Yes, that’s right.  I’ve decided to Upworthy-ize the blog!

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But seriously – anyone out there recognize the obscure series from which these frame grabs were taken?  It’s not quite like anything else that was on TV at the time, and I’m probably going to write more about it soon.

It’s been over a month (!) since my last entry here, and obviously I’m still vamping with picture posts.  But I’ll have some meatier pieces here soon, as well as more for The A.V. Club in the near future.  In the meantime I’ve also started contributing to my old friend Stuart Galbraith IV’s new film website, World Cinema Paradise, starting with this survey of some obscure ’70s exploitation films.  There’s some good writing there; check it out!

 

 

So have you been diving into your new DVD set of the complete Naked City, or are you saving it for Christmas vacation?  As I suspected when I was researching last year’s article about the complicated, unhappy journey taken by the rights to producer Herbert B. Leonard’s series, the new-to-DVD episodes have been given the low-budget treatment.  But the grotty sourced-from-16-millimeter transfers still look better than any bootlegs I’d managed to get my hands on over the years, so I can’t complain.  Much.

Two years ago I used the original DVDs to illustrate a three-part look at some of the many familiar faces who decorated the edges of the Naked City – faces who were too new to warrant screen credit for their early bit roles.  At the time, I left out the half-hour first season, just because I didn’t have a good source from which to derive screen grabs.  Well, now I do.  So we can reprise that feature and look at some of the noteworthy uncredited actors from Naked City‘s one fifties-lensed season, many of them not yet mentioned anywhere in print or on the internet in connection with these early appearances.

In fact, let’s take it a step further.  Here, taken from the Herbert B. Leonard archives at UCLA, are transcripts of the first season cast credits in their entirety, including all of the uncredited actors.  Along with the handful of future celebs are dozens of forgotten names who never went on to substantial acting careers, including a cadre of bit players and stuntmen (Harold Gaetano, James Little, Frank Downing, Edd Simon) who formed a kind of invisible Naked City repertory company.  Whatever happened to all these people?

(1) “Meridian” (9/30/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Jerry Hopper.
Guest Stars Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Alison Marshall (Debbie Halloran), Joey Walsh (Lefty), Pat De Simone (Arturo Gutierrez), Harry Kadison (Arcaro), William Zuckert (Captain Donohue), Frank Downing (McGregor), Al Hodge (Johnson), Barbara Banks (Sylvia Simpkins), Miriam Acevedo (Mrs. Gutierrez).

(2) “Nickel Ride” (10/7/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Guest Stars Cameron Prud’homme (Captain Adam Flint), John Seven (Hood), Ralph Stantley (Hagerson), Harry Holcombe (Police Commissioner), Robert Burr (Armored Car Driver), Ray Singer (Armored Car Guard), Peter Dawson (Bronson).
Uncredited Lawrence R. Dutchyshyn (Deckhand), Don Gonzales (Assistant Engineer), Doyle Brooks (Fireman), Steve DePalma (Man on phone), Stella Robinson (Secretary).

(3) “Line of Duty” (10/14/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Eugenie Leontovich (Kotina), Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Diane Ladd (Yanice), Paul Lipson (Bartender), Alison Marshall (Debbie Halloran), Andrew Gerado (Peter), Nora Ferris (Baby Sitter), William A. Forester (Bailiff).

(4) “The Sidewalk Fisherman” (10/21/58)
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  From a New Yorker story by Meyer Berger.  Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Guest Stars Jay Novello (Gio Bartolo), Tarry Green (Jocko), Leonardo Cimino (Shellshock), Mark Burkan (Laddie), Gary Morgan (Paulie), Ruth Altman (Mother Superior), Joanna Heyes (Nun), Allen Nourse (Mr. Thompson).
Uncredited Chris Vallon (Plip), Anthony Tuttle (Ernie), Loney Lewis (Newsvendor), Frank Downing (Patrolman), James Little (Sergeant), Edd Simon (Patrolman), George McCoy (Husband).

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The psych ward-set “The Violent Circle” featured a Cuckoo’s Nest-worthy ensemble of offbeat New York faces as the mental patients, including the great Roberts Blossom (right, with James Franciscus), who would make his credited debut on the show a few weeks later in the brilliant Christmas episode “And Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol.”

(5) “The Violent Circle” (10/28/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Guest Stars Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), House Jameson (Dr. Morgan), Earl Rowe (Hanson), Robert F. Weil (Crane), Mark Allen (Green), Donald Moffat (Brickwell), Janice Mars (Miss Kaufman), Helm Lyon (Romaine), Jeno Mate (Parker), Alison Marshall (Debbie Halloran).
Uncredited Howard Wierum (Dr. Miller), Roberts Blossom (Brissen), Natalie Priest (Woman Attendant), Roger Quinlan (Elderly Man), Laura Pritkovits (Wife), Doyle Brooks (Silent Attendant).

(6) “Stakeout” (11/4/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Michael Tolan (Alan Keller), Irene Kane (Betty Keller), Horace McMahon (Chief), Matt Crowley (Commissioner O’Donnell), Jan Miner (Mrs. Rogan), Nina Reader (Janie Rogan), Donald Cohen (Ely).
Uncredited Elliot Sullivan (Ben Reilly), Doyle Brooks (Jacobs), Mike O’Dowd (Vinnie), Frank Downing (Patrolman), Sid Raymond (Shoe Clerk).

(7) “No More Rumbles” (11/11/58)
Written by Sam Ross.  Directed by William Beaudine.
Guest Stars Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), David Winters (Marty Nemo), Frank Dana (Packy), Sandy Smith (Lucy), Arny Freeman (Mr. Cienzi), David Challis (Little Poncho), Julia McMillan (Model), Harry Davis (Foreman), Alison Marshall (Debbie Halloran).
Uncredited Erny Costaldo (Ramrod), Bobby Nick (Cosy), Lawrence Whitman (Pedey), Bob Towner (Photo Double for David Winters).

(8) “Belvedere Tower” (11/18/58)
Written by Robert Sylvester & John Mackenzie.  Directed by William Beaudine.
Guest Stars Paul Spencer [Paul Schirn] (Mitchell Pierce), Tom Ahearne (Bellows), Dean Almquist (Dodds), Dorothy Dollivar (Evie), Bo Enivel (Mizotti).
Uncredited Ken Kenopka (Milkman), Fred Herrick (Elevator Man), Brooks Rogers (Patrolman), Harry Bergman (Stoddard), Frank Downing (Cop).

(9) “The Bird Guard” (11/25/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by William Beaudine.
Guest Stars Diana Van Der Vlis (Linda Stevenson), John McQuade (Cassidy), Jock MacGregor (Andrew Stevenson), Don Supinski (Sick Arch), John Lawrence (Grubber), John Seven (Brick), Lester Mack (Mr. Freeman).
Uncredited Ray Parker (Dapper Eddie), Donald Cohen (Eli), Sy Travers (Superintendent), Natalie Priest (Cashier).

