March 5, 2014
Fifteen years ago, when I worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archives and Steve Taravella was researching a book on the actress Mary Wickes there, Steve asked me what I’d most want to know about Wickes. Her sexuality, was my immediate reply, since Wickes’s character type was the conspicuously man-hungry or asexual spinster who tends now to be seen as a coded lesbian. After I offered that pretty obvious answer, Steve’s face sort of fell. I could hear him thinking: Is that all people are going to care about?
Taravella’s book, which came out last fall, serves as a brilliant rebuke to my reductive answer. It’s one of the most worthwhile works of entertainment scholarship I read last year. While there are biographies of almost every important film and TV star, and even a few books that lovingly chronicle the lives of character actors (like, say, Peter Lorre or Warren Oates), who briefly or nearly became stars, Taravella’s may be the first serious account of the life of an actor whose name never appeared above the title. The secret to its excellence is that Taravella approaches Mary Wickes with the same respect and seriousness as one would a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck. Although Wickes in her career racked up only a fraction of the screen time that Davis and Stanwyck enjoyed, nothing about Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (UP of Mississippi, 2013) suggests that its subject is any less deserving of contemplation. In Taravella’s hands, Wickes becomes a stand-in for the whole bit player stratum. His book represents a single, exemplary attempt to document the middle class, sort-of-famous, sort-of-not life led by all those familiar working actors of the studio era. Largely neglected by the press in their own day, they are beloved ciphers to modern movie fans.
So, anyhow: Was Mary Wickes a lesbian? No, although she may have had her first and only sexual encounter with a gay man. Meticulously but tastefully, Taravella probes this and every other aspect of Wickes’s personal life to create a portrait of Wickes so detailed that, by the end of the book, you can accurately guess how she responded to a given situation before Taravella offers up the answer. The book is full of details you would think couldn’t possibly have been recorded, and yet Taravella has found them and placed them in a context that usually manages not to seem like an invasion of privacy. Wickes was something of a pack rat, and Taravella was fortunate in that she bequeathed her estate to her clergyman, who saved everything and only declared a few personal items off limits. It would be easy to get bogged down in such minutiae, but Taravella navigates these treacherous shoals with confidence, always making a solid case for any pedantry in which he indulges. Even Wickes’s grocery receipts offer up relevant clues as to her ways of thinking and living. Taravella’s other stroke of luck was his timing. Although he began shortly after Wickes’s death in 1995, many of her contemporaries were still living, and Taravella (who traveled to Wickes’s hometown of St. Louis) interviewed many of these cousins, schoolmates, and early Broadway acquaintances in the last years of their lives.
The portrait that emerges of Wickes, who led a life not unlike those of many of her characters, is far from flattering. She lived with her mother until she was 55, and then alone in a Los Angeles high-rise for the last thirty years of her life. Many of her friends were gay men, although Wickes seems not to have realized that in many cases, and thought of some of them as (asexual) romantic partners. She also harbored delusions about her social and professional prominence. Wickes, for instance, thought of herself as a serious contender for the title role in Disney’s big-budget film of Mary Poppins, simply because she had played the part on television (in a live Studio One broadcast, many years earlier); she remained bitter about that rejection, and many other perceived slights, for the rest of her life. All of that could be taken as tragic – the typecast actor, yearning to break free – except that Wickes was a huge pain in the ass, who took her resentments out on colleagues and acquaintances. She was such a prude that the producers of the sitcom Doc fired her after Wickes demanded the right to change any dialogue she found offensive. Many biographers would take sides with such a quarrelsome figure, either advocating stridently for her as a friend would, or getting fed up with her (as the reader likely will). Taravella presents Wickes’s life in unsparing detail, and yet never wavers from a respectful, even-handed tone. His is an enormously humane depiction of a rather sad person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a solid, well-written overview of its subject, even if its total word count might not be much more than double that of the cumbersome title. Some of my readers and colleagues picked apart its omissions on Twitter, and they’re probably right. But as I’ve never seen any of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, and haven’t revisited the mother ship since it was rerunning on Nick at Nite, I found it to be a valuable primer.
