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.
I’m giving this post an atypical overhaul to add some links and note the death (on August 21) of Edward Denault, who accomplished a lot of other things in his career but who is probably most familiar to readers of this blog as an assistant director on a many episodes of The Twilight Zone.
I often hear people remark, in response to an obituary, “I thought he died a long time ago!” I almost never have that reaction to an obit, because it’s my job to keep tabs on such things, but I confess that I thought Eddie Denault died a long time ago. If I’d known otherwise, I would have sought an interview with him. I’m pretty sure Martin Grams didn’t talk to Denault for his comprehensive Twilight Zone book, either.
In the fifties and sixties, assistant directors and production managers tended to be staffers at a particular studio, but Denault may have been a rare freelancer. Checking my records, I find him credited not just on The Twilight Zone but also on some Revue shows and, for a few years in the early sixties, a lot of Four Star productions, like The Dick Powell Show and The Rifleman. Later he was a production executive at Lorimar, on The Waltons, Dallas, and Knots Landing, among others. Variety‘s obit is firewalled but it’s been copied here.
Ahna Capri was a really gorgeous ingenue, best known for two films released in 1973, one silly (Enter the Dragon) and one serious (Payday). On television she was a child actress (Make Room For Daddy), a teenaged girlfriend for Eddie Haskell (Leave It to Beaver), a not-quite-A-list adult guest star on a lot of genre shows in the sixties and seventies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, Banacek), and inactive after 1979 (Mrs. Columbo, not a good one to go out on). I think Tom Lisanti broke the news on his blog and so far the Hollywood Reporter has the only obit, which reports that Capri never married (interesting) and died on August 19 after being wiped out by a truck and spending 11 days on life support (horrifying).
Screen and television writer Raphael Hayes died on August 14 at the age of 95. Hayes was a live television playwright who earned an Oscar nomination for the independent film One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and then found an unlikely home on the Daniel Boone TV series before leaving the industry altogether. There’s little I can say about Hayes that isn’t covered already in my 2003 interview with him.
News of the death of Jackson Gillis on August 19 just emerged today, but hopefully some real obits will follow in the coming days. Gillis was a key writer for both The Adventures of Superman and Perry Mason, and also piled up credits on tons of other popular mystery and fantasy shows including Burke’s Law (two scripts in collaboration with cult pulp novelist Day Keene), Lost in Space, both U.N.C.L.E. series, and Mannix. Gillis did not respond to several of my interview requests during the past decade (poor health or reclusiveness? I’m sometimes tempted to add “please check one” on follow-up letters) but there are brief biographies of him on this Superman site and this Mickey Mouse Club site. Update: Variety’s meager obit is reproduced here, and finally the New York Times has one here.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
After Allan Manings, a television comedy writer, died on May 12, the Los Angeles Times ran a medium-length obituary which offered an adequate summary of Manings’s career. The obit foregrounded some warm quotes from his stepdaughter, the actress Meredith Baxter, which I suspect would not have received as much prominence had Baxter not made news recently by revealing her homosexuality. What’s most interesting about Dennis McLellan’s piece in the Times, though, is what it left out.
Manings came to prominence late in life. In his mid-forties, he won an Emmy as part of the original writing staff of Laugh-In. In fact, according to an invaluable interview with Manings in Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to a Nation: A History of American Television Writing, Manings was the first writer sought out by Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, to work on the show. Manings served as a head writer on the popular sketch show for four seasons, and was thought of (in Schlatter’s words) as the “conscience of Laugh-In,” because he fought more aggressively than anyone else to include political material in the show’s gags. When all ten of Laugh-In’s writers crowded on stage to accept their Emmy in 1968, it was Manings who quipped, “I’m sorry we couldn’t all be here tonight.”
After Laugh-In, Manings became a part of Norman Lear’s expansive sitcom factory of the seventies, helping to develop Good Times in 1974 and co-creating One Day at a Time the following year. Manings wrote One Day at a Time with his wife, Whitney Blake (Baxter’s mother), and the pair derived the show’s original premise from Blake’s own experiences.
The earliest of Manings’s credits cited in the Times obituary is Leave It to Beaver. Manings wrote two episodes of Beaver during its final seasons, and didn’t particularly care for the show; he was already looking ahead to the more realistic humor of the Lear era. (I had thought for a long time that Manings was the last surviving Leave It to Beaver writer, but I realize now that that distinction probably belongs to Wilton Schiller, a writer better known for his work on dramatic series like The Fugitive and Mannix.)
