April 11, 2014
Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies. Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.
Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity. Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories. Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones. Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”
A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead. Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes. The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM. A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer. It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.
Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run. “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”). After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone. Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.
In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation. Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played on television by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise. In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home. Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather threadbare little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.
The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College). Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently on television. Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts. Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie. More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.
If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese. Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties. Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking. Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards. Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than to delivering exposition. A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.
Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them as well as pleasurable running gags. Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty. Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.” Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.
Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm. Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment. Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even to fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman). Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense. He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.
By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life. “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way. Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes. Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead. Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.
Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that , say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies). Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a reflection and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda. And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie. If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist. (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.) For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.
Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy” – even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, a rather reductive, slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women. Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-object-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia). But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women. One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust. The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex. Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.
The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex. Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia. As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then. The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a marvelous grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.
The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation. The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble. Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.
During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome. Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).
At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that Shulman’s sensibilities represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors. It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.
In the second half of this essay, I consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.
April 3, 2014
During the final two seasons of Playhouse 90, Joy Munnecke was a story consultant (and, more broadly, an all-purpose staffer) for the segments produced by Herbert Brodkin. In a recent interview, Munnecke talked about working for Brodkin, the famous “Judgment at Nuremberg” censorship, and how women functioned in fifties television.
How did you get started on Playhouse 90?
At that time I had been working at Studio One, which transferred from New York to Hollywood. I was with Norman Felton’s unit. Norman and I both came from Herb Brodkin’s production company in New York. When Studio One went to Hollywood [in 1957], Herb did not want to go. I don’t know whether they asked him; I don’t think they did. But his second-in-command, Norman Felton, was going to go. When Studio One [went] on hiatus in the summer, Norman Felton took over, and many of the people, particularly the producers, took a vacation. So Norman Felton stepped up one notch, and [associate producer] Phil Barry went one notch and I went one notch. My notch was from secretary to assistant story editor. We did the summer ones, and then it went to Hollywood.
When Herb Brodkin was asked to do [Playhouse 90], he pulled us all together again. The first one I worked on was, I think, “The Velvet Alley,” which is 1958, I think it was.
One of the things Herb did that I thought was very big and wonderful: In New York Herb Brodkin and a director by the name of Alex Segal. He was pretty much of a genius, but very hard to work for. I was a production assistant for him. When I say hard to work for – they yell at each other, you know, in the theatre sometimes. And it’s difficult. There were articles about Alex, because he was a very emotional director. He was doing The U.S. Steel Hour and Herb was doing The Elgin Hour. The rivalry was tremendous, because of how many people were tuning in, and who was getting which stars, and what were the budgets. They were very competitive. But in Playhouse 90, Herb, for the first time, asked Alex to come and direct one of the shows. Alex came and everything was fine, no problems. It was a lovely experience to see two people who had been such rivals growing up, as it were – saying, okay, we can do it together.
How did the Playhouse 90 producers – Brodkin, John Houseman, Fred Coe, and to a lesser extent Peter Kortner – divide up the episodes?
The four producers didn’t work together. They had different offices, different staff, and so forth. Our offices were right next to Fred Coe’s unit, so you’d kind of overlap. You knew people. But we were really kind of competitive about who’s got a better script, and who knows which writer, and that sort of thing.
From September to October, four weeks, would be one producer [staging episodes], and then another producer would do four, or three. But they all were working at the same time. While one of us was in rehearsal, the other was looking for scripts, and working with the writers or whatever. So you had time to really prepare the things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Playhouse 90 was so good. It’s as though it was a Broadway opening every Thursday night. You did quite a bit of preparatory work.
What were your duties? You were a story editor?
Mostly my credit was “story consultant.” I looked for scripts, [and] to find ideas for plays. Anything that was submitted would come first to me, except of course for writers who were known to the producer. When an idea or a story came, it would have to be synopsized and sent to the network executives, who would look at it and see whether they felt this was a good idea. It would have to pass by them. Then it would go into a first draft, a second draft, and whatever. I would be part of the whole situation in the story development, from the idea to the end of it. In a way, it was a kind of selling of the idea to the network so that they wouldn’t get upset about things. There were some stories that they never wanted to touch, and those were all because of economic reasons. For example, the southern states would not want to see anything that would have too many people who were black, or whatever. So you had all those things to try to get through the network.
Backing up for a moment, how did you first come to work for Herbert Brodkin in New York?
