KobeFug

Gail Kobe, who died on August 1, was one of the busiest television actresses of the late fifties and sixties.  Falling somewhere in between ingenue and character actress, she was in constant demand as a guest star.  Although she had a wide range, I thought Kobe did her best work in heavy roles that required a certain quality of hysteria, like the high-strung young mother she played on Peyton Place during the height of its popularity.  Shortly before her fortieth birthday, Kobe made a dramatic decision to leave acting and work behind the camera.  Eventually she became a powerful executive producer in daytime dramas, exercising a major creative influence over Texas, The Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful during the eighties.

Last year, I learned that Kobe was a resident of the Motion Picture and Television Home and contacted her to ask for a phone interview.  She agreed, but with a certain reluctance.  Although Kobe seemed eager to reminisce – she’d recently donated her extensive papers to a museum in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan, and was preoccupied with the question of her legacy – she wasn’t terribly receptive to fielding questions.  Kobe was smart, introspective, and sharp-tongued.  I got the impression that that she was used to steering the conversation rather than being steered – which meant that we didn’t get around to many of the topics I’d hoped to cover.  A couple of times, when I posed a follow-up question that was uninspired, or failed to fully grasp her point, she pounced.  “Are you having trouble hearing me?” she asked sarcastically, and later: “I thought I made that clear.”

On top of that, Kobe suffered from COPD, a lung disease that can impede mental acuity as well as the ability to speak at length.  We had to postpone a few times until Kobe had a good day, and she apologized often for failing to remember names – even though her memory struck me as better than average for someone her age, and I tried to reassure her of that.  After our initial conversation, I lobbied to schedule a follow-up session, but I had a gut feeling that between her ambivalence and her health, it probably wouldn’t happen.  And, indeed, we weren’t able to connect a second time.  As a result, my interview with Kobe ignores some of the key phases of her career – namely, the television series on which she had regular or recurring roles (Trackdown, Peyton Place, Bright Promise) and the soap operas that she produced.  Now that the opportunity to complete the interview is gone, I’m publishing what I was able to record here for the sake of posterity.

Tell me about your background.

I was born in 1932, in Hamtramck, to a largely Polish and French family.  At that time Hamtramck was sort of a village, a Polish village.  You could walk fifty blocks and never hear English spoken.  It was a very old-fashioned, terrific place to grow up.  But it did seem as though we were both European and behind the zootsers and all of that stuff that was sort of prevalent around that time.

My mother was very active in promoting both the history of Poland and, at the time, during the war, of being very supportive of the people who were under the nazis.  There were a lot of Polish artists who were able to escape, because artists were not treated well, nor was anybody else, by the nazis.  But they came to Hamtramck and they formed a group called the Polish Artists.  And they would do – there was a Polish radio station, WJBK, and they would do shows on that, that were serialized.  Interesting that I went into the serial form later, when I became a producer.  They were serials on the radio, and then they would conclude the story by doing the whole thing as a play for Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee, and Sunday evening.  They would conclude the play and then finish on the air the following Monday.  But that was my first theater involvement.  I was a dancer, and I danced in those, and pretty soon I was given small speaking roles, in Polish.  And I did the Polish radio shows.

They were the most interesting people I’d ever met.  They were just fabulous.  They had scars and smoked cigarettes and they were flamboyant and beautiful and they wore makeup.  What a group!  It was called the Young Theater (Młody Teatr).  There we learned the Polish folk dances. We learned a lot of the poetry, a lot of the literature.  We met at the junior high school.  We used one of their auditoriums to meet and to rehearse.  It was a way to keep the culture going.

Did you speak English or Polish at home?

We spoke both languages.  And would you believe it, Polish is the language that I remember as opposed to French, which would have gotten me a heck of a lot more [work].  My mother made me really, really, really speak English, and pronounce correctly.  I said, “Don’t you think I would have been more interesting if I’d had a lovely accent?”  And I think so.  But, anyway, I learned to speak without an accent.  And I had the best of any possibility that you could have.  I was raised as a European in America.  How lucky can anybody be?

Did you also embrace American culture?

Oh, absolutely.  We marched in every parade there was.  I loved America.  I loved going to camp, which I did every summer.  I loved American baseball.  My dad loved American baseball.  We were very involved with American politics, having both parties represented in our home.  I think of them, my mother and my dad, in different parties, but living in the same house in America.  It was interesting on several levels, both as a woman who did not follow her husband exactly, and because they were two different approaches to politics.  But pride in America was something that I always had.  Always, always.  My grandparents did not.  They worked very hard and they made money for their children, and both families were quite large, Catholic families.  They took care of each other very well, and they also had pride in America, but not the same as my mother and dad did.  My mother and dad were both activists.  In the best way.  So I was able to be raised in the center of that.  But also, being surrounded by all these artists – if you don’t think that’s high drama at its best, you’re wrong.

Was it the auto industry that the Polish immigrants were moving to Detroit for?

Oh, yeah, absolutely.  All the factories were there.

Did your father build cars?