Leave It to Beaver was also Manings’s comeback from the blacklist, and that’s the conspicuous omission from the Los Angeles Times obit. Manings had gotten started in television writing a “few sketches” (Stempel) for Your Show of Shows and then joined the staff of one of its successors, The Imogene Coca Show, along with his then-writing partner, Robert Van Scoyk. After a year or two, Manings’s agent tipped him off that he’d become a political sacrifice, and Manings took refuge in a novel place: Canada. (Although many blacklistees went to England, Mexico, France, or Spain in search of work, I can’t think any others of note who spent their lean years in Canada.) Manings may have found some work in live television there, but after a time he ended up working on a forty-acre horse farm. Manings sold manure to other local farmers and realized, as he related to Tom Stempel, that Hollywood would pay more for horse shit. As soon as the blacklist began to thaw, Manings moved to Los Angeles.
(A footnote: In his interview with Stempel, Manings identified Beaver as the show that ended his exile, although Manings’s papers reveal that Ichabod and Me, a dud sitcom created by Beaver producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, was probably his first post-blacklist credit, in 1961.)
Manings’s blacklisting is no secret, and I’m certainly not implying that some rightist conspiracy has suppressed the facts. Still, it’s curious that the Times steered so carefully around that portion of Manings’s biography. It seems doubtful that McLellan simply didn’t know about it, since his obit references Manings’s political activism more than once. There’s a quote from Lear about Manings’s commitment as a voter and a citizen, and Baxter describes him as “a very outspoken liberal.” Perhaps it’s just that the blacklist is old news these days, first to be sacrificed for length ahead of soft quotes from celebrities.
Ironically, in Stempel’s book, Manings chose to clam up about the blacklist, too. His only direct quote on the matter is: “I fronted for some, others fronted for me.” I’d always hoped for, but never got, a chance to press Manings further on the subject.
Last December, in this interview, Meredith Baxter discussed the reactions of some of her family members after she decided to come out of the closet. She mentioned her stepfather, although only by his first name, so I doubt that anyone realized (or cared) that she was talking about Allan Manings. But through her, Manings got in a marvelous last word.
“I went to Allan and I said, ‘I’m dating women,’” Baxter related. “And he said, ‘Hmm. So am I.’ And that was that.”
As long as this entry is getting filed under the Corrections Department, we may as well turn our attention to one David E. Durston, who also died this month. Durston is remembered mainly as the auteur behind the low-budget cult horror film I Drink Your Blood. I’ve never seen the movie, and I know little about Durston. Judging by his resume, as enumerated in this perhaps lengthier-than-deserved Hollywood Reporter obit, Durston seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.
Picking on the recently deceased is a joyless exercise, but in the interest of the historical record, I have to call foul on this claim, quoted from the Hollywood Reporter but repeated in substance by many other sources: “Durston wrote for such ground-breaking TV shows as Playhouse 90, Rheingold Playhouse, Tales of Tomorrow – one of the earliest science fiction anthology shows – Kraft Theatre, and Danger.”
Resume padding is common in the entertainment industry (and everywhere else), and in the pre-internet days you could get away with it for a long time. When I interviewed one prominent writer-producer of the sixties and seventies, I asked him about the Philco Television Playhouse, which had turned up on some lists of his credits. Somewhat embarrassed, the man admitted that he had never written for Philco. When he was young and struggling, Philco (the anthology on which Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” debuted) was the most prestigious credit a television writer could have, so he simply added it to his resume. In his case, the chutzpah paid off. I think Durston may have tried the same thing.
A writer named Stephen Thrower, who interviewed Durston at length, has compiled the most detailed list of Durston’s credits that I can find. Note how it remains vague about the big dramatic anthologies – Danger, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90. No dates, no episode titles.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Thrower’s resume for Durston lists four teleplays for Tales of Tomorrow, and three of those are confirmed in Alan Morton’s The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series (Other Worlds, 1997). A fourth, “The Evil Within,” is credited on-screen to another writer, Manya Starr. Then there’s the Rheingold Playhouse – or, actually, there isn’t, because there was no Rheingold Playhouse. Durston may have meant this production, “A Hit Is Made,” which seems to have been a one-time live broadcast, sponsored by Rheingold Beer and telecast from Chicago in 1951. A few years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., hosted a dramatic anthology called the Rheingold Theatre, and by christening the earlier show the “Rheingold Playhouse” Durston could have hoped to confuse it with the more impressive Fairbanks series.