I started in the news department at ABC as a gofer, sort of. But I did want to go with a dramatic show, because that was my training in school. The Elgin Watch company wanted to have a show, and Herb Brodkin was going to be the producer. I said, “Well, I’d like, really, to leave news.” I was there when they did the Army-McCarthy hearings. That was a very exciting time.
What were you doing during the hearings?
When I was working there, like anybody just out college, I just wanted to work on a show. The only show that they wanted to put me into was Walter Winchell’s show, and I would just be in there on a Sunday afternoon for the broadcast. But I got to know the different people, and I became the secretary of the head of special events, John Madigan. He had been in radio news. This was in 1953, and they were putting a lot of people from radio into television.
The secretaries in the programming department had a little earphone on their desk, and you were expected to listen in on all the conversations so that you knew what was going on all the time. If [the newsmen] had to know something on the telephone, you’d slip [them] a little paper and say “This is what that is.” Anyway, I kept getting telephone calls, and Madigan kept saying, “No, I won’t talk to this man.” It was Roy Cohn, the right-hand man of Senator McCarthy. He wanted very much to get some publicity. John Madigan said, “No. Just keep telling him no until I say go. Then I’ll take the call.” So the time came when he knew it was right to get the network to cover the hearings. In those days, one of the three major networks would take the pool, and they took all the equipment to save everything duplicating. ABC did the whole Army-McCarthy hearings out of their 7 West 66th office, which had been a riding academy.
Anyway, from the news department, then, I started with Herb Brodkin as his secretary. That was The Elgin Hour, and then he was hired to go over to NBC to do the Alcoa-Goodyear show. I went over with the Brodkin unit. They brought the casting people, and I wanted to go more towards the literary end of it, and worked there briefly as a production assistant but then as an assistant story editor, because they didn’t want to jump you too soon. There wasn’t a story editor, so I was the assistant when there was nobody to assist. Then they decided to change it to story consultant, because what we found was that most writers don’t like to have an “editor” coming at them. The writers would say to me, “I like having a consultant. I can bounce things over with you and it won’t be edited. It’s not somebody who’s going to want to change my script.”
So I would go through the whole production experience that way, starting with sometimes looking for material and thinking about who might be the good writer to write it. You see, by coming through the assistant way of being a secretary to someone, you knew what sort of thing they wanted to do. Herbert Brodkin was particularly interested in doing a lot of things from the holocaust. And of course I was aware of “Judgment at Nuremberg” from the very beginning. The story idea was from Herb Brodkin to [writer] Abby Mann.
Really? It originated with Brodkin rather than Abby Mann?
Yes. That was really an assignment. I think they just sort of talked about it. I can remember that we just called it “the Nuremberg trials story.” Those things happened that way.
Why was Brodkin interested in the holocaust, particularly?
He was Jewish, and I think he just felt that it should be understood and people should be aware of this, and not just push it under the rug. He was a very sensitive and very bright man, and very difficult to work with, because he didn’t have any patience with superficial nonsense, if you know what I mean. I think it was part of his integrity. Integrity was a very important word with him. I mean, there was still a great deal of anti-semitism in the country, and he felt that he wanted people to realize that it was pretty horrible in its extreme.
What do you recall about the famous incident of muting the references to the gas chambers?
We knew that this would be trouble. Brodkin said, “I don’t care. This story should be told as it is, and if we move people, it’s good. It’s not bad.” And I don’t think anybody really thought it through that The Gas Company was our sponsor.
What was the nature of the objections raised by the sponsor?
Someone said this must be very difficult, and someone with an engineering background – On the screen, [a character] said “This must be very difficult,” and someone said “Oh, it’s not difficult at all, all you have to do is put the [gas] through the pipes and so on.” Instead of saying it’s difficult to kill another human being – oh, it’s not difficult, it’s easy. That bothered people, I think. Yes. Anything that was disturbing, they had to be convinced that it was a good thing. They don’t want to offend people. They don’t want to move people too much. And the artists, of course, all they wanted to do was to move people and to have a statement. And Herb Brodkin had a very different feeling of these things as being a force for good. So he would broach no argument from these people. He would say, “No, this is the way the story is going to be done, and let’s see what happens.”