Armstrong, whose previous book was Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style, places a particular emphasis on the women who made the show – Moore herself, as well as Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper (whose spinoff, Rhoda, gets almost as much attention as Mary), writers and story editors like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and Pat Nardo, costumer Leslie Hall, and director Joan Darling. Armstrong also digresses to place Mary Tyler Moore in the context of other feminist, or at least female-centric, sitcoms that sprung up in its wake, like Maude and Fay (a short-lived show made infamous by Lee Grant’s Tonight Show tirade against the programmers who cancelled it). That’s probably too narrow an approach – Darling, after all, directed only one episode, even if it was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” – but Armstrong never goes too far in terms of giving the women a disproportionate amount of credit. Plus, the biographical sketches of Silverman and some of the other women, which Armstrong threads through the book as a structuring device, are fascinating; implicitly, at least, Armstrong makes the case that their stories may indeed be more relevant than those of the men who had more creative input.
The problem with Armstrong’s book is a nice problem for a book to have, which is that it’s trying to be three books (at least) all at once: an exhaustive production history of Mary Tyler Moore; an industrial account of the rise and fall of Moore’s company, MTM Productions, the output of which (both comedic and dramatic) increasingly seems less dated than almost everything else on the air during its heyday, especially the rival sitcom factory run by Norman Lear; and an analysis of the extent to which feminism penetrated mainstream television (or didn’t) during the ERA era. Someone get cracking on all of those, please.
Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life (Weinstein Books, 2013) is a better-than-average movie star memoir, more candid than many but perhaps not terribly illuminating in its attempts at introspection from an actress who, at times, seems as ditzy as the characters she often played. (The book climaxes on a bummer, when Kellerman credits cultish group therapy sessions guided by Milton Wexler – the psychoanalyst who insinuated himself creatively into many of Blake Edwards’s narcissistic late-career comedies – for sorting out many of her emotional problems.) In any case, it will be of special interest to readers of this blog for the fond and unexpected attention that Kellerman lavishes on her early television career. Kellerman offers useful takes on some expected figures, like Joseph Stefano (who played Svengali with her on The Outer Limits, her big break), Robert Altman, and writer David Rayfiel, with whom Kellerman had a serious romance. But Kellerman also describes in detail the acting classes of Jeff Corey, where she got much of her early training and palled around with future stars like Jack Nicholson, as well as Schwab’s and all the other struggling actors’ hangouts in Hollywood.
(I’ve read many accounts of the New York equivalent of these formative places, but few from the West Coast.)
Television actors Robert Sampson and Luana Anders are major characters in the early chapters, as is Tom Pittman, a promising leading man who did a ton of TV guest shots in the year or two before his body was found at the bottom of a Hollywood canyon in 1958. Kellerman’s account of Pittman’s death, and of her role and that of small-part actor Robert Bice (who played square-jawed cops in tons of TV episodes prior to his own early demise) in its aftermath, are so startling that I’m surprised a major publication hasn’t taken up the subject for further investigation.
Don’t trade presses have editors any more? Herbie J. Pilato thanks a few of them at the end of his long-in-the-works biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon a Star (Taylor Trade, 2012), but I’ll bet they all wish he hadn’t.
Pilato, who has written several books on Bewitched and other TV series, certainly had the goods for an important book. He interviewed the press-shy Montgomery at length in 1989, and corralled most of her husbands, lovers, co-stars, and friends over the years. There are more than enough stories there to form the basis of a compelling bio, even if Pilato isn’t the world’s most discerning interviewer. Although it’s probably not his fault that most of Montgomery’s answers were superficial or evasive, it’s hard to let Pilato off the hook when he admits that he didn’t know about her marriage-ending affair with Bewitched producer/director Richard Michaels when he interviewed Michaels (and evidently chose not to confront him again after he got hip).