No, my father did not.  My father worked in his own garage.  He was a pattern maker.  In sand, if you can believe it.  I have a few things left that he made when he was a younger man.  But that’s what he did.  He said he was either behind or ahead of the industry – I can’t remember.  But he was not in the automobile industry itself.

How did you develop as an actress?

I started as a dancer first.  I loved dancing.  But as I began to spend more time with the Polish Artists, I realized how much longer the life of an actor was than the life of a dancer.  A dancer only lasted as long as their legs lasted.  And it was very, very [demanding].  You knew you had to practice two to three hours a day.  And I did take two or three dance lessons a week.  I studied with a man whose name was Theodore J. Smith.  Every time the Ballet Russes, for instance, would come into Detroit, we would have one of the major dancers teach a master class, which we were able to take if we could afford it.  Everybody saved their money so I could take those classes, and they were wonderful.

When did you leave Hamtramck?

In 1950.  I came to UCLA.  I had to do the test to see if I would pass to get into the college level, and I did, very easily.  I had wonderful teachers in high school that were very instrumental and helpful.  Bea Almstead, who I think always wanted to be an actor and taught English and speech, she was just terrific.  During that time I did a dramatic reading – I think it was a scene with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth the Queen, one of those things that you turn your head to the right or the left depending on who you are.  I won the speech contest.

She was really terrific, and so was Mr. Alford.  I thought he was an old, old man, and he was probably younger than I am now.  He taught Latin.  He was kind enough to teach me I had Latin by myself, so I could take part in the senior play.  I had the lead, of course.

UCLA was one of the few colleges [that offered a pure theater major].  Usually you had to train to be a teacher.  Of course my family would have loved that, because I would have had a job to fall back on.  But I had wonderful teachers in college, people who had been in the professional theater.  Kenneth Macgowan, who produced Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead.  He was the head of the New Playwrights division, which interested me from the beginning, from the time I was a seventeen year-old freshman, because I knew then that if you didn’t have the words on the page, there was no way that it would ever make any difference on stage.  I knew that so early on, and it stayed with me when I worked for Procter & Gamble.  I started their Writer Development Program.

Getting back to the good teachers that we had, Ralph Freud had been in Detroit with the Jessie Bonstelle Theater, which was one of the WPA theaters, and he was the head of the Theater Division.  There was a Radio Division.  I don’t know that there was a television division until the next or the following year.  Walter Kingston, who had one of the first classical music radio stations here in California, in Los Angeles, that I became aware of, was on staff too.  He taught radio.  I still know that I could fix an electric lamp if it was broken, because we had to learn how to do lighting.  We had to learn how to sew and make costumes and do that.  We had to do props, we had to do makeup, we had to take classes in that.  It was like being part of a company of actors, all though college.

What was the first professional work that you did?

I was still at UCLA when I did The Ten Commandments.  Milton Lewis was what they called then a talent scout.  He went to everything.  Everything!  All over Los Angeles – every little theater, every major company that was passing through.  Dapper gentleman.  He saw me in a play that was written by Oscar Wilde.  He called me to come for an interview at Paramount.

When I was there, we went to have lunch, and this gentleman came over from [Cecil B.] DeMille’s table, which sort of looked like the last supper.  There he sat in the middle of all of these men who worked for him.  All of the departments that worked for him.  He wanted to meet me.  And that was the beginning of my relationship with him.  And I did test for [The Ten Commandments], for the part that eventually went to Yvonne DeCarlo.

What was your impression of Mr. DeMille?

He was wonderful to me.  He kept me working.  I played a lot of different roles [in The Ten Commandments], and I did all of the looping.  I played a slave girl in one of those midriff outfits that you can hardly believe.  It was the last of the big, major costume dramas, and it was his last picture.  I got to have tea with him.  Most afternoons he would ask me to join him.  A lot of people were terrified of him, and I just adored him.  He was a very handsome man, a very bright man, and he would challenge me on so many little [things], just intellectually.  And I, for some reason, just accepted the challenge and loved it.

You played roles in the film other than the slave girl?

Yes I did.  It was the scene of the first seder.  I was there for a week, week and a half, I don’t know how long – a long time – every time the red light went on I would have to stop and moan and carry on as though my eldest son had been killed.  It was wonderful!  Then I played a young girl helping one of the older women across – one of the Jews escaping the Egyptians – and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and took her across and made way for her.  Well, when it came time to shoot it, suddenly there was this big water buffalo in front of me, and I stuck my hand out and stuck it in the middle of his forehead.  I just said, “No, no, no!”  DeMille did laugh about that a lot.  Other people thought he was going to kill me, because I think it ruined the shot.

Today, you’d never have somebody play different parts in the same movie!

No.  But we once had a little contest among really close friends to see if they could find me [in the film], and they couldn’t.  And people still can’t, and it’s fine with me.  It’s so absurd – I have the dumbest line, something about “a blackbird drops its feather.”  I think it’s with Anne Baxter.  He fired somebody – he’d already done that scene, and I replaced somebody.

Why do you think DeMille took an interest in you?