My feeling about it is that it probably [would have been] a much simpler thing to have done it on a week when The Gas Company wasn’t the sponsor. But Herb just said to do it anyway. That’s your problem whether it’s The Gas Company, was his point [with CBS]. So as it happened, at the last minute, it was the network that did it, that took out the word. Which was stupid, you know. But on the other hand, I think if anybody wanted to make a splash, they certainly did!
It was very conspicuous.
Yes, exactly that. It just called attention to it. And I don’t think the artistic people minded a bit to get the publicity for it.
What was Brodkin’s reaction to the outcome?
That it was just the commercial instincts overshadowing the artistic, and he was quite furious with it. He had many arguments with these people, and he wasn’t too diplomatic about things. But he was, as I say, he was always fighting for the integrity of the artists.
Were there any Playhouse 90s that you would personally take some credit for having developed?
Yes, I do remember one particularly. The short story “Tomorrow,” by Faulkner, came to my attention [from] someone in the story department, and I read it and I said, “How about Horton Foote?” That was a successful one, and it became a very good film [in 1972]. Before that time, Horton Foote had done one or two shows for Herb, but he worked mostly with the Fred Coe unit.
Which of the major live TV writers do you associate with Brodkin?
Reginald Rose. Do you know [Rose’s Alcoa Hour script] “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”? That is the first time they ever said “goddamn” on television. And that was a horrible problem for me, because I had to answer 2,000 letters from people!
The story in that one was about prejudice against Mexicans; the temporary town was a trailer park, and some girl was upset because she was being accosted by some boy. They thought it must be one of the Mexican kids, but it turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed blond kid. It became a riot between these people in this trailer park, and a whole lot of people were storming through the trailers, and Lloyd Bridges had a stick in his hand. I don’t think many people really know this story this way, but this is the way I heard it told: He hit the stick against the fence or something and the stick broke in half. And he said “Goddamn it!” because the stick broke, and it came over the microphone. People wrote in and said, “I fell off the sofa when I heard that on television!”
Well, Herb said, “Let’s just not tell anybody that it was because the stick broke, but just say that he was upset because of [the content of] the script.” We had to have the star and the script have some basis for swearing on television.
So Brodkin could take a controversy like that and spin it to his advantage.
Yes. It was a question of survival.
There was a Jewish group in New York called the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, and they gave an award to people who were [fighting] prejudice. It was a nice monetary award. It was given in June, and we were on hiatus, but I was still working in the office. I was asked to go to the luncheon and pick up these $5,000 checks for the three people involved in the production of “Tragedy of a Temporary Town.” The producer [Brodkin] was in his summer home, and I sent his to him, and the other ones were for the writer and the director: Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet. So after the luncheon I took the check down to Greenwich Village, where they were in a film studio. As I came in, the bell rang for silence, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get out,” and Reggie said, “No, no, no. Stand here. You’re bringing us these checks – this is good luck! We’re doing our very first scene in our very first film.” And it was Henry Fonda opening the window in 12 Angry Men.
Were one of the only woman on Herbert Brodkin’s creative staff?
No, Joan MacDonald was the casting director. She was outstanding. Probably my mentor in many ways. And there were a lot more. Women were very welcome in television. Herb was the same with women or men. Maybe a woman wouldn’t be thought of for a technical job so much or anything, but that was very prevalent in that period.
I mean, it wasn’t quite like the way it is in Mad Men. I did work in advertising, where [sexism] was more prevalent, as it is in the series.
You mean it’s more sexist in Mad Men than what you experienced?
Yes. Advertising was more like that, but I didn’t feel that in broadcasting – there were women there. There were women who were assistant directors. Particularly at ABC. That was kind of the tag-along network at that time. They were a little more informal.
I remember I said to Norman Felton, “I’d like to go to Hollywood. I think that’s where television’s going to be.” He asked, “Well, would you like to be the story editor with Studio One in Hollywood?” I said, “Yes, I would.” I didn’t know what [salary] to ask; I didn’t have an agent. So I went to Herb Brodkin and I said, “Norman asked me what I’d like to have in compensation.” Herb said, “Don’t ask for more money. You don’t have any leverage for anything like that. Just ask for a credit.” So I [asked for] the assistant editor credit. Then when I worked for Norman and Herb wanted me back to work on Playhouse 90, I went to Norman and he told me what to ask for for compensation. So they kind of told me how to bargain [with each other], as you do in business to go up a notch. That was sort of the way people were helpful to one another.
