archive) has attempted. I’m just discovering them myself, and not in time.
Sources include Ann Farmer’s Spring 2008 DGA Quarterly profile of Donovan, and The Encyclopedia of Television Directors, Volume 1 (Scarecrow, 2009) by Jerry Roberts. The Wambaugh quote is from Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television (Syracuse UP, 1992).
October 15, 2011
Live television director Allan A. Buckhantz died on October 10 in Los Angeles. Born on January 3, 1923, he was 88.
Buckhantz was one of the regular directors of Matinee Theater, producer Albert McCleery’s lamentably forgotten 1955 effort to bring anthology drama to daytime television. The NBC series presented a live hour-long play, in color, five days a week. Buckhantz remained among the regular rotation of Matinee Theater directors for the entirety of the series’ three-season run, directing a total of over eighty segments.
Matinee Theater exists mainly as a memory today. UCLA has a couple dozen of the roughly 150 episodes, none of them directed by Buckhantz. We have to conjure them in the imagination, drawing from the names of the writers and actors associated with them. Buckhantz’s Matinee Theaters included Henry Misrock’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (his first), with DeForest Kelley and Cara Williams; “Jigsaw,” with Tom Laughlin and a twenty-four year-old Angie Dickinson (who went on to star in several more Buckhantz segments); Sumner Locke Elliott’s “Friday the 13th,” with Paul Burke in a small role; “The House of the Seven Gables,” with John Carradine; a version of William L. Stuart’s novel “Night Cry,” which Otto Preminger filmed as Where the Sidewalk Ends; a remake of Alvin Sapinsley’s “One Mummy Too Many,” originally directed by Sidney Lumet for The Alcoa Hour, with Nita Talbot; “Something Stolen, Something Blue,” with Jack Larson, Dolores Hart, and Frances Farmer; Theodore Apstein’s “The Quiet Street,” with Rip Torn and Suzanne Pleshette; and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which McCleery had deemed unproducible on live television until Buckhantz suggested the character experience an “organic” rather than a physical transformation.
Those sound rather like they would have been worth preserving.
Directing Matinee Theater was a thankless task: the schedule was grueling, the scripts were generally second-rate, and McCleery was an obsessive and difficult boss. Matinee Theater originated from Los Angeles and most of the major dramatic directors were in New York, so McCleery recruited a motley crew of up-and-coming local TV directors, failed actors, and assorted other unknowns to direct the series. Buckhantz had been a $37.50-a-week messenger at Twentieth Century-Fox when he got a job as a television stage manager at CBS and Los Angeles’s station KNXT; he made his directing debut on Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury. “Immediately,” he recalled years later, “I started a love affair with live television.”
In The Days of Live (Scarecrow, 1998), Buckhantz told interviewer Ira Skutch:
At CBS on the Coast, we didn’t do a show a day. We didn’t do a show a week. We did five, six seven shows a day. Rehearsal was a luxury. I was doing news, Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury, commercials, and whatever else needed to be done. I probably did the first band show ever to hit television – a local show, out of the Palladium. The orchestra would sit on the stage while I made notes on when the trumpets came up. Then I’d add whatever I could do to make it look more staged . . . .
After we finished Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury at midnight on Saturday night, we’d stay an hour, setting the lights for a live religious show Sunday mornings on KNXT. There were four or five staff directors who alternated. Everybody hated directing it, because the various religious groups were always changing things.
On one occasion, he told Skutch, Buckhantz directed a group of children in a Jewish service. One little girl dropped her cue card and exclaimed, on the air, “Jesus Christ, what do I do now?”
About half of the Matinee Theater directors transitioned into filmed television and went on to substantive careers as episodic directors – Walter Grauman, Boris Sagal, Lamont Johnson, Arthur Hiller, Sherman Marks, Lawrence Schwab. The rest were never heard from again – Jim Jordan, Irving Lambrecht, Livia Granito, Alan Cooke, Alan Hanson, Pace Woods.
Buckhantz, alas, fell largely into the latter category. His only other television credits of note were a single Kraft Television Theatre and two episodes of The Dakotas, a good 1963 revisionist western produced by Anthony Spinner, who had been a Matinee Theater story editor. Immediately after Matinee Theater, Buckhantz produced and directed a disastrous Broadway production, Happy Town, from which (as reported in Dorothy Kilgallen’s column) Buckhantz was ousted following a “bitter feud” with the cast and crew. The show closed after four days in October 1959.
The peripatetic Buckhantz moved to Germany and worked there as a television producer and director during the sixties. Buckhantz resurfaced in the United States as the executive producer of a 1969 television adaptation of Hans Brinker, with Eleanor Parker and Richard Basehart, and as the director of an action movie, Portrait of a Hitman (starring Jack Palance and Rod Steiger) that sat on the shelf for years.