It’s very difficult to verify credits from Danger or the Kraft Television Theatre. Many of the segments are lost. Often the credits would be dropped if an episode ran long, or the reviewers for the trades or the newspapers simply wouldn’t catch them as they watched the show live. But the records for Studio One are closer to complete, and I’m convinced that I have seen an accurate list of writing credits for the entire run of Playhouse 90. David Durston’s name is not among them. Moreover, Playhouse 90 was a Rolls Royce of a show, very self-conscious about its prestige. With rare exceptions, only established “name” writers were invited to contribute to Playhouse 90, and Durston would not have fit that description.
Of course, it is possible that Durston contributed to one of these shows without credit – but all of them? I could go on: this book offers a Durston bio with still more credits that look bogus, including, of all things, Hart to Hart, whose writers have been well-documented and do not seem to include Durston. But you get the idea. Entertainment news does not, and never has, received the same scrutiny by editors and fact checkers as “real” news. Much of the information that gets accepted as fact is just plain wrong.
(And if anyone out there can provide any solid facts about the David Durston credits I’ve disputed, by all means post them below.)
May 7, 2010
Peter Haskell, who died on April 12 at the age of 75, spent five decades as a leading man, mostly in television, without ever becoming a star.
Those of us who have seen Bracken’s World, an unusual, misshapen melodrama that ran on NBC for a year and a half between 1969 and 1970, probably remember Haskell most vividly from that show. Bracken’s World, which made extensive and fascinating use of the Twentieth Century-Fox lot where it was filmed, purported to tell the behind-the-scenes stories of a busy motion picture studio. (Planet of the Apes masks and huge props from Land of the Giants were often paraded across the screen to add production value.) The premise of Bracken’s World, as devised by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, was to place the focus primarily on the “little people” of the movie industry: an executive secretary (Eleanor Parker, who left the show after fifteen episodes), a stuntman (Dennis Cole), an acting coach (Elizabeth Allen), the starlets in her acting class. The moguls remained unseen mysteries (Warren Stevens provided the voice of John Bracken himself, in a gimmick copied by Charlie’s Angels) and the movie stars were represented by real name actors playing themselves in cameos; Raquel Welch popped up in the pilot.
The flaw in that scheme was that drama springs most easily from power, and by creating a series about people who wielded no power Kingsley had sketched a blueprint that few among the corps of rank-and-file television writers could follow. Peter Haskell, though never top-billed, quickly broke out as the de facto star of Bracken’s World, because he played the only figure on the show who could give orders rather than take them. Haskell played Kevin Grant, a wunderkind producer-director in the mold of John Frankenheimer or Robert Altman, and a prescient portrait of the kind of young auteur (Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Coppola, Rafelson, Ashby) who would reinvent Hollywood during the following decade. A fledgling artist, struggling to achieve a solitary creative vision, was an idea that the writers could dig into, and most episodes revolved around Grant’s struggle to green-light a new film, corral a recalcitrant screenwriter or actor, or resolve a production problem.
The quality I found most intriguing about Haskell was his softness. He had a soothing smile and a bedroom voice, well-suited for soaps (eventually, Haskell did a stint on Ryan’s Hope). Beneath his surface passivity, Haskell had a brooding quality, and his early roles were all troubled young men: an embittered blind man on The Fugitive, a turncoat spy on The Man From UNCLE, German soldiers on Combat and Garrison’s Gorillas. Haskell was, apparently, a gifted intellect in real life – the son of a noted geophysicist, he went to Harvard and earned a law degree during a lapse in his acting career – and on Bracken’s World he was convincing as both an intellectual and a sensitive creative type. Not for nothing, Kevin Grant also strikes me as perhaps the first protagonist in a television show who appeared as if he might be pleasantly, perpetually stoned.
Grant was a whisperer, like his real-life counterpart Elia Kazan, someone who solved problems by taking people aside – even the hysterical wife (Madlyn Rhue) that Bracken’s World saddled him with – and talking to them calmly and cleverly. That may not sound like such a big deal, but American TV heroes who work this way remain anomalous; just count the number of gratuitous brawls entered into by the protagonists of Route 66 or Lost, ostensibly “smart” shows four decades apart, and you begin to see how against the grain it is in our mainstream culture for affairs to be settled with logic rather than violence.
