March 8, 2012
When I wrote about Leonard Heideman more than two years ago, the response was anti-climactic. This was the story of an important television producer with a deadly secret in his past, and a generation of repercussions from that secret, culminating in Heideman’s suicide. I’d spent three years, off and on, gathering data, watching Heideman-scripted TV episodes, and trying to convince reluctant friends and family members to share their memories of this talented but disturbed individual. Apart from the initial news accounts of Dolores Heideman’s death, almost none of what I wrote had been reported before. When I began, and knew little about Leonard Heideman except that he’d killed his wife and written for Murder, She Wrote, I thought about writing up the story as an acerbic only-in-Hollywood anecdote. Once I dug in, I realized that approach would have been in horribly bad taste, and I became obsessed with getting all the facts right and being fair to all the parties in this tragic tale.
Everyone who read the piece seemed to like it, but I guess I expected more. Comments from Hollywood veterans who knew or worked with Heideman (or, more likely, “Laurence Heath,” as he was later known). Some interest from the true crime community, perhaps, or from one of those semi-scuzzy cable magazine shows. Or, worse, angry reactions from some of the Heideman or Heath family members who declined to be interviewed and opposed my reporting of the story. In fact, apart from a one-sentence response from one of the sources I did quote in the piece, the only communication I received from the Heideman/Heath family was a recent e-mail from a distant relative and family historian, who confirmed several of the educated guesses that I couldn’t verify during my research. But when I pressed for more details, the family member never responded.
So for the most part, “Lenny the Knife” – as my research associate and I morbidly took to calling him – remained confined to this little corner of the internet. Maybe the Los Angeles Times editor who turned down my Murder, He Wrote pitch as “old news” was right.
All of this comes to mind because I noticed an obituary in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times for one of the minor figures in the Heideman saga. Maxwell Keith, one of the three-man team of high-powered lawyers who succeeded in clearing Heideman, the violent killer of his wife, with an insanity plea, died this week in Templeton, California, at the age of 87. Keith’s claim to fame was his doomed defense of two Manson acolytes, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson. The Times obit also mentions another famous Los Angeles murder case, that of Dr. R. Bernard Finch – a dentist who conspired with a pretty young mistress to kill his wife – in which Keith and his then partner, Grant Cooper, were the attorneys of record. The jury put Finch away for twelve years. Even though it was, locally, a high-profile case (and it would’ve broken Keith’s 0 for 3 record), I guess I’m not surprised that the Times didn’t mention Cooper and Keith’s successful defense of Heideman.
Keith is not quoted in my Heideman history for the simple reason that I couldn’t find him. Even though an odds-defying percentage of them were still alive when I was researching Heideman, I had terrible luck with the police and the lawyers who worked his case. Glen Kailey, one of the uniformed officers who arrested Heideman on the night of the killing was still living, but seemed to have fallen off the planet (or more likely into an elder care facility that defied public records searches). Both of the primary detectives on the case were alive, too, but when I tracked down O. D. de Ryk, the senior investigator, he told me that his former partner suffered from advanced dementia. As I questioned de Ryk, I sensed that he, too, suffered from memory loss; the few details he could remember about the Heideman matter were questionable. (Kailey and de Ryk both died in 2010.)
As for the attorneys, Grant Cooper was long dead. Godfrey Isaac – in his eighties but still a practicing lawyer at the time – declined to be interviewed minutes after receiving my request, and ignored my subsequent e-mails. (Although in his single curt reply, Isaac did mention a detail that allowed me to identify him amid the pseudonymous figures in Heideman’s memoir.)
As for Maxwell Keith, one reason I failed to track him down is that he was no longer licensed to practice law. The Times obit politely reports that Keith retired in 1995, but the State Bar of California’s website tells a different story. In December 1996, Keith resigned “with charges pending”; ten years before that, he had been disciplined by the Bar on another matter. The Bar association handily keeps track of its active members, but had no contact information for Keith; and all the phone numbers I found and tried led to dead ends. That was what reporting the Heideman story was like: every tangent seemed to lead down another rabbit hole of secrets and lies.
December 23, 2011
At the risk of coming across as schoolmarmish in every post, I must raise a point of order in a matter of semantics.
Criterion’s re-release of 12 Angry Men, on DVD and Blu-ray, is turning up on a lot of best-of-the-year home video lists. Also on those lists I’m frequently seeing two of the disc’s extras – kinescopes of the original Studio One “12 Angry Men” and the completely new-to-home-video Alcoa Hour “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” – referred to as “teleplays.” The nomenclature traces back to the copy on Criterion’s website and on the discs themselves.
As far as I know, however, a “teleplay” is just a script written for television. A show derived from a teleplay is something else – an “episode” or a “broadcast” or just a “show.” The Writers Guild of America, all the TV writers who have ever used the term in my presence (which is not many; they usually just call ‘em scripts), and even Wikipedia make this distinction. You could stretch the point and argue that Criterion has used the term this way in order to emphasize the primacy of the writer’s contribution in live television, but that’s not really how their copy reads. Particularly cringeworthy is a reference to “Frank Schaffner’s teleplay of 12 Angry Men,” which implies that Schaffner was the writer of that show rather than its director.