I think I challenged him.  I disagreed with him often.  When he said he was going to hire Yvonne DeCarlo and not me, I said, “Why would you do that?!  I would be much better than she is!”  And he said, “You’re not the right age.  You’re too young.”  I said, “I could be older.  I would be wonderful!”  That’s how I was when I was young.  I think about the boldness of some of the things I said.  It was fun.

And you were in East of Eden?

Oh, yes.  Well, I went to school with Jimmy Dean.  I did a play with Jimmy, and we would sit and talk.  He was so full of himself, but he was of course talented and wonderful and really cute.  But I was not interested in him.  I thought he was a terrific actor, and so spoiled.  So spoiled.  I wanted to leave the play because Jimmy was taking all of the time to discuss his role.  And I said, “Wait a second.  There are two people in this play, and you’ve got to listen.  You cannot be tap dancing around here to your own private music.”

I think I was smarter then than I was later in my life, about relating to actors.  A lot of them have to be, in order to get any place in their careers, single-minded.  And that doesn’t [make] them good husbands, or even good friends, sometimes.

You sound as if you were pretty single-minded yourself.

Oh, I think I’ve always been single-minded.  Yeah.  I loved rehearsing, even more than performing.  I loved new material.  I loved creating.  To me that was the creative part of acting that I just adored.

But you didn’t get the opportunity to rehearse much in television, did you?

Well, no, but you could.  Nobody stopped you from going into each other’s dressing rooms and running lines and looking for things.  And I did a lot of theater, small theater, and I was always in somebody’s class.  I joined Theatre West in the first year [1962].

I remember sitting, when we were all young, sitting with Clint Eastwood and David Janssen, saying, “Ooh, listen, you guys, I’m taking this terrific class, with Curt Conway. Listen, you’ve got to come to this workshop!”  They were already stars, for god’s sake.  We were all in the commissary together having lunch, I think, when I said to them, “I’ve just been loving this class!”  And they said, “Yeah, keep going to class, kid.”  I just said, “I have to.  That’s what’s interesting to me.”  They of course were both stars, and they were interested in other things.  They each had their own show, and I had done each of those shows.  I really liked them.  They were fun, and god knows they were handsome, and I played interesting roles, always, on their [shows].  I rarely played victims.  I cried a lot, but I rarely played victims.

Clint Eastwood has really developed, I think, as both a man and certainly a director.  I don’t know that directing at that point was [in his plans].  Don Siegel was directing a couple of the Rawhides, and I think that’s how Clint Eastwood became interested in directing.

Don Siegel directed one of your Twilight Zones.

Yes he did!  He was a wonderful director.

Did you get the part in East of Eden because of your connection to James Dean?

No, I did not.  I went on a call to read for a small role.  And he [Kazan] hadn’t made up his mind until that morning who was going to play it, and you were just one of the students.  I think the whole scene was cut from the movie.

What was your take on Elia Kazan?

I didn’t have any respect for those men.  I, of course, thought they were incredible.  But they took advantage, such advantage, of women.  He and Arthur Miller, Odets, they were all after whatever body they could get into.  It was hateful.  They were disgusting, because they used their position in order to fuck everybody alive.  Excuse my language.  And I knew it then.

So you actually saw Kazan and others taking advantage of actresses?

Did I see it?  Was I sitting on everybody?  [Sarcastically.]  Yeah.  It was very clear.  Not on the set, I didn’t see it.  But then I was so devastated, because it was just this nothing scene.  And everybody [else] was excited to be in a Kazan film.  But as you observed them, unless you were part of the Actors Studio, and I wasn’t; I tried twice, I think, for the Actors Studio, and then I sat in on a couple of Lee Strasberg’s classes, and I really did not like them.  And yet that was the way that I worked, but there was something about those men and the advantage they took of their positions that upset me emotionally very much.  It wasn’t even something I could talk about until later.  I wasn’t one of the devotees, one of the people who fell over and became a disciple.

Without challenging you on that observation, I am curious as to how you perceived that aspect of sexual inequality if you didn’t actually witness it in action.

I don’t know.  You may challenge me all you wish.  I don’t know that I can give you a satisfactory answer.  I would go with no makeup on – I didn’t get all dolled up and put on the right clothes and put on the right makeup.  So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sense of self.  I didn’t have a sense of vanity.  But on my thirty-some birthday I sat in the corner of my closet, and I was married at the time, and said, “Who the hell am I?  Who are all these people hanging up in here, these clothes?  Who are they?”  They were all different, one from the other.

I don’t want this to be some kind of psychological study.  I’m going there with you, but it’s not something that I want you to use as representing me.  Do you understand that?  How did I – I don’t know how I was able to pick up on it.  I was like that all the time.  And yet, I was very attracted to attractive men.  But I didn’t like Franciosa or Gazzara.  I loved Montgomery Clift.  I didn’t like Brando!  Now that’s a sin to say that.  But I used to say it then, and people would say, “How could you not like the most brilliant…?”

What early roles do you remember doing on television?

