August 26, 2014
Along with dubious social skills, there’s one thing that unites nearly every classic television buff I’ve ever encountered: a crush on Susan Oliver, the beautiful, sad-eyed blonde remains best remembered for a one-off role as a scantily-clad, belly-dancing, green-hued alien in the 1965 pilot for Star Trek. Almost everyone I know who has seen a bunch of the hundreds of television episodes Oliver guest starred in between the fifties and the eighties has fallen half in love with her.
The crotch-vote factor among pop culture enthusiasts is perilous territory. Denying it is a kind of intellectual dishonesty. But for every writer, like Pauline Kael or Manohla Dargis, who can articulate a carnal response to art within the context of serious criticism, there are a dozen essays or interviews or conversations where it just comes out sounding icky. (As one reader recently pointed out, this recent Paul Mavis review of The F.B.I. reads “like a list of ’70s actresses he wishes he could have banged.”)
So when I heard that a documentary was in the works about Susan Oliver, and that it was being made by a one-man band I’d never heard of named George Pappy, I envisioned a worst-case scenario in which the finished product turned out as creepy fan-bait for Comic Con pervs. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Green Girl, which as of now is being self-distributed on DVD via Pappy’s website, is a terrific movie. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about sixties and seventies television – and unfortunately, I realized as I typed that sentence, one of the only documentaries about sixties and seventies television.
Although Pappy says in his DVD audio commentary that he knew next to nothing about Susan Oliver before he began, apart from her Star Trek and Twilight Zone credentials (Oliver also played a sexy Martian in one episode of the Rod Serling series), he correctly intuited that the actress’s mysterious on-screen mien hinted at a rich, troubled off-screen story. Pappy not only tells that story in considerable detail, but manages to use the ubiquitous Oliver as a sort of prism through which to examine an era of television – its content as well as some infrequently discussed realities of its production – in a broader context.
The Green Girl hits a few beats more than once – there are two or three points where Pappy’s talking heads (disclosure: I’m one of them) lapse into reveries about just how many television roles Oliver played. The film itself seems equally overwhelmed by them. But if The Green Girl is not quite as tight as it could be, that’s a minor flaw, because the excess consists of well-chosen clips, often from television episodes (and a few movies) that have never been commercially available. (Pappy had access to some first-rate private collections when assembling his Oliver archive.) Although there are promising samples here of her few forays into comedy, Oliver had an ineffable melancholy about her – a wistfulness in the eyes and a tamped-down voice that occasionally spiked, with Shatneresque unpredictability, in an optimistic high note, like sun peeking through clouds for just a moment. No wonder she worked so often, and remains so irresistible to the nerd herd half a century later; Oliver was custom-built to play wild-child and lost-girl archetypes, in need of saving by every show’s hero (and every spectator).
Pappy’s film hits its stride when it expands to explore Oliver’s private life. In the mid-sixties, Oliver began flying single-engine planes – a common hobby among successful Hollywood types, but usually just the male ones. Oliver not only took it up, but did so competitively, attempting a record-breaking Atlantic crossing in conditions that some of her fellow pilots considered irresponsibly dangerous. (It’s also clear that Oliver’s beauty and fame created opportunities for her that were denied to other women fliers.) Oliver also never married or had children, which has led some fans to speculate that she was a lesbian. In fact her lovers were male, some were well-known and (by the seventies) younger than she was, and the transitory nature of her relationships was apparently Oliver’s preference. Two of her paramours – actor George Hamilton and baseball legend Sandy Koufax – are among the few holdouts in an otherwise exhaustive interrogation of Oliver’s surviving relatives and close friends, all of whom are guided by Pappy toward specific, no-bullshit recollections of the late actress. The most important of Oliver’s significant others was Czech pilot Mira Slovak, a daredevil who defected from the Soviet Bloc by hijacking a commercial airliner. Slovak died a few weeks ago, making it all the more heartening that Pappy convinced him to speak frankly (and reluctantly, Pappy says in the audio commentary) about his brief but intense affair with Oliver, whose infatuations with flying and flier were bound together in complex ways.
