April 12, 2011
I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman. Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting. In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978′s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).
Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP. Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.
It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain. Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point. But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry. I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world. The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.
On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could. For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet. Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage. Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”
Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change. Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget. His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West). Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.
Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes. In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.” Senensky added:
Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky's DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….
Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him. The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….
Jerry loved cars. He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets. But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.
I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs. I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.
March 4, 2011
Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8. Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.
Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere. That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre. He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.
Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work. On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes. And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.
Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide. I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money. He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission. He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000.
And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series. Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season. As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.
On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.
I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that. They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories. “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.
The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here. The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money. Of course, that’s unfair. Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business. A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle. It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic. The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics. It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.
On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit. His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”). Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.
Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad. Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking. Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers. Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting. Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter. How bad could it be?
February 12, 2011
“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003
Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year. His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time. McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week. “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.
John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades. Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors. Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output. He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard. His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems. Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies. According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”
When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family. Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.
“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”
Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen. As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students. Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies. But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing. Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.
Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start. McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected. Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures. His wife was a frequent co-star.
Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York. John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter. But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim. He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions. Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz. (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)
In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work. One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.
At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles. McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work. McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.
A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959. A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half. McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson. He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade. For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful. They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”
Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside). McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week. “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey. McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series. “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one a several con artists trying to outwit one another.
During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run. Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie. McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.
The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner. Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain. Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series. Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.
According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show. Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.” But the identification was more complex than that. At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).
McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy. McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series. “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on. They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.
Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses. McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.
The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series. Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials. His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.
When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing. Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back. “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey. “It was liberating, almost.”
January 31, 2011
Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times carried a brief death notice for Mel Prestidge. Although the obit doesn’t mention his acting career at all, Prestidge played police lieutenant Danny Quon on Hawaiian Eye from 1959-1963.
Since Hawaiian Eye was about, yes, private eyes, Lt. Quon was always a third banana, showing up to arrest the crooks or rescue the detectives after Tracy Steele (Anthony Eisley) or Tom Lopaka (Robert Conrad) solved the case. It was the kind of thankless role that would get a supporting actor a regular paycheck, but not much attention.
Prestidge only played a few more roles after Hawaiian Eye went off the air – guest shots on things like My Three Sons and The Wild Wild West – but he seems to have left acting long ago. (According to the Times obit, he worked for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for more than two decades.) That’s too bad, because Prestidge added a lot to his few scenes in the series.
Some of the Asian American actors on Hawaiian Eye were amateurs, or skewed towards racial stereotypes (think of Poncie Ponce as the ukelele-strumming cab driver; whatever happened to him?). But Prestidge always had a natural, regular-guy quality. He was the only regular on the show who seemed like he might have hailed from the real Hawaii instead of the backlot Hawaii.
The media archives are out of reach until this weekend, but if anyone cares to send in a screen grab of Prestidge in the meantime, I’ll post it.
December 23, 2010
Television writer Herman Groves died on December 5 at the age of 83. According to the death notice in the Los Angeles Times, Groves was born September 21, 1927, in Baltimore.
Groves was one of those rank-and-file episodic TV writers who could maneuver through the conventions of a given genre with dexterity, recombining the pieces into new plots without ever departing from the basic formula. He specialized first in westerns and then in crime shows, as the popularity of one gave way to the other. His last credit, on Airwolf in 1984, came around the time that American dramatic television shifted toward more complex, character-driven narratives.
Groves wrote for The Restless Gun, Bonanza, Riverboat, Tate, The Rifleman, and Have Gun – Will Travel, for which he turned Richard Connell’s oft-filmed The Most Dangerous Game into an adventure for Paladin. Then came SurfSide 6, The Detectives, The F.B.I., Hawaii Five-O (a couple of worthy first-season episodes, then back as a story editor in the mid-seventies), Harry O (including the one with Maureen McCormick as a junkie), The Bionic Woman, Vega$, and The Dukes of Hazzard.
I’m tempted to joke that Groves wrote for every bad television show made between the fifties and the eighties, but in fact he also landed assignments on a few good ones: Mr. Novak, The Untouchables, The Name of the Game. He wrote four Bewitched episodes and a number of shows for Disney in the seventies. Groves was also a story editor on several other series, from Daniel Boone to Fantasy Island, and co-created the short-lived The Contender with Robert Dozier.