The Rebel.  I just loved the writing.  [“Night on a Rainbow”] was about a woman whose husband came back from the Civil War addicted.  It was way, way, way ahead of its time, and the woman’s role was really well-written.

Dragnet was one of the first shows.  That was like straight dialogue for like three pages, and he [Jack Webb] was insistent that you know it word for comma.

That’s interesting, because eventually Webb came to be known for his reliance upon TelePrompTers.

Well, because he wanted what he’d written, and there were too many actors who couldn’t do three pages in a row.   He was asking for people to use muscles that were not used in pictures or television, up until then.

I never used cue cards when I did a soap, until I got [contact] lenses.  You did not stop tape for anything when I was doing Bright Promise.  When I got lenses I suddenly saw these things – they used to write them on big pieces of cardboard, and I looked at them and I just stopped dead and was watching, and I said, “What are those?”  They were like huge birds.  They were the cue cards.  Well, I took my lenses out and I never put them back in.  Because when I had that haze of nothing, it gave me this wonderful, wonderful privacy.  Everything was a private moment.  When I put my lenses in, I did say to the guy who I was acting with, “God, you’re good!  You are so good!”  But all the other distractions were wiped out by not being able to see.

KobeDrag

What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?

The Outer LimitsHogan’s Heroes.  I played a lot of foreign [characters] – I could do that sort of Middle European accent.  I did Combat, I did Daniel Boone, I did a bunch of everything.  I was always called back [to do different roles on the same shows], which I think was a really nice – they don’t do that now.  Ironside – oh, that was wonderful.  I played with Arthur O’Connell.  He and I were starring in the Ironside, and he dressed me like a young boy.  It was really funny.  They took me to the boy’s shop at Bullock’s and I got the suit and the shoes and everything.  I’ve never seen it.  I never saw a lot of the early television that I was in because we didn’t have VHS or DVD or any of that stuff, and at night I would be rehearsing for a play or a scene that I was doing at Theatre West.

This is kind of a silly question, but how would you know when an episode you’d filmed was going to be broadcast?  Would they send you a note or something?

No, you saw it in TV Guide.

So you didn’t get any special treatment – you had to hunt them down for yourself!

Yeah.  That’s why I have all those [clippings] that my mother cut out.  My mother saved a lot of stuff.  And my sister was a librarian, and used to saving things.  Between the two of them, they saved things early on, and then I started, knowing, hey, I should save this, because you can’t count on your memory.

How did your career build?  Did you have an agent who got you a lot of work?

I did.  I was with Meyer Mishkin for a long time.  He would set up the interviews, but eventually people started calling for me.  I always was prepared.  I was always there on time.  And directors asked for me, which was really nice.  I worked with a lot of wonderful directors.

Which directors do you remember?

Well, I remember Don Siegel.  And Perry Laffery, for The Twilight Zone.  I worked with him a lot, and then he became an executive with the network.  He was the one that said, “You know, if you ever get tired of acting, you could direct.”  And I said, “I want to, I want to!”  But it was really hard.  Ida Lupino was sort of the only woman who was directing.

And I had a hard time when I made the switch over to producing.  I had been hired to do a movie – and I will not go into names and specifics on this – but on Friday I had the job and on Monday I didn’t, because the person he wanted became available.  I went to bed for three weeks, cried for three weeks, wept, carried on, pounded the pillow, got up and said, “Nobody’s going to have the ability to do that to me again.”  I made my decision that I was not going to act.

And I’m really sorry, when I think about it now.  I loved acting.  I didn’t love producing.  What I loved was the ability to be able to hire people who were good young writers, good actors.  I was in a position to give people jobs that should have them, not because of the way they looked but because of their ability.  Not because of who they knew, but because of their ability.  I would say to my whole staff, listen, you do your work, you get it done well, efficiently, and tag after the person whose job you think you’re interested in, if they give you permission to do that.  Including me.  And if they’d write a script on spec, I’d read it.  I’d do all the reading I had to do, which when you’re doing an hour of television a day is a lot of reading.  Because we were doing long-term, short-term breakdowns, they called them.  Doing notes on the breakdowns, and then we had other writers.  For me to agree to read stuff was really a promise that was not easy to keep, when I was producing.

Did you ever consider making a comeback as an actor? 

When I stopped being a producer, one of the young gentlemen I knew that was managing actors said please, let me represent you.  He talked me into it.  [Then he said] “You have to go to read for this.”

I said, “Read for this?  It’s three lines!”

He said, “Okay, but will you come and read for it?”

He went with me, and I read for it, and they said thank you very much, we’ll let you know.  And it was a pretty good reading – I mean, for three lines.  Gee, could you tell a lot?  They were just casting whatever.  As we were coming out, we were going down the sidewalk, and who was coming toward me but Carroll Baker.  She was coming toward me, and she ended up playing those damn three lines!

Who Are Those Guys #10

September 5, 2013

I promised I’d be back with more Ben Casey coverage after a few detours.  First up, then, is your Ben Casey edition of Who Are Those Guys, highlighting some uncredited bit players I noticed in the episodes I revisited for my A.V. Club piece on the show and this thing about Vince Edwards.

