Mia2

Mia1

In the early days of 1966, a seismic event rocked the soundstages of one of the most popular television series of the time, and, eventually, the pages of the gossip magazines.

Mia Farrow cut off all her hair.

Farrow, the twenty year-old breakout star of ABC’s smash prime-time serial Peyton Place, had become famous not just for her work on the series, but also for her romance with Frank Sinatra (who was two and a half times her age) and for the trend-setting long blond locks that hung down almost to her waist.

One morning, in the middle of a shooting day, Farrow took a pair of scissors and chopped off nearly all of those locks.  Eventually, her androgynous new ’do would become just as much of a fashion statement as the old one.  But, in the short term, the writers and production crew scrambled to fix the gigantic continuity problem that their mercurial star had suddenly created.  It wasn’t the first time they’d had to scramble to accommodate Farrow’s whims: a few months earlier, her insistence on joining Sinatra for a vacation on a private yacht off Martha’s Vineyard had forced the writers to abruptly put Farrow’s character, Alison Mackenzie, into a coma following a hit-and-run accident.

Ultimately, the episode in production during the infamous haircut- number 182 – took a self-reflexive turn.  A petulant Alison attempts to defend her shearing to a skeptical Dr. Rossi (Ed Nelson), in whose care she has remained after awakening from the coma.  Rossi guesses that Alison is acting out because of recent upheavals in her family life (specifically, she has learned that her birth occurred out of wedlock).  “You know what it really means, Doctor? It really means that I got tired of my long hair.  Simple,” is Alison’s final word on the matter.  Well, nearly final: as other characters saw Alison and reacted over the next few episodes, the writers worked in a few more barbs about the short hair.

This was Peyton Place’s JFK assassination moment, and its Rashomon – everyone who was present remembered it, and all of them remembered it differently.  Over the years, as I did the research that became the basis for my A.V. Club piece on the series, I came to see the incident of Mia’s hair as the ultimate example of both the value and the peril of oral history.  If the accuracy of any single source’s memory must be subject to doubt, the cross-section of incompatible impressions nevertheless captures the essence of the moment in dramatic detail. 

 

Ed Nelson (actor, “Dr. Michael Rossi”): One time she had been on a cruise with Sinatra and Claudette Colbert, on Claudette’s yacht down in the Caribbean.  When she came back, she was in a scene where she had been in bed and I had to help her walk.  And she wouldn’t look at me in any of the dialogue.  In between rehearsals, I said, “What’s the deal?  You’re not looking at me.”  She says, “Well, Claudette told me, ‘Never look at the man that much.  Let him look at you.’”  I said, “Oh.”  So when she got up to walk and I was supposed to grab her when she almost fell, I let her go and she fell.  She got up and started pounding on my chest: “You let me fall!”  I said, “If I’d let you fall as far as you should, you’d have gone to China!”  She was very, very upset ….

Patricia Morrow (actress, “Rita Jacks”): That’s so cute, because Mia, long before she went on a cruise, she knew more from her dad and her mom than anybody that there was a way for everyone’s attention to be [on her].  I was cracking up, because I loved her.  She was just so unique and one of a kind.  But in every scene, everybody’s eyes would gravitate to Mia on film.  It was because she was playing around with the makeup.  Bob Hauser, the director of photography, would say, “She can’t do that!”  He’d go to the makeup man and say, “You’ve got to do this and that,” and Mia always found ways around it.  She was so smart in her guts about what was attention-getting.

Richard DeRoy (executive script consultant): I’m not the earliest riser in the world, particularly in those days, and Paul [Monash, the executive producer] called one morning.  My wife Jewel comes into the bedroom and [says], “It’s Paul!”  I’m groggy.  What could he be calling me about?  He says, “Dick!  Mia cut off her hair in the middle of an episode!”  

I said, “Paul, we’ll deal with it.”  And hung up.  I don’t even remember what we did.

Del Reisman (associate producer): That was one of those times when Paul called me and said, “Get down on the set, fast.  Mia cut her hair.”  So I went down on the set with two or three other people, maybe Sonya [Roberts, a staff writer], and she had indeed cut her hair.  Well, film has to match.  You can’t have a girl with blonde hair down to her hips, and then the next scene there’s nothing.

Everett Chambers (producer): We went through the haircutting of Mia Farrow.  I got a call from the assistant director, who says, “You’d better come down on the stage.  Mia’s just cut her hair off.”  

I said, “What are you talking about?”  

He said, “She cut her hair!”  

“What do you mean?”  

She cut her hair off.”  