Last year I wrote about another television character, The Paper Chase’s James Hart (James Stephens), who earned my admiration because he was unashamed of his intellect and unburdened by any of the tiresome cliches of masculine vanity. I suggested that Hart, along with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, were the two best examples of a style of “sensitive New Age guy” television hero that became extinct after only a decade or so. As Kevin Grant, and in some of his other roles too, Peter Haskell was a prototype for this type of character. Two others who come to mind, both of whom came and went around the same time as Bracken’s World, were Zalman King, the idealistic pro bono law student of The Young Lawyers, and David Hartman, the champion of cutting-edge medical science on The Bold Ones. The Bold Ones was a moderate ratings success, but I wonder if The Young Lawyers and Bracken’s World (which finally forced Haskell to share the spotlight with the more traditionally rugged Leslie Nielsen, who top-lined the second season as the erstwhile John Bracken) died untimely deaths for the prosaic reason that their stars were not macho enough.
Peter Haskell in The Man From UNCLE (above) and Bracken’s World (top of post).
March 21, 2010
A few months ago, I watched an episode of Hawaii Five-O, “The Second Shot,” which guest-starred a little-known actress named Charlene Polite. Who was this pretty redhead with the congenial name, I wondered, and whatever became of her?
She was born in Ohio, on June 30, 1943, and attended Youngstown University in the mid-sixties. There she met and married the writer Frank Polite, who was probably one of her instructors. Frank Polite, who died in 2005, became a poet of some renown and influence, especially in Ohio; of the many tributes to him that can be found on the internet, this is the best.
After graduating from Youngstown, Charlene Polite enjoyed some success in regional theater. She went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse on a post-grad scholarship and joined the American Conservatory Theater, a company formed by the controversial young Off-Broadway director William Ball. (Ball, a suicide in 1991, also passed briefly through television: He directed a couple of episodes of The Defenders.)
Polite made her film debut in 1968, in Bullitt; she had already done some stage roles on the West Coast, and may have followed the ACT when Ball moved it from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in 1967. By 1969, Polite had relocated to Los Angeles and was doing guest leads on shows like My Friend Tony, Mayberry R.F.D., Cannon, and The Doris Day Show. Like many actors, she is best known today for a single appearance on Star Trek.
“The Cloud Minders,” a late entry in the show’s third and final season, is one of those well-intentioned but clumsy political allegories for which Star Trek became famous. It’s the story of class warfare between a race of cave-dwelling miners and the privileged layabouts who oppress them from a cloud city floating far above the surface. Sparks fly between Captain Kirk and the sexy rebel leader played by Polite, while Mr. Spock explains his seven-year mating cycle to the cloud city princess (Diana Ewing, another ingenue who had a busy career in the late sixties and early seventies and then disappeared completely). As “Vanna,” Polite gets to grapple in the dirt with William Shatner (twice), show off a pair of Bill Theiss’s gravity-defying gowns, and shriek as she’s tortured in an alien ray machine.
Charlene Polite’s career in television lasted only a few years. A Mod Squad in 1972 and then a Blue Knight in 1976 were her last jobs. I couldn’t find much about what she did afterward; a second marriage, stepchildren, and possibly more work in local theater.
In the late nineties, Polite became ill and moved back to Youngstown to be close to her ex-husband.
“Charlene was like my Auntie Mame,” said Khepri Polite, a son of Frank Polite by his second wife. “She was beautiful, extravagant, and eccentric.”
Khepri added, in a note to me via Facebook, that
my favorite line from her was from Star Trek, “You sleep lightly, Captain!” I remember when she would come to visit. She would stay with my father and step-mother. My father would creep into her room in the morning and wake her up with that line. He’d have a cup of coffee instead of a dagger in his hand though. We’d laugh, she had a great sense of humor.
Charlene Polite died of cancer on June 21, 1999.
Above: Charlene Polite in Star Trek (“The Cloud Minders,” 1969). Top of post: Polite in Hawaii Five-O (“The Second Shot,” 1970).
February 19, 2010
Ira Cirker, a live television director in the fifties who segued into a long career in soap operas, died on February 10 at the age of 86.
Cirker began as a stage actor, with a role in the Broadway production of Winged Victory during World War II, before moving behind the camera in television. He directed broadcasts of the live anthologies Robert Montgomery Presents, the Nash Airflyte Theatre, and the Kaiser Aluminum Hour, as well as the daytime drama Search For Tomorrow. His major claim to fame was a seventeen-year stint as the director of Another World, during which Cirker was nominated for the Emmy six times.
Cirker also directed a number of plays in New York, both on- and off-Broadway, and in Los Angeles.
Everything I know about Cirker was taken from the paid death notice which appeared in the New York Times, and I can only add my dismay that no real obituaries have yet emerged.