“A Bird in the Solitude Singing” (September 21, 1964), the amazing episode with Anne Francis as the disfigured hooker, covers most of the cast in its credits.  But here’s one familiar-looking fellow who puts in a brief appearance, sans credit, as a barfly who gives Dr. Casey the evil eye after Casey cockblocks his move on the lovely Anne.

BCBird

Next we have “Three L’il Lambs” (March 29, 1965), the possibly-a-backdoor-pilot-but-I’m-not-completely-sure-about-that episode where Casey shepherds a trio of green interns.  There’s a long nightclub scene where the three lads squire their dates: Norman Alden gets Kathy Kersh (lucky guy), William Arvin (whatever happened to him?) lands Marlo Thomas (er…), and somehow Nick Adams (on the left below) ends up with only a bit actress who has one line.

BCLambs

I didn’t have room to wedge “Journeys End in Lovers Meeting” (April 19, 1965) into the A.V. Club article, but this episode by one of the show’s few female writers, Pat Fielder, is a wonderfully operatic tearjerker with Red Buttons as a nice teacher whose young wife (Antoinette Bower) suffers horribly from a fatal brain tumor.  Here are a couple of students in Buttons’s class.  They even get names: the smirky guy is “Buddy” and the girl with the massive beehive (hornet’s nest? wedding cake? roll of fencewire borrowed from the western on the next soundstage? I could do this all day) is “Karen.”  But no love for either in the end credits, alas.  Karen in particular looks maddeningly familiar.

BCJourneys

Finally, here’s a shot from Vince-as-director’s biggest turkey, “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here” (October 4, 1965). (Great title, at least.)  This guy in the center is a patient who, like so many of us, is not happy about missing his favorite program because the hospital’s TV room has been taken over by Latin American revolutionaries.  The other two old guys on either side of him are extras who do not have lines, although I’m fairly certain that the gent on the left is Charles P. Thompson of The Andy Griffith Show fame.

BCGalanos

All right, you know the drill.  Tell me who these people are, please.

Marion1

Marion Dougherty, the legendary casting director at the center of the new documentary Casting By (currently airing on HBO), got her start in the early days of television.  She spent nearly a decade on Kraft Television Theatre, earned her first on-screen credit (below) during a brief stint on a live version of Ellery Queen in 1958, and wielded a creative influence over Route 66 and Naked City that would be difficult to underestimate.

In interviews, Dougherty was puckish but also taciturn.  “Casting is a game of gut instinct. You feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach.  It’s about guts and luck,” she said in 1991.  The New York Times carped that, because of the instinctive nature of casting, “there’s not really much they can say” when Casting By interviews casting directors.

MarionEQ

Fortunately, in Dougherty’s case, there is another way to examine her process in detail.  Dougherty left a substantial paper trail – in particular, an index card file that spans nearly forty years and thousands of performers.  The earliest surviving cards date from around 1961, when Dougherty became the East Coast “casting executive” for the two Herbert B. Leonard-produced dramas, and the file appears to become a nearly complete record of every actor Dougherty met after 1968, when her feature film career began to gain momentum.  The card file comes up in several anecdotes mentioned in Casting By, and at one point Dougherty reads aloud from the card containing her original assessment of Gene Hackman, from 1962: “good type – his reading was nothing but I believe he could be v. good – esp. as gentle, big dumb nice guy.”

(Disclosure: I appear briefly in Casting By, and worked as an archival researcher on the film.  Also, while the archival materials discussed below are not presently available to the public, the filmmakers have told me that Dougherty’s estate has donated them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Voight, Jon

In Casting By, Jon Voight describes his disastrous television debut on Naked City. Dougherty’s card file reveals that some months before she hired him for that episode, Voight had read unsuccessfully for Route 66 (based on the description, probably for the role played by Lars Passgard in “A Gift For a Warrior”).

In general, Dougherty’s notes on actors were more pragmatic than poetic.  “V.G.” (for very good) or “Exc.” (excellent) are abbreviations that appear on hundreds of cards, as is the triumphant “used” (meaning she hired the actor for a part).  Disapproval was registered just as bluntly, with notes like “boring” or “square” (a favorite word) or “I thot dull” [sic].  But if Dougherty rarely wrote more than a hundred words on any given actor, her notes in their totality offer an enormous amount of insight into how she thought about the art of acting, as well as a kind of hands-on philosophy of her own craft.

In one sense, casting for Dougherty was a process of taxonomy.  In her office, the card file was separated into six drawers organized by gender, age, and ethnicity (much like the Academy Players Directory, which was for many decades the industry’s mug book for working actors).   Dougherty jotted down actors’ heights (a consideration in pairing off men and women) as well as their ages and how far she felt they could deviate from it on screen (“40, could go to 60,” she wrote of Dominic Chianese, years before he became one of television’s most famous senior citizens as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior).  She thought in terms of class, with some specificity: “upper middle or upper” and “blue collar” are notations she used.  She also noted regional accents, and asked actors whether they could discard them.  Going beyond class, Dougherty made notes on types: “rural”; “street”; dangerous.”  She often wrote down whether an actor was right for comedy or “serious” material, or both.  “Excellent for comedy high or low – imagine she’d be good also for drama as she’s very intelligent, feeling person,” Dougherty observed of Charlotte Rae.  In auditions and meetings with actors, she didn’t just evaluate the level of talent on display; she was also thinking ahead to how she might use what she saw.