So I go down there and she’s in the makeup room with no hair, right?  And I said, “Holy shit.  What is shooting?”  And they shot this scene, and they shot that scene, and they were supposed to shoot another one that was supposed to before the ones that she just did.  I said, “Uh-oh.  We’re in trouble.  How are we going to work that out?”  So I said to the hairdresser, “I dunno how you do it, put her hair back on!  I’ll be back.”  

I went up to Paul Monash’s office.  I said, “Paul, we got a problem.”  

“What is it?”  

I said, “Mia just cut her hair off.”  

He looked at me for a minute and he said, “You know, I just bought this book.  Takes place in Singapore.  It’s about this guy….”  He starts telling me all about that book.  Nothing to do with this problem.

I said, “Okay, Paul.  Thank you!”  

So I went into my office, looked at the script, saw we would have to change this and this, and then reverse this scene and put it here and add a couple of lines over here so it’ll make sense that she did it in between scenes.  So I worked that out, and we had to then get a writer to fix it and put the pages through and get it down on the stage.  That’s how we dealt with that.

Ed Nelson: I think she cut it herself, because it was whacked up originally.  Of course everybody knew nothing about it.  We were shooting and all of a sudden we found out.  So I went over to [makeup department head] Ben Nye and I had him put me on a bald head.  Bill Hole was our [associate producer], and I had him go in front of me and say, “Yeah, I know about Mia, but have you seen Nelson?”  And I went into the set and they went crazy!  They all laughed.  They even shot a couple of feet of film of Mia and I, which I wish I had.

Patricia Morrow: Ed is the one who actually made the situation much less tense on the set because all the producers and the broadcast people were there.  It was a nightmare.  All of us were just tiptoeing around on eggshells.  And it was such a relief to laugh.

Walter Doniger (series director, shooting or preparing another episode while 182 was being filmed): You know the story of her cutting her hair, don’t you?  Mia had beautiful long hair, and one day I’m walking down the street and I feel a [tense] vibration in the air.  I asked someone who worked on the show, “What the hell is going on?”  

“Mia cut her hair!”  

I said, “What?  In the middle of the day?”  

Paul Monash asked me to talk to her, and I went in to her and said, “What happened, Mia?”  She said, “It’s Barbara [Parkins, who played Alison's on-screen rival Betty Anderson].  She looks in mirrors all the time.  I couldn’t stand it.  I decided I didn’t want to be that way myself, so I cut my hair.”  Barbara was a sweet girl, but very self-adoring.

Jeffrey Hayden (director of episode 182; from his Archive of American Television interview, conducted by the author)Mia was lovely – very young, very malleable, very eager to make it.  She, at a certain point, was going out with Frank Sinatra.  I knew Frank Sinatra; I’d met him a few times.  She came to me one day and said, “Oh, Jeff, I’m so excited.  I’m going to go out with Frank tonight, and we’re going to go here and there….”  This was early in the relationship.

I said, “Mia.  You’re in the first shot tomorrow morning, and I know Sinatra.  He’s going to keep you out, if he can, till three o’clock in the morning, with his date at the club, and he’s going to be singing, and he’s going to want to go out with his buddies.  And you’re going to go with him, and it’ll be four in the morning, and Mia – you’re in the first shot tomorrow morning.  Please.  You’ve got to be here on time, we gotta go.  It’s a big day’s work ahead of us, and I want to see you not bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, first shot.”

“Okay, Jeff, okay.  Don’t worry, don’t worry.”  

Next morning, seven o’clock, seven-thirty, no Mia.  Eight o’clock, no Mia.  I start shooting inserts, keeping the crew busy.  Nine o’clock, she’s not there.  She walks in [at] ten o’clock.  I said, “Mia, do you realize – you know, I’m shooting inserts so they don’t bother me from the front office.  But we have,” whatever it was, “ten pages to do today.  It’s ten o’clock.  Get to that makeup table.  Stop this little girl stuff!  You’re an actress.  You’re a mature person.  You’ve got a crew of seventy-five people waiting to shoot your scenes.”  

She left.  She walked over to the makeup table.  I’m now setting up the camera for her first shot.  She came a minute, a minute and a half later, she walked over to me, held up her hand, full of the hair from the back of her head, and she said, “Jeff, no more little girl stuff.”  And handed me all her hair.  

I said, “Mia.  We’ve gotta match your last scene from yesterday’s shooting.  What’ll we do?”

“Well, I don’t know,” she said.  “I just wanted you to know: I’m growing up.  No more little girl.”  

Del Reisman: She was, or had been, involved with Sinatra, and Nancy Sinatra, the wife or ex-wife of Sinatra, threw a birthday party for him.  It was his fiftieth birthday.  [Mia] was definitely not invited, and he [Sinatra] would not take her.  And she was so angry that she did this to herself.