But what really sinks this disaster are a series of atrocious editing decisions, all of which conspire to make the book about as readable as a sixth-grade school newspaper. Pilato italicizes not just every single character name in the text, but also random words that don’t require emphasis. He cites every published source within the body of the text, and detours into multi-page digressions to introduce minor interview sources. He hands the mic over to dubiously-credentialed historians and “curators” for long, speculative, and generally irrelevant block quotes.
The book, though roughly chronological, constantly twists itself around in specious, confusing connections that Pilato forces between Montgomery’s life and Bewitched (or, for that matter, any pop culture artifact that pops into his head). Try to follow the logic at the beginning of Chapter Seven: Montgomery appeared in two TV movies in 1979; Lee Remick appeared in the Merchant-Ivory feature The Europeans in 1979; The Europeans “address[ed] the pertinent balance of social graces and reserved emotions – the kind Elizabeth had been addressing her entire life”; Montgomery and Remick had appeared together as sisters in a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. That’s an absurdly elaborate wind-up for what turns out to be just a description of that Kraft episode; Remick and Montgomery, it turns out, weren’t even close. Or this attempt to introduce the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair: Montgomery was a fan of Star Trek; there was a Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” that contained a historically significant interracial kiss; that episode originally aired on November 22, 1968, which was the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination; the Bewitched pilot began rehearsals on the day of JFK’s assassination; Montgomery starred opposite the African American O. J. Simpson in A Killing Affair and lobbied unsuccessfully for more love scenes with him. I was going to recommend Twitch Upon a Star for hardcore Bewitched fans only, but, honestly, I suspect even they will find it too hard to sift out the compelling nuggets about Montgomery’s life that are buried deeply, oh so deeply, within.
April 18, 2013
Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.
Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York. She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them. And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all. Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties. The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads). Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad. She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties. (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners). Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex. (Did she accept? Read the book.)
One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals. She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show. Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told. Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone. That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.
Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends. I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere. In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes. Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise. Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports. Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard. McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.
Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day). More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile. She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker. Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers. Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise. And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis. She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).
Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women. That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media. Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.
Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure). These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children. But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles. (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)
So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work. It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality. Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty. She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.
But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns. Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book). Here and there, the batting about of quotes works. If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand. But much of the book is perversely dry. Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner. And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:
My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.
Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.
Why aren’t those stories in the book? Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages). This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet. For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today. There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff, and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment. Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!). Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.
Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight. Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:
Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search. The problem with this is quite apparent herein. Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers. There was nothing attractive or honest about him.
And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:
Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one. Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines. Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…
Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool. Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away. And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending? Sorry, but I laughed.
Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.
The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis. (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series). Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried. The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around. And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life? Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills. How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?
Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake. I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet. Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.
June 6, 2012
“What you wanna watch now?” Billy Boy asked. “‘Real People’ or ‘WKRP?'”
“Either one. I don’t care.”
“Or there’s–” Billy fell silent as he tried to find his place in the television guide. When he finally found it, he read off the third choice, pronouncing it “Greatus Mercun Hee-ro.”
“You want that, huh, Head?” he asked.
“That one is dumb, I think. The guy keeps forgettin’ how to fly. Christ, you’d think if a guy knew how to fly, he’d know how to fly. He wouldn’t keep forgettin’ it the way this asshole does.”
- Newton Thornburg, Dreamland (1983)
April 5, 2012
Originally published in 1994, Vince Waldron’s The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book is one of the classic television series companions. Waldron’s book stands alongside Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone book, David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s Outer Limits tome, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Night Gallery companion, and maybe one or two others at the peak of a narrow little genre. All of them chronicle the birth and death of a major television series in a way that’s thorough but also inviting and readable, even for someone who hasn’t seen the show (or hasn’t seen it in a while.) They’ve all been an inspiration to me in how I approach my own research, and I always pull them down off the shelf if I’m writing about one of those shows (or one of the creative people behind them).