Dougherty also recorded whether she thought actors were good-looking, or sexy (not the same thing), and whether they were right for “romantic” leads.  And she sometimes speculated on whether an effeminate actor was a “fag” or, later, “homosexual” or “gay.”  Even in the early cards where the terminology is outdated, though, those notes come across not as homophobic but as an attempt to assess whether actors could “play” straight in an industry in which gender norms were rigid.

Hoffman, Dustin

If her inclination to pigeonhole actors into basic categories seems antithetical to the idea of casting directors as diviners of the more ephemeral qualities of talent, it’s important to remember that Dougherty retired around the same time as the Internet Movie Database was launched.  Her card file was, more than anything else, a mnemonic device, a way of sorting out the blur of hundreds of auditions during a period when there was no Google to summon dozens of images of every small-part player.  In Casting By, Dougherty points out a system of remembering actors by associating them with people in her own life: “I would put down anything that hit my mind – I put down ‘has eyes like Aunt Reba’ and I knew what that meant, because Aunt Reba was very elegant and sort of snooty and [had] beautiful eyes.”

The cards reveal how elaborate this associative ritual could become.  Dougherty often compared new actors to those she had grown up watching on the screen.  Robert Forster (assessed in 1966, prior to his debut in film or television) reminded her of a “more polished” John Garfield.  The mature Roy Thinnes struck her in 1991 as “sort of a cross between [Jack] Palance and Steve Forrest.”  For character actors, Dougherty would match other character actors: Sully Boyar (from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and, famously, a single scene in The Sopranos as Carmela’s psychiatrist) was “a poor man’s Zero” (Mostel, that is).  David Doyle: “like a jokey, younger Orson Welles.”  Diane Ladd: “reminds me of Nina Foch or Miriam Hopkins.”  With Burt Young, Dougherty got into a debate with herself that underlines how specifically she understood actors’ qualities.  “He looks a bit like younger less ugly Ernie Borgnine . . . Great for hoods,” she wrote, then added, “not really, more Borgnine or [Richard] Castellano” – actors, in other words, whose warmth and humor undercut their menacing looks.  Dougherty’s other favorite source of metaphor was the animal kingdom.  “She looks like a bird,” she wrote of Calista Flockhart.  Grace Zabriskie was a “pug” (but “not unpretty,” Dougherty hastened to add), Henry Winkler a “bassett hound.”

Pacino, Al

Although most of Dougherty’s index cards refer to specific meetings with actors, she would sometimes create a card just to record the name of an actor who had impressed her on the stage or screen.   She first observed Robert Redford in a 1960 Playhouse 90, Lawrence Pressman on Broadway in 1968’s The Man in the Glass Booth, and Rue McClanahan and Holland Taylor in the 1969 Off-Broadway production Tonight in Living Color.  Dougherty thought Peter Boyle was “damn good” in Joe and noticed Joe Don Baker (“a cross between Ralph Meeker and Marlon Brando”) in a supporting role in another 1970 film, Adam at 6A.M.

But while many cards, especially during Dougherty’s studio years – in the mid-seventies, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to become the head of casting for Paramount and later Warner Bros. – chronicle auditions for specific films, the majority of the insights she recorded were gleaned from conversation.  Her notes make it clear that Dougherty was less interested in an actor’s line readings than in the sense she got of the his or her personality during her gentle questioning about their backgrounds, their aims for the future, and their self-assessments of their strengths and preferences as a performer.  “When I talked to people, very often I didn’t talk about what they did in movies or plays or anything else,” Dougherty explained to the Casting By filmmakers.  “I would ask them about where they learned acting, what they did, and I’d ask them about what their animals were and what their kids were – just anything that would give me an idea of them.”

(That said, Dougherty disdained actors who wouldn’t read for a part, and one suspects those actors were at a serious disadvantage when it came to films that she was casting.  “[G]ood actor but won’t read and I don’t dig that,” is her only note on Brock Peters.)

DeNiro, Robert

Dougherty’s notes on her conversations with young actors are a touching record of where her passion lay.  Even in her private files, only the most abjectly clueless or unprepared auditioners were subjected to Dougherty’s scorn.  “Came in totally unprepared to read . . . a real lox,” she wrote of one popular Saturday Night Live star.  Her genuine enthusiasm for young actors, for kernels of talent and expressions of conquer-the-world excitement, comes across again and again in her casting cards.  She took notes (in 1961) on how Martin Sheen read from the Bible at a talent show and moved from stagehand to actor in his first hit show, The Connection, and (in 1966) how Bo Svenson had done kabuki in Japan, a play in Hong Kong, and “Bergman pix as a child” (!).  Actors who struck her as intelligent, and in particular actors who expressed a desire to play against their image, won her admiration.  What actor wouldn’t tell a casting director that they wanted to do meaty, serious work and not just get by on their good looks?  And yet Dougherty recorded variations of that remark many times, with evident credulity.