Dealing with death has been the biggest challenge in editing this blog since the very beginning, when one astute reader pointed out that something like three-quarters of the first few months’ posts were obituaries.
That reader’s point was that dealing so much death could make a blog rather a depressing chore to read. I also came to feel that it could engander my mission to make classic television not an object of nostalgia, dying a slow death of attrition, but a subject of relevance to modern readers.
So I reigned in my reporting on the morgue beat, passing up TV-related deaths that were covered adequately in the mainstream media. Most of the obituaries I’ve catalogued in this space during the past two years have been “scoops,” stories that were reported nowhere else in the press, except possibly in a paid death notice (like Mr. Cirker’s). For the rest, I have collated them in an annual “necrology” post . . . although the window for a 2009 roundup has all but passed, and I haven’t had the time or energy to compile one. Those lists are useful, if only for my own future reference, but I think they may also be too morbid to sustain.
Occasionally I have broken my rule and weighed in when someone I knew personally has died (like Collin Wilcox), or when the big obits have been more indifferent or belated than usual (as in the case of Paul Wendkos). Even in those instances, I wonder if I can add much of value. Is it anything but trivial to report that I’d never heard of Ira Cirker until earlier this week, and that when I looked him up I learned I’d missed my shot at an interview with him by just over a week? Especially since my life is filled with that kind of grim coincidence. Michael Fisher, a journeyman writer who died on December 31 at the age of 69, rated a Variety obituary, but that has been uncharacteristically ignored by aggregate sites like the IMDb and the Alt.obituaries newsgroup (probably because Variety has begun, again, to restrict the amount of internet pageviews available to non-subscribers). I thought about calling attention to Fisher’s passing here, but what could I say of substance, given that I found his writing credits (on Fantasy Island, Starsky & Hutch, and the like) less noteworthy than the fact that he was the son of Steve Fisher, the film noir scenarist who wrote I Wake Up Screaming and Lady in the Lake?
I almost posted something last month when two important comedy writers, Aaron Ruben and Barry Blitzer, died virtually in tandem. Both of them were almosts for me: Blitzer never answered repeated requests for an interview, and Ruben gave me a “soft no” when I got him on the phone. Meaning, in his case, that Ruben demurred after learning that I did not yet have a contract for my planned collection of oral histories, but I felt that I could have badgered him into saying yes if I’d been more persistent. Why didn’t I give Ruben the hard sell? Mainly because I knew that Ruben was responsible for a half-dozen or more of the funniest lines in Jeff Kisseloff’s excellent book The Box, and that no matter how much more in-depth my own conversation might have been, I’d already been scooped on Ruben’s best material.
Still: Regular readers here know of my obsession with The Andy Griffith Show. Would I have come up with questions about Mayberry that no one else had asked? The ever-reliable Archive of American Television recorded a five-hour interview with Ruben, but did they think to ask about Headmaster, the forgotten flop that reteamed Ruben and Griffith only a year after The Andy Griffith Show went off the air?
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this particular tangent, except to offer some insight as to why I’ve chosen to report some deaths in this space, and to pass on some others that might have seemed obligatory. Mortality never lets up: believe it or not, there’s still a slush pile of “archive obits” (that is, people who died a while ago, but whose deaths have never been reported) that I’m trying to figure out whether, and in what format, to run. But for the next few posts, at least, death will be back on holiday.
January 15, 2010
The Screen Actors Guild has confirmed the death of actor Clark Howat on October 30 of last year.
Howat, who was born on January 22, 1918, was one of television’s most reliable small-part actors. Tall and authoritative in his demeanor, Howat usually played doctors, politicians, military men, suburban dads, and of course cops. TV fans will probably remember him best as a late member of the “Jack Webb Stock Company.” Howat made more than a dozen appearances on the sixties revival of Dragnet, always as one of the commanding officers of the various LAPD divisions to which Sgt. Friday was assigned.
Howat was also an occasional writer, with at least one episode of The Detectives to his credit. According to internet sources, Howat was the story editor on Hot Wheels (1969-1971), a cartoon based on the popular Mattel toys.
The image above comes from “Emergency Only,” a 1959 episode of One Step Beyond in which Howat has an atypically large role. Howat is on the left, Lin McCarthy on the right.
In case anyone’s keeping track – yes, posting here has been a bit light of late. Just before I learned of Clark Howat’s death, I was about to put up the fishin’-hole still from The Andy Griffith Show again. (That’s the graphic which signifies that I’m on vacation, for those of you who have not been keeping track.) Rest assured, though, that momentum is not being lost, and that within a few weeks you’ll start to see some of the great content that’s in the works for 2010.