(10) “The Other Face of Goodness” (12/2/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  From a story by Charles Jackson.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Arnold Merritt (Jimmy), Loretta Leversee (Nora), Gerald Gordon (Walt), David J. Stewart (Professor), John Gibson (City Editor), Frank Campanella (Cameraman).
Uncredited Marty Greene (Newsvendor), Allan Frank (1st Man), Martin Newman (2nd Man).

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James Dukas was a big, working-class type who had a major role as one of the criminals in the heist flick The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1958), with a young Steve McQueen, and small parts in The Hustler, Coogan’s Bluff, God Told Me To, and The Amityville Horror.  He appeared briefly as a rooftop sniper in the climax of “Ladybug, Ladybug..”

(11) “Lady Bug, Lady Bug . .” (12/9/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Leon B. Stevens (Eddie Stober), Peter Votrian (Bobby Stober), Daniel Ocko (Julio Marsatti), Arthur Wenzel (Butler), Peter Falk (Extortionist).
Uncredited James Dukas (Rifleman), Doug Reid (Plainclothesman).

(12) “Susquehanna 4-7598” (12/16/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by William Beaudine.
Guest Stars Sandy Robinson (Carol Thomas), William Clemens (Johnny), Paul Valentine (Larry), Frank Campanella (Mr. Viola).

(13) “And Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol” (12/23/58)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Frank Sutton (Marco), Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Michael Strong (Det. Hal Perleman), Rudy Bond (Lt. Daniels), Richard Kronold (Det. Dutton), Roberts Blossom (Quint), Mary Boylan (Marie), James Little (Sgt. Daniels).
Uncredited Martin Newman (Butcher), Tom Nello (Slug Passer), Wyrley Birch (Burr), Harry Davis (1st Liquor Store Owner), Al Leberfeld (2nd Liquor Store Owner), Grant Code (Reynolds), Tom Ahearne (Van Driver), Helen Waters (Italian Wife), Leslie Woolf (Italian Husband).

(14) “The Explosive Heart” (12/30/58)
Written by Jesse Lasky, Jr.  Directed by William Beaudine.
Guest Stars Barbara Lord (Laurie White Garcia), Noel Leslie (Commodore White), Cliff Carnell (Billy Garcia), Grant Gordon (Dr. Randy Colt), Maggie O’Byrne (May).
Uncredited Eva Gerson (Woman in hall), Scott Moore (Porter), Opal Baker (Nurse on boat), Natalie Priest (Nurse in hospital), Mitchell Lear (Tim Gariss), Loney Lewis (Vendor), Richard Kronold (Dutton), Helen Waters (Woman Vendor).

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Ronnie Haran (left, with Harry Bellaver) was part of the sixties rock scene in Los Angeles after a brief career as a TV ingénue, with leads in episodes of Ben Casey and The Fugitive.  Before all that, she had a tiny role as a teenager in trouble in “The Manhole.”

(15) “The Manhole” (1/6/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Will Kuluva (Papa Strokirch), George Maharis (“Stroke” Strokirch), John Karlen (Chunk), Victor Werber (Leo), James Little (Higgins), Richard Kronold (Dutton), Dirk Kooiman (Skeet), Don Gonzales (Tico), Ronald Maccone (Rider), Raymond A. Singer (Lansing).
Uncredited Lilian Field (Nurse), Ronnie Haran (Ethel), Roger Quinlan (Diamond Merchant), Jim Kenny (2nd Clerk), Anthony Garrett (Walk-on).

(16) “Even Crows Sing Good” (1/13/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Lee Philips (Larry Hine), Diana Douglas (Hilda Wallace), Bernard Fein (Dasher), Robert Weil (Happy), Frieda Altman (Mrs. Hine), James Little (Sgt. Higgins), Joanne Courtney (Nurse), Allan Frank (Citizen), Jean Martin (Young Woman).

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Among the witnesses to an inexplicable mass murder committed by oddball Woodrow Parfrey in “Burst of Passion” was Maria Gambarelli (right), a once-renowned Metropolitan Opera ballerina who did small acting parts in commercials (plus a few Italian films, including Antonioni’s Le Amiche) later in her career.  Also visible in the background here, as the druggist, is Albert Linville, a stage actor who originated the role of Vernon in the Broadway and film versions of Damn Yankees!

(17) “Burst of Passion” (1/20/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Woodrow Parfrey (Andrew Eisert), Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Guy Spaul (Reverend Thomason), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Crother), Kirk Alyn (Sgt. Muller), Matt Crowley (Commissioner O’Donnell), Richard Kronold (Dutton), John C. Becher (First Man).
Uncredited Shawn Donahue (Debbie Halloran), Ben Yaffee (Mr. Bell), Nina Hansen (Mrs. Harris), Rudd Lowry (Dr. Evans), Bob Smith (Mr. Hansen), Maria Gambarelli (1st Woman), Marin Riley (Weeping Woman), Jesse Jacobs (Milkman), Robert Dryden (Man in TV door), Albert Linville (Druggist).

(18) “Goodbye, My Lady Love” (1/27/59)
[Original title: “And Through Fields of Clover.”]
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  Based on a story by Edmund G. Love & Robert Esson.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars James Barton (Matty), William Edmonson (Chain), Louis Guss (Skull), Guy Raymond (Augie), Pat Malone (Harrison), William Baron (Wiper), Gilbert Mack (Mr. Lombardi), Edd Simon (Recorder).
Uncredited Ed Bruce (Citizen Agent), Ray Parker (D.A.’s Man), Ed Dorsey (Bartender).

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Briefly visible in “The Shield” was Michael Conrad (top) as a firing range instructor, already telling the other cops to be careful out there.  Also in small parts in this episode were Lou Antonio (center, right) as one of wannabe cop Vic Morrow’s pals, and Peyton Place‘s Henry Beckman (above, with John McIntyre and Jack Klugman) as a priest.

(19) “The Shield” (2/3/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Jack Klugman (Officer Greco), Gino Ardito (The Sneaker), Marguerite Lenert (Mrs. Greco), Sheldon Koretz (Husband), Lester Mack (Civil Service Examiner), Walter Kinsella (Markham), Vincent Van Lynn (Ted), Vic Morrow (David Greco).
Uncredited Michael Conrad (Firing Range Instructor), Carl Low (Medical Examiner), Frank Downing (Patrolman), Paul Alberts (Pawnbroker), Edd Simon (Recorder), Lou Antonio (Young Man), Grant Code (Police Doctor), Henry Beckman (Priest).