I wish I could do more than summarize Groves’s credits, but there’s hardly any literature about him, and I never met the man. Although I did come close. The only time I’ve ever been to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills was in 2004, when I was invited out to meet another writer who lived there, in the Fran & Ray Stark Villa. The Stark Villa is an assisted living facility, not a hospital, and most of its residents are in reasonably good health. And all of them, I found out once I got there, had little nameplates next to their doors: undoubtedly a way to help the staff get the right pills into the right mouths, but also an unintended boon to nosy historians. So when my interview concluded, I couldn’t resist the temptation to “browse.” I walked the whole floor, and recognized a number of the names. One of them was Herman Groves. I almost knocked, but I didn’t have his credits in front of me and wasn’t prepared with my usual detailed questions. So I let it slide, and scurried off before I could be collared by a suspicious orderly. I shoulda knocked.
November 24, 2010
Regrettably, the obituary clipping pile has been mounting again. As usual, I’m passing over comment on some well-known figures, like the dramatic director Lamont Johnson and Fox television executive William Self, in order to briefly mention some deaths which have been less widely reported.
Bill Bennington, who died on September 26 at the age of 96, was a live director who specialized in event and sports programming. According to director John Rich, who was his assistant for a time in the early fifties, Bennington directed the first Academy Awards telecast and the unsuccessful attempt of English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim from the California coast to Catalina Island, both in 1952. At the time, Bennington was a staff director for NBC’s West Coast operation, where he also directed for Betty White’s daytime variety show. When ABC began broadcasting NCAA games in 1960, Roone Arledge hired Bennington away from NBC to be the primary director of the network’s football games. According to sportswriter W.C. Heinz, it was Bennington who cut to the first crowd shot in a televised football game, during a 1952 broadcast of the Poinsettia Bowl. (Bennington’s death was mentioned in the latest DGA Monthly, and confirmed via the Social Security Death Index. I haven’t found an obit, even a paid one.)
Lloyd Gross was another live director, a CBS staffer who worked on many types of shows before getting pegged as a game show man. He directed episodes of the live seriocomedy Mama, broadcasts of Perry Como’s and Mel Torme’s eponymous shows, and live coverage of early Miss America pageants and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His game show resume included some of the most popular entries in that genre: Beat the Clock, Masquerade Party, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, and Supermarket Sweep, the 1965 hit that kept David Susskind’s high-toned Talent Associates production company afloat during lean times. Gross died at 92 on October 16.
Michael N. Salamunovich was a veteran assistant director and production manager who died on October 23 at age 88. As a staffer at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions, Salamunovich worked on nearly every series produced at that studio from the late fifties until its collapse in 1965: Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Rogues, Honey West, and so on. I’ve transcribed the credits of hundreds of those shows, and Salamunovich always stood out for a silly reason: his name was so long that it forced whoever made up the credits to add an extra line to the regular template. Salamunovich stayed in the business well past the usual retirement age: his last job was as the unit production manager on ER during its early seasons.
Michel Hugo was a tremendously prolific director of photography from the late sixties through the mid-nineties. Born in France in 1930, he died in Las Vegas (where he taught at the University of Nevada) on October 30. Hugo did long stints as the DP on Dynasty and Melrose Place, but his credits from his first decade or so in Hollywood contain a multitude of cult items: series (Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco), movies of the week (Thief, Earth II, The Night Stalker, The Morning After), and feature films (Head, Model Shop, R.P.M., The Phynx, One Is a Lonely Number, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Bug). I’m going out on a limb here, just surveying the titles rather than going back to the video for a second look, but I’m going to suggest that Hugo may have been a practitioner of a specific look that I kind of miss: essentially realistic, proficient in the stylistic flourishes of the era (your lens flares and your rack focuses), but also unapologetically colorful and brightly lit enough to work on television.
I should also note that the links above to the paid death notices for Gross and Salamunovich will likely no longer be valid in a few days. That’s because the paid obits for most major U.S. papers have been hijacked, in their on-line form, by an outfit called Legacy.com, which firewalls the obituaries (and reader comments) after thirty days unless someone pays to “sponsor” them. This practice strikes me as rather crummy, to put it mildly . . . especially since I’m beginning to find evidence that the death notices are not even being stored in the electronic archives of the newspapers in which they appeared in print.