When Waldron wrote The Dick Van Dyke Show book, all of the major creative personnel were still alive (save for supporting player and director Jerry Paris). Waldron was able not only to document the genesis of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but also the development of a number of the show’s famously high-concept episodes, many of which spun out actual incidents in the writers’ or actors’ real lives. No other sixties situation comedy has received such loving scrutiny. All you have to do to understand the value of Waldron’s work is to think of all the unrecorded (or at least uncollected) stories that went into the making of The Andy Griffith Show.
Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of The Dick Van Dyke Show and it made sense for Waldron to commemorate the occasion by reprinting the book, this time through the independent Chicago Review Press. (The original version was published by Hyperion, but the days of big corporate publishers doing this kind of book are long gone.) Vince was kind enough to send me a review copy, so it is with some reluctance that I suggest the proclamation on the cover – “Revised and Updated Edition” – is something of an overstatement.
This is still a great book, but it’s not a very different one. The text in both editions is essentially the same. Waldron has made a number of cosmetic changes to his own prose (which was fine in the first place), and there’s an unnecessary new foreword by Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson). But if you were hoping for a new trove of updated interviews or an expanded episode guide, you won’t find it.
The primary difference between the two editions is in the illustrations. The second edition includes a lot of new photos, but there’s a catch – a lot of the stills from the first edition have been removed. In Chapter Sixteen, for instance, we lose a mustachioed Van Dyke in “The Bad Old Days” and a shot of Jay C. Flippen in “The Return of Happy Spangler,” but gain a backstage shot of Carl Reiner and Danny Thomas on the “Twizzle” set, along with their wives (who don’t look a whole lot like Laura Petrie).
The quality of the photographic reproduction is better in the new edition, and on the whole I think its images are better chosen; they tend to be a bit more episode-specific. On the other hand, because the page size is smaller, some of the photos that have been carried over are badly cropped. (In both books, Chapter Ten has a photo of Sheldon Leonard on the phone. In the second edition, it’s just a head shot; in the first, you get a glimpse of what’s on Leonard’s desk.)
It’s a shame that Waldron didn’t have the space or the finances to make the new Dick Van Dyke Show book a compendium of all the photos he’s collected over the years. That’s my major complaint about the second edition, although it’s still a flaw that will matter only to completists (and anybody who’s that much of a completist is probably buying up the old stills on Ebay anyhow). In short, if you already have the first edition, you don’t need to upgrade to the new one, and if you don’t – wait, what’s wrong with you? Get this book, already!
You’d think that a historian, reviving his pet topic and most important work after almost twenty years, wouldn’t be able to resist a major overhaul. Waldron had the whole story in his first version, and there’s nothing that needed to be changed . . . but still, after two decades as the “Dick Van Dyke Show Guy,” wouldn’t new anecdotes, articles, archival documents, and bits of trivia come to him, even if Waldron wasn’t actively seeking them? Maybe, maybe not.
I can’t speak for Vince Waldron. But in my own case, I published an account of East Side / West Side in 1997, and then revised and expanded substantially before I reprinted it on this site ten years later. Since since then, there are still more new interviews, new archival research, and new corrections that have landed in my lap; at some point I’ll need to do another pass at it, or at least a few appendices on the blog. I have some enthusiasm for that, because East Side / West Side remains an underappreciated and underreported show. On the other hand, since I first wrote about The Invaders in 2000, I’ve also become “the Invaders guy,” and I wear that mantle a bit more uneasily. There are other historians who know and love that show more than I do, and I feel like I said all I have to say on the subject in that piece. When people come calling about The Invaders, I’m always afraid I can’t deliver whatever they’re asking for. Being the keeper of the flame can be a pleasure or a chore.
January 26, 2012
“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”
- Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”
- Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them. Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating. But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why. Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him. (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.) I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture. The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.
Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer. I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana. As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday. As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.
The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it. I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book. The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner. But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent. Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.
Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey. Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer). Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.
Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices. Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique. Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style. And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.
A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties. Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.” I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.
“Coffee has yet another meaning. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.'”
- Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling. That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection. It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.
What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection. Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst). I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently. Are they just out of fashion in academia? Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor? Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?