(20) “One to Get Lost” (2/10/59)
Written by Sam Ross.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Kent Smith (George Blake), Lawrence Tierney (Mike Jensen), Jeanette Nolan (Kate Blake), Norma Crane (Fay), Charles Gaines (Coroner), William Daprato (Janitor), Richard Barrows (Union Representative), Florence Anglim (Blake’s Secretary), Teri Scott (Union Secretary). 
Uncredited Austin Hay (Photographer), Pete Gumeny (Organizer), Tom Geraghty (Starter), Margie King (Woman Passenger), Chris Barbery (Newsboy).

(21) “Hey, Teach!” (2/17/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Robert Morris (Fred “Flip” Weller), Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Jose Alcarez (Luis), Jean Muir (Mrs. Klinn), Bernard Kates (Mr. Madison), Anthony Franke (Mark).

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Whoever typed up the end credits for “Ticker Tape” must not have seen the episode beforehand, since he or she omitted the episode’s guest lead while finding room for several bit players.  The actor who starred as the Olympic star feted in the titular parade (top, with Beverly Bentley, soon to be Mrs. Norman Mailer) can be revealed after fifty years as Ed Fury, a bodybuilder about to embark on a brief career as a star of Italian sword-and-sandal movies.  Also uncredited in the episode are Clement Fowler, in the first of many Naked City appearances, as a police operator and Buck Kartalian (bottom, right) as a sanitation worker.

(22) “Ticker Tape” (2/24/59)
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  From a story by Cal Berkeley.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Ernest Sarracino (Anton Marshak), Beverly Bentley (Arline), Paul Alberts (Kettleman), George Lambert (Hanson), Adrienne Moore (Mother), Tana Manners (Child).
Uncredited Clement Fowler (Rizzo), Charles Stewart (Petersen), Bob Alvin (Captain Gold), Harold Gaetano (Patrolman #1), Ed Fury (Mason Conway), Kelly McCormick (Sergeant on Horse), Mike Keene (Commissioner), Buck Kartalian (Sanitation Department Foreman), Mitchell Lear (Sgt. Faber), Frank Downing (Patrolman #2), Bob Oran (Jackson).

(23) “Fire Island” (3/3/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Norman Tokar.
Guest Stars Henry Hull (Alky), George Maharis (Lundy), Michael Conrad (Hartog), Guy Raymond (Boz), Will Hussung (Lab Man), Philip Huston (Lee).

(24) “Ten Cent Dreams” (3/10/59)
Written by Sam Ross.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Ross Martin (Carlo Ramirez), Kay Chaqué (Maria Ramirez), Richard X. Slattery (Solid), Al Lewis (Harry Pike), Thelma Pelish (Mrs. Pike).
Uncredited Henry Casso (Runner), Eleanor Eaton (Blowsy Woman), William Conn (Controller), Howard Mann (Comptometer), Alberto Monte (Juan), Mario DeLara (Max), Stanley Simmonds (Guard), Bob Allen (Executive), Arthur Hammer (Teller).

(25) “The Bumper” (3/17/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Matt Crowley (Police Commissioner), Clement D. Fowler (The Bumper), Doyle Brooks (Garage Man), Sam Gray (Thomas Doyle), Al Henderson (Landers), Michael Strong (Det. Nate Perlman), Richard Kronold (Det. Dutton).

(26) “A Running of Bulls” (3/24/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Michael Ansara (Rafael Valente), Michel Ray (Felipe), Felice Orlandi (Luis), Gloria Marlow (Castana).

(27) “Fallen Star” (3/31/59)
Written by Sam Ross.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Robert Alda (Jess Burton), Arnold Merritt (Larry Peters), Rocky Graziano (Lou Curtis), Al Morgenstern (Al McBride), Guy Sorel (Harry Weeks), Bruno Damon (Manager).

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Barbara Wilkin (left), star of The Flesh Eaters (1964), pops up for a few seconds as a runway model in “Beyond Truth.”

(28) “Beyond Truth” (4/7/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Martin Balsam (Arnold Fleischman), Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran), Shawn Donahue (Debbie Halloran), Phyllis Hill (Betty Fleischman), Gerald Price (Max Buchwald), Sloan Simpson (Shirley Buchwald), Romo Vincent (Teddy Simpson), Pat Tobin (Commentator).
Uncredited Sam Hanna (Handcuffed Man), Barbara Wilkin (Model), Patsie de Souza (Nervous Woman), Joseph Boley (Nervous Man).

(29) “Baker’s Dozen” (4/14/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by George Sherman.
Guest Stars Joseph Ruskin (“Count” Baker), Richard Jaeckel (Lance), Vincent Gardenia (Crudelli), Carlos Montalban (Frank Baker), Alex Dayna (Stubleman), Al Ward (Clerk), Edd Simon [Ed Siani] (Recorder), Herb Oscar Anderson (Disc Jockey Voice).

(30) “The Rebirth” (4/21/59)
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  Story by Sam Ross.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Betty Sinclair (Ruth Barnaby), Maureen Delany (Scrubwoman #1), John Becher (Bank Teller), Anna Appel (Mrs. Levinsky), Rebecca Darke (Woman with baby), Ludwig Donath (Pawnshop Owner), Crahan Denton (Superindentent).

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After a large role in “And a Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol,” Frank “Sergeant Carter” Sutton (top, with a female extra) returned for an unbilled cameo as a drug dealer in “Four Sweet Corners,” a sort-of back-door pilot for Route 66.  His stooge, misidentified by the Internet Movie Database as the similar-looking Jan Merlin, was played by Rayford Barnes (above, right), seen here with Robert Morris, whose early death may have prevented him from taking the Martin Milner role in Route 66.

(31) “Four Sweet Corners” (4/28/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars George Maharis (Johnny Gary), Robert Morris (Link Ridgeway), Irene Dailey (Amy Gary), Rochelle Oliver (Cora Gary), Mary Perry (Mrs. Gamby), Martha Greenhouse (Evelyn Roth), Patrick J. Kelly (Thin Man).
Uncredited Frank Sutton (Aces), Rayford Barnes (Tough).

(32) “The Sandman” (5/5/59)
Written by Louis Salaman.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Mike Kellin (Ketch), Will Kuluva (Farmer), Fred Irving Lewis (Mr. Moretti), Vincent Van Lynn (Robbins), Gordon G. Peters (Technician).

(33) “Turn of Events” (5/12/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Jan Miner (Elsie Knolf), Melville Ruick (John Harding), Eugenia Rawls (Mrs. Harding), Kay Doubleday (Laura Harding), Irene Cowan (Mrs. Miles).

(34) “A Little of the Action” (5/19/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars James Barton (Bo Giles), Johnny Seven (Al), Simon Oakland (Duke), Jan Norris (Doris Giles), Ben Yaffee (Mr. Watkins), Jonathan Gilmore (Jimmy).