October 21, 2010
Steve Ryfle has posted a thorough obituary at Bright Lights Film Journal for Janet MacLachlan, the African American leading lady who guest-starred in scores of television episodes from the late sixties up through the current decade. MacLachlan died on October 18 at the age of 77.
All I can add to Ryfle’s piece are a few quotes from a brief phone interview I did with MacLachlan in February 1996, in which she discussed the beginning of her television career. MacLachlan’s dog, Angus, was barking loudly enough in the background to interrupt us, and then another call on her end brought an end to a conversation that I wish I had continued in a second session.
By the early sixties, MacLachlan had been a working actor in New York for nearly a decade, with significant credits both Off- and on Broadway. But she had virtually no experience in front of a camera. “I had done commercials in New York and I had done an extra role in a soap a couple of times, which was on tape. That was ‘live tape’ at the time,” MacLachlan said. “And I had done a tiny role on one of the first series that came out of New York. But I had never done a sustained role.”
(I didn’t think to ask what programs MacLachlan was referring to, and now we may never know. “Live tape,” incidentally, referred to a program that was photographed on videotape but staged in a single unbroken performance, like a live broadcast. Because videotape was so difficult to edit in the early years of the format, retakes were done only in the case of a major gaffe.)
Rather than seek out roles in the few dramatic series that were shooting in Manhattan at the time, MacLachlan took the television plunge in a big way. She moved to Los Angeles in 1964, armed with a contract from Universal, which was so flush with television production that it had launched a program to recruit young actors a few years earlier. MacLachlan joined a stable of inexperienced contract players similar to those maintained by the major movie studios during the thirties and forties. Her first role at Universal was a bit part in a 1965 Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Completely Foolproof”).
“The director who directed my screen test was directing that episode, Alf Kjellin. So Alf brought me in to play that secretary,” MacLachlan remembered. “It was just this tiny scene, and I rushed in to do that, because Alf and I became very good friends.” Kjellin, a handsome actor who had worked for Ingmar Bergman in his native Sweden, was by that time a mid-rank director of American episodic television.
Just a few weeks later, MacLachlan filmed a part in another Hitchcock Hour, this one a modern-dress version of a classic W.W. Jacobs horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling.” MacLachlan, in her first substantial supporting part, played a member of the entourage surrounding decadent jet-setter Collin Wilcox. The cast included two other future television stars, Stuart Margolin (Angel on The Rockford Files) and Lee Majors.
Majors, who remembered MacLachlan years later when she appeared on his series The Six Million Dollar Man, “was having a miserable time,” she recalled. “And apparently because I was having a miserable time, we found each other.”
MacLachlan was miserable because she hadn’t yet gotten used to acting on camera. “It was a major shift for me in terms of doing things out of continuity and keeping my energy up and understanding about close-ups. I was terrified,” she said. Margolin, who had a bit more experience, took MacLachlan under his wing and taught her some of the basics of film technique. MacLachlan, in turn, helped Majors with the Spanish he had to speak in the show.
MacLachlan told me that she had gotten the “Monkey’s Paw” role thanks to Monique James, a legendary agent and casting executive who had fostered the careers of Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain. At Universal during the mid-sixties, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, James Brolin, Susan Clark, David Hartman, and Harrison Ford numbered among James’s discoveries.
“Monique James was the Executive in Charge of New Talent that I came in under, and she did go to bat get me a couple of pretty good roles, to get me into some roles in a non-traditional way,” MacLachlan said. “The Hitchcock Hour was one, and the other one was The Bob Hope Chrysler [Theater].”
Though she didn’t elaborate on what she meant by “non-traditional,” MacLachlan may have been referring to race. Neither of those roles was written for a black actress. And while it probably wasn’t a fight for James to cast a person of color – this was a moment in the Civil Rights Era where the networks were eager to fend off media criticism by pointing to positive depictions of African Americans in their shows – the parts probably would have gone to white actresses had MacLachlan been without a cheerleader. MacLachlan may have been the second leading lady on television (after East Side / West Side’s Cicely Tyson), and the first based in Los Angeles, to wear an afro most of the time.
As MacLachlan advanced to bigger parts, colorblind casting became less common. Because interracial romance was not yet permissible on television, MacLachlan came to occupy a niche as a one-off romantic partner for nearly all of the young African American leading men who emerged in the late sixties. She worked opposite Clarence Williams III (Mod Squad), Don Mitchell (pictured above in Ironside), Georg Stanford Brown (The F.B.I.), Raymond St. Jacques (The Invaders), Brock Peters (Longstreet), Sammy Davis, Jr. (The Name of the Game), and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (Run For Your Life).