Of course, I realize that the term “teleplay” (or, um, “kinetoscope”) probably has no meaning at all to the average consumer today. But if I, or any hardcore TV fan or anyone in the industry, picked up the Criterion 12 Angry Men in a store and read the jacket copy, I think we’d expect to find a PDF file of the scripts on the disc rather than the shows themselves. I think Criterion has muddied the terminology in a narrow field here, and I hope this misuse of the word doesn’t spread.
Incidentally, I haven’t seen the 12 Angry Men disc. I wrote about Sidney Lumet and “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” earlier this year and didn’t think I had much else to had in this space. But I’m curious about the extras, and I’m delighted that Criterion is seeking out live television material to incorporate into its disc releases.
Every time I think I’ve found all the good oral histories, something new pops up. When I was researching last week’s Walter Doniger obit, I learned that Doniger had been interviewed in a book by John Ravage called Television: The Director’s Viewpoint (Westview Press, 1978). Around the time I was busy being born, Ravage, an academic, spent some months on television sets in Los Angeles, talking to about a dozen working directors. Some of them (especially Boris Sagal, Buzz Kulik, and Doniger) gave few other interviews of substance before they died.
I didn’t have Ravage’s book when I wrote the piece on Walter, but it arrived today and it’s very good. Frankly, a lot of these interview books fail because the interviewer doesn’t know what he or she is doing, but Ravage understood how television actually got made and asked really good questions. This one is worth buying for a penny on Amazon.
Meanwhile, I hope to have something more substantive up before Christmas and, if not, then soon after. Several suppiers of review copies (and one nameless publicist who apparently only thought about sending me that DVD set rather than actually putting it in the mail) had asked me to write about their wares before the holidays and, well, I guess they know better now. Anyway: happy holidays to everybody. Treat yourself to some classic TV DVDs and maybe you’ll accidentally buy one of the ones I was supposed to plug.
June 21, 2011
In the current issue of Film Comment, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell offers a vital piece called “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?” In it, Bordwell points out that cinema, to a far greater extent than more rarified art forms (literature, visual arts, music, architecture), has inspired popular and scholarly traditions of criticism that rarely overlap. In fact, the approaches of popular film critics (or “cinephiles,” as Bordwell calls them) and university scholars are so far apart that their members are often actively hostile toward one another. Bordwell, a career academic at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also a blogger widely respected among unaffiliated movie buffs, is an ideal figure of compromise to broach the subject, and he concludes that a “hands across the aisle” rapprochement between the two camps could be brokered via the internet.
Sorry, but I’m not ready to surrender my arms just yet.
Bordwell’s topic might seem like a pointless exercise in inside baseball, and one not particularly germane to this blog (although I will connect it to the subject of television, if you’ll bear with me). But most of the other film critics and enthusiasts of my personal acquaintance hold strong opinions on the subject, and it has certainly colored my own fifteen years as a semi-professional media historian.
Bordwell’s article resonated with me because it brought back a lot of memories from my own undergraduate education, which was perpetrated during the late nineties in the University of Southern California’s cinema-television program. At the time, the program was dominated by scholars huddled under the umbrella of “Grand Theory” – a collection of cultural-studies disciplines (semiotics, reception studies, psychoanalysis, feminism & queer theory) which connected only tangentially to art appreciation and aesthetics. In practice, this meant reading a lot of essays about movies in which no individual film was discussed or even named. Bordwell uses the phrase “smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory,” and that accurately describes the dispiriting attitude I encountered all too often. Instead of embodying a broad curiosity about film as a medium, these cultural scholars tended to cherry-pick texts and trends that supported whatever specialty they had staked out on the Grand Theory map. (Bordwell: “the habit of interpreting films as charade-like enactments of theoretical doctrines.”)
The few USC faculty to whom I was able to relate – like Rick Jewell, a rigorous historian of Hollywood production methods – seemed to exist on the margins of this not-really-about-films film school in which I found myself mired. I took what I could from teachers like Jewell, but on the whole I emerged from USC with a sense of resentment towards a curriculum that often seemed to condescend to the material I went there to learn about. A big part of that problem was the basic indifference or even contempt toward the craft of writing that I encountered in the critical literature I read. The impenetrability of academic writing is an old joke, but it bears repeating that, as Chris Fujiwara puts it in a response to Bordwell’s article, “there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.” My own formal education therefore had the effect of alienating me from its auspices: although I’ve occasionally written pieces that drew in part on some cultural-theory notions gleaned from college (for instance, this post-feminist reading of The Donna Reed Show), I’ve made a conscious decision to place my work on the popular side of cinephilia (or telephilia, as the case may be) because I want to reach an audience who will read about East Side / West Side or The Patty Duke Show because they want to, not because they have to. (Fujiwara: “The system of ‘publish or perish,’ together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing.”)
