Turkey Sandwiches

November 30, 2012

I figured that last week’s tribute to “Turkeys Away” might be enough of a populist idea to reach some readers beyond the regulars here, but I wasn’t prepared for how viral it went.  The Washington Post and (ugh) The Huffington Post linked to it, Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) “tweeted” it, and it has already become the most widely read (or at least glanced-at) piece I’ve published here, by a wide margin.  So, I’m very … wait for it … thankful for that (and yet, still irritated that I couldn’t track down some WKRP folks, especially Richard Sanders, in time).

All of that being not to toot my own horn (well, not just that), but to recommend two recent articles you absolutely have to read if you liked the WKRP thing: Brian Raftery’s juicy oral history of Cheers (Kelsey Grammer, wotta joik) and Edward Copeland’s herculean three-part history of St. Elsewhere (here, here, and here), which is based largely on interviews with many of the show’s writer/producers and cast (and Michael Dukakis!).  Copeland devotes an entire page to one aspect of St. Elsewhere that I’d always found puzzling, then off-putting, then unintentionally hilarious: the Job-like suffering heaped upon David Morse’s appealing underdog character, Jack Morrison.  I actually had the idea to do the WKRP oral history before these pieces were published — in fact, it occurred to me last Thanksgiving, and I was steamed about having to wait another whole year to do it! — but I definitely had both of these articles, especially the Cheers one, in mind when I was assembling my little mini-history of “Turkeys Away.”

One of the more interesting tidbits in Copeland’s piece answered something only tangentially St. Elsewhere-related that I’d often wondered about:

The typical episode of St. Elsewhere took seven days to shoot, though the length of shooting days on series varies widely today. Tinker, who now serves as executive producer on ABC’s Private Practice, the spinoff from Shonda Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, continues to direct not only on that show but others as well as he has in the years since the doors closed on St. Eligius. “Most shows (today) are eight, some of them are nine. For all but the last year of NYPD Blue, we did eight days. For the last year, in order to take about a million dollars out of every episode, we did seven-day shows,” Tinker said. On (Private Practice), for the first five years we did nine-day shows and we sort of did the same trick for this year, and then we took a day off and made a bunch of budget cuts, so we’re doing eight-day shows now. Some of the cable shows, like The Closer,  did seven all the time.” Just for comparison to other cable shows currently on the air: HBO’s True Blood averages between 11 and 14 days to film an episode, while AMC’s Breaking Bad typically shoots an installment in eight days.

Of course, from the fifties through the sixties, shooting schedules were far more rigid: half-hour dramas were almost always filmed in three days (or less, at Revue and other cheapo outfits), hour-long shows in five or six.  Another sea change at work today: When I spoke to Michael Zinberg, calling in from the set of an episode of The Good Wife that he was directing, for the WKRP piece, he mentioned that almost all of the network TV dramas are shot on digital video today, the final (and surprising) exceptions being Shonda Rhimes’s shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal).

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More essential reading: the Hollywood Reporter‘s sixty-five-years-too-late analysis of its own role in fostering the blacklist.  Be sure to check out the sidebars too, especially the profile of some of the few living blacklistees (all but one of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting and chatting with at some point). Some readers don’t get the connection, but the blacklist is really a secret author of this blog.  You can’t underestimate the influence that the blacklist, and the anti-left hysteria surrounding it, had on the medium of television in its infancy.  And while it’s always nice to see the subject get some fresh attention (Dave Robb’s reporting for THR on the blacklist, and the related issue of Hollywood unionism, during the nineties was also exceptional), it’s dispiriting to see how much hate and ignorance has been expressed in the comments on those Hollywood Reporter articles, by a few people whose understanding of communism and the Cold War seems to derive entirely from reading Time magazine, circa 1949.  I don’t understand how anyone can still seriously believe that the Hollywood communists (and their fellow radicals) posed any practical or ideological threat to the United States, and also I don’t understand why anyone still has a stake in the matter, apart from the blacklist victims themselves.  Memo to Richard Schickel, et. al.: the Cold War is dunzo.

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P.S.  I mentioned last month that I’ve also been writing about the stage actress Dorothy Loudon on the New York Public Library’s blog.  Those articles were an offshoot of a new digital exhibition, which I helped to curate and which just launched today, that showcases the Dorothy Loudon Papers, an archival collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Back Soon….