MacLachlan worked with Bill Cosby twice, on I Spy (as an African double agent, with a somewhat dubious accent) and then The Bill Cosby Show. The former was the only other television appearance we had time to discuss, and MacLachlan remembered it because she went on location to Europe. “There was easily two months wait between the time that I auditioned for the I Spy and the time that I was cast, because they were on location,” she told me. MacLachlan grew fond of the show’s producers, David Friedkin and Mort Fine. “They had a really wonderful sense of humor, and an interesting sense of story. Mort traveled in the group that I did, because they had been in the Middle East, in Turkey and [other] places, and I met them in Athens for that show.”
“Two beautiful black people, one from Africa, one from America, and here we sit with our own Grecian amphitheater.”
October 8, 2010
Leona Gage, the tall brunette who played the title role of Morella in a segment in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror, has died. Gage was a minor movie ingenue, better known for having been Miss USA for a single day in 1957. That story, and many others from Gage’s sad life, are told in this remarkably detailed profile by John Woestendiek.
Television? Gage’s beauty pageant notoriety landed her a walk-on on The Ed Sullivan Show and a singing gig on The Steve Allen Show (she tanked), and then a dramatic role on the live daytime anthology Matinee Theater. This was “Sunday in Sonora,” a western co-starring Marshall Thompson and Les Tremayne, and telecast on August 2, 1957. It is probably lost.
September 9, 2010
The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have quite properly noted the passing of David Dortort, a relatively minor fifties screenwriter who struck gold when he created the aptly-titled Bonanza in 1959. Dortort died on September 5 at the age of 93.
Bonanza was a vastly popular hit of a kind that’s hard to fathom today. It was probably the original “flyover show,” that is, a show that scores in the ratings and runs forever without ever earning the approval, or even the attention, of the cognoscenti. The modern equivalent would be something like NCIS or According to Jim: series that win no awards and get mocked by the press but that obviously work as comfort food for a lot of people.
I remain largely averse to Bonanza. I haven’t seen all that much of it, but the episodes I recall were banal in their storytelling and persistently flat and cheap-looking in their imagery. (Which is ironic, and unfortunate, given that Bonanza was the first really important series to originate in color.) The show got an official DVD release last year and I don’t think it provoked the same excitement of rediscovery that accompanied the digital debuts of Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel (several years ahead of Bonanza, incidentally, despite being in black and white and thus a harder sell).
Bonanza seemed to get lazy not too long after its longevity was assured. One of the key stories I’ve found about the show is in Ricardo Montalban’s interview with the Archive of American Television. When Montalban guested on Bonanza, he was appalled by the stars’ clowning around and their refusal to participate in a serious rehearsal. Montalban rounded up the actors and reamed them out for their unprofessionalism. I don’t know if Montalban’s experience was typical, but it jibes with the aspect of Bonanza that I find unpleasant. The on-screen adventures of Hoss and Adam and Little Joe are also exude a certain tiresome, adolescent self-regard, and if Montalban’s description was accurate, that tone may have originated with the cast.
I did try to interview Dortort for my oral history project, but between my tight schedules and his unreliable health we were never able to get together. I got as far as compiling a file of pre-interview research, most of which has been covered in the obits for Dortort. But I did learn a couple of obscure things that might be worth reporting here. One is that NBC hired Dortort to head its feature film division in the late sixties. That was a moment when the other television networks entered the theatrical distribution world with some brief success – ABC released Take the Money and Run and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, CBS The Reivers and Scrooge – but for NBC and Dortort the venture was apparently a bust.
The other thing that interested me about Dortort was his inclination to discuss his creation in intellectual terms. In one interview, he cited Marshall McLuhan and called Bonanza the “conscience of the middle class.” Not many TV pioneers of Dortort’s generation (especially in the taciturn genre of the western) are willing to entertain such hifalutin notions of the impact of their work. I would have enjoyed questioning Dortort further about his theories on why Bonanza connected so successfully with such a wide audience – especially since its appear remains something of a mystery to me.
For further reference: The Archive of American Television has a thorough video interview with David Dortort, and there are good websites devoted to Bonanza and Dortort’s follow-up, The High Chaparral.