One quibble I have with Bordwell’s piece is that, perhaps for reasons of space, he uses the term “research” a lot without ever defining it precisely. For Bordwell, research seems to represent the serious work of scholars; whenever non-academics produce valuable research, it’s a happy accident. (Bordwell writes that Joseph McBride’s heavily footnoted Spielberg biography “is academic in the best sense.”) Of course, Bordwell’s own work is prodigiously detailed and specific (see, for instance, his blog post about flashbacks-within-flashbacks), so I suspect he would be surprised and disappointed by how infrequently I encountered the same breadth of curiosity and rigor among the faculty and grad students in my USC program. Bordwell suggests that “academic research is less geared to evaluation” but I often found that academics were highly evaluative. It’s just that they were quick to judge texts based on their usefulness to a particular scholarly discipline or approach rather than on their value as art.
I hit my breaking point with this form of myopia when Jeff Kisseloff published his pioneering work The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 during my USC years. Kisseloff’s book gave me more insight into understanding how television was made than anything I’ve read before or since. And yet, when I recommended it to one of my television professors, not only did she have no interest in teaching the book, but she wouldn’t even read it. It was inconceivable to her that oral history could teach her anything useful about television. I encountered that attitude – that the work of the scholar should be abstract and contemplative rather than nuts-and-bolts – all the time, and it’s why I take exception to Bordwell’s non-definition of “research.”
My own definition of research, then, would be along the lines of investigative journalism: perusal of archival records, excavation of contemporary publications, viewings of obscure works, and yes, actually talking to people who created the objects of one’s study. Bordwell’s implication that the success of non-academic scholar like McBride in this area was somehow exceptional offended me slightly because, in my view, McBride is the rule, not the exception. Much of the best movie and television history (if not always the best criticism, which is Bordwell’s primary focus) is the work of outsiders, not of academics. Of course, that’s the opposite of how it ought to be.
I promised to apply some of these thoughts to television, and I think the best way to do that is to question another generalization of Bordwell’s: that mainstream or cinephile critics are mainly auteurists. I guess there’s a broad tradition, perhaps more among editors than writers, of following the DGA’s possessory-credit lead and referring to most films as the work of their directors, without any investigation of who actually did what; but I also think that many good mainstream critics are equally likely to come at movies from a context of national cinemas, movie star personas, zeitgeist notions, or any of a dozen other frameworks.
Anyway, it occurs to me that the idea of an auteurist approach breaks down completely when you try to apply it to television.
That’s because the episodic director is rarely the primary creative force in television (except for cases where a Michael Mann or a Martin Scorsese directs an HBO pilot), and understanding the process of who fills that power vacuum is work that few mainstream (and academic?) critics have attempted. The “showrunner,” a relatively new term and a relatively modern conception, has become a sort of default auteurist figure among television critics, but it’s often misunderstood and selectively applied. Most critics probably don’t realize that a showrunner may or may not be the same thing as an executive producer or a head writer (for instance, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s C.S.I. franchises all have their own showrunners, and yet more strongly reflect the sensibilities of Wolf and Bruckheimer). And I don’t understand why Mad Men and Deadwood are widely understood as the singular visions of their particular creators, and yet I’ve never read any auteurist criticism devoted to, say, John Wells or Ryan Murphy (even though ER and The West Wing, once it passed from Aaron Sorkin’s to Wells’s control, have a great deal in common, and Murphy’s superficially very different Nip/Tuck and Glee are of a philosophical piece). There are also cases where actors, cinematographers, executives, and other less-than-obvious figures who set the tone in television – not to mention exceptional television directors who really are auteurs but whose work is so spread out that they haven’t been recognized as such – but I’ve seen little work that tries to grasp any of that.
The popular/academic schism in film culture in film culture may be bad, but at least it’s indicative that some approaches have been codified. In the television realm, I sense that the academics are still chasing their trends instead of doing serious research (can I tell you how many Buffy-loving hipsters I ran afoul of during my USC sojourn?) and most popular critics are just trying to keep up with the screeners that land on their desks, without looking hard enough at the bigger picture.
Speaking of academics: Lynn Reed is a graduate student at Skidmore College who has been exploring ideas related to her master’s thesis in a good blog. Her starting point is Mad Men, which she follows into tangents as inevitable as feminism and as unlikely as Remington Steele. Reed has a fascinating piece up about a Mary Tyler Moore-like sitcom that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown pitched to Warner Bros. and ABC – in 1962. Needless to say, this proposed show that envisioned a female protagonist with a sometime boyfriend she “had no plans to marry” was a bit ahead of its time. I’d love to read what, if anything, resides in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC to document the reaction of the studio’s television executives (at that time a typically cigar-chomping, old-school bunch) to Brown’s salvo of premature feminism.
Speaking of journalists: My pal Tom Lisanti has a fine three-part interview with sultry France Nuyen on his blog. He doesn’t say why it was omitted, but evidently the Nuyen profile is a leftover from one of his worthwhile books about sixties ingenues. Nuyen was Eurasian and hard to cast, but I always thought she was a subtle, wistful actress, with a sexy, marbly voice. Nuyen is pretty frank but Lisanti didn’t get the one quote I was looking for – a response to the strange, cryptic, misogynistic barbs about his brief marriage to Nuyen that Robert Culp delivered on his I Spy audio commentaries. Culp evidently had some unresolved issues on the subject, and didn’t mind telling the world about them.