(35) “The Bloodhounds” (5/26/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Phyllis Hill (Jane Whitmore), Byron Sanders (Charles Whitmore), Rudy Bond (Lt. Springer), Janice Manzo (Lynn Whitmore), Richard Kronold (Det. Dutton), James Little (Sgt. Higgins), Louis Nye (Drunk).

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What was it about shooting range officers?  In “The Scorpion Sting,” it’s the wonderful Clifton James (right, with Nehemiah Persoff) who did a small turn in that function.

(36) “The Scorpion Sting” (6/2/59)
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  Based on a story by Alfred Bester.  Directed by John Brahm.
Guest Stars Nehemiah Persoff (Barney Peters), Tamara Daykarhanova (Mrs. Petraloff), Diana Douglas (Meg Peters), William Meigs (Matty Dixon), Marvin Kline (Charley Schwartz).
Uncredited Clifton James (Shooting Range Officer).

(37) “Saw My Baby There” (6/9/59)
Written by L. I. [Louis] Salaman.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Harold J. Stone (Simon Becker), Mark Rydell (Ralph Harris), Rochelle Oliver (Katie Harris), Arny Freeman (Klutz), Robert Dryden (Morgue Attendant), Angelo Pirozzi (Harry).

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Remade as the hour-long episode “Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” “The Canvas Bullet” featured Harry Guardino and Diane Ladd as a punchy boxer and his wife (played by Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight in the remake).  Also present were William Edmonson (top, left, with the ubiquitous Clement Fowler), an African-American actor who played in Oscar Micheaux’s films and made an impression in two Twilight Zones, as a cut man; the blacklisted character actor Gilbert Green (center, right) as manager to boxer Rocky Graziano; and Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis (above, center) as a bookie.  And yes, that’s Vincent Gardenia on the right in the last image.  Could this be the only time those two sharp-featured comedic actors shared a frame?

(38) “The Canvas Bullet” (6/16/59)
Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.  From a story by Ed Lacy.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Stars Harry Guardino (Johnny Mills), Diane Ladd (Kathie Mills), Clement Fowler (Gus Slack), House Jameson (Doc Nearing), Vincent Gardenia (Musso), Rocky Graziano (Eddie Gibbs). 
Uncredited Al Lewis (Bookie), William Edmonson (Cut Man), Gilbert Green (Gibbs’ Manager), James Little (Sgt. Higgins).

(39) “A Wood of Thorns” (6/23/59)
Written by Stirling Silliphant.  Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Guest Star Cara Williams (Lois Heller).

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He only played one decent-sized role in a movie, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called that performance “unforgettable.”  In John Cassavetes’s sophomore film, Too Late Blues, the villain, a weaselly musician’s agent named Benny Flowers, is played by a casting director and fledgling producer named Everett Chambers.  Crewcut, compact, and contained, Chambers is truly terrifying as a cunning manipulator of fragile egos who seems to be just barely in control of a nearly psychopathic rage.

But Chambers himself thought Too Late Blues was “self-indulgent,” and his own independent films as director (a short, The Kiss, and two features, Run Across the River and The Lollipop Cover) received little attention.  The cinema’s loss was television’s gain, as Chambers became the primary non-writing producer of a succession of smart, well-made series: Johnny Staccato, Target: The Corrupters, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Peyton Place, and Columbo, not to mention an infamous unsold pilot (Calhoun: County Agent, the subject of writer Merle Miller’s mocking, juicy book Only You, Dick Daring) and a number of worthy made-for-television movies.

In a 2005 telephone interview, Chambers shared some candid and often very funny memories from his four-year stint as the producer of Peyton Place.

Tell me about your transition from in front of the camera to behind it.

I started first as an actor in New York in live television, and then I worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway.  I wanted to be a director; I didn’t want to be an actor.  But when I got out of drama school I looked like I was twelve years old, and I played twelve years old until I was about twenty-two.  Eventually I went to work as a casting director, first as an assistant to Fred Coe’s casting director on Philco Playhouse [and] Mister Peepers.  I worked there with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn and Tad Mosel – all these people who were working on Philco Playhouse.  Fred Coe was the premiere live television producer at the time.

I came out from New York.  John Cassavetes did that, brought me out to produce Johnny Staccato.  Forced me onto Revue/MCA, and they did it.  I stayed with that for the year, and then I stayed in California and got a divorce.  Why not?  I did other things, and then Paul Monash called me a couple of times.  He called me before Felix Feist [the second producer of Peyton Place], and didn’t hire me, and then when Feist died, he did.

What you did on Peyton Place, relative to Paul Monash and the other members of the production staff?

First of all, I’m doing all of the casting, all the hiring of the actors.  Most of the time we had the same revolving directors, but from time to time I would change them.  I cut all of the pictures with the editors, and we did three of them a week most of the time.  When we cut to [broadcasting] two a week, I still convinced them to shoot three, so that we could all get some time off.

Did you institute any major changes when you first came in on the show?

Well, there were some rocky things.  The sound quality of the show wasn’t very good.  It was cut, I think, very slow.  The style in which it was shot, which was a lot of camera movement up and down and sideways, and a lot of dolly shots and masters of maybe five, six, seven, eight, ten pages.  On the stages at Fox, which were very old, that was noisy.  They put up with it by bringing the people back and having them loop the lines, which to me was very expensive.  So I integrated new carpets on all the sets to kill the sound.  And started using radio mics, which they hadn’t used before, and instituted a lot of lighter weight modern equipment, because we were all using this antiquated equipment that was there as part of the facilities of Twentieth Century-Fox.  They didn’t want to buy new lighting equipment and stuff, but eventually we did.  Then we went from black and white to color, and we segued.  Every week, as we were getting to know when we were going to broadcast in color, I would change three or four sets, until we had them all in color.  All of that was part of my responsibility.  

Paul was also making movies and making a couple of other pilots and shows.  That’s why eventually, when [writing producer] Dick DeRoy left and [story editor] Del Reisman moved up, instead of bringing somebody in he said, “You do it.”  So I went down and I plotted it out with them and worked on that.  I didn’t do any of the writing; I just plotted.

When you came in, was there a sense that Mia Farrow was the breakout star of the show?

Mia was probably the most popular one on the show, next to then Ryan [O’Neal] and then Rita, who was played by Pat Morrow, and then the other guy, the brother [Christopher Connelly].  Wherever they would go, they were mobbed.

Did the network, or Monash, direct you to place a greater emphasis on the younger characters?

No.

Who were some of the actors you cast personally in the show?