September 2, 2010
Last month television history gained, and lost, another of its few centenarians. Werner Michel, an executive at CBS and Du Mont during the networks’ earliest days, died on August 27, a few weeks after his 100th birthday. Michel was involved with the creation of Captain Video at DuMont, and Studio One and The Edge of Night at CBS. I’ve come across a few interviews with Michel – he’s quoted in Jeff Kisseloff’s indispensible book The Box, and here – and they all focus on the pioneer days. But Michel had a long career as an executive, first at the ad agencies that dominated television through the fifties, and later at ABC and MGM.
Another breaking obit: Vance Bourjaily died on August 31 at 87. Bourjaily was one of those promising post-war novelists who, rather like Norman Katkov, acquired a certain cult following but never achieved mainstream recognition. The obits will focus on his novels and his long stint as an instructor at the legendary Iowa Writers Workshop. They may omit Bourjaily’s brief run in the mid-fifties as a live television dramatist. (Update: Called it. No TV mention in the New York Times.) In and out in four yeats: Bourjaily seems to have debuted on Philco Television Playhouse in 1955, then crafted a number of docudramas for Armstrong Circle Theatre between 1956 and 1959. In between he adapted a Henry Kane story as one of the last Kraft Theatres and an A.J. Cronin novel for the DuPont Show of the Month.
The latter show, directed by Sidney Lumet, would have been Bourjaily’s one big credit. The closest analogy is probably to Gore Vidal, who had published a number of well-reviewed novels before turning to television as a more lucrative venue. Like Vidal, Bourjaily got out of television fast once the live anthologies collapsed in the late fifties. I don’t know why Bourjaily chose to make his exit when he did, but in 1959 he published a piece in Harper’s called “The Lost Art of Writing For Television.” If that was a promise, it was kept.
I mentioned a couple of posts back that while the rest of the world is watching Season 4 of Mad Men, I’m still on Season 3. Mad Men has a coy way of dating each episode by planting topical references in the background, in newspaper headlines or radio broadcasts or conversational asides. That’s unusually important because Mad Men sometimes skips days or weeks in between episodes, and doesn’t call attention to those ellipses in any obvious way.
I’m sure Matthew Weiner and company fully expect the show’s die-hard fans to Google those clues, and indeed they do. One radio snippet in the episode “Wee Small Hours” mentions the Upper East Side murder of two young women, with no other details, but it has been correctly identified by various Mad Men bloggers and fansites. The reference is to the Wylie-Hoffert murders that occurred on August 28, 1963, the same day on which Martin Luther King. Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Wylie-Hoffert murders keep coming up in my research. They reverberate through the history of television in at least three ways: (1) One of the victims, Janice Wylie, was the daughter of Max Wylie, a minor radio writer and TV story editor (for CBS and then Omnibus) who developed The Flying Nun for television. Wylie also wrote a good book about the craft of television writing, called Writing For Television (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1970), and shot himself in 1975 following the deaths of his wife and another daughter. (2) The television movie The Marcus Nelson Murders, which served as the pilot for Kojak, was based on the Wylie-Hoffert case. (3) Ellen M. Violett, a talented live television writer, based part of her only novel, Double Take (New York: Doubleday, 1977), on the case. The book is also a sort of Network-like peek at the venality of TV production, with some characters based on actual people of Violett’s acquaintance. I wonder if any of those connections triggered the Mad Men reference.
I have a long piece ready to go – I mean, long - but I don’t want to bury it two days before a holiday weekend. In the meantime, if anyone is out there and looking for something to read, you should head over to the TV Obscurities blog and rummage through the archives. The author, who chooses to remain anonymous, has been reporting on things like vintage TV ratings, old TV promo spots, which rare shows are in what archives, and other classic-TV ephemera since 2008. The enigmatic “RGJ” also reports on the inevitable DVD news and obituaries, and when he (or she?) runs the occasional longer piece on a show like Coronet Blue or My World and Welcome to It, it’s always impeccably well-researched and footnoted.
That reminds me that one thing I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is to create a blogroll. It’s the custom for blog writers, but when I launched this space I was resistant to rounding up the popular movie critics’ blogs and forums. I read them regularly, and many of you probably do too, but they didn’t seem to connect with what I’m trying to do here. And when I went looking for other good sites that focused mainly on early television, or just offered some really good writing about television of any era, the cupboard was a little bare. I’m glad that I have more company now than I did three years ago. And if you know of other TV critics and historians I should be reading, let me know about it in the comments.