“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men. He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”
- James Garner, The Garner Files
The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire. Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast. But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.
A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files. I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off. It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.
In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played. He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed. (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.) The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members. That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him. Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper. (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying. He’s angry and desperate, just like I am. That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)
Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies. Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects. The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows. Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.
Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy. One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down. (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)
Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it. Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone? Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo? I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable. But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.
August 11, 2011
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men in with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
The Moviegoer is a wonderful novel about Binx Bolling, an easygoing fellow from an old New Orleans family. Binx leads a charmed life in which he makes money, seduces his secretary, and fulfills his modest social obligations with apparent ease. But his glib exterior conceals a crippling lack of purpose, and an internal and mostly ineffectual search for meaning that Bolling relates to the reader (and no one else) in prose that is both funny and poignant. It is a modernist novel, but Percy anticipates the cinephilia common to postmodern writers like Robert Coover or Steve Erickson. Lacking his own reservoir of substantial incidents or ideas to draw upon from his own life, Binx Bolling recalls moments from films or television shows as a means, once removed, of relating his thoughts and feelings.
Binx is not merely a moviegoer, but also a regular watcher of television. On two occasions he describes the plot of a television episode he has seen recently:
In recent years I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. Three of my acquaintances in Gentilly have daughters named Stephanie. Last night I saw a TV play about a nuclear test explosion. Keenan Wynn played a troubled physicist who had many a bad moment with his conscience. He took solitary walks in the desert. But you could tell in his heard of hearts he was having a very good time with his soul-searching. “What right have we to do what we are doing?” he would ask his colleagues in a bitter voice. “It’s my four-year-old daughter I’m really thinking of,” he told another colleague and took out a snapshot. “What kind of future are we building for her?” “What is your daughter’s name?” asked the colleague, looking at the picture. “Stephanie,” said Keenan Wynn in a gruff voice.
I switch on television and sit directly in front of it, bolt upright and hands on knees in my ladder-back chair. A play comes on with Dick Powell. He is a cynical financier who is trying to get control of a small town newspaper. But he is baffled by the kindliness and sincerity of the town folk. Even the editor whom he is trying to ruin is nice to him. And even when he swindles the editor and causes him to have a heart attack from which he later dies, the editor is as friendly as ever and takes the occasion to give Powell a sample of his homespun philosophy. “We’re no great shakes as a town,” says the editor on his deathbed, teetering on the very brink of eternity. “But we’re friendly.” In the end Powell is converted by these good folk and instead of trying to control the paper, applies to the editor’s daughter for the job of reporter so he can fight against political corruption.
At first I racked my memory, and then skimmed the videographies of Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell, in an attempt to identify these TV plays. But, while every film that Binx Bolling sees is a real one, I have a suspicion that Percy invented these two television episodes. Binx’s (and Percy’s) attitude toward movies is sometimes bemused but often reverent, as in the quote at the top of this post. There’s a long, lovely passage in which Binx, his girlfriend, and his disabled half-brother go to a drive-in and see an obscure Clint Walker western, Fort Dobbs (1958). The two brothers take a shared, unarticulated pleasure in certain familiar western tropes, which pass over the head of the young woman in their company. The cinema is a common language that offers a special pleasure to the initiated.
By contrast, Percy holds television in somewhat lesser esteem, and his descriptions of the two TV shows Binx watches take on a mocking tone. The plots of these TV shows are a catalog of sentimental cliches which, unlike the moments from Stagecoach and The Third Man that Binx recalls, offer not even a second of iconic truth in which Binx can find meaning. I suspect that Percy constructed these plots with too much specificity to have cribbed them from real teleplays.
But . . . I could be wrong. I haven’t seen all, or even many, of the obscure anthology dramas in which Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell guest-starred during the late fifties (when The Moviegoer is set). The Wynn segment could be any number of things; the Powell could be one of the several dozen Four Star Playhouses that Powell headlined. Does anyone out there in TV Land recognize either of these as an actual television episode?