Well, I was watching The Long Hot Summer when I saw this gorgeous Lana Wood.  We had a Christmas party, and she was dancing, and holy shit, look at that!  So I manipulated them getting a part for her.  I can’t remember how that all happened, but I got her in there.  Then there was also this – Myrna Fahey, I thought she was gorgeous.  I thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.  I got her in there in a part, and I used her a few times later.  I thought both of them would be bigger than they were.  Stephen Oliver, I found in an interview.  I brought in Leigh Taylor-Young.  I found her.  Then she and Ryan started messing around, and he knocked her up.  He was married to Joanna Moore.  That was a problem to work out.  When Mia left, we had a number of different women come in to kind of replace [her]: Joyce Jillson, Tippy Walker.  Leigh Taylor-Young was the most interesting one.

Leslie Nielsen came in for a while and played a double part.  Susan Oliver came in.  I don’t know if you know who Don Gordon [the star and co-writer of Chambers's 1965 film The Lollipop Cover] is, but he came in for a while.  Then of course Lee Grant, and there was John Kellogg.  He was a character actor, a bad guy from the thirties and forties.  Dan Duryea, we brought in for a while.  Generally, we didn’t lock them in.  Gena Rowlands I had to lock in, because she only wanted to work until so-and-so, and then I said, “Okay, you’ll just do this amount of episodes and then out.”  Some of them were just [bit players] – Richard Dreyfuss used to play the newspaper boy!  There was a black policeman, Sergeant Walker: Morris Buchanan.  And then there was a guy that ran the lobster thing on the pier, Frankie London.

Ah, now I’m seeing a pattern – not just Gena Rowlands but Buchanan and London were all actors who had worked often with Cassavetes, as you had.

Yeah, Frank was one of John’s.  He was in Too Late Blues, as I was.  

To what extent did Paul Monash give you a free hand in producing Peyton Place?

Generally, as he had confidence in me, after about six months, then he just let me alone.  You didn’t need to run any casting [by him], except major people like Gena or when Susan Oliver came in.  [For those roles] I would tell him who I would like.

Did you have much to do with the network?

No, I did not have much to do with the network.  At that time the guy responsible for us was Tony Barr.  I talked to him every week.  He would want to know what’s going on – who’s this, what’s that.  And we would clear things with him.  We were so much in advance – we were ten weeks, probably, filmed in advance.  So that means our material was even more weeks [ahead] than that.  So they knew where we were going way ahead of airtime.  If there was any red flags, we would get them early.  But it was too successful to have much problem.  In those days, there weren’t as many people muddling in everything.  I’ve been on flops where they’d beat your head in every day.  On Johnny Staccato, Lew Wasserman wanted a forty share.  We couldn’t get there, so he was on my neck all the time.

Whereas on Peyton Place….

It was already in there!  I mean, in the summertime, we were one, two, and three [in the ratings].  So you don’t mess around with success too much.  Now, they meddle in everything, even if you’re successful.

Was it a good experience for you?

It was terrific!  From my background, it wasn’t the most exciting kind of drama.  About the sixth or seventh month of working on the show, I came out of the dailies one day and say, “Well, that was a pretty good show.  That was pretty good stuff I saw there today.”  I says, “Uh-oh.  I’m in trouble!”  I mean, I had just come from Fred Coe, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann.  You have a sense of value and quality that’s a little different.  But you learn to adjust: hey, wait a minute, it’s a soap opera.  It’s television.  You do the best you can.  And that I did, then, for the rest of my career.  I would do the best I could with what I had.

Tell me about how the writing staff functioned.

They had a deal with the Writers Guild that was complicated.  They had about nine writers, right?  How did they get credit?  So what they did is that we would plot these things out, and Nina [Laemmle] would alternate with Del [Reisman], writing up the plot.  Nina would do one act and Del would do the other act.  Then they would give that outline to a writer, whoever it was.  They would write it.  Doesn’t mean that they got the credit on that episode.  Just everybody got credits, but they didn’t always write what was there.  Sometimes somebody’s name would be on something that somebody else wrote.  But I would know who wrote what.  And I was most impressed by – Carol Sobieski was very good, but Lee [Lionel E.] Siegel was the best of all of them.

What do you remember about Peyton Place’s directors?

Ted Post was my first directing teacher, back in New York.  He and Walter Doniger had the same technique.  Walter was much more rigid than Ted.  Ted was the kind of director, no matter what it was, you said, “We’ve got this thing we’ve got to shoot here, these twelve pages over here, Teddy….”

“Well, I haven’t read ’em….”

“Well, it starts over here….”

“Okay, thank you!”  And he just goes and does it.  He could do anything.

I really admired the long takes and elaborate compositions in Doniger’s episodes.

Well, that wasn’t Walter’s style.  It was the style of the show.  Teddy Post shot that way.  It was actually a live television look.  If you went back to the soaps and things of live television, they had a lot of movement in a single camera.  And that became part of the style, mixed, of course, with the film technique.  So we had a lot of movement.  Sometimes 23 or 24 or 25 moves in one scene.  They would be in a two-shot, move to a close-up, move to an over-the-shoulder.  Not the actors, the camera is doing it.

I’m getting the sense that you were not a big admirer of Walter Doniger.

Walter knew nothing about acting.  He would say to the actors one thing: “Don’t do anything!  Don’t do anything!  Don’t feel anything, don’t do anything.”  That was his direction.  Teddy was more Method-oriented.

I have a Walter Doniger story you may not like, but….  Walter was a very rigid control freak.  I had talked Gena Rowlands into coming in to play a part for ninety episodes.  She would come in in episode so-and-so and ninety episodes later she would leave, because she was [at] the beginning of a movie career.  But I happened to know John needed the money to finish one of his pictures [Faces, 1968].  I knew her from New York, before, with John.

Anyway, her first day happens to be with Walter Doniger.  Now, I have had my problems with Walter Doniger from time to time, when I would ask him to do something specifically and he wouldn’t do it.  It would annoy me, but I wouldn’t come down on him.  I would get annoyed and the next time something would happen I would bring it up, but he would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.  It wasn’t that big a deal, but this became a big deal.  

Gena’s first day.  Now she’s a friend of mine, right?  It’s about a six, seven, eight-page scene.  So they start shooting it.  I’m not there; I’m in the office.  Somewhere, Gena goes up.  Now, she wasn’t used to doing seven or eight page masters.  She was used to doing a piece of a master and then maybe some coverage, then another piece of a master.  But she wasn’t used to doing seven, eight, nine moves, ten moves, fifteen.  It was a whole new technique and she was just starting, right?  So she did it and stopped.  Then he started all over again.  And then did it again, stopped.  Maybe they did that three or four times, and then finally she said, “Couldn’t you just print and pick up?”

He said, “Who’s the director, you or me?”  

She says, “Oh, okay.”  She said, “Excuse me, I have to go to my dressing room.”  

She went to her dressing room and called me.  Now, Gena is a lady.  She is the daughter of a state senator.  Her mother is elegant.  You don’t swear in front of Gena, right?  She got on the phone and she said, “Everett, I’ve got to talk to you right now about this prick, Walter Doniger.”