Were you treated as an equal by the men? By the writers you were working with, in particular?
Being on the team – it’s like a family. You’re either welcome in the meeting or not, you know? And sometimes you’re welcome because you smile and nod and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” That doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, but it is, in the way things go in a company of players, you know what I’m saying? Then you get trusted and then maybe you can say, “But why are you doing that?”
Reginald Rose was so close to Herb, I didn’t have any input with anything he did. In my experience with Regigie, it was just making things pleasant in the office, and [making certain] that everybody knew what was going on, and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t that I could touch his scripts. So I was just in the group to get the coffee and do whatever was necessary. I wouldn’t have presumed to say, “You’ve got a weak second act” or something like that.
With a more junior writer, like Mayo Simon or Loring Mandel, would you behave differently?
Yes, they would come and maybe tell me a little bit of their problems. The only thing about creative people that I felt that I could do was to make it comfortable for them, in an intellectual way. Like a book editor would be. You’re not going to write the book for them, but you might say, “I don’t know about that thing.” But these people knew what they were doing, usually.
Did you ever work with Rod Serling?
That’s one of my favorite memories. When I first was assigned to The Elgin Hour, there was a girl who was working on the thing, and she said, “Oh, some of these people are horrible, hard to work with, these writers, they’re awful!” And she said, “But, oh, it’s interesting, there’s this one guy. He’s awfully nice. Can’t write a thing. But he’s so nice, you just wouldn’t realize he’s a writer! You just have to remember, just don’t put a ‘t’ in his name. It’s not Sterling, it’s Serling.” I often think of that when people say all artists are temperamental. He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to know. Just a regular sort of person who knew everybody’s name and talked to everybody.
What happened when Playhouse 90 ended?
It didn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. Brodkin went back to New York and he was going to do The Nurses and The Defenders. He asked me to go back to New York and work on the show, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in California. I was still under contract to CBS, to work with the story people. John Houseman came in to do a show, and some other people were doing shows. One of the things I would do at the end is, they would have one of the actors come and have a little spiel about the next week’s show, and I’d have to write that.
What did you do after you left CBS?
I had the most horrible time, because you can’t go from the palace, as it were, to start working in something else. So I got married [to CBS executive Charles Schnebel]! I worked for a short while at PBS, as a kind of assistant producer, and again in the news department at KCET here in California. But I never did find a niche in television again, because I think I was really quite spoiled to work on those dramatic shows. People would say, “We don’t do the anthology type shows any more,” and they didn’t trust me for a series, because it was an entirely different thing.
It was a fascinating and stimulating place to be, and I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t think.
March 28, 2014
Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club. As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).
1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.
2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle. Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take. The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter. According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season. Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.
3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color. Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.
4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.
5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each. As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000. $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.
6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000. The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.
7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification. That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe. In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”
8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers. John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.” Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes. Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.
9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast. The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.
10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.
11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt. For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother. Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.
12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script. Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty. When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned – fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series. The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).
13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.
14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957. Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both). Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.
15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets. Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form. Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.
16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down. Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.
17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.” After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.
18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals. This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki. (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)
19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence. The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966’s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.
20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate. William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia. Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit. The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.
21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.
22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast. Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes. (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)
23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors. This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.
24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments. Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.
25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes. Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked. Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes. Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes. Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season. Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season. (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)
26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).
27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door). For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts. Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist. As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.
28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).
29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”
30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.” None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his. Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice. One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.
31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation. For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.” Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.” The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits. But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.
32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history. But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”
33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season. In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere. (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism. That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.) In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season. (It won a Sylvania Award.) Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.
34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling. Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.” The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.
35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.
36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets. The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it. When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early. “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.
37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance. “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.
38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape. Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed. Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map. But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.” “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either. Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end. John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other. Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”
39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.
40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format. The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime. (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.) Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.
41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”
42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”
March 5, 2014
Fifteen years ago, when I worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archives and Steve Taravella was researching a book on the actress Mary Wickes there, Steve asked me what I’d most want to know about Wickes. Her sexuality, was my immediate reply, since Wickes’s character type was the conspicuously man-hungry or asexual spinster who tends now to be seen as a coded lesbian. After I offered that pretty obvious answer, Steve’s face sort of fell. I could hear him thinking: Is that all people are going to care about?