October 31, 2012

…. uh, maybe.

Side by Side by Simon

October 16, 2012

This is the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

Has there ever been a more mediocre show with a cooler theme song than Simon & Simon?

We’ll Be Right Back

October 10, 2012

Nope, politics and old TV shows have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with one another….

 

Writer Gustave Field died on August 5 at the age of 95.  Field was a fairly obscure talent – at present, the Internet Movie Database believes inaccurately that he died in 1977 – with a smattering of television credits in the sixties and seventies: Wide Country, Gunsmoke, Combat, 12 O’Clock High, Then Came Bronson, The Bold Ones, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the early made-for-television movie The Sunshine Patriot.  Had I known some of what Philip Purser reports in this fascinating remembrance, I would have made it a much higher priority to seek Field out for an interview.  Field had been a photographer (of Einstein and the nuking of Nagasaki) and, in the late fifties, a story editor for British ABC network, where he mentored the young Alun Owen and Harold Pinter.  There’s also the matter of a phantom Lost in Space credit that’s being fussed over among fans; it could be an error in the obits, but also an assignment that was purchased but not produced, or a rewrite job too insubstantial to earn a credit.  Purser claims that Field liked to take his name off scripts; I’ll bet there’s another batch of credits under a pseudonym somewhere, but all of Lost in Space’s pen names seem to be claimed already . . . so it’s a subject we’ll have to revisit.

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Writer David T. Chantler died on March 13.  Born May 24, 1925, Chantler got his start in television on the CBS newspaper drama Big Town, but was best known as one of the primary writers (of nearly three dozen episodes) for the fifties kiddie favorite The Adventures of Superman.  Though he was living in Marina Del Rey as of a few years ago, Chantler spent much of the sixties working in England, on television shows including Interpol Calling, Zero One, The Human Jungle, and Paul Temple.  He also wrote a pair of Hammer films, She and the well-received Cash on Demand, as well as the Paul Wendkos-directed western Face of a Fugitive.  His other American television credits include Lassie, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Daniel Boone, and The Invaders.  His last produced script listed on the Internet Movie Database was made in 1970, and I wonder what Chantler was doing in the forty years since.

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Esther Mitchell died on May 30, one day short of her ninety-second birthday.  Mitchell was one half of a prolific husband-and-wife team; with Bob Mitchell, she wrote a dozen Land of the Giants scripts as well as episodes of Perry Mason, Cannon, S.W.A.T., and Charlie’s Angels.  (Bob Mitchell, who died in 1992, had been a busy solo writer, especially for Highway Patrol, for more than a decade before they began working together; the collaboration may have begun because he was getting more work than he could handle.)  The Mitchells’ most important series together was Combat, for which they were among a stable of generally second-rate writers brought in when producer Gene Levitt took over the show’s second season.  If there’s a standout among the Mitchell-scripted episodes, it’s probably “The First Day,” the story of a quartet of unusually youthful replacements who join the squad; a follow-up of sorts, “The Old Men,” focused on middle-aged draftees sent to the front lines as the supply of able-bodied men dwindled.

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Also overlooked, perhaps, amid the unprecedented wave of beloved television veterans’ deaths this summer – Kathryn Joosten, Richard Dawson, Ray Bradbury, Frank Cady, Susan Tyrrell, Richard Lynch, Norman Felton, Doris Singleton, Don Grady, Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, Celeste Holm, William Asher, Morgan Paull, Lloyd Kino, Sherman Hemsley, Frank Pierson, Lupe Ontiveros, Chad Everett, Norman Alden, Russ Mayberry, R. G. Armstrong, John P. Finnegan, Al Freeman Jr., Gore Vidal, Phyllis Thaxter, Ron Palillo, Rosemary Rice, Biff Elliot, Phyllis Diller, William Windom, Steve Franken, Claire Malis, Lance LeGault – were those of writer Don Brinkley (The Fugitive; Medical Center) and assistant director Charles Washburn (Star Trek).  There are good, detailed obituaries for each at those links.