December 18, 2009
Our last obituary for 2009 (or so I hope) is also a belated one. Based on a search of public records and information provided by the Screen Actors Guild, I have confirmed that actress Mary Scott died on April 22 in Riverside County, Los Angeles, under the name Mary Lydia Heller.
Scott accrued a number of film and television credits from the early forties through the early sixties, but she will probably be remembered as (1) the wife of British character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, in one of Hollywood’s more unlikely May-December romances; and (2) the star of “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” one of the seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the Master of Suspense himself.
Born in Los Angeles on December 9, 1921, Scott began her movie career at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1940. She was still underage when the head of that studio, Darryl Zanuck, spotted her working in the coat-check room at Ciro’s. Zanuck admired her legs and directed an underling to sign Scott to a player contract. She made her film debut in an early scene in Kings Row, as one of the Ross sisters. (The other sister was Julie Warren, who gave up her acting career to marry John Forsythe.)
Hardwicke, an esteemed character actor of the English stage with a famously plummy voice, was under contract to Fox at the same time. Their romance began on a double date in Beverly Hills, and Scott followed the married Hardwicke back to Broadway (where he contrived to have her replace Lilli Palmer, his co-star in Caesar and Cleopatra, when Palmer took ill) and then on to London. Only when she became pregnant with a son, Michael, did Hardwicke divorce his first wife and marry Scott, who was twenty-eight years his junior.
More socialite than serious actress, Scott played small roles in a number of films and TV segments during the fifties. She supported Grace Kelly and Richard Greene (TV’s Robin Hood) in a live production of “Berkeley Square” for the Prudential Family Playhouse, and turned up on M Squad, Hazel, and The Patty Duke Show. “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” a semi-parody of Rear Window, had Scott as distaff version of James Stewart’s character, a mystery writer who thinks her neighbor may have committed a murder.
“Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” was a major showcase for Scott, and much like “Into Thin Air,” an earlier Hitchcock episode built around Hitch’s daughter Pat, it feels as if someone had attempted an act of star-building – albeit perhaps more as a favor than out of true conviction in the prospective star’s talent. Mary Scott appeared in seven more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and, like Pat Hitchcock’s roles on that series, Scott’s parts gradually diminished in size until, in 1965’s “The Trap,” she was just an extra in a crowd scene.
I always surmised that Scott was part of either Hitchcock’s or producer Joan Harrison’s social circle, but I could never find any substantial information on her. For years I tried, off and on, to track her down, but I had no idea if she was still living or even how old she was. In “Blanchard” Scott wore her hair in an unusually short, tomboyish cut that subtracted some years, and in the pre-Internet Movie Database era, there was no source that connected her TV credits with those of the obscure pre-war Fox contract actress. And then Scott seemed to have disappeared after her last Hitchcock appearance. She was a mystery, with a name too common to track down. Finally I found her – eight months too late.
But then I made another discovery that partly makes up for that disappointment. In 2000, Scott published a memoir, Nobody Ever Accused Me of Being a ‘Lady,’ through a now-defunct British vanity press. It is a disjointed and somewhat superficial book, but a fascinating read. Scott offers a matter-of-fact account of many personal tragedies: abandonment by an alcoholic father; molestation by a neighbor at age five; a brother’s death in combat during World War II; and finally the drug-related suicide of Michael Hardwicke in 1983.
Candidly, she depicts her show business career as a welcome escape from those grim events, and perhaps that’s why her autobiography ends up dwelling more on party-going and name-dropping than on matters of substance. (Among the gossip: affairs with Ronald Reagan and David Niven; Darryl Zanuck, diminutive penis exposed, trying to rape her in his office at Fox.)
Still, Scott turns a droll phrase now and then – Charles Laughton cut a figure “like a limp macaroni tube” – and while she left many of my questions unanswered, this passage went a long way toward satisfying my curiosity about her attraction to Sir Cedric:
He was the most distinguished man I had ever met. He displayed a sly wit which was so subtle that it might easily have been missed if one was not alert. He dressed immaculately – Savile Row, naturally. And while Cedric did not have conventional good looks, he had – and I hate using this term, but it really fits – class . . . and plenty of it. His honesty and integrity were above reproach. His voice, sonorous, deep and rich, . . . was like a good vintage wine; it kept improving. It was his premier instrument and I often wished that I could bottle it.
And as for Hitchcock? Scott does recount a few stories about working and dining with Hitch . . . but for those, you’ll have to track down her book.