Taravella’s book, which came out last fall, serves as a brilliant rebuke to my reductive answer. It’s one of the most worthwhile works of entertainment scholarship I read last year. While there are biographies of almost every important film and TV star, and even a few books that lovingly chronicle the lives of character actors (like, say, Peter Lorre or Warren Oates), who briefly or nearly became stars, Taravella’s may be the first serious account of the life of an actor whose name never appeared above the title. The secret to its excellence is that Taravella approaches Mary Wickes with the same respect and seriousness as one would a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck. Although Wickes in her career racked up only a fraction of the screen time that Davis and Stanwyck enjoyed, nothing about Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (UP of Mississippi, 2013) suggests that its subject is any less deserving of contemplation. In Taravella’s hands, Wickes becomes a stand-in for the whole bit player stratum. His book represents a single, exemplary attempt to document the middle class, sort-of-famous, sort-of-not life led by all those familiar working actors of the studio era. Largely neglected by the press in their own day, they are beloved ciphers to modern movie fans.
So, anyhow: Was Mary Wickes a lesbian? No, although she may have had her first and only sexual encounter with a gay man. Meticulously but tastefully, Taravella probes this and every other aspect of Wickes’s personal life to create a portrait of Wickes so detailed that, by the end of the book, you can accurately guess how she responded to a given situation before Taravella offers up the answer. The book is full of details you would think couldn’t possibly have been recorded, and yet Taravella has found them and placed them in a context that usually manages not to seem like an invasion of privacy. Wickes was something of a pack rat, and Taravella was fortunate in that she bequeathed her estate to her clergyman, who saved everything and only declared a few personal items off limits. It would be easy to get bogged down in such minutiae, but Taravella navigates these treacherous shoals with confidence, always making a solid case for any pedantry in which he indulges. Even Wickes’s grocery receipts offer up relevant clues as to her ways of thinking and living. Taravella’s other stroke of luck was his timing. Although he began shortly after Wickes’s death in 1995, many of her contemporaries were still living, and Taravella (who traveled to Wickes’s hometown of St. Louis) interviewed many of these cousins, schoolmates, and early Broadway acquaintances in the last years of their lives.
The portrait that emerges of Wickes, who led a life not unlike those of many of her characters, is far from flattering. She lived with her mother until she was 55, and then alone in a Los Angeles high-rise for the last thirty years of her life. Many of her friends were gay men, although Wickes seems not to have realized that in many cases, and thought of some of them as (asexual) romantic partners. She also harbored delusions about her social and professional prominence. Wickes, for instance, thought of herself as a serious contender for the title role in Disney’s big-budget film of Mary Poppins, simply because she had played the part on television (in a live Studio One broadcast, many years earlier); she remained bitter about that rejection, and many other perceived slights, for the rest of her life. All of that could be taken as tragic – the typecast actor, yearning to break free – except that Wickes was a huge pain in the ass, who took her resentments out on colleagues and acquaintances. She was such a prude that the producers of the sitcom Doc fired her after Wickes demanded the right to change any dialogue she found offensive. Many biographers would take sides with such a quarrelsome figure, either advocating stridently for her as a friend would, or getting fed up with her (as the reader likely will). Taravella presents Wickes’s life in unsparing detail, and yet never wavers from a respectful, even-handed tone. His is an enormously humane depiction of a rather sad person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a solid, well-written overview of its subject, even if its total word count might not be much more than double that of the cumbersome title. Some of my readers and colleagues picked apart its omissions on Twitter, and they’re probably right. But as I’ve never seen any of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, and haven’t revisited the mother ship since it was rerunning on Nick at Nite, I found it to be a valuable primer.
Armstrong, whose previous book was Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style, places a particular emphasis on the women who made the show – Moore herself, as well as Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper (whose spinoff, Rhoda, gets almost as much attention as Mary), writers and story editors like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and Pat Nardo, costumer Leslie Hall, and director Joan Darling. Armstrong also digresses to place Mary Tyler Moore in the context of other feminist, or at least female-centric, sitcoms that sprung up in its wake, like Maude and Fay (a short-lived show made infamous by Lee Grant’s Tonight Show tirade against the programmers who cancelled it). That’s probably too narrow an approach – Darling, after all, directed only one episode, even if it was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” – but Armstrong never goes too far in terms of giving the women a disproportionate amount of credit. Plus, the biographical sketches of Silverman and some of the other women, which Armstrong threads through the book as a structuring device, are fascinating; implicitly, at least, Armstrong makes the case that their stories may indeed be more relevant than those of the men who had more creative input.