Everett Chambers: After she did it, I had a meeting with her and understood that she was in some pain, with this relationship – with Sinatra.  She told me he didn’t invite her to his birthday party.  Then, of course, they get married [six months] later.

Del Reisman: The whole writing group met in my office: “Okay, what are we going to do?”  We decided that off-stage, she had had some kind of an emotional breakdown, because it was easy with that character to suggest that.  We had Dr. Rossi come in to the room, and the scene was this: Dr. Rossi, very angry, saying, “Why have you done this to yourself?  You’ve done a terrible thing.  You’ve hurt your mother, you’ve really heart a lot of people by mutilating yourself.”  He had a huge speech, which a number of us worked on, and it was kind of our annoyance, the writing staff’s annoyance, at the fact that she messed us up.

Mia Farrow (from What Falls Away: A Memoir, 1997): It amazed me that girls my own age so often wrote about my hair, which in those days of “flips” and “bubbles” hung loose to my waist, solely because I was lazy and had never given much thought to it. The sudden focus on my looks and all the attention my hair was receiving was not entirely unpleasant, and that in itself made me wary.  The horror of vanity instilled in convent school – the same fear of pride that had let me to bury the rosary beads I had made from acorns – compelled me to cut my hair.

I waited for a moment in the Peyton Place storyline when it would fit; Alison’s nervous breakdown was perfect.  I didn’t ask for permission because I knew I wouldn’t get it: they would certainly oppose my changing any ingredient in a successful series.  So one morning before work, in the makeup room, I picked up a pair of scissors and cut my hair to less than an inch in length, laid it in a plastic Glad bag, and turned to the mirror.  It looked fine to me.  But the hairdresser was aghast, and the producers were upset, and people with wigs were summoned, and there were stern lectures about responsibility, and I apologized a lot, but privately I couldn’t see a problem.

There must have been nothing going on in the world that week, because my haircut got an absurd amount of press coverage.  There was wild speculation as to why I’d done it: some said it was to spite Frank, and back in New York, Dali, never one to minimize, labeled it “mythical suicide.”  But there was no drama, no fight with Frank, he loved my hair the minute he saw it, so I kept it short for years.

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Say what you will about the Warner Archive – and most of my early reservations about its product, apart from the pricing, have evaporated – but give them credit for having some dedicated amateur television historians on the payroll.  Not only did they unearth the bizarre backstory behind the 1971 Medical Center episode “Countdown,” but they also located two lengthy, very rarely-seen alternate endings for the episode, and included them on the second season DVD set that was released earlier this year.

Although the credited author of “Countdown” was Don Brinkley, a prolific freelance writer (Bat Masterson; The Fugitive; The F.B.I.) and a Medical Center story editor, the man who crafted many elements of its storyline was the social psychologist Stanley Milgram.  Milgram (whom TV fans will recall as the subject of the famous, largely fictionalized biopic The Tenth Level, with William Shatner) was known for two sociological experiments with implications that penetrated popular culture and made him something of a celebrity, at least within academia: the “small world experiment,” which established through an array of remailed letters the idea that each of us is separated by only six degrees of acquaintance; and the famous Experiment 18, which showed that ordinary people will commit otherwise unthinkable acts of cruelty (in this case, electric shocks administered to strangers) simply because an authority figure instructs them to do so.  Even though the supposed electroshock victims only pretended to suffer, Milgram’s work was condemned by many as unethical, because the shockers weren’t told what was really going on and some were plainly traumatized by their own conduct.  The experiment that Milgram would devise for – or rather, within and around – Medical Center had a similar whiff of sadism.

“Does television violence serve as a model that stimulates the production of violent acts in the community?”  That was the opening line of Milgram’s research proposal, dated April 23, 1969.  Milgram’s pitch was a result of a meeting convened on March 29 by CBS’s Office of Social Research, in which its chief, Dr. Joseph Klapper, solicited grant proposals on the subject of violence on television.  Not much has been written about the Office of Social Research, but it existed for a long time at CBS – from the days of radio in the forties until at least the late eighties – and it appears to have been a pet project of Dr. Frank Stanton, the highly influential CBS president who over saw most of the network’s scientific, political, and journalistic endeavors.  Although it’s hard to imagine a media conglomerate underwriting such a high-minded enterprise today, the OSR actually served two important purposes for CBS.  First, it collected early demographic data.  Second, following the 1961 Senate hearings on televised violence, it focused upon that topic and became an entity to which the network could point whenever it needed to remind someone that it was properly concerned about the social impact of its programming.  In 1969, the OSR awarded Milgram a sum of $260,000 to design and execute a study that would in some way demonstrate the connection (or lack thereof) between violence on television and in real life.