June 6, 2011
I discovered The Fugitive on TV.
The title character was my imagined self as sexual igniter. He was running from a murder charge as trumped-up as mine was real. The show was the epic of shifting and lonely America. Love was alway unconsummated. Yearning was continuous and transferred monogamously. Dr. Richard Kimble had moments of stunning truth with women weekly. The real world interdicted his efforts to claim them and create a separate world mutually safe. The guest-star actresses were torturously aware and rooted in complex and frustrated selfhood. They all try to love him. He tries to love them all. It never happens. It all goes away.
I fucking lost it and wept every Tuesday night . . . .
It wasn’t the way they looked at Dr. Kimble. It was who they were and the path of their hurt up to him.
- James Ellroy (who turned 15 in 1963, and blamed himself for his mother’s murder five years earlier), in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010)
May 10, 2011
James Rosin has a cottage industry of episode guides going. Since 2007, Rosin has published slim companion volumes for seven classic television series: Route 66, Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, The Invaders, Peyton Place, and Quincy, M.E. (on which Jim worked briefly as an actor and a writer). He has excellent taste – every one of those shows are worth remembering – and a prolificity that I frankly envy.
However, I haven’t written about Jim (who’s also a really nice guy) until now because I have had some reservations about his approach. All of Rosin’s books begin with a brief production history, and draw upon his own interviews with at least a few of the creative people involved in each series. But the bulk of each book is devoted to plot summaries. I’ve never understood why writers of television episode guides do that. Episode recaps may be useful for reference, but they aren’t readable for pleasure. I mean, if you have seen the episode, you don’t need to read a plot summary, and if you haven’t, you won’t want to “spoil” it, right? Like Martin Grams, Jr., about whose massive Twilight Zone book I had mixed feelings, Rosin declines to editorialize at all about the content of the shows.
It’s not that Rosin’s work was subpar, but when I read his books (full disclosure: all of which he generously supplied to me at no charge) I was left wanting more. Most of those shows, especially Naked City and Route 66, deserve – no, require – a much more exhaustive account of their making.
However, when Jim sent me Peyton Place: The Television Series last year, I was relieved that I could recommend one of his books without many misgivings. Peyton Place was a young show – most of the principal cast and many of the writers were in their twenties or early thirties during its production – and therefore there more of the creative staff are still with us than would be the case for a typical sixties series. Rosin has interviewed about twenty-five of those survivors and assembled their collected testimony into a breezy, informative oral history. This introductory chapter comprises fewer than fifty pages, but it covers all the essential rollercoaster events in the making of this smash hit-turned-midseason cancellation. The abrupt shearing of Mia Farrow’s hair in late 1965 was the great Rashomon moment of sixties television – everyone who was there remembers it, but differently – and I knew it would be my test of the book’s value. Rosin quotes four people on the subject: passing grade.
I also like the way Rosin handles the intricate serialized storyline of Peyton Place. Around the time I launched the Classic TV History website, I was thinking of tackling a thorough history of Peyton Place, and I began to interview some of the same people Rosin spoke to for his book. But I could never figure out how to structure an episode guide. It seemed that Peyton Place, with its 514 plot-choked episodes, would require an encyclopedia of story information. Instead, Rosin has assembled a very accessible plot summary for each of the show’s five “seasons” (since Peyton Place aired without summer reruns, those divisions would have been apparent only to the production staff, not to viewers), without worrying about entries for each individual episode. Preceding that is a roughly chronological listing of the hundred or so series regulars and semi-regulars. It works, and probably better than whatever jumble I would have come up with.
Finally, Rosin includes a center section of terrific publicity and behind-the-scenes stills, along with a few key production documents. My favorite is the one reproduced below, which depicts the show’s 1965 writing staff standing around a Peyton Place signpost prop.