The problem with Armstrong’s book is a nice problem for a book to have, which is that it’s trying to be three books (at least) all at once: an exhaustive production history of Mary Tyler Moore; an industrial account of the rise and fall of Moore’s company, MTM Productions, the output of which (both comedic and dramatic) increasingly seems less dated than almost everything else on the air during its heyday, especially the rival sitcom factory run by Norman Lear; and an analysis of the extent to which feminism penetrated mainstream television (or didn’t) during the ERA era. Someone get cracking on all of those, please.
Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life (Weinstein Books, 2013) is a better-than-average movie star memoir, more candid than many but perhaps not terribly illuminating in its attempts at introspection from an actress who, at times, seems as ditzy as the characters she often played. (The book climaxes on a bummer, when Kellerman credits cultish group therapy sessions guided by Milton Wexler – the psychoanalyst who insinuated himself creatively into many of Blake Edwards’s narcissistic late-career comedies – for sorting out many of her emotional problems.) In any case, it will be of special interest to readers of this blog for the fond and unexpected attention that Kellerman lavishes on her early television career. Kellerman offers useful takes on some expected figures, like Joseph Stefano (who played Svengali with her on The Outer Limits, her big break), Robert Altman, and writer David Rayfiel, with whom Kellerman had a serious romance. But Kellerman also describes in detail the acting classes of Jeff Corey, where she got much of her early training and palled around with future stars like Jack Nicholson, as well as Schwab’s and all the other struggling actors’ hangouts in Hollywood.
(I’ve read many accounts of the New York equivalent of these formative places, but few from the West Coast.)
Television actors Robert Sampson and Luana Anders are major characters in the early chapters, as is Tom Pittman, a promising leading man who did a ton of TV guest shots in the year or two before his body was found at the bottom of a Hollywood canyon in 1958. Kellerman’s account of Pittman’s death, and of her role and that of small-part actor Robert Bice (who played square-jawed cops in tons of TV episodes prior to his own early demise) in its aftermath, are so startling that I’m surprised a major publication hasn’t taken up the subject for further investigation.
Don’t trade presses have editors any more? Herbie J. Pilato thanks a few of them at the end of his long-in-the-works biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon a Star (Taylor Trade, 2012), but I’ll bet they all wish he hadn’t.
Pilato, who has written several books on Bewitched and other TV series, certainly had the goods for an important book. He interviewed the press-shy Montgomery at length in 1989, and corralled most of her husbands, lovers, co-stars, and friends over the years. There are more than enough stories there to form the basis of a compelling bio, even if Pilato isn’t the world’s most discerning interviewer. Although it’s probably not his fault that most of Montgomery’s answers were superficial or evasive, it’s hard to let Pilato off the hook when he admits that he didn’t know about her marriage-ending affair with Bewitched producer/director Richard Michaels when he interviewed Michaels (and evidently chose not to confront him again after he got hip).
But what really sinks this disaster are a series of atrocious editing decisions, all of which conspire to make the book about as readable as a sixth-grade school newspaper. Pilato italicizes not just every single character name in the text, but also random words that don’t require emphasis. He cites every published source within the body of the text, and detours into multi-page digressions to introduce minor interview sources. He hands the mic over to dubiously-credentialed historians and “curators” for long, speculative, and generally irrelevant block quotes.
The book, though roughly chronological, constantly twists itself around in specious, confusing connections that Pilato forces between Montgomery’s life and Bewitched (or, for that matter, any pop culture artifact that pops into his head). Try to follow the logic at the beginning of Chapter Seven: Montgomery appeared in two TV movies in 1979; Lee Remick appeared in the Merchant-Ivory feature The Europeans in 1979; The Europeans “address[ed] the pertinent balance of social graces and reserved emotions – the kind Elizabeth had been addressing her entire life”; Montgomery and Remick had appeared together as sisters in a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. That’s an absurdly elaborate wind-up for what turns out to be just a description of that Kraft episode; Remick and Montgomery, it turns out, weren’t even close. Or this attempt to introduce the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair: Montgomery was a fan of Star Trek; there was a Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” that contained a historically significant interracial kiss; that episode originally aired on November 22, 1968, which was the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination; the Bewitched pilot began rehearsals on the day of JFK’s assassination; Montgomery starred opposite the African American O. J. Simpson in A Killing Affair and lobbied unsuccessfully for more love scenes with him. I was going to recommend Twitch Upon a Star for hardcore Bewitched fans only, but, honestly, I suspect even they will find it too hard to sift out the compelling nuggets about Montgomery’s life that are buried deeply, oh so deeply, within.