Oh.

She said, “I’ll be in my dressing room.  Come.  And my agent is coming, and my press agent is coming.”

So I went in to Paul and I said, “Paul, we’ve got a small problem.”  

He said, “Go down and talk to her.”  

So eventually what happened is that I went up to the set and said, “Walter, you’ve got to go down there and eat some crow.  Because she’s going home.”  I think we called him up to the office, as I recall, because Walter and Paul and I were [all talking].  

So I took him down to Gena and took her into the dressing room, and by then her agent, Jack Gilardi, had arrived.  They went in, and [Gilardi] and I went out to the end of the corridor and sat down on the steps and we heard Gena ream … his … ass.  “You son of a bitch, you no-good fuck, you….”  [Laughs]  She really worked him over the coals.  Then, when that was done, he ate some crow, and she went back on the set and finished.  

But Walter Doniger and I didn’t cut it from then on, and I replaced him.  

Really?  Is it accurate to say that you fired him?

When you replace somebody that’s been with a show for about three years, I would think so.

When I interviewed him, Doniger made it sound like he’d left of his own volition.

No, he did not.  When his option or whatever it was came up, I told Paul I don’t want to work with him any more.  Because that was just one incident on top of these other little ones.

One other thing about Walter Doniger: every day he sent his dailies to Dick Zanuck’s screening room, hoping that Zanuck would like the dailies and give him a movie.

Some of the other actors on the show found Walter charming, though.

Well, he could be that too.  It’s just that when you’re a control freak, and I’m a control freak, something’s gotta give.  Who’s gonna run the show, is what that comes down to.  And it was kind of a battle from time to time about who was.  A dear friend of mine is Jeffrey Hayden, and we had the same problem.  It was about wardrobe with Barbara Parkins.  We had decided what we wanted her to wear and he changed it.  I had it [with Hayden] on The Lloyd Bridges Show, also; it was something to do with [guest star] Diane Baker.

So you hired Jeff Hayden after having worked with him on that series.

I did indeed.  John Newland was the third director when I came on, and I looked at a couple of his shows and I thought they were shitty.  I knew John, also, from New York, so I went down on the set and I said, “John, could you and I have a conversation please?” 

He says, “This is all crap!  The show is crap!  Everything about it is crap!  Don’t talk to me about it, it’s crap.”  

“John, that’s a bad attitude.  I want your best.  If you can’t do your best, you can’t do it.”  

He said, “Then I don’t do it!”  

So he left and Jeff came in.

I’ve talked to some talented people from Peyton Place (like Franklin Barton, one of the original writers) who looked down on it.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around doing a soap opera.

All television is soap opera.  We’ve tried to make it look like something else, but it isn’t.

Who were you closest to among the cast?

Well, I hung out a lot with Ryan.  And there was a guy, William Allyn, who was the associate producer.  He and I knew each other; he was an actor in New York.  He and I and Ryan would go to lunch a lot.  And Ryan is very funny.  We really had a lot of laughs with him.  After he got out and started making movies, I ran into him once and it was like he didn’t know me.

Were there others among the actors with whom you didn’t get along?

I did have some run-ins with Barbara Parkins.  Her agent, and I can’t think of his name now, they were very pissy.  She and Lee Grant were both nominated for an Emmy, and the Emmy committee called and said, “Would you pick a film for them to show to the Actors’ [Branch], so they could vote for them.”  You know, you send material over, the actors look at the material, and then they vote.  So I picked an episode that both of them had real good stuff in.  Then one day I get a call from her agent and he said, “We want to sit down with Barbara and pick out material.”  

I said, “Well, you can’t, because it’s gone.  It was three weeks ago they asked for it.”

“What do you mean, they asked for it?”

“Well, they asked for it.  I sent the material.”  

Well, she had a fit.  She didn’t speak to me until I was working on Columbo, and she was over there on some movie of the week or something.

She really didn’t speak to you again during the entire run of Peyton Place?

She didn’t speak to me for at least two years.  Well, I directed some [episodes], so she had to talk to me at that time.

One other thing was: Dorothy Malone was never on time.  Never.  Never did her hair.  She would come in and not have her roots done, and we’d have to stop and fix her roots and do her hair.  And one of the stand-ins was her spy.  If she had an eight o’clock call, or a ten o’clock call, he would see where they were and call her: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to get to you till eleven.”  And so she wouldn’t come in.  And then she got sick and I replaced her for a while with Lola Albright, and Mr. Peyton got sick, George Macready, and I replaced him for a while with Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Macready was terrific in that part.

Yeah, he was terrific.  And he was never one of my favorite actors, but I really liked him [on Peyton Place].

Peyton Place went through some interesting changes during its last year on the air.

We were [on] during the Vietnam War, but we were in limbo, never-never-land, in terms of reality.  The war was never spoken of.  And in the fifth year, [the ratings] may have been weakening a little bit, so Paul and I had a meeting and decided to get into something more contemporary.  He came back and wanted to introduce a black family.  I said, “Okay, if we do that, are we going to introduce the war, are we going to introduce rock and roll, something more contemporary with the kids?”

“Yes.”  

So we started to make a transition.  Paul put out a press release about the black family coming in, with a son who’s in love with a white girl.  Hate mail came.  This is 1968, right?  Hate mail.  One letter I got said that if you have this black boy with this white girl, I will nail you up to my garage door.  And I was very uncomfortable with that myself.  I said to Paul, “Let us get a black sociologist or psychologist, or somebody, to advise us.”  Because we were totally lily-white.  Everybody on the show was lily-white.  We cast Ruby Dee and Percy Rodriguez and Glynn Turman and another girl [Judy Pace].

Did you keep the interracial relationship angle?

Absolutely not.  First of all, I knew Ruby Dee and her husband [Ossie Davis] from New York, and when she got the job both of them came out and wanted to talk about where we were going.  Both of them were very oriented in not making it look bad, not making the black family look ridiculous.  It was ridiculous enough that we made him a brain surgeon, [of] which there were only nine in the United States!  Nine black neurosurgeons at the time.  We had an interview with one of them, who came to talk to us.  Anyway, eventually, I was able to stop the black-white [interracial romance] thing, bring in a doctor of psychology, get a couple of black writers.  We had rap sessions every week with the writers about what could be done with the black family to keep it from being distasteful and [depicted as] white fantasies, which is what it would have been if we’d have continued it without that kind of help.

It seems like the look of the show got a little more contemporary — more “mod,” so to speak — in the final year.

Yes, it did.  We put in a disco.  We had a rock and roll band in the disco, called The Pillory.  Jerry Moss at A&M Records was a friend of mine, so I said, “Can you put together a group for me?”  So he sent over a bunch of groups and we auditioned them.  One of them was The Carpenters.  And I said no, I cannot see a rock and roll band with a female drummer.  Needless to say….  Anyway, we put together an ad hoc band and they would do all the music, and then we’d just send it over and do it to playback.