Oliver’s airborne adventuring (as well as the book she eventually wrote about it) and her unconventional romantic life are pillars of a compelling case for the actress as a significant pre-feminist figure, at least by Hollywood standards. The final element of that argument was an urge to move behind the camera that took hold as Oliver’s interest in flying waned. (Although she never transparently phoned it in, acting gradually became just a way to pay the bills for Oliver, probably starting when MGM blew its chance to make a star out of her during a multi-year contract in the mid-sixties.) Oliver joined the original class of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women in 1974, alongside the better-known Maya Angelou, Margot Kidder, and Ellen Burstyn. Along with the celebrities, the early AFI Workshops trained many of the more talented women directors of the seventies and eighties – Lynne Littman (Testament), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), and actors of Oliver’s generation like Lee Grant, Karen Arthur, and Nancy Malone, all of whom transitioned full-time into directing episodic television or feature films.
Oliver makes for a less inspiring case than any of those contemporaries. After her AFI short (Cowboysan, starring the strapping trio of Woody Strode, Ted Cassidy, and Will Sampson, a few tantalizing clips from which appear in The Green Girl), Oliver notched exactly two television episodes, one each of M*A*S*H and Trapper John, M.D. Again, Pappy gets convincingly to the bottom of the minor mystery of why Oliver worked so little as a director. It’s a dispiriting answer. During its final moments, The Green Girl becomes almost an advocacy documentary, in which many interviewees – especially the blunt, articulate Malone, who also died earlier this year – unload on an industry that didn’t boast even a single, token woman director during the decade or so after alcoholism brought a premature end to Ida Lupino’s days as an auteur.
Pappy amassed an eye-popping trove of family photos and behind-the-scenes footage to document Oliver’s life, not to mention a heartbreaking answering machine message recorded seven days prior to her death. But with a surprising dearth of substantial interviews to draw upon, Oliver’s voice is notably absent from the film. Pappy’s enterprising solution was to assemble a sort of Greek chorus of Oliver’s contemporaries, actors and actresses who like her were fixtures on television but never became household names. This group – which includes Lee Meriwether, Kathleen Nolan, Peter Mark Richman, Gary Conway, David Hedison, Roy Thinnes, Celeste Yarnall, and Monte Markham – don’t pay tribute to Oliver so much as convey by proxy what it was like to be a performer of her particular niche and stature, in her specific moment. It’s an often neglected topic and a fascinating one, particularly when it turns its attention to economic realities. In the decades before $1 million-per-episode contracts, TV stars in the sixties were paid well enough to live comfortably, but not enough to make them truly wealthy, or to guarantee a secure retirement. (Thinnes tells a funny story about a residual check for eight cents – which his bank wouldn’t even cash.) For Oliver, such a perilous freelance economy led to serious financial troubles – one of several unhappy episodes, all chronicled in respectful detail by Pappy, in a life that began with a weird, co-dependent relationship with a domineering mother (celebrity astrologer Ruth Hale Oliver, who deserves a documentary of her own) and ended in an early and probably avoidable death.
James Shigeta, an equally talented and similarly forgotten television actor of Oliver’s generation, died last month, during a week in which I happened to be on vacation and plowing through (among other things, fortunately) a DVD of the first season of Medical Center. That show is an insomnia repellant if ever television invented one. Shigeta has a recurring role in the first season, a truly thankless one as an initially unnamed doctor who tends to drop in for only a scene or two, in order to outline some medical crisis that swaggering, oh-so-boring Chad Everett will go on to solve. In search of the reasons behind Shigeta’s collapsed career, I watched another documentary, Jeff Adachi’s slim and superficial The Slanted Screen, even though the answer was obvious. The most vivid of the handful of soundbites that Shigeta offers in The Slanted Screen is a comment that producer Joe Pasternak made after watching him in Flower Drum Song: “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a star.”