And blogger Mel Neuhaus has another amazing three-parter, this one with child actress turned sixties ingenue Sherry Jackson. Jackson is forthright about her entire career, but the really eye-popping revelations come in the first installment, during which she reveals the truly toxic environment on the set of the happy-family sitcom Make Room For Daddy. The whole series (including part two and part three) is a must-read. There is equal room in my philosophy, I’m proud to say, for both thoughtful criticism of shows like Mad Men and salacious gossip about Danny “Plate Man” Thomas’s kinky sexual proclivities.
February 7, 2011
Who was Hilda Brawner?
If you’re a fellow devotee of the New York-based television dramas of the early sixties, I’ll bet you’ve wondered the same thing at some point.
Hilda was a pretty brunette who appeared on Broadway a lot, starting in the late fifties, and then in some of the last gasps of live television. On stage, Elia Kazan directed her in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth; the stars were Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern and Diana Hyland toiled alongside Hilda in the supporting cast. For television, she was on The DuPont Show of the Month and on The Guiding Light for a while in 1963. She played small parts on The Nurses and Route 66 (in the Sam Peckinpah-directed episode “Mon Petit Chou,” with Lee Marvin and playing second fiddle to French import Macha Meril, later the star of Godard’s Une Femme Mariée).
If you’re lucky enough to have seen Reginald Rose’s meticulous, devastating indictment of capital punishment, the “Metamorphosis” episode of The Defenders, then you will remember Hilda as the wife of Robert Duvall’s young death row inmate. But it’s most likely that you recall Hilda from Naked City, which seemed to hold a particular affection for her. She appeared on the show three times, first in secondary roles, then finally in a lead in “Alive and Still a Second Lieutenant,” latterly famous as Jon Voight’s television debut. In “Alive,” Hilda played the girlfriend of Robert Sterling’s sweaty, ulcerous business executive (dare I say it? a Roger Sterling type; could the actor be the source of the name?), who spirals out of control following a violent road-rage incident.
Now that you’ve seen the screen grab above, you’ll have some idea of why I became mildly obsessed with Hilda — and with whatever happened to her. Because Hilda’s last credit came in 1964, and there seemed to be no trace of her after that. Did she die young? Marry and raise four kids on Long Island? Hook up with a network executive and ensconce herself on Central Park South?
Well, no, none of that, it seems. Hilda Brawner, pretty ingenue, changed her name and became Hildy Brooks, busy character actress. Hildy played supporting roles in lots of movies (The Anderson Tapes, Islands in the Stream, Playing For Keeps, Eating) and guest-starred in dozens of television episodes during the seventies and eighties. I remember her as one-third of “A Very Strange Triangle,” a bisexual love story that was controversial when it aired on The Bold Ones in 1971. Hildy still works – she’s in one of the last episodes of Nip/Tuck, one that I haven’t seen yet – although I couldn’t locate her for this piece. Are you out there, Hildy?
Incidentally, although I seem to be the first person on the internet to put Hilda & Hildy together, I can’t really take credit for it. Her name change is mentioned in a couple of memoirs, and Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players. Plus, there was a big clue that I missed for years: under different names, Hilda and Hildy played the same role in the two recorded versions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Sidney Lumet’s videotaped videotaped Play of the Week two-parter of 1960 and John Frankenheimer’s film from 1973. Here she is in both.
Hilda Brawner (left) and Julie Bovasso as Margie and Pearl, 1960.
Hildy Brooks (left) and Nancy Juno Dawson as Margie and Pearl, 1973. Below: Hildy Brooks in a 2007 episode of Boston Legal.
January 16, 2011
The silence of recent weeks is because I’ve been away on location, so to speak. Digging around in the archives is one of my favorite things to do, in part because I always come across reams of trivia that’s fascinating even if it’s not relevant to what I’m researching. For instance:
- Roxie Roker, who played the female half of the Willises, the interracial couple on The Jeffersons, worked behind the scenes at NBC before she succeeded as a performer. Roker turns up in the 1954 NBC staff directory as a secretary to one Edward A. Whitney, Supervisor of Broadcast Operations at 30 Rockefeller Center, the network’s New York headquarters. I’ll be she was one of a very small number of African Americans manning a desk at 30 Rock in the year of Brown v. Board of Education.
- According to the daily production reports of George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966), the busy television actors Antoinette Bower, Dennis Joel Olivieri, and Madlyn Rhue spent a day looping voices during post-production. As was customary at the time, they did not receive screen credit. Next time you watch the film (and I’m sure you’re going to get right on that), try to pick out their voices. Hawaii, incidentally, emerged from the ashes of an ambitious attempt at a two-part historical epic that would have reunited the director Fred Zinnemann and the writer Daniel Taradash, who had been responsible for the cinema’s best-known depiction of the fiftieth state, From Here to Eternity. I don’t know why the project collapsed, but Zinnemann and Taradash spent most of 1961-1962 working on the script for it.