Updated on January 6, 2014, to add the dates of Buckhantz’s birth and death.
September 19, 2011
David Pressman, a victim of the blacklist who directed dramatic television for nearly fifty years, died on August 29 at the age of 97.
Pressman had a fractured career. A distinguished background as an actor and teacher in the theatre, including a long period as Sanford Meisner’s right-hand man at the Neighborhood Playhouse, led naturally to work as a director in the early days of the dramatic anthologies. His debut came in 1948 on Actors Studio, a show that benefitted from its (nebulous) association with the exciting new acting school of the moment, and won a Peabody. From there Pressman moved on to some other forgotten dramatic half-hours (including The Nash Airflyte Theatre, pictured above, for which Pressman discovered an unknown Grace Kelly) and then the summer edition of Studio One.
But the door slammed shut in 1952, when CBS reneged on a longterm contract after it learned of Pressman’s leftist past and the director refused to issue a public apologia, as Elia Kazan had just done. The CBS lawyer who put forth this ultimatum was named Joseph Ream, and as Pressman laughed years later, “he gave me the ream!”
David Pressman (speaking into the microphone at right) in the control room of Actors Studio. Photo courtesy Michael Pressman.
Pressman survived the blacklist by teaching (his students at Boston University included John Cazale, Verna Bloom, and Olympia Dukakis) and then directing plays. After David Susskind hired him to direct a few small independent shows, the networks finally cleared Pressman in 1965, but the timing was lousy – he got in a Defenders and a Doctors and the Nurses before those, along most of the other serious dramas then on the air, were cancelled. Pressman moved on to nine episodes of N.Y.P.D., and in those he worked with some of the great soon-to-be stars of the next decade: Cazale, Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and, in the same episode, Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino.
But, barring a move to Los Angeles, soap operas were the only option, and after a short stint on Another World he settled in as the regular director of One Life to Live for twenty-eight years (surely a record, or close to it). He won three daytime Emmys. That’s an impressive accomplishment. But David’s son, Michael Pressman, has been an episodic director for the past two decades, moving among the top dramas of his time – Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Law and Order, Damages, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer – and it bears pointing out that, if not for the blacklist, David Pressman’s resume would probably comprise a list of the equivalents to those shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.
Fortunately, as was so often not the case with his contemporaries, the historians made good use of Pressman. The Archive of American Television and Syracuse University both recorded lengthy oral histories on video, and I made my own modest (and as yet unpublished) contribution when I visited Pressman and his lovely wife of sixty-some years, Sasha (who survives him), in 2004 and 2005. Diminutive, bald, and speaking in a comforting drawl, Pressman reminded me of a miniature Dean Jagger. He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.
I think my favorite moment in any interview I’ve ever done came during my first meeting with David. He told me this story of being persecuted for his political activities:
One day the doorbell rang and I opened the door and there was two FBI guys. They looked like caricatures. They said, “Do you want to talk to the committee?” Eugene [his son] was a baby, and Sasha came out and put the baby in my arms. They said, “Don’t you want to help your country fight communism?” I said, “I was in World War II. I was a wounded combat soldier.” They said, “Well, don’t you want to . . . .” Whatever it was. They talked to me. I said, “I’m doing what I can.” I don’t remember what I told them.
As he related this encounter, Pressman gestured vaguely toward the front door, and a shiver went down my back. “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are we sitting in the room where this actually happened?” Yes: fifty-odd years later we were in the same Central Park West apartment into which the Pressmans moved in 1949. Everything the Pressmans suffered during the blacklist – the strategy sessions for David’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a producer who fired him, the fretting over how to support three young children without any offers of work – I could look around and imagine all of it going on around me. As a historian, one learns things at a remove – in the reading room of an archive, in a retirement home a thousand miles away. This was as close as I’d come to actually being there.
It is, incidentally, shameful that Pressman – one of the few live TV directors who rarely, if ever, worked outside his beloved Manhattan – was passed over for a New York Times obituary.
More friends of this blog have left us: Kim Swados, who recalled his work as an art director on Studio One in this piece, died on August 30 at the age of 88. His daughter, Christina, who informed me of his death, has launched a website that will showcase her father’s work.
Actress Peggy Craven Lloyd died on August 30 at 98, after a long period of ill health. I only met her for about ten seconds once. But Peggy was married to one of my favorite people, Norman Lloyd, in whose company I spent two unforgettable afternoons. Norman is still going strong at 96 and I hope this doesn’t slow him down any.