Milgram began with some false starts before he connected with Medical Center.  First, he wanted to deprive a community of “any violence shown on television” for an extended period of time, and measure the effects.  Needless to say, this proved impractical.  Next Milgram commissioned a script for a television movie that would offer a solid, easy-to-emulate act of violence within its narrative, but the script proved deficient (Milgram did not explain precisely why).  Eventually Milgram came to the conclusion that the violent stimulus could be less conspicuously embedded within an ongoing series.  Surveying the shows on CBS’s 1969 prime-time schedule, Milgram rejected saccharine sitcoms like Family Affair as well as programs like Mannix or Mission: Impossible, which were so routinely violent that isolating a specific act for study would be problematic.  Finally he settled upon Medical Center, a popular doctor drama in which a violent act could fit believably into a storyline but still stand out within a show that was typically rather talky.  In December 1969 Milgram met with the show’s executive producer, Frank Glicksman, and producer, Al C. Ward, and found them amenable to the idea.  The Milgram-infiltrated episode was slotted into the next season, Medical Center’s second.

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For his study to work, Milgram needed the episode to contain an anti-social act – a clear moral and legal transgression – but one that did not involve violence against another person.  (Naturally, Milgram didn’t want to be on the hook for suborning murder!)  Milgram and Brinkley settled upon a series of minor thefts as the climax of the episode, entitled “Countdown.”  Their guest protagonist, Tom Desmond (Peter Strauss), would be a young hospital orderly beset by financial and personal problems, as well as a serious inability to control his temper.  Too proud to accept the help of friendly Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett, the star of the show), Tom instead notices that collection boxes for a charity have been placed around the city in various locations, in connection with a telethon.  (Coincidentally, Dr. Gannon is helping to run the charity drive; implausibly, the boxes are stationed in places like a seedy waterfront bar.)  Will Tom bust into one or more of the boxes and steal the cash he needs to pay his wife’s medical bills and bail his charter boat out of hock?

Box Smash

Here is where CBS’s infusion of cash – an amount roughly equivalent to the budget of an entire Medical Center episode, although some of it went to staff and facilities for Milgram’s audience testing – came into play.  Milgram turned his Medical Center entry into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, concocting three different endings, in each of which Tom made a different choice and suffered a different set of consequences.  These were not little codas appended as epilogues.  Three highly variant alternate versions of the last act of “Countdown” were filmed, adding (in my estimate) at least two or three shooting days to five- or six-day production schedule.

Milgram designed the endings to dramatize distinct moral outcomes: two “antisocial” scenarios, in which Tom does or does not suffer punishment for illegal actions, and one “prosocial” scenario in which he commits no crimes.  In the first, Tom smashes the charity boxes, steals the money, and loses everything – his wife, his boat, his freedom – only to learn that Dr. Gannon had already gone behind his back and paid his debts.  In the second, he steals the money and flees successfully to Mexico, where his wife (Brooke Bundy) will join him after she is discharged from the hospital.  And in the “prosocial” ending, Tom opts at the last minute not to steal or to vandalize any of the charity boxes; in the last shot, he drops a coin into one of them.  With the variant “antisocial” endings, Milgram sought to determine whether the factor of punishment affected imitative behavior; with the “prosocial” ending, he expected to measure whether the mere contemplation of a crime could inspire viewers to commit that crime.  As a control, Milgram selected an entirely different episode, choosing one as anodyne as he could find, with no imitable anti-social behavior.  (Initially Milgram used the first season’s “The Fallen Image,” a soapy Cold War romance with Walter Pidgeon and Viveca Lindfors; for later stages of the experiment, he substituted the newer “Edge of Violence,” with comedian Jack Carter cheering up a possibly suicidal Joan Van Ark.)

Jail

Coin

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Jail, redemption, or Mexico (the latter outcome relayed by the proxy of Tom’s ill wife): each of the three scenes above is unique to one of the different endings of “Countdown.”

One aside that’s worth pointing out is that the Warner Archive disc does not accurately describe “Countdown”’s alternate endings, and presents them in a way that will confuse the viewer.  An art card characterizes the endings as “negative,” “positive,” and “neutral,” but the terms “positive” and “negative” do not correspond to Milgram’s terminology, and “neutral” is misused – Milgram used it to describe his control episode, not one of the “Countdown” variants.  It’s hard to discern just Milgram was trying to achieve with each ending from the limited context provided on the disc.  (But now you know!)  Also, while the discs indicate that “most of the nation would view the positive episode in which anti-social behavior is punished,” which I believe is accurate, Warner Archive presents this as one of the alternates.  On the disc, the standalone version of “Countdown” is Milgram’s “prosocial” cut, which was probably seen by a smaller audience in 1971 than either of the other two.  But what about reruns?  The likelihood is that the “antisocial with punishment” version was the one intended for mass consumption.  (Its script presented first in the appendix of Milgram’s book about the study, and the other two seem unsuitable for mainstream audiences.  The “prosocial” ending is talky and pat even by Medical Center’s standards.  And if not for the Milgram exemption the film noirish version in which Tom slinks off to Mexico, and his wife unapologetically vows to abet his escape, probably would have been disallowed by CBS’s censors.)  If the complete version presented on the DVDs is indeed the same one used in syndication, then for decades viewers have been watching the dullest version of “Countdown,” probably contrary to the producers’ intentions.