Rare Serling

September 7, 2012

The ambitious Rod Serling program mounted by the UCLA Film and Television Archive is still going on at the Hammer Museum (which is actually not on the UCLA campus, but just below it on Wilshire Boulevard).  I’ve been remiss in not mentioning this series earlier, but it has four programs left to go and if you’re in Los Angeles, you should catch some or all of what remains.

The reason the UCLA program, curated by Mark Quigley and Shannon Kelley, is so valuable is that it focuses on the Serling teleplays (and screenplays) that you probably haven’t seen, or even heard about.  Instead of cycling through the most famous Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys, Quigley and Kelley have given us a plethora of obscure anthology segments, features, unsold pilots, and other odds and ends.  There’s a slight emphasis on mid-to-late period Serling, which is also a good idea.  Serling’s legendary post-Twilight Zone burnout was no joke, but because of it the final decade of his career has probably been too much neglected.  There are some gems in those ten years – chiefly his 1965 western series The Loner, which regrettably is not represented here, but also some other Serling-scripted projects which are.

If you’re a Serling aficionado, then you probably know Serling wrote an odd Christmas special in 1964 called “Carol For Another Christmas”; it was shown on ABC but paid for by the United Nations, which is why it has a bunch of movie stars in the cast (Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden) who weren’t otherwise doing TV at the time.  But did you know that Serling also wrote another public-service type thing that year for the U.S. Information Agency, called Let Us Continue, with E. G. Marshall?  And let’s say you remember “A Storm in Summer,” a 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame that remains much too hard to see.  Did you know that two years later Serling turned the premise into a series pilot for CBS called We Two, featuring Herschel Bernardi in the Peter Ustinov role?

Even the Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys chosen for the series aren’t the usual suspects.  “The Shelter” and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” aren’t among my favorites (are they among anyone’s?) but they’re not bad, and I get the reasons why they’re here – “The Shelter” represents Serling’s connection to the post-nuke genre I wrote about last month, and “Mr. Denton” screens alongside Serling’s only western screenplay (Saddle the Wind).  The films here stick a little more closely to the canon, but they’re all showing on 35 millimeter and there is one double feature of true obscurities, Buzz Kulik’s The Yellow Canary (still very hard to come by) and the caper movie Assault on a Queen.

Of particular interest among what hasn’t screened yet are the pilot for The New People – the 1969 Aaron Spelling series, which is supposedly terrible (Serling bailed after the pilot) but has also gotten some attention in recent years due to the similarities between its premise and that of Lost – and a 1960 Desilu Playhouse called “The Man in the Funny Suit.”  That’s a show about the making of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” (screening the same night), the live Playhouse 90 that almost didn’t go on as planned because Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines.  (Without telling Wynn, they had actor Ned Glass in the wings, ready to go on in his place.)

Although the docudrama had become a minor staple of the late anthology period (“A Night to Remember” and “The Night America Trembled” are perhaps the most famous examples), it was unusual for television to attempt so self-reflexive a project so early: a television episode about a television episode, with many of the principals (Serling, Wynn, his son Keenan Wynn, and director Ralph Nelson, among others) playing themselves.  Unlike “Requiem,” which is now a Criterion DVD, “The Man in the Funny Suit” has never been in circulation (not even among collectors, as far as I know), and I’m eager to see it someday.  I hope it’s as interesting as it sounds.

Some impressive guest speakers are part of the mix as well, and while you’ve already missed Marc Scott Zicree, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Mickey Rooney (perhaps fortunately, in the latter case), you can still catch Jim Benson (co-author of the excellent Night Gallery companion book) tomorrow night and Yellow Canary star Pat Boone (ask him if he’s voting for Obama) on September 14.

If you go to any of the remaining screenings, tell’em the Classic History Blog sent you and you’ll get a . . . well, just a funny look, of course.  But check out some of these Serling rarities anyway.

And while we’re on the subject, what Serling ephemera would you have included in a series like this?

The New People (I can’t identify everyone, but the blonde, second from top right, is the ravishing Tiffany Bolling).

Correction (9/7/12): Initially this piece indicated that the pilot We Two had a laugh track.  In fact, it didn’t, but the network’s desire to add one over Serling’s and the producers’ objections may have been a reason why it didn’t go to series.

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