In fact, Shigeta was a star, if only for a moment. In Sam Fuller’s amazing The Crimson Kimono, and a handful of other films in the early sixties, Shigeta was a romantic lead, sometimes opposite white actresses (Victoria Shaw in Kimono, Carroll Baker in Bridge to the Sun). The Slanted Screen characterizes Shigeta as the first Asian American leading man since Sessue Hayakawa’s run as a matinee idol during the teens; in between, Asian heroes like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto were essayed by white actors in “yellowface” makeup. Like James Edwards, the African American star of 1949’s Home of the Brave, Shigeta’s conspicuous talent led a few independent filmmakers to ignore, or be inspired by, his race. But that couldn’t last, and Shigeta slid into the kind of bland supporting roles as professional types – doctors, judges, military officers, police detectives – that was the best work available for minority actors who read as upper-class. Early on, there were some challenging, atypical, specific parts: as the sardonic, arrogant Major Jong (a stand-in for writer Joseph Stefano, as one observer astutely suggested) in the brilliant Outer Limits episode “Nightmare,” and as a nisei doctor who’s horrified to learn that his bride (Miyoshi Umeki) is a Nagasaki survivor on Dr. Kildare. And Matt Zoller Seitz thought enough of what Shigeta did with a small role in Die Hard to write a whole essay about it. Shigeta had begun his career as a pop singer, and his marbly voice was his signature instrument; it was almost impossible for him to read a line without putting a few layers of ambiguous subtext into it.
Susan Oliver’s obituaries initially reported her age as 53; a week later, Variety ran a correction (the only such emendation I can recall ever seeing in its pages), which pointed out that the actress was in fact 58. Shigeta sometimes claimed a birth year of 1935, but usually admitted to 1933. His obituaries revealed he was born in 1929. Lies and omissions were part of the bargain for aspiring stars of their generation. Was Shigeta gay? He had no marriages or children (although, as we’ve seen, neither did Oliver). Before moving back to the States, the Hawaiian-born Shigeta enjoyed a stint as a singing and television star in Japan; later, he claimed the Japanese ingenue Kazuko Ichikawa as the one that got away, but Shigeta most often told reporters that he was waiting for the right girl – just like Liberace. A few years ago, I sent Shigeta a letter, asking for an interview; after Shigeta died, I learned that a colleague sent a similar request around the same time. Neither of us received a reply. This rare interview, conducted in the eighties, starts off by explaining how press-shy Shigeta was, and over the course of four pages it becomes excruciatingly clearas to why: although Shigeta is articulate and appealingly self-effacing, getting more than a surface answer out of him was like pulling teeth. If the riddle of Susan Oliver has been solved, as much as it can be, I’d love to see someone tackle Shigeta next.
August 7, 2012
So you’re probably all familiar with the Warner Archive. If you’re not, that’s the DVD-on-demand initiative started by Warner Bros. in 2009 and imitated by most of the other studios. It has radically altered the home video business, basically ending retail marketing of catalog titles and supplanting it with direct-to-customer internet sales.
I’ll bet you’re also aware that in the last year or so the Warner Archive has begun releasing some obscure old (and new) TV shows in pricy, rarely-discounted box sets: The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Shaft, Tarzan, Medical Center, The F.B.I., Cheyenne, Daktari, Shaft, Southland. Plus they’ve got one-off releases of a few dozen made-for-TV movies from the seventies and eighties. Another studio, Sony, distributes its own burn-on-demand discs through the Warner Archive site, and they’ve got some TV series gems, too: Ghost Story, Born Free and, coming in October, the underrated, rarely-seen Dale Robertson western Iron Horse.