In my research on television writers of this era, I made the acquaintance of six of the eleven people in that photo. Being able to see what they looked like at a moment in time that I discussed with each of them means a lot to me. It’s very rare to find a photograph of the assembled writers for a sixties television series (even for a show that used an in-house staff, rather than freelancers). It’s fortunate, and appropriate, that Rosin has found one for Peyton Place, since this underrated melodrama was one of the best – if not the best – written American television show of its day. Peyton Place also celebrated writers and writing within its narrative: Constance owned a bookstore; Allison was an aspiring storyteller; Elliot became a novice newspaperman late in life; and so on. It may be unique in that emphasis, at least among sixties television series, and that’s one of the many reasons I love Peyton Place.
James Rosin’s books are self-published, and so are many of Martin Grams’s. From what I can tell, both of them travel the circuit of film, book, and nostalgia conventions – of which there are a surprising number, in third- as well as first-tier cities – where they can interact with fans as well as sell and sign copies of their books.
I assume that works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. For one thing, I don’t know how to drive a car, and for another, I suppose I could be called “reclusive.”
When I first started doing research on television and film history in the late nineties, while I was still in college, it dawned on me that if nothing else, I could publish on the then new-fangled internet. That was a huge relief. A decade earlier, if a scholar was doing work too esoteric to find a real publisher, no one would have read it. Having the internet out there as a backup felt empowering, and it appealed to my perfectionism. I decided that I would not work with small presses whose existing catalogs were poorly proofread and edited. I would give my work away for free on the internet before I would sell it to a small press that wouldn’t distribute it properly, that would put an $85 cover price on it and never get it on the shelves in bookstores.
So, here you have it: I’m giving it away for free on the internet.
Of course, when I was in college, there were still major and semi-major presses that published books about old television shows and biographies of pop culture figures who were not household names. There still had bookstores back then, too. So it seemed possible, if not likely, that I could con a “real” publisher into doing a book about some TV show or personality that nobody had ever heard of.
Today, that gravy train is over. I have no idea how Stephen Battaglio managed to get St. Martin’s to publish his David Susskind biography, or how David Bianculli sold his recent Smothers Brothers book to Simon & Schuster, because I see fewer and fewer works of that type coming out these days. That’s a huge loss. Battaglio and Bianculli are experienced journalists, working with pr editors, and it shows. Writers like Rosin and Grams (and myself), who don’t have that kind of professional training, have to fend for ourselves, and that shows, too. Enthusiasm doesn’t always cut it. Even though I can recommend Jim’s Peyton Place book, I can’t pretend that it is a vital piece of scholarship in the way that Battaglio’s and Bianculli’s books are. There was a moment in the eighties and early nineties where a TV episode guide – I’m thinking of Marc Scott Zicree on The Twilight Zone, David J. Schow on The Outer Limits, Vince Waldron on The Dick Van Dyke Show – could be researched, written, and edited with the same professionalism and seriousness as a biography of Roosevelt or Kennedy. That feels like a long time ago.
Of course, when I realized I could give it away for free on the internet, I was thinking in units of “books” and “articles” – because that’s what they had back then. When I launched my website, this blog was an afterthought. Now it’s the engine, not the caboose. And blogging has given me freedoms other than the search engine’s guarantee of like-minded readership. I can publish a short blurb like last week’s Honey West bit, or a thirty-seven hundred word monster, like the Sidney Lumet appreciation that preceded it. I’m not bound in terms of subject matter, either. I can skip around from one show or person to another; I can write in response to current events, or just about whatever pops into ahead. And it’s instantaneous. I don’t have to wait years for a book to come out, or months for a journal article. Feeding content to this blog has delayed progress on my book-length projects, but so far it has been worth it.
But now it’s time to revive one of those half-completed books, or several.
Here’s where I think writers like Martin Grams and Jim Rosin were ahead of the curve. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of self-publishing. Amazon’s print-on-demand application is beginning to leveling the playing field between traditional publishers and one-man bands. The Kindle and iPad offer cheaper and, arguably, more convenient platforms for reaching readers. Pricing structures have been upended. The publishing industry is scared of these changes, and while that has made it more difficult for esoteric writers like myself to get book deals, it has opened new possibilities, too. Now you can self-publish without blowing your life savings on a garage full of unsold books.