- The pilot script for Rod Serling’s western series The Loner was actually “The Vespers,” which was the second episode broadcast during the show’s original network run in 1965. Neither Tony Albarella’s Filmfax article on the series nor either of Serling’s biographers point out that fact. It makes sense that Serling’s meaty, message-y story of a clergyman (Jack Lord) whose pacifism is tested in a most heinous way is the script that sold the series. It’s one of the last glimmers of greatness in his oeuvre. I’m not sure why the network chose a slightly less distinguished episode, “An Echo of Bugles,” to premiere the series. Probably, it had more “action.”
As to what archive yielded these various factlets, and what subject I’m researching, I can’t yet say . . . but look for more substantive reportage soon.
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.
July 24, 2010
The research behind an interview for this blog, like the one with Shirley Knight that I published this month, is often lengthy and complicated. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I forget it myself. For me, writing is the hard part. Everything else I do here falls into the category of fun.
Typically, there are two phases to my research. The first precedes the interview. It involves rooting out as many of the subject’s television, film, or stage credits as possible, and then deciding which ones I want to cover and what I want to ask about them. The second phase comes afterward. That’s when I have to sort out all the corrections, inconsistencies, additional credits, and other surprises that emerge during the interview. In the case of some obscure writers, the resume I’d assembled beforehand had tripled in size by the end of the interview.
With most interviews, I try to arrange for an open-ended session, or to arrange for at least two hours. If the subject lives in or near New York or Los Angeles, my general rule is that at least part of the conversation must be face-to-face. In Ms. Knight’s case, our interview took place over the phone, and I was told that I would only have an hour (although she graciously let that stretch to ninety minutes). Because of those limitations, I had decided that this would be a brief, informal chat, in which I would try to hit just the high points: ten or twelve specific shows I knew I wanted to cover and then some general questions.
(I mean “brief,” I should add, by my own standards. The final edit ran over 6,200 words. That’s longer than many magazine feature stories these days, but still shorter than any of the oral histories archived on my website.)
One consequence of my slightly looser approach to this one was that I didn’t feel the need to pin down every loose end that came up during the interview. Most of them were tangential anyway and, frankly, Knight was a fairly big “name” to get for this blog. I transcribed and edited her comments quickly, and didn’t want the piece collecting dust while I dithered over trivia. Still: those loose ends are nagging at me. That’s why I’ve created the outline that appears below.
Most of the time, I would roll up my sleeves and dig into the reference books, the archives, the clipping files, and the rolodex to sort out these questions prior to publication. All the reader would see is an extra line in a videography or a neat little footnote, each of them possibly the result of hours of research. This time, though, I’m going public with the loose ends, and offering some detail on why each of them remains somewhat difficult to resolve. My hope is that it will provide some specific insight into one part of the process behind my oral history work. And, just maybe, someone out there will have the missing answers.
The Internet Movie Database claims that Knight played an uncredited “bit part” in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), which predated any other professional experience by at least two years. That’s the kind of outlier that immediately makes me suspicious, and a clarification was at the top of my list of questions. Knight explained that she and her siblings worked as extras during the film’s central town picnic sequence, which happened to be shot on location near her hometown in Kansas. What surprised me was Knight’s initial recollection, obviously incorrect, that she was “eight or ten” years old at the time. In fact, she was nearly nineteen when Picnic was shot during the spring of 1955. Perhaps the dramatic divide between Knight’s Kansas years and the precocious career that began in Los Angeles in 1957 pushed the Picnic experience further back into her childhood memories.
I loved the idea of Knight wandering through the background of a film classic at a time when she hadn’t even decided to pursue an acting career. But can we, in fact, find her in the film? I had hoped to post a triumphant screen grab here; alas, I could not spot anyone who resembled the “skinny and blonde and young” Knight girls, as Shirley described them. Eagle-eyed readers are invited to conduct their own search.
II. The Missing Credits
During my interview with Knight, she recalled several early television appearances which do not appear on any of her published resumes. The Internet Movie Database even omits her television debut – a showy part in a 1957 Matinee Theater opposite Michael Landon – although this credit does turn up in other Knight videographies. Rigorous spadework in university archives or microfilm stacks could probably match all of these to the right TV episode, but for now they remain missing from Knight’s credits:
- An unidentified television episode in which Myrna Loy starred as a “judge or a lawyer.” Knight probably played a supporting role in one of Loy’s dramatic anthology appearances in the late fifties: Schlitz Playhouse, G.E. Theater, The June Allyson Show, or something similar. Loy played a judge in a 1974 made-for-TV movie called Indict and Convict, but Knight does not (as far as I can determine) appear in it.
- A G.E. Theater segment with a western setting starring Ronald Reagan. This sounds like an easy one, but Knight was active during the last five years (1957-1962) of G.E. Theater’s run, and Ronald Reagan (also the host of the show) starred in multiple segments each season. I can’t find Knight’s name linked to any episodes of the series at all.