February 20, 2014
On Monday The A.V. Club ran a piece called Beyond True Detective: 17 Long Takes Worth Your Attention, to which I contributed two capsules. They aren’t bylined individually, but I wrote the bit on the John Frankenheimer Climax episode and the one on Peyton Place, in which I managed to work in yet another plug for the amazing imagery of episodic director Walter Doniger.
This article was inspired by a single, climactic shot in the fourth episode of the HBO drama True Detective. That shot garnered a lot of attention: it staged a complex, six-minute action sequence without a single cut, and it went “viral” in a way that was a little surprising. For most of the year television critics usually can’t be bothered to focus on television as a visual medium: it’s all plot, plot, plot, and occasionally some notes on the acting. All of a sudden, we spent a week thinking about television formally.
As encouraging as that is, it has a down side. For one thing, we’re not even used to talking about the form of television. The A.V. Club piece is a case in point: even after some useful dickering on Twitter over the distinctions between a long take and a tracking shot and a handheld or Steadicam shot and a sequence shot (the most accurate term for what was being listed there, although it’s not used much outside of film school), someone made an editorial decision to use “long shot” as an umbrella term for all of the above. But “long shot” actually means something different: it describes an unrelated type of composition in which the camera is a certain distance from the subject of the shot.
As the tentativeness of the first paragraph suggests, it’s hard to pin down just what kind of long take we’re interested in discussing. A long take can also be completely static, and as such it’s likely to convey a very different (even diametrically opposite) meaning than the frenetic True Detective shot. In Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90 “Days of Wine and Roses,” the scene in which the two principal characters fall in love runs for seven minutes and five seconds, with only a handful of subtle camera moves. The emphasis is on the actors; the purpose of the duration is let them perform without interruptions, and to prevent cuts from distracting viewers from the subtlety of their work. The True Detective-style long take poses a wholly different set of challenges for the actors, more technical than emotional: the priorities are timing and hitting marks with precision. On Peyton Place, where Doniger tried on a regular basis to execute scenes in a single takes, the actors were sharply split in their preference for his method versus the more traditional approach of carving the action into smaller pieces.
When the subject of long takes in television first came up, I grew frustrated at how ill-equipped I was to write about them on short notice. I do have a personal roster of favorite early TV directors who regularly mounted this kind of ambitious, exuberant filmmaking within the tight time and money constraints of episodic television: not just Frankenheimer and Doniger, about whom I’ve written at length, but also sixties action masters Walter Grauman, Sutton Roley, and John Peyser. If I’d had better notes or more time, I would have loved to get in one of a handheld shot from one of Peyser’s (or Vic Morrow’s) Combat episodes, or a tracking shot from a Mannix or a QM show signed by Roley. And I didn’t recall until the eleventh hour the fondness that Elliot Silverstein expressed for long takes when I interviewed him. Silverstein described a long, complicated master that he did for Dr. Kildare – and his fury when he discovered that the editors inserted freeze-frames into it, in keeping with the show’s house style for its opening act credits.
Long takes were rare in early filmed television, because of the kind of obstacle Rosenberg encountered. Producers often competed with their directors for control over how a show looked. Even if a director staged scenes in a single master, the producer and the editors could cut away from it in post production. To ensure that a long take (or any other kind of adventurous set-up) was the only take that could be used, a director had to be forceful enough to resist a producer’s or a studio’s demands for more coverage (that is, more shots of the same action from different angles). Silverstein made a concerted effort to insert himself into the editing process (the DGA guaranteed a TV director’s right to supervise the initial cut of his episodes), but he was an exception. Apart from the question of whether or not the director was welcome in the editing room, many directors simply couldn’t afford to pass up an assignment on another episode just to hang around the editing room on the previous one.