Did you get to know Paul Monash well personally?

Yeah, sure.  I mean, I spent four years with him.  He was a strange, mercurial man.  He was very ego-oriented.  When I came in there, I was working at the time at a place called International Productions, with Robert Brandt, who was Janet Leigh’s husband.  When I left, he just dissolved the company.  We had a PR firm working with us, and I said, “Well, we have this commitment and I’ll take it with me.”  

I called Paul, because I knew he was PR-oriented.  You always saw his name [in the press] about whatever happened on Peyton Place.  He got his name there first.  I said, “Is it all right if I use [a publicist]?”  

He says, “It’s okay.  I’ve gotten all the publicity I need.”  

Right?  And then when he starts seeing my name casting so-and-so, and my name doing this, he got pissed.  In fact, they did a special with him moderating it about Peyton Place.  He never mentioned anybody but him.  Not one of the directors.  Not one of the producers.  Nothing.  It was all him.  So, knowing that, and having worked with Aaron Spelling, who was the same kind of PR-oriented person, you don’t infringe.  You just stay cool.

Did you think Monash was talented?

Oh, he was the best writer on the show.  The best.  He also was a good director.  He did one episode.  He would rewrite stuff, and write stuff, yeah.  He never took any credit for it.  He would just do it.  Once in a while they would get stuck and he would do something.

Someone else who worked for him intimated that Monash would avail himself of the casting couch.

Oh, he was fucking everything that walked.  Everything.  Truck drivers, if they were female – anything.  He was just terrible.  One of my friends I got on there as a secretary, and they used our beach house once.  She said, “He’s like a rabbit.”  You know, Fox has another gate on the west side of the lot.  It was a temporary gate, but mostly it was a set.  He had an apartment over there, right across the street.

I guess that wasn’t uncommon at that time.

I guess, but it was like a cliche.  He was, in his own way, very insecure.  He had, I believe, a very dominant father, who never gave him any recognition.  He was a little driven by that.  And he was married to this one woman when we were doing that show, then later he married a writer, Merrit Malloy, who had one hand.  Lee Philips, who was in the original Peyton Place [movie], was also a buddy of mine; I had brought him in in the later years as one of the directors.  Then Paul was making movies at CBS, and he gave Merrit some of these movies to write or something, and then Lee became one of the directors.  Lee and Merrit became an item, and Lee’s wife found out and she threw him out.  They got a divorce.  He came and stayed with me, because I was single at the time.  It was a mess.  And Paul found about it – he was chasing all over town looking for Lee Philips.

I think the photography on Peyton Place is gorgeous, and I neglected to ask you about the cinematographer, Robert Hauser.

Yeah, he was a wonderful cameraman.  Bill Cronjager was the operator.  After Bob Hauser left, I made him the cameraman.  And he worked with me also on Columbo, and Partners in Crime.  We shot it in San Francisco, with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter.  I used to call the show Cagney and Cleavage.  It was a terrible show.

It seems like people of your generation had fewer opportunities to do meaningful work in the seventies and eighties than in the years before.

It started to flatten out a bit.  It got so controlled by the networks that I quit and moved back to New York in 1980, for four years.  I couldn’t take one more meeting with one more twenty-four year-old Wharton School of Business executive telling me how you do drama.  Now it’s worse.

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Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).

When I was in high school, I stumbled across Picket Fences. It became the first adult, contemporary television series to stoke my imagination in the same way that older shows like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive had already been doing for some time.

Twenty years later, I got the chance to write about the career of David E. Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences, for The A.V. Club. Even though his career has sputtered during the past decade or so, I’m still a big fan of his best work, and I hope I’ve done justice to it.

I know that some of you have followed me to Twitter, but the only reader who’s become a regular thorn in my side over there is Marty McKee, author of the estimable Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot blog. Recently – after a quibble over whether another TV critic could still be taken seriously after he admitted he’d never seen The Bob Newhart Show – Marty asked me what major television series I’d never seen.

Now that’s a question that I’ve always loved asking other critics, in part because they hate it. No professional ever really seems eager to admit to the gaps in their knowledge. Especially nowadays, on the internet, any show of weakness is going to get you reamed. One of my college friends, now a respected film critic, was always suspiciously noncommittal whenever I inquired about which Hitchcock films he had under his belt. I also remember an “Ask the Critic” column (apparently no longer online) in which Manohla Dargis, then a lead film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was asked the dreaded question. Reluctantly, she agreed only to fess up to some examples from a single national cinema — Italian — and so we learned that she’d never gotten around to I Vitelloni.

Me, on the other hand, I’m an open book. Well, not really. But Marty asked for five TV shows I’ve never seen at all (apart from a stray clip here or there), and I figure I can admit to that many without completely decimating my credibility. So here goes. Never seen a single episode of any of these — not for lack of interest, just for lack of hours in the day.

1. Maude
2. Lou Grant
3. Taxi
4. thirtysomething
5. Homicide

I can think of a handful of others, but Marty asked for five so that’s all I’m giving up. Now it’s your turn. For all of you fellow expert-level TV maniacs, get your skeletons out of the closet: What are you embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?

Ever since I discovered it ten years ago, one of the series I’ve most wanted to write about in a definitive way is Peyton Place.  Most of the truly canonical television series have been identified, if not universally agreed upon, by now.  I think Peyton Place may be the one exception – the sole long-running American show that belongs in the pantheon but has generally been excluded.  To my great delight, The A.V. Club has given me the opportunity to make a case for its excellence.

I’ve also written about Peyton Place in a less comprehensive way in a few other places.  After you read the A.V. Club piece, you may want to check out (or revisit) my interviews with writer-producer Richard DeRoy and actor Tim O’Connor, my obituary for director Walter Doniger, and my thoughts on James Rosin’s book about the series.

In addition to the four people named in the preceding paragraph, I also want to acknowledge a number of others who spoke to me about Peyton Place over the years: the late Franklin Barton; the late Gerry Day; the late Harold Gast; Lee Grant; Jeffrey Hayden; Patricia Morrow; Ed Nelson; Peggy (Shaw) O’Shea; the late William Self; and Jack Senter.  In particular, I’m grateful to the late Del Reisman, who spent many patient hours discussing this and other shows with me over the course of several years, and to Sonya Roberts, an off-the-record friend of long standing who finally and graciously consented to become a source for this piece.

As was the case with Ben Casey, there will be a few sidebars here during the next few weeks to showcase some of the research that didn’t make it into the A.V. Club essay.

(A final postscript: I spent some time trying unsuccessfully to locate the three African American writers who briefly joined Peyton Place‘s writing staff in 1968. Gene Boland, Sam Washington, and Wharton Jones, if you happen to come across this post, I’d love to interview you.)

Why I Do This

November 8, 2013

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In the second season of Scandal, there’s a scene in which the White House Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, encounters a political rival moments after having successfully executed a scheme to vanquish her, temporarily, from power.  “Madame Vice President, how are you today?” he sneers as he walks past her into the Oval Office.  Jeff Perry, the actor who plays Beene, delivers this nondescript bit of dialogue in a gleeful, singsong tone.  He places the emphasis on “you” and then again on the final syllable of “to-day.”  He sounds like a cheery, semi-deranged telemarketer.  Then he grabs his crotch, a gesture just barely captured by the camera.

A second later, Beene’s aside to his colleague – “That was small of me. I need to work on that” – underlines the sarcastic intent of his greeting.  I’m sure that the lines were scripted, but Perry’s interpretation of them is so exuberantly eccentric that they feel improvised.  In obscure corners of television I’ve glimpsed a few other brilliant grace notes like that over the years, but they’re exceedingly rare.  The great Miguel Sandoval had a few of them on Medium, and on House Chi McBride did something once that I think probably was his invention.  McBride played a hospital executive who had it in for Dr. House’s unorthodox methods, and at the beginning of their final showdown in an empty conference room McBride scatted a bit on a throwaway line: “D-d-d-d-d-d-doctor House in the house,” he grins with a cockiness that is, of course, soon obliterated.  It was a line reading that was totally out of character for a buttoned-down numbers-cruncher, but that was the point: with a few extra syllables, a stock villain appeared to gain a secret inner life not hinted at on the page.  A few Scandal episodes later, Jeff Perry has another astonishing scene (above), a longer one in which he finally reveals the true scope of his ambitions to his husband (Dan Bucatinsky, also good), as well the seething rage that being unphotogenic and gay has thwarted them.  When Perry utters the words, “I was made to be president of the United States,” there is a big gob of snot drooling out of his nose.

The above may sound like a lead-in to an endorsement of Scandal.  That’s the opposite of what I would want it to be mistaken for.  Like everything else I’ve seen from the pen of Shonda Rhimes (which includes only the first ten or so episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and all of Scandal), Scandal is trash.  I’ve seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Good Wife, which really is one of the smartest show on television at the moment, and that’s not only wrong but alarmingly softheaded.  For Scandal is utterly ignorant not just about how government operates but about the basics of how people feel and think, too. Scandal is the most pernicious kind of bad television because it’s propulsive and superficially competent.  It’s watchable, in other words, unlike most bad television, which is dull or laughable and therefore easily dismissed.  Rhimes’s writing has all the wit and insight of a romance novel – indeed, it is consistently and perhaps deliberately pitched at that level – and yet because its story pieces fit together neatly and its tension mounts from episode to episode at a satisfying pace, too many critics have given its utter absence of substance a pass.

But back to Jeff Perry: He is a lesser-known graduate of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his midwestern twang still intact, and maybe the best of them.  He’s been around for a couple of decades, doing thankless character work in stuff like Nash Bridges and Prison Break; I first noticed him as a teacher in My So-Called Life, twenty years ago.  Cyrus Beene is a career-defining performance for Perry, one that proves he can hit Shakespearean highs; now he’s on my list of actors I’d love to see as Lear or Richard III (which is, really, who he’s playing here), and he wasn’t before.  Sometimes good actors (or good directors or even good writers) end up doing good work within a canvas that is, on the whole, risible.  That is the case with Perry and a few others (especially Tony Goldwyn and Debra Mooney) in Scandal, but it’s also worth noting that the very stupidity of the show may be the factor that makes Perry’s spine-tingling work possible.  Subtlety is completely unknown in Scandal, and therefore it has room for Perry to scale his work all the way over the top without wrecking the thing and making a fool of himself.  Whereas in shows that have brains, actors have to try to impersonate actual human beings.

Occasionally someone will ask me, because I’m supposed to be an expert, whether or not they should watch a television series or a movie.  My unhelpful answer is always, “Of course you should.”  I realize that most people have not made the conscious decisions to fill all their waking hours with pop culture and that they have to make hard choices about what to opt into and that some sage advice would be useful to them.  But the question remains unanswerable.  You can’t substitute my judgment for yours.  Everyone who ever read a review hoping to find the answer to “should I go see it or not?” was doing it wrong – no matter how understandable that impulse might be.

The corollary to that train of thought is this one: Someone will ask me if I watch a television series and I’ll say yes and they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s a good show then,” and I’ll say, “Oh, fuck no, it’s horrible.  Stay away!”  Such is the case with Scandal.  And when I tell my inquisitor to stay away I am, in essence, saying: “Leave this one to the professionals, dear.”  But the rationalization that I’m sticking with junk like Scandal because it’s my job to keep up with whatever’s in vogue at the moment, whether I like it or not, is only a half-truth.  No, I’m there because I want to be.  But why?  How do I justify surrendering hours to what I know is bad art?  Well, the short answer is Jeff Perry.  The long answer was explained to me by Pauline Kael – at an early point in my life as a media geek, fortunately, or I’d probably have gotten a lot more neurotic about it.  If you’re a movie nerd, too, I’ll bet you already know where I’m taking this: to one of the secondary ideas in Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

…. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies.  But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled.  There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists.  We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie goes farther than we expected and makes the leap successfully.

…. If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them – what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.

Kael made those points in the service of a larger argument explaining why movies were good for you in spite (or because) of not being “high art.”  Fifty years later, the distinction between high and low art is meaningless; or, rather, we’ve erased it so much that instead of defending television against the snobs, as one had to do in Kael’s day, I wish there were more snobs around to swat down enticing drivel like Scandal.  But for me, this part of Kael’s essay was an epiphany.  It gave a twenty year-old culture snob the permission to relax and take what the movies and the television shows were giving me on their own terms, instead of judging against pre-conceived notions or ignoring the trees in search of the forest.  That doesn’t mean suspending judgment on the likes of Scandal; it just means remaining open to everything and embracing the parts without demanding they add up to an exceptional whole.  Because, if you don’t, you run afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (ninety percent of everything is crap), and ten percent of television, or anything, is a pretty meager diet.

Kael’s essay framed a question I mulled over for a time in my twenties.  Was I willing to devote a lifetime to sniffing out truffles like Jeff Perry?  (Or Walter Doniger or Norman Katkov or the seventh season of Rawhide or “Turkeys Away” or Jerry Stahl’s scripts for CSI?)  Was it worth my time, was it in fact not wasting a perfectly good life, to sometimes pay attention to things like Scandal, that I knew to be far more flawed than worthwhile?  Would that be enough?  When I realized the answer to all of those was yes was when I had to break it to mom that I probably wouldn’t ever be going to law school or running for office or paying for her elder care.  It may also have been when I started to get sort of good at what I do.

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