- An unidentified television episode directed by Ida Lupino. Knight remembered Lupino as one of the first good directors for whom she worked. This could be a G.E. Theater segment (Lupino directed for that series), either the one mentioned above or another. Another candidate is “And Man Created Vanity,” a 1963 segment of the medical drama Eleventh Hour. Lupino directed for most of the dramatic series produced by MGM during the early sixties, including Dr. Kildare, from which Eleventh Hour was spun off. The Classic TV Archive (more about this resource below) credits “And Man Created Vanity” to Allen Reisner, but the site also misspells his name, so I’m not abandoning my hunch just yet.
- A Quinn Martin pilot featuring Beau Bridges and a premise similar to that of Law and Order. In this case, I suspect Knight has conflated the details of several different credits: the pilot episode of Arrest and Trial, which was a precursor to the long-running Dick Wolf series; the pilot for Abby Mann’s Medical Story, which did co-star Beau Bridges (the only occasion on which he worked with Knight, as far as I can tell); and her many guest shots for Quinn Martin. But as far as I can tell, none of Knight’s many QM roles was in a series pilot. Is it just barely possible there’s an unsold QM pilot lurking in here?
Next we come to Buckskin, a little-remembered half-hour western that ran on NBC from 1958-1959. It sounds mildly promising: the frontier as seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy (Tommy Nolan) in the charge of his widowed mother. During her twenty-third year Shirley Knight may or may not have been a regular or a semi-regular in the cast of Buckskin. The point proves surprisingly difficult to settle.
TV.com lists Shirley Knight as a “star” of Buckskin. The Internet Movie Database places Knight in the cast of twenty of the thirty-nine Buckskin segments, beginning with the very first one, “The Lady From Blackhawk.” However, both sites unreliable in the area of regulars in early television episodes. Turning to the reference shelf, the sixth edition of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows does not include Knight in the Buckskin cast at all. Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims that Knight and another actress named Marjorie Bennett both played the role of Mrs. Newcomb.
That’s a lead. Perhaps one actress replaced the other? The problem with that theory is that Shirley Knight looked like this:
While Marjorie Bennett (best remembered as Victor Buono’s domineering mother in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) looked like this:
Now things are getting really confusing. Perhaps the character of Mrs. Newcomb underwent a radical midseason reconception? Alone among these sources, Total Television tells us that a young actor named Robert Lipton co-starred in Buckskin as Ben Newcomb, the “town schoolteacher.” McNeil doesn’t specify Mrs. Newcomb’s relationship to Ben. Knight might have played his wife, Bennett his mother. But at the same time? As regulars, or in one-off guest shots?
The accuracy of data on the fan-maintained Classic TV Archive website is highly variable, but the site often provides leads that I can’t find elsewhere on the internet. It presents another alternative. The Archive’s Buckskin page lists Knight as “recurring” as Mrs. Newcomb, but mentions her only once in its cast lists for the individual episodes. Knight supposedly appears in a 1959 episode, “Little Heathen,” as “Marietta.” Is Marietta the given name of Mrs. Newcomb? Or is it possible Knight was a guest in only one segment of the series?
When I asked Knight about Buckskin, she tentatively disputed the credit. “I don’t even remember that,” she told me. “There’s a part of me that thinks it might be a mistake.” Knight’s memory of her Warner Bros. days were quite precise, and I find it unlikely that she filmed twenty or more episodes of a series just prior to Warners and then forgot them completely. However, Knight did accurately associate Buckskin with the former Republic Studios in Studio City, where it was lensed. She must have passed through the series at some point. I lean toward the theory that Knight was a guest on a single episode, and at some point an erroneous press release or reference book elevated her in the historical record to series regular status. There have been similar errors: most reference books list Gena Rowlands as a series regular on 87th Precinct (1961-1962), but she appeared in only three episodes before her character waas written out.
The only way to resolve the matter once and for all may be the primary source: the show itself. It might require a screening of more than one episode, maybe even all of them, to determine the extent of Knight’s participation. But the short-lived Buckskin hasn’t emerged from the vaults of NBC or Universal (the corporate heir to Revue Productions, which made the series) since 1959. At this point it goes the way these things usually go: I find someone who knows someone who has a few tapes of Buckskin, who may be able to let me take a look, eventually. In the meantime, I turn it over to my readership: Does anyone remember Buckskin well enough to settle the question?
I think it’s remarkable that, in the internet age, this many inconsistencies and omissions can remain in relation an actress of Shirley Knight’s stature. And keep in mind, we’re only addressing the question of credits: the most basic yes-or-no, was-she-or-wasn’t-she-in-this-or-that-show of a performer’s early resume.
Just about every interview I’ve done has generated a task list like the one above. As you might surmise, the list can grow quite a bit longer for a lesser-known television writer or director on whom I’m doing the first substantial work. I’ve done interviews in which my initial list of episodic credits has tripled in size by the time I’ve exhausted the memory of the subject.
Has this post been pedantic in the extreme? Well, yes. But I love this kind of work. And if you made it all the way to the end, maybe you’re ready to declare yourself a media historian, too.