Once “Countdown” was in the can, the mind games that Milgram crafted around it took a variety of forms.  In the first round of tests, he showed the different versions of “Countdown,” plus the control episode, to preview audiences in New York City recruited off the street or through newspaper ads.  These viewers, thinking their role was only to evaluate the program as a kind of test audience, were promised a transistor radio as compensation, to be collected within a week’s time at a different location (an office building at 130 42nd Street, in the then-scuzzy Times Square).  When they arrived there, the subjects were met with a variety of stimuli that correlated to the “Countdown” scenarios.  The prize distribution office was unstaffed, and a note left on the counter told prizewinners either that the radios had all been given out, or (in a version meant to be less frustrating) that they were available at an alternate location.  On the wall, a charity box similar to the one in the episode held a small amount of money.  In one variation, a dollar bill dangled seductively from the box.  (Would the criminally inclined take all the money, or just the dollar that could be had without breakage?)  In another, the full Project Hope charity box was next to a similar March of Dimes box that had already been smashed and presumably looted.  Still another round of experiments transmitted the various permutations of “Countdown,” via closed circuit television, into a room in which the viewer was isolated with the tempting charity box.  All the respondents’ behavior was observed by Milgram’s research assistants via hidden cameras.

(The precise design of these scenarios was apparently proscribed by legal concerns about entrapment, a fact mentioned by Milgram and emphasized by one of his research assistants, Dr. Herman Staudenmayer, in an interview this week.)

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An observer’s checklist and images of Milgram’s secret lab (both reproduced from Milgram and Shotland’s book Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments).  Click to enlarge.

Those experiments occurred between the completion of filming in September 1970 and the initial telecast of “Countdown” in early 1971.  Then Milgram conducted a broadcast survey, in which members of the actual television audience in New York and St. Louis received questionnaires about the episode, which they could redeem in exchange for the radio at Milgram’s disguised lab (where the same will-you-steal-the-money shenanigans ensued).  New York saw the ending with Tom in jail; St. Louis got the version with Tom in Mexico.  (By the time of the broadcast, Milgram had discarded the “prosocial” ending.)

A second broadcast survey prodded viewers to copy another aspect of “Countdown.”  Before smashing the charity boxes in both of the “antisocial” versions, Tom Desmond (a real prince, this guy) twice calls Dr. Gannon’s charity and verbally abuses the telethon operators.  Viewers of the new control episode, “Edge of Violence,” and then “Countdown” in Chicago and Detroit on February 10 and 17, respectively, also saw advertisements that solicited donations to Project Hope.  Calls to the charity on those nights were monitored by Milgram’s associates for harassment that might be imitative of that in “Countdown.”  No one took the bait; the few abusive calls contained no language that resembled Tom’s choice of invective.

Milgram and a co-author, R. Lance Shotland, published their results in 1973, in a book called Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments.  Milgram’s biographer, Thomas Blass, suggests that the Medical Center experiment is not widely known in part because Milgram did not correlate it with the large body of prior research on the effects of violence in media.  Another reason might be that (as Milgram conceded in his own analysis) it proved nothing in particular, except the rather reassuring fact that even a really, really tempting target provokes theft in fewer than ten percent of cases.  Not only did viewers of “Countdown” not steal money in significantly greater numbers than the control group, but in several of Milgram’s simulations, people who saw the neutral program stole more often than whose who saw “Countdown.”  To the extent that his methodology was valid, Milgram’s experiment indicated that violence and lawbreaking on television were unlikely to contaminate the audience (a fact that no doubt relieved, but probably didn’t surprise, Milgram’s backers at CBS).

In their book, Milgram and Shotland pointed out certain flaws in their methodology – but there were other, more obvious problems to which they did not call attention.  For one thing, the puppet-strings aren’t very well concealed.  Even though the experiment cleverly cast its guinea pigs as television critics rather than test subjects, wouldn’t many of them have suspected something was up when a scenario almost identical to the climax of the program they’d been asked to evaluate presented itself in real life, during the evaluation process?  This was well after the heyday of Candid Camera, and I have to suspect that many of these folks were dissuaded from taking the dangling dollar because they fully expected Allen Funt to appear the second they touched it.