Originally, I opened that blurb on Climax with this quote from Frankenheimer: “What can I do that’s going to be startling, that’s going to call attention to this show as opposed to every other piece of crap they’ve done on this thing?” What’s significant about that line is Frankenheimer’s bluntness about using the long take purely as an attention-getting device – a stunt. Confronted with material he didn’t like, Frankenheimer chose to overpower it with style. When I polled a few colleagues about possible shots to use in this discussion, Jonah Horwitz (a PhD candidate specializing in film and early television at UW-Madison) took issue with the whole premise. “I find the whole ‘my long take can beat your long take’ topic macho and boring,” he wrote. Long takes can be a kind of dick-measuring contest between competitive, egocentric filmmakers (a description that certainly applies to the live TV anthology group). The more complex the shot, the more it invites a spectator to disengage from the art and marvel at the technique – which is exactly what happened with that True Detective shot. As with many of Breaking Bad’s stylistic choices, the goal seems to be awesomeness rather than rigor or seriousness.
But I don’t share Horwitz’s exasperation with long take mania, and not just because I enjoy the most gonzo shots as their own spectacle. Another contributor to the A.V. Club piece mentioned “The Stingiest Man in Town,” the Alcoa Hour Christmas story directed by Daniel Petrie, and wrote this: “Many programs in the Golden Age Of Television were filmed in long takes for one simple reason: Filmed live as they were, editing had to be kept at a minimum, and anything too complicated (such as a massive musical number that also wanted to give close-ups of the singers) had to be carefully choreographed, the actors and cameramen moving in tandem with each other to achieve the maximum effect.” The problem with that is the part about editing. While there were some limitations (like studio space) that made long takes appealing to live television directors, editing wasn’t one of them. Directors understood quickly how much of their power to guide the viewer’s eye across a small, monochrome screen came out of those cuts from one perspective to another. And cutting stroked the ego as much as any showy long take: no director ever felt more directorial than when he was standing in the control room, snapping out the show’s rhythm with his fingers as he called out each cut from one camera to another: “Take one, take two, take one, take three….” The conditions of live television were more hospitable toward long takes than they were on film, and they are common on Danger and Climax and to a lesser extent Playhouse 90. But the long take was never a default mode in anthology drama – it was always one of an array of stylistic choices.
The popularization of the Steadicam in the eighties meant something of a resurgence in long takes on television (as it did in the cinema, where Scorsese and DePalma fetishized them). If handheld photography had originally been a consistent stylistic component mainly in series like Combat and The Senator, which cultivated a documentary-style realism, the Steadicam made it possible for handheld work to be more smoothly integrated with fixed-camera shots. Steadicam photography was faster and more versatile than tracking shots could be; most television shows’ sets weren’t built to accommodate the laying of track or the passage of the camera through every nook and cranny. (If you study the Walter Doniger sequence that’s embedded in the A.V. Club piece, you’ll notice that the camera doesn’t actually have the mobility to follow the actors very far into the set. Doniger covers for that limitation ably with a lot of lateral movement, and by pushing in and out repeatedly.) Director Thomas Schlamme’s fabled “walk and talk” aesthetic, tailored to put Aaron Sorkin’s verbose dialogue on its feet, defined The West Wing and has carried over somewhat into Sorkin’s current endeavor, The Newsroom, via Greg Mottola and other directors. And John Wells, the perennially underrated auteur who succeeded Sorkin as The West Wing’s showrunner, has made even more extensive use of the long-take Steadicam look, which became ER’s signature technique for conveying the bustle of a busy hospital. Wells’s Third Watch did an episode in which each act was a single take. The A.V. Club piece, and some of the readers’ comments, cover these recent works in detail. One of the unstated takeaways from that list is, perhaps, that that one True Detective isn’t such a big deal after all.
February 11, 2014
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.
January 31, 2014
Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87. Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.
Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians. He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.
Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926. His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany. As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.
At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930. Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.
The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs. While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man. But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business. It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.” Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.
In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day. Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said. “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’ Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”
Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx. “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him. The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered. “The film looked awful. I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me. It’s my first picture.’ They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly. He didn’t know what he was doing.’ All the pieces were facing the wrong way. All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”
Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said. He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College). The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.
“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled. I’d had awards with my documentaries. I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].” Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them! No matter what awards I’d won.”
Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston. He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.
After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner. The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman. Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader. He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio. (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.) Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time. But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal. Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.
“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked. “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer. They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything. I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’ Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!”
When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them. (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.) Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver. At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints. He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director.
(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)
“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly. “I was not cut out for it. I liked to freelance.” Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette. That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche. This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later. By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing). Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes. Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.) Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes. But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.
On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles. He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round. Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point. How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?