May 26, 2010
TO: Those Listed Below
FROM: James A. Glenn
Director, [NBC] Television Network Operations
DATE: April 22, 1958
RE: KINE RECORDING
2. [NBC's Hollywood studios] will make a videotape of all daytime shows, but will have no kine back-up for any of these shows including Today.
7. Kine re-recordings from videotape can be made on order. However, because of the scarcity of tape, Hollywood finds it necessary to erase and re-use this tape as soon as practicable in order to meet the requirements of their work-load. They will erase such tapes within 48 hours following broadcast unless they are notified in sufficient time to prevent tape erasure.
Mr. Aaron Rubin
National Broadcasting Corporation
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, New York
January 13, 1961
Dear Mr. Rubin -
Danny Welles asked me to write and officially tell you that you can wipe our FORD STARTIME TALENT SCOUTS color tape. It is okay, since we will have no use for it in the future.
TO: Mr. Alan B. Fendrick
FROM: Douglas Lutz
DATE: November 18, 1963
RE: DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK
The Talent Administration and Legal Departments have completed their investigations, and have commented on our recommendation to erase some of the old DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK programs.
The following programs may now be erased.
THE BATTLE OF THE PAPER BULLETS
WONDERFUL WORLD OF TOYS
TRICK OR TREASON
HOLLYWOOD, MY HOME TOWN (Ken Murray)
THE ACTION IN NEW ORLEANS
A SOUND OF HUNTING
THE MOVIE STAR
THE RICHEST MAN IN BOGOTA
All other programs in the DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK series must be retained.
TO: Joseph Hewes
FROM: Robert J. Dunne
DATE: June 7, 1973
RE: Tape Retention
This Department has no objection to erasing the 17 reels of Ford Startime and the 29 reels of Sunday Showcase currently being stored at NBC.
The text above has been excerpted verbatim from NBC correspondence and internal memoranda. Kinescopes of some, but by no means all, of the television shows mentioned still exist. In many cases those kinescopes are monochrome recordings of programs created in color. The Sunday Showcase segment “What Makes Sammy Run” is an example of a color show for which the original tape is presumed to have been erased, and of which only a black-and-white print survives.
December 3, 2009
Paradise Cove Is Too Far: It could’ve been the name of one of the sixties TV dramas Paul Wendkos directed, during the years when shows like Naked City and Ben Casey competed to come up with the longest and most cryptic segment titles. “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail” and “The Wild, Wild, Wild Waltzing World” were actual television episodes from Wendkos’s resume.
But Paradise Cove Is Too Far is not one of his credits; it’s a note I found scrawled on my folder for Wendkos, at the end of a set of directions to his Malibu home. I never made the trip to just-before-Paradise Cove. For the last few years, I’d been talking to his wife, Lin Bolen Wendkos (the inspiration for Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, according to rumor, but hopefully not for the more terrifying aspects of that character) about meeting Paul for an interview. But he’d suffered a stroke shortly before I got in touch and remained too frail for the kind of in-depth questioning that I would have needed to toss his way. I kept calling every time I was in Los Angeles, hoping that I’d catch him on a good day, but I never did. Wendkos died last month, on November 12.
Since I started making notes for this piece, good obituaries have appeared in the New York Times and the Independent, so I don’t feel obligated to outline the whole of Wendkos’s long career. He began with a regional independent film, The Burglar, which is a common way for directors to enter television now, but was extremely unusual then. The Burglar is an impeccable film noir. It derives from a novel by David Goodis, the reclusive Philadelphia native whose home town figures essentially in most of his prose. Wendkos also hailed from Philly and deployed his camera along its streets with a knowing eye; he was a perfect match for the material, as was surly sad-sack star Dan Duryea.
The Burglar led immediately to a feature contract and a number of mostly commercial films for Columbia, including Gidget and its two sequels, which led off most of his obits. Wendkos disowned most of his studio films, considering them too compromised, although film buffs make claims for The Case Against Brooklyn and the western Face of a Fugitive. The oddity from among Wendkos’s early films, another indie called Angel Baby, has a small cult following that may grow following its recent sort-of DVD release (in Warners’ new burn-on-demand library). More on Angel Baby further down.
Once he escaped his Columbia pact, Wendkos spent most of a decade in episodic television. He directed for most of the top shows – Naked City (his favorite), Ben Casey, Mr. Novak, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, I Spy, The Invaders, The FBI, the pilot for Hawaii Five-O – and, in the same 1968 interview that found Wendkos dyspeptic on the subject of his feature career, he expressed some guarded satisfaction about his work in the newer medium:
Television is a talk medium. The cinema is basically a behavioral medium, an action medium, people do things to generate a story. [I]n television they talk about doing things. You’re dealing with incredible professionalism in this field. All the scripts are tailored for five to seven day schedules and it’s so much easier to shoot characters talking about something than having them go through the actions. Television has an affinity for the minutiae of emotions as opposed to the broad sweep, the spectacle, the action of a motion picture. The difference is in the complexity of the mounting.