Also, since Milgram conducted the broadcast portion of his experiment during summer reruns – presumably, CBS’s indulgence did not extent far enough to allow Milgram to tinker with programming during the regular season – then at least some of his subjects must have seen “Countdown” prior to the evening on which they were asked to evaluate it.  Mightn’t many of them have remembered the show and filled out the questionnaires without watching the rerun all the way to the end?  That would mean that they had observed Tom’s criminal act months rather than days prior to being tempted themselves.

(I think that viewers in Milgram’s broadcast experiments saw “Countdown” in both February and April of 1971, but it’s difficult to be completely certain.  Milgram and Shotland’s book indicates that “while most of the country saw a neutral episode,” twelve million viewers in the New York City area watched “Countdown” on April 28 as part of the free radio experiment.  An unidentified control episode was surveyed the week before.  However, in the section on the call-in experiment, Milgram and Shotland suggest that a control episode and then “Countdown” aired, respectively, on April 14 and 21.  Unless I’m missing something, that’s an internal contradiction in their book.  TV Guide’s listings in its Metropolitan New York edition and the TV listings of Long Island’s Newsday both give the following airdates: February 10, “Edge of Violence”; February 17, “Countdown” (meaning that the April broadcast used in the study was definitely a repeat); April 14, a rerun of “Trial by Terror”; April 21, a rerun of “Death Grip”; April 28, a rerun of “Junkie.”  If Milgram and Shotland’s account is accurate, then “Countdown” was substituted in New York for either “Death Grip” or “Junkie,” without notice to that effect in the local listings.  That’s certainly plausible, given the amount of influence Milgram had with CBS.  However, I am puzzled by the dates given in Milgram and Shotland’s book for the St. Louis broadcasts: April 12 and 19, two days before the corresponding New York airdates.  How on earth was St. Louis watching Medical Center on Monday nights instead of Wednesdays?)

From a historical perspective, the behind-the-scenes story of “Countdown” holds more interest than the results of Milgram’s experiment.  Even Milgram seemed to understand and admit this.  “Although the relationship between television violence and aggression was not something Milgram was intrinsically interested in – and, in fact, he harbored some doubts about the existence of such a relationship – the idea of being able to do research on a grand scale appealed to him,” wrote Thomas Blass.

It’s fascinating to map the competing agendas of the network, the producers, and the scientist.  CBS purchased a study that, regardless of the results, would serve as tangible evidence of its concern about televised violence.  Milgram got to undertake the best-funded research of his career – although in accepting the grant he opened himself up to charges that his objectivity would be compromised.

And why would the producers of Medical Center put themselves through the torturous process of Milgramizing an episode?  Ward and Glicksman may have coveted CBS’s extra dollars.  Two of the three endings of “Countdown” have more production value on display than a typical Medical Center.  There’s an extended foot chase scene, shot on actual outdoor locations and given a noirish flavor by director Vincent Sherman, who had been an A-level contract director at Warner Bros. during the studio’s golden age.

Drunk

Milgram recorded his frustration with the production of “Countdown.”  “At points in the production of the film,” he wrote, “I found myself up against long-established traditions of directing and acting that, because of the group norms of the production team, became virtually impossible to change.”  Milgram was present on the set, trying – usually in vain – to get the episode to conform to his needs.  He objected to Tom’s “faint trace of inebriation” during the phone calls (in fact, an overacting Peter Strauss plays Tom as completely plastered throughout the climax or, rather, all three climaxes) and to several other story points.  Milgram complained that “the director insisted on inserting a chase scene . . . simply for the purpose of livening up the action.”  In writing that, Milgram revealed a basic ignorance of the production process.  Sherman could not have completely improvised the lengthy chase scene, which involves police cars, extras portraying policemen, and substantial day and night exteriors.  Such a sequence would have been budgeted and scheduled well in advance, which suggests that perhaps the producers were keeping Milgram in the dark about some of their intentions, and leaving Sherman to run interference with the good doctor.

Noir 1

Noir 2

Noir 3Scenes from a chase that Stanley Milgram didn’t want.  Sorry, Stan.

It’s tempting to imagine Glicksman and Ward indulging and manipulating Milgram, using his experiment to buy themselves an above-average segment.  On the other hand, Milgram was still pulling the network’s puppet-strings – which may have been the whole point all along.  Blass points out that “what makes the study unique to this day is that Milgram had control over regular prime-time programming.”  Milgram managed to insert his own agenda into a closed capitalist system of popular culture that academia could typically observe only from the outside.  The electrocutors and the letter-mailers in Milgram’s famous experiments didn’t know that they were actually his guinea pigs.  Perhaps the CBS men who funded Milgram’s Medical Center shenanigans were, without knowing it, the true subjects of the experiment.