Most of the digital self-publishing success stories are fiction writers, but I’m curious about what will happen with non-fiction books. I still like reading novels on paper, but I’d sure love to have my shelf of reference books transferred to searchable files on my laptop. Aren’t works of popular history a natural fit for digital delivery? I’d shell out to repurchase key works as PDFs, or in a similar format. The index would be obsolete!
Of course, there is a danger here. I’ve taken other self-published writers to task when I thought that aspects of their work were not up to a professional standard. If a writer goes DIY, he or she has to know how to conceptualize, write, edit, proofread, index, design, upload, and market the work. I can do some of those things pretty well, but not all of them. Still, I’m excited by the prospect of doing an end-run around miserly publishers, mediocre editors, and the idiocy of peer review. I believe that a new and more efficient path may be taking shape, by which specialists like myself can connect with a core audience that would not have been findable a short while ago – and without giving it all away for free.
I always welcome reader comments, but in this case I am particularly interested in feedback about what I have written here. Have I been too critical of writers like Rosin and Grams? Does the future of popular culture scholarship reside on the internet, in eBooks, or someplace else? How can self-publishing writers compensate for the absence of editors, designers, and publicists – or will none of that matter in the near future?
And. Most important of all. Would you buy a book from this guy?
October 19, 2010
The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life. Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death. Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.
If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality. You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well. As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years. He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).
But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer. It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel. Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.
Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings. Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern. Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered. In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep. Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks. Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows. It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.
A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career. Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill. Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product. He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting. Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down. Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up.
In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow. Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him. I was not alone in this.” In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle. One of them was anything before yesterday. So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.” Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark. He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.
A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked. I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly. In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t. Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company. After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.
Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell. Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear). Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it. His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change. It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went. Had he been bipolar during his entire career? Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t. Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television? Because they were crazy.
In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib. (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry). James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling. It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.
(There’s another connection to Mad Men. Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)
James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.” No. Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories. There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance. There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies. There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop.
Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less. A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited. Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages. His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties. One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself. Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.” Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling? Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?
Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here. Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying. I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence. Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great. Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.
Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era. Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end. Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial. He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.
But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk. Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner. But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price. (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.) Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.
But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.” Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage. The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.
Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between. The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.
Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996. For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know. Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.
There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew. The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side. And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs. Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode. (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)
Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!). But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.
In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles). As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.” (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.) Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go. Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”
That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw. Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.
Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass. His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story. But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten. In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.
Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did. It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not. But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format? Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.
(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary. That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)
Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit? Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights. Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands. He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision. That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true. A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject. But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.
Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced. You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that. Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home. Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties. You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).
At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially. You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes. If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape. If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there.
August 26, 2009
Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel. Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.
For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone. Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows would follow.
Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research. Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made. Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:
- Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
- Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid. James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
- A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.” Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
- On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public. Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set! (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)
Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog). His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.
The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes. Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers. Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it? In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438. Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order. (Why? I have no idea.)
Much of the above may seem trivial. But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings. Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds. Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind. Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent. Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.
Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected. His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door. But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others. He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.
But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame. Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera. There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show. In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection. For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.
Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected. The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary. Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots. He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery. (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.) In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.” Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.
After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos. Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year. During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs. Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good. Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.
In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling. On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal. The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.
In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre. Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.” In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach. Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted. But Serling’s move backfired. Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show. (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)
What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show. Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts. Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network). Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.
Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set. Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone. That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice. The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.
Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject? Sadly, I think that may be the case here. I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet. That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.
It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information. In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability. But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props? Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version? Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.
Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading. On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker. As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone. Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players. Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration. But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.
Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000. Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs. The correction is welcome. But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget. In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.
Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern. Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether. Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on. The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.
It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them. (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company). But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.
In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing. Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents. He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject. Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”
In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it. But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry. A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions. In fact, he may owe them to his readers. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis. Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why. It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.
While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion. Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989). Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable. And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote. Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.
Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh. But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks. Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show. For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro. For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators. And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.
Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.