Though he directed a few more theatrical films (including the creepy The Mephisto Waltz, TV producer Quinn Martin’s only foray into features), Wendkos spent most of the seventies on directing made-for-television movies and mini-series, many of which were quite highly regarded. The first of them, a chiller called Fear No Evil, continues to attract obsessive attention; the second, The Brotherhood of the Bell, was a look at a Skull and Bones-type organization that earned Wendkos a DGA award nomination. The Legend of Lizzie Borden, with Elizabeth Montgomery wielding the axe, was a big deal in its day, and The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story netted Wendkos an Emmy nomination. And so on.
I should, at this point, be able to offer some specific insights on what made Wendkos one of the best among his generation of TV directors. But that’s tougher than it sounds, even for a specialist like myself. It’s at least a measurable task to isolate the elements in scripts that make a TV writer unique – the repeated themes, the “voice” of the dialogue, the broader control that can come via elevation to producer or story editorship. But to do the equivalent for an episodic director requires a close viewing of many segments, in close proximity, and even then the common elements may remain elusive, or mislead. How does one grapple with the fact that, as a production necessity, episodic television directors (even the best ones) routinely had less involvement in pre- and post-production than the hackiest of movie directors? How many presumably directorial choices were in fact the director’s, and how many were dictated by the producer or the star or the house style of a particular show? Do his Invaders segments more closely resemble Wendkos’s segments of other series, or those Invaders segments helmed by others? TV movies are easier – one can presume a bit more creative control on the part of the director – but most of them are maddeningly hard to come by these days. Little wonder that the expert cinephiles at Dave Kehr’s blog struggled last month to define the Wendkos touch, even as they agreed upon their admiration for it.
Tise Vahimagi and the late Christopher Wicking, in their book The American Vein, contemplate this authorial question with mixed success, but I think their take on Wendkos is sound:
In his best work, there is a clinical detachment from his characters, which prevents any easy transference from the viewer. His analytic view intensifies the feeling that we are watching insects under a microscope. Some of the insects run bewildered from the various physical and psychological hounds on their trail, whilst others do the pursuing — implacable and imperious. Wendkos’s framing of a cold world is usually meticulously correct, frustratingly proper. It conveys a Langian sense of fate, against which individuals are powerless.
To which I’ll add only that the best dramatic TV directors of the sixties, of whom Wendkos was one, had to be equally proficient in their guidance of actors and in their use of the camera. This is an obvious point. But the fact that there are few television auteurs who managed to specialize in one area to the exclusion of the other (in the way that, say, Kazan was an “actor’s director” or Hitchcock a meticulous planner of compositions) makes it all the more difficult to differentiate amidst their work.
If I can’t offer a full analysis of Wendkos’s mise-en-scene, I can at least shed some light on one mystery which emerged from that discussion on Mr. Kehr’s site. The authorship of Angel Baby has always been disputed in the reference books. Though Wendkos bears the sole screen credit, the project originated with another director, Hubert Cornfield, who had a similarly uneven and interesting early screen career. (Although when Wendkos segued into television, Cornfield simply disappeared). The press reported during the film’s production in 1960 that appendicitis forced Cornfield off the film, without indicating how much of it he completed before Wendkos took over. In that 1968 interview, Wendkos distanced himself a bit from Angel Baby – he claimed he was promised script changes which never materialized – but also neglected to say how much of the finished work actually bore his stamp.
This week I put in a call to Angel Baby’s lovely and talented star, Salome Jens, whose portrayal of the title character, a phony (or is she?) faith healer, is one of the film’s chief assets. According to Jens, Cornfield was fired after one or two days (“he had a lot of ideas, but none of them worked”) and all of his footage was reshot by Wendkos. Of the two credited cinematographers, Jens remembered Haskell Wexler as Wendkos’s primary collaborator; Jack Marta (soon to become the DP on TV’s Route 66) was there mainly to protect the picture’s union status. (Wexler was not yet a member of the A.S.C.)
Angel Baby began shooting on location in Florida and Georgia, but was forced back to Los Angeles by uncooperative weather. That may account for the film’s uneven mixture of steamy tropical authenticity and cramped, flimsy-looking sets. Apart from Jens, the visual energy Wendkos brings to the film – lots of tracking shots and low angles, perhaps to suggest the faithful gazing skyward – is the best thing about it.
“I had a lovely experience with Paul,” said Jens, who also did an Untouchables for Wendkos two years later. “I felt that he enhanced what it was I brought him. I already had ideas about what it was I was going to do, and he was very supportive. I loved Angel Baby. I thought it was a sweet little film.”
There’s one discrepancy I haven’t resolved, and that’s the question of Wendkos’s age. Most reference books report his date of birth as September 20, 1922, but the obits all state that he 84 rather than 87. If I sort out the facts, I’ll report back.
UPDATE, 12/3/09: Lin Bolen Wendkos says that Paul’s birth certificate bears the 1925 date. No one in the family seems to know how that 1922 business got started. Intriguing! Also, Paul was his middle name; his given name was Abraham.