Sources: Stanley Milgram and R. Lance Shotland’s Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments (Academic Press, 1973) and Thomas Blass’s The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2004).

The Smiling Cobra

December 10, 2012

One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes figures in television history is James T. Aubrey, better known behind his back as “The Smiling Cobra.”  At different times in his career Aubrey was perhaps the most hated man in New York (during his tenure as president of CBS in the early sixties) and the most hated man in Los Angeles (during his tenure as president of MGM in the early seventies).

I’ve touched upon Aubrey’s, er, contributions to television and film history in my production history of East Side / West Side and, tangentially, in this piece about the producer Herbert B. Leonard.  While I was researching the latter, I noticed that Aubrey is the beneficiary of a “featured article” on Wikipedia, which I guess means it’s less poorly written and inaccurate than your average Wikipedia article.  It’s actually a pretty interesting read, even though it leaves the most useful tidbit that I didn’t already know – the attribution of the “Smiling Cobra” moniker to John Houseman, who produced The Great Adventure at CBS during Aubrey’s reign – unsourced and therefore still in doubt.

Echoing the legendary stories of Aubrey’s enormous ego, personal coldness, professional ruthlessness, and mafia ties have always been rumors of epic sexual perversity – unusually public accounts, some of which leapt from the Hollywood gossip circuit into the mainstream press.  Wikipedia leaves most of those out, apart from one entry sourced from Harlan Ellison’s collection of television columns for the L.A. Free Press.

So here’s a juicy one, from William Froug’s book How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (another blind item from which sparked my investigation of the Laurence Heath story).  Here, Froug is paraphrasing an account told to him by an actress he dated once:

That Jim Aubrey is some kind of head case….

He took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer.  [Froug does not identify "Martindale" as a pseudonym, but this is probably Greg Bautzer, another infamous Hollywood horndog, who was married to Dana Wynter during the same period that Aubrey was married to Phyllis Thaxter.]  Greg had his own girl.  I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell.  But honestly, there’s no was I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey.  We’re in the hotel room and we’re both buck naked.  As we jump in bed, suddenly Aubrey grabs me by the arm.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass,” he says so quietly that I felt a chill go over my entire body.  I was speechless.

“You hear me, don’t you?”  His voice was ice cold and just above a whisper.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass.  Don’t worry, it’s nice and clean.  And get your tongue up in there.”

“I won’t.  No way, no how,” I answered.  I thought, is this really happening?

“It’s the only way I can get off,” he insisted.  “If you don’t, I’ll break your arm.”  His voice was nasty, threatening.  I was getting very frightened.

His grip on my arm tightened and he began to twist it, slowly but firmly.  It was very painful. . . . He was letting me know he had the strength to do it. . . .

I knew there was no point screaming.  We were in a suite with Greg and his girl.  They must have known what was going on; he and Aubrey were buddies.

“Get busy, lady,” Aubrey says.  “I haven’t got all day.”

I swung around and stuck my finger in his eye.  He jerked back.  His grip loosened for a moment and I broke loose, grabbed a big beach towel, and ran out of the room.

I stayed at the poolside bar, wrapped in that towel, until Greg came down much later and told me to get dressed.  We flew home that evening; the weekend was over.

Froug does not name his source but suppies the following description of her: “a beautiful young actress who had played second lead in a CBS hit sitcom of the sixties.”

So, TV experts, who is the mystery woman?  The sitcom in question had to have been on CBS during Aubrey’s years as president, 1959 through 1965.  The most obvious candidate would be Julie Newmar, who was one of Aubrey’s girlfriends during the mid-sixties; it’s been alleged that the series My Living Doll was put together by Aubrey as a gift to her.  Even though everyone’s eyes were on her, Newmar was billed after the show’s putative star, Robert Cummings, so the “second lead” part could apply.  But My Living Doll wasn’t a hit, and Newmar’s relationship with Aubrey probably laster longer than this unfortunate young lady’s did.

Froug did alter some details in his memoir to disguise identities (in the Heath case, for instance, he upped the body count), but let’s hypothesize that the teller of this tale is not Catwoman, and that the sitcom second lead part is accurate. Any guesses?

The New Yorker has a story this week about the Right’s efforts to systematically disenfranchise likely Democratic voters through “voter fraud” legislation, even though the type of fraud being targeted is virtually non-existent.

One African American woman, Teresa Sharp, went to Ohio’s Hamilton County Board of Elections to contest a specious challenge to her family’s eligibility to vote:

Sharp told me, “It was like a kangaroo court. There were, like, ninety-four people being challenged, and my family and I were the only ones contesting it! I looked around. The board members and the stenographer, they were all white people. The lady bringing these challenges, she was white, and reminded me of Gladys Kravitz”— the nosy neighbor on the sitcom Bewitched.