Also during the past year, I’ve been going back and forth in an unintentionally comedic and occasionally demeaning exchange with the Warner Archive’s publicists. I was tempted to turn those e-mails into an epistolary sequel to “Dirt in the Bathtub,” in which I riffed on Shout Factory’s apparent inability to process my screener requests (productively, as it turned out, because they started sending me discs, at least for a while).
But I don’t like repeating myself, so let me just give you the upshot. Which is that Warner Archive will not send me TV discs to review, although they have on various occasions (1) written back to ask if I’ve published my review of the discs they never sent me, or (2) offered to send me some movies instead (even though I made it clear I only write about television here).
I’m about ready to throw my hands up completely, but first let’s try something together. I’d like to write about some of the shows Warner Archive is releasing. The Gallant Men and Harry O just came out. The Lieutenant is likely coming “very, very soon” (some clips were unveiled last month at Comic Con in San Diego). I’ll probably get around to those and all of the older ones mentioned above, too. But frankly, I can’t afford them all, and it’d send ‘em much closer to the top of the pile if Warner Archive coughed up some review copies.
So how about this: If you’d like to read what I’d write about some of those shows, hop on over to the Warner Archive’s convenient Facebook page and tell ‘em so. Anyone can leave comments there, and the Warner people actually read and answer most of them. While you’re there, why not post the link to my little blog and mention that you like this space. Who knows – maybe they would, too.
UPDATE, 8/10/12: It would appear that the Classic TV History Blog and the Warner Archive have reached a mutually beneficial arrangement. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!
June 21, 2012
Invisible is right.
Word has it that the recent Blu-ray release of The Invisible Man, the 1975 series that starred David McCallum, is all fucked up.
The Blu-rays have cropped the episodes – which, like every TV show prior to the late nineties, were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – on the top and bottom to fit the standard widescreen television size of 16:9. That means that poor David McCallum, who was already short enough to begin with, has been shorn of his hair and his legs in a lot of long shots.
There are apparently other problems with this Blu-ray – for one thing, all thirteen episodes are crammed onto a single disc – but obviously the Procrustean aspect ratio change is the dealbreaker. It’s the same botch that afflicted one batch of Route 66 episodes (which were corrected) and the first season of Kung Fu (which weren’t).
(And the series pilot is actually stretched instead of cropped!)
VEI, which put out The Invisible Man discs, is one of several independent DVD labels that have sublicensed old TV series from Universal; it’s responsible for the absurdly overpriced McMillan and Wife box set, and for liberating the four episodes of The Snoop Sisters, a ninety-minute mystery wheel show that had been on a lot of collectors’ most wanted lists.
What’s particularly galling here is that VEI clearly knew better, because their simultaneous DVD release of The Invisible Man is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. I don’t pretend to understand the logic but it certainly appears that VEI has caved into imbecile pressure from the “I want it to fill my screen” crowd.
It’s not a total loss, since fans who know and care about this stuff can avail themselves of the DVDs instead of the Blu-rays. But the state of classic TV on Blu-ray is so anemic – we have The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and … what else? – that a screw-up like this can have wider consequences. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: fans will buy the DVDs instead, sales for the Blu-rays will suck, and VEI (and other industry watchers) will convince themselves that consumers in this niche don’t care about Blu-ray. Well, some of us do – but you have to get them right.
This issue has received surprisingly indifferent coverage on the usual internet rant-podiums (maybe because the show, which I’ve never seen, is not highly regarded), but you can read more about this disaster at my bête noire, the Home Theater Forum. Update: At “press time,” HTF posters are reporting that VEI has plans to issue a second pressing of the Invisible Man Blu-rays in the correct aspect ration. We’ll see.
June 12, 2012
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
– Gina Leonard
1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here
It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City? I thought finding the answer would be simple. It wasn’t.
The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history. That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.
That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC. The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece). Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.
Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season. (Plus, they sent me a freebie.) But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases. Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises. So technically Ward is off the hook. But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.
I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down. It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do. Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.
Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes? That’s what I wanted to find out. I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.
A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows. There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong. The real story is much more complicated.
2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long
Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960. The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset. Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.
But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends. He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006. It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964. Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him. He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline. None became series. He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties. But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.
Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven. Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft. Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey. Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies. Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite. What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight. But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.
Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)
Bert Leonard could not live modestly. He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety. He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits. There were four wives and six daughters. The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81. “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me. Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”
Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade. He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly. There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally. Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”
Leonard’s friends supported him. The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses. The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while. James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”
Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows. He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.
3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger
On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years. They are plentiful and complex. I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.
Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end. According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.
“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month. “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me. I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others – “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”
Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet). The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam. He did time, and lost his law license. (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book. The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)
You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard. “He worked until the end,” Tierney said. “He was always working on ideas. He was an optimist. He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.” Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”
4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross
Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years. Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film. After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.” (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)
As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties. I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City. (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.) Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?). And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.
Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to. At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment. “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.” Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit. Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.
But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011. Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.
But don’t get excited yet. Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc. That’s a real shame. Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases. The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010. Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.
5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half
There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand. One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66. Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them? Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly? Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).
Then there’s the question of Max Kleven. According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way. But Kleven told me that he owns more. “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May. Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes. James Tierney points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him. Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor. Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.
Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?
6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain
Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements. Did Bert Leonard keep any of them? A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted. In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows. But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate. Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.
But what about Route 66? The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show. The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters. After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly. Where did these transfers come from? Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.” (Whose vaults?) The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”
As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean). My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.
The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes. Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable? I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs? Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?
(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)
7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold
I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer. But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers. Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.
But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem. Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history. There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too. For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again). That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955. The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology. Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible. Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years. She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.
(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)
8. A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry!
I first saw Route 66 when I was in college. One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes. I confess: I didn’t get it. The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws. The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too). And why were there so many fistfights?
Well, now I know better. Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties. Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.
The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming. The elements themselves are in uncertain hands. (Who has the negatives? I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.) James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City. I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth. Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.
Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce. (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.) But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace. The title of the episode is
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately. Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs. Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.
May 21, 2012
Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas. It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.
Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties. Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent. The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche. Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.
Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema). Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties. But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television. But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist. Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years. Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production. (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.) The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.
Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.
Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined. Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control. “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable. The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym. (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)
As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat. Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.” By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all. Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role. An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.
If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation. Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good. Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater. His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story. (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)
“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot. Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.” Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism. It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.
Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements. There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.” When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world. Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison. The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.
Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural. The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.” The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous. Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls. Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later. Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here? It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.
Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.” Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God). But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated. “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.
Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion. While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances. Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.
The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing. (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances). The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre. In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.
Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career. The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking. They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin. (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.) The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor. The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear. Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action. Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.
If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere. As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.” The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.
The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles. Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews. The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic. Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.
January 8, 2012
Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots. Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane. A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties. The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley. MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication. Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut. The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).
The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one. The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.
In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin. Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer). The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men. Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin. The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.
By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels. That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer. But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.
Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock. Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.
Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s. But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing. McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove. He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker. He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.
Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office
I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.” I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters. McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.
In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed). This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story. (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.) But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard. He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback. When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.
Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels. For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition. (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)
As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star. Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image. He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).
Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers
If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise. Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony. The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive. Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel. The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability. He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.
According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books. There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops. But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes. In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.” In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face. (Then, of course, he kisses her.) “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass. In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed. None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.
Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”
If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not. Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage. Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless. The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”
So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best. In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes. Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210. The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass. At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs. His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown. “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently. Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.
MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity. That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit. So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work. (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)
We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments. The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television. It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.
It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images. Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane. Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big. Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out. Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series. His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).
Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following. There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come. His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply. Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there. “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.
Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”
It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA. Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value. The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection. (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)
But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material. The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark. The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world. And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots. There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer. Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company. Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.
Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed. The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label. While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.