“We had a nice talk; I chided him about being late,” is one of her more motherly notes – written in reference to a twenty-two year-old Jude Law.  Her protective impulses also extended towards older actors fallen on hard times.  Casting By reveals that one small-part actor, Tom Spratley, lived in the boiler room of the 30th Street townhouse that was Dougherty’s headquarters during its heyday (and a nexus for a variety of eccentric, up-and-coming actors and writers).  Dougherty helped to discover Rocky actor Burt Young, and he became a sort of mascot around the 30th Street office as she and her assistants helped him through a period of personal tragedy in the seventies.  Even when Dougherty perceived a talent as limited, she was looking for ways to use it creatively.  “He was hammy, paunchy, and totally wrong for the part,” she wrote of one character actor. “However, he could be used for overbearing, dumb, etc . . . with a firm director he’d be useful.”

Dougherty used the card file to keep tabs on actors who had caught her eye.  Although new meetings would occasionally merit a new card, Dougherty’s habit was to add updates to an actor’s original card whenever they caught her attention, either in a film or an audition.  In some cases, a single card documents decades of brief encounters.  Dougherty created a card for Paul Dooley when he replaced Art Carney in The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1966; she updated it again in 1970 (when she saw him in The White House Murders on stage), in 1973 (a cryptic note: “Cuckoo’s Nest – interested”), in 1976 (“used” in Slap Shot), and in 1979 and 1980 (when she saw him in Breaking Away and Popeye).  (Those references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slap Shot, both of which were officially cast by Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, are among the many intriguing mysteries to be found in the cards.  Slap Shot was directed by George Roy Hill, who knew Dougherty from Kraft Theatre and was her companion for many years; it’s likely that she consulted on the casting for all his features, even those that she didn’t work on formally.)

Hackman, Gene

Dougherty’s addenda to her cards document a process of constantly upgrading her assessment of an actor’s skills or range.  Tim O’Connor, a consummate underplayer, “always bored” her until she saw him in Tonight in Living Color; then she raved that he was “very good . . . attractive and virile, yet funny.”   When Dougherty saw Mitchell Ryan on Broadway in Wait Until Dark, she was frustrated: “he is not able to reach the audience – strangely removed – Has now had a lot of classical [experience] but still nothing that reaches out and makes contact – too bad because he’s very good rugged type.”  Two years later, she scrawled this note underneath her earlier comments: “Finally hit it in Moon For the Misbegotten.”  Overwhelmingly, Dougherty looked for the positive, delighting in finding new wrinkles in what actors could do and new angles on how she could use them.  Only occasionally would she watch an actor for a while and conclude there was less than met the eye.  “She really can’t hack it,” Dougherty wrote of one underground actress who appeared in many cult movies.  “He really is an Ivy League bore,” was her assessment of an actor who eventually became a major TV star playing just such characters.

Some of Dougherty’s cards have “courtesy” written at the top – a code indicating that she met with an actor as a favor to someone, in some cases with a reluctance reflected in the iconoclastic casting director’s notes on the meeting.  But Dougherty also took referrals willingly, often seeing actors recommended by directors and other casting directors she trusted, or sounding them out on actors she’d met.  It’s fascinating to trace who sent whom to Dougherty’s attention.  Naked City director Walter Grauman pointed her towards Richard Benjamin in the early sixties (according to the card, Grauman had used Benjamin in five episodes of The New Breed, although that credit isn’t noted anywhere online).  Al Pacino, one of her discoveries, sent her the character actor Richard Lynch, he of the distinctive facial burn scars, in 1972.  Spratley “raved about” Ed Begley, Jr. in 1976.  Sometimes the intel from Dougherty’s trusted sources was more cautionary.  Of the character actor Michael Higgins (Wanda; The Conversation), Sidney Lumet had “seen him be brilliant just a couple of times” – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, and yet a fair assessment of an actor who worked a lot but tended to recede into the background.

Lauter, Ed

Another invaluable bit of information captured in Dougherty’s card file is an alternate history of what-might-have-been casting – a record of auditioners who came close to getting iconic parts that went to someone else.  Lois Smith “gave [a] damn good reading” for the Brenda Vaccaro role in Midnight Cowboy (although she “had no comedy” when she read for Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey).  Dougherty “would have used” Ray Liotta for the Sam Bottoms role in Bronco Billy.  George Roy Hill thought that Christine Baranski had a “very good face for whore if Swoosie [Kurtz] can’t do it” (but Kurtz did, in The World According to Garp).  Tom Skerritt (“think he has a lot of sadness in him”) read well for unspecified roles in A Man Called Horse and Smile.  Dougherty liked Susan Tyrrell for Dark Shadows (well before her film debut) and The Day of the Locust.  She read Richard Gere for The Day of the Locust, too – possibly for the lead – but she was suspicious of his charm and thought he’d be better suited to play villains (which is how she eventually cast him in Looking For Mr. Goodbar).

Casting By explains that Dougherty’s retirement was not a graceful one.  Ousted at Warner Bros. in 1999 (when keeping track of actors using index cards must have struck outsiders as prehistoric) with a classic Hollywood knife in the back, she learned of her firing from an announcement in the trade papers.  Although her enthusiasm for actors was never diminished – she noticed Naomi Watts and Paul Rudd in her final years at Warners – Dougherty had soured on television, the medium that launched her.   “Sexy lady – has just done a pilot – there goes that!” she groused on Annette Bening’s card in 1987 (although the pilot didn’t sell, and Bening became a film star).  “Hope he gets the right part before TV snaps him up – give him a chance to learn more.  He then might be a real leading man,” she wrote of Julian McMahon (ten years away from his TV stardom in Nip/Tuck) in 1993.  It was a potent irony: television, the medium that launched her, had come to represent for Dougherty a minefield in which actors would learn bad habits and short-circuit promising careers.

Dougherty died in 2011, after suffering dementia for several years.  It’s a shame that she didn’t remain active long enough to notice the renaissance in television that began with The Sopranos, and continues.  One could easily imagine her in a Manhattan brownstone, scouting for new faces for Orange Is the New Black, going out the same way she came into the business sixty years ago.

Editor’s Note (9/5/13): At the request of the Marion Dougherty Estate, most of the cards originally used to illustrate this piece have been replaced with others.

Photos courtesy HBO.

The Bird Is the Word

August 23, 2013

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Delays, delays, delays, but as promised there are some good interviews and Ben Casey leftovers coming in the next week or so.  In the meantime, if you haven’t, check out one of the reasons for those delays: my take on Breaking Bad for The A.V. Club, which ran last week.  William Daniels (seen here on Quincy, M.E.) looks like he just read it.

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Character actor Nate Esformes died on June 19, according to the August edition of the WGA bulletin Write Now.

Born on June 29, 1932, Esformes came to prominence in the late sixties and seventies, usually playing characters of Latin American ethnicity.  He made what may have been his television debut as a gangster in “Legacy For a Lousy Future,” a 1966 episode of the New York City-based cop drama Hawk.  (As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database incorrectly puts Esformes in a different Hawk episode, and also has his date of birth wrong.)

By 1968, he had relocated to Los Angeles and his career began to take off in concert with the ascendancy of adventure shows that could make ample use of ethnically ambiguous villains: It Takes a Thief, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible (which used Esformes five times), Ironside, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Esformes also did multiple guest turns on Run For Your Life, The Flying Nun, Mannix, Police Story, and Hunter, and appeared in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man.  He played one of the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men, and most of his other films have achieved either critical acclaim or cult fame: Petulia, Marlowe, Black Belt Jones, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Battle Beyond the Stars, Vice Squad, Invasion U.S.A.

If you’re wondering why Esformes’s death was reported by the Writers Guild, it’s because he had a story credit on a single Naked City episode early in his career.  That’s the only produced or published work by Esformes that I can find, apart from a 1983 Los Angeles Times story lamenting the closure of the famed Schwab’s Drug Store.  In fact, I wasn’t able to produce much of anything else on Esformes, either – not a single profile or interview.  That’s surprising, given how much we movie fans cherish our character actors.

If anyone out there knew Esformes, here’s the place to tell us about him.

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Above: Esformes (right) with Jennifer West and Larry Haines in Hawk (“Legacy For a Lousy Future,” 1966).  Top: Esformes in Kojak (“Close Cover Before Killing,” 1975).

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My 2,500-word overview of Ben Casey went up today at The A.V. Club.  It’s one of two one and one-eleventh bylines I’ll have there this week (which is one reason things have been a little sparse here lately).

The A.V. Club’s commitment to vintage TV is not new — my editor, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote about The Defenders and Route 66 under this “100 Episodes” umbrella last year.  But, still, I remain impressed and somewhat astonished that they’re introducing their vast readership to shows like Ben Casey, which are not just old but, in this case, not especially easy to see at present.  So please give it a read, and leave a comment there if you’re inclined, because I think the number and quality of comments are sort of like the A.V. Club version of Nielsen ratings.

(And the Ben Casey piece was originally meant to include some rare clips from the Classic TV History Archives — otherwise known as some boxes in my closet — but largely due to a snafu on my part it’s looking like that won’t happen.  Sorry.)

If you’re wondering, last month’s epic study of Vince Edwards, Director, was actually in the works before the A.V. Club piece materialized.  But, let’s go with it anyway and declare this The Summer of Ben Casey at the Classic TV History blog!  There are a couple of time-sensitive things in the pipeline first, but over the next few weeks I’ll loop back to Ben Casey and run a few “sidebars” here, comprised of odds and ends from my research that were too tangential to make it into the A.V. Club piece.  Also, if you