Jane Mayer is a very good reporter – she’s the one who outed 24 showrunner Joel Surnow as a torturephilic wingnut – but I feel like she missed a crucial follow-up question in this story.

The question, of course, being: which Gladys Kravitz?  Alice Pearce, or Sandra Gould?

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.

I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming.  Soon.  But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.

Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads.  In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.

Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career.  McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake.   McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.

I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show.  But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.

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So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features.  As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome.  CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations.  Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have.  Doesn’t matter.  The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.

Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video.  He’s probably right.  But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores.  CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form.  So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series.  If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.

Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive.  If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.

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I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August,  about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media.  Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation.  The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two.  Customers went batshit over each new development.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.

My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome.  Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels.  Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online.  A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen.  In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business.  Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine.  Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes.  Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find.  But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.

As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time.  I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon.  All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos.  That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.

Netflix fared a little better, but not much.  One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural.  Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes.  A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would.  But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.

Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.”  But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.

It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend.  But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth.  You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets.   Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.

My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl.  We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.

The Wasteland at 50

May 9, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Newton Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech.  That’s the manifesto in which Minow, President Kennedy’s newly-appointed FCC chairman, applied that term to contemporary television programming in front of an audience of sour-faced industry executives.  In the decades since, there have always been shows of such egregious awfulness, from The Beverly Hillbillies (which debuted the season after Minow’s epithet) to Jersey Shore, that the quote has remained in constant use.  Yours truly even adapted it as a snarky subhead for this blog.

To commemorate the occasion, James Warren has a good interview with Minnow, who’s still active at 85.  Also in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan offers an unfocused take on the speech, arguing that Minow motivated broadcasters, who “felt existentially challenged, and immediately pushed themselves to prove him wrong.”  Yeah, right.  Heffernan acknowledges that many classic TV shows work in defiance of Minow’s ideals (in other words, they’re great trash), but she doesn’t sort out exactly how that doesn’t render Minow irrelevant.

More insightful, and provocative, is Aaron Barnhart’s takedown in the Kansas City Star.  Barnhart calls the speech a “failure” and describes Minow’s plan for reform as ineffectual or even (in the area of local news) inadvertently counterproductive.

I have a lot of complicated ideas about the “vast wasteland,” and no time today to sort them out.  I’ve covered a lot of that territory on this blog already.  Barnhart calls Minow a “snob,” and argues that he was trying to impose his “patrician tastes” on a popular medium – an idea doomed to fail.  I agree with that, more or less.  Minow’s speech was very much of its particular moment, and so the term “vast wasteland,” potent as it is, is almost always used out of context. 

In 1961, there was reason to fear that television had (forgive the pun) gone down the tubes.  Paradigm shifts: live television and the dramatic anthology had abruptly died; the networks were aggressively cloning formulas (westerns and private eye shows) that were dumber, more violent, and more cynical than prime time had yet seen.  Minow denies nostalgia for Playhouse 90 and Studio One.  I think that’s a strategic misdirection, and that his speech is a clandestine eulogy for precisely that kind of programming.

But the fall lineup in 1961 included the debuts of The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Alcoa Premiere, and The Dick Powell Show.  Those were literate, sophisticated shows, and in no way created a response to Minow’s screed.  Also during the next couple of years, cloned Warner Bros. westerns (Cheyenne, Lawman) and adventure shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) would abruptly fade in popularity.  During the early sixties you could see, for the first time, how television would rebound on its own from periods of creative enervation and commercial pandering.  Minow was just a little too early to detect the pattern.  He was speaking from the dark before the dawn. 

Minow essentially advocated for staking out space for noncommercial television.  He wanted to force symphonies down the throats of people who would prefer to watch a western or, more charitably, to make sure that minority of symphony-lovers was never ignored.  (Minow used that example; the full text of the famous speech is here.)  Was that noble, or naïve?  PBS has practiced the Minow doctrine, with valuable results.  But I fall into the camp that prefers the thrilling highs and lows of commercial television.  For me, the excitement in watching television is not found in staid documentary specials, placed on a non-commercial pedestal.  It is the fight to save shows that are too smart for TV (like Arrested Development or Veronica Mars), the elation when one of them becomes a crossover cultural touchstone (The Sopranos), the secret pleasure when a mainstream show smuggles in subversive ideas (CSI).  I’m citing recent examples, but this tug of war has gone on since the beginning of television.  Minow had a great line.  But if television had really been a vast wasteland in 1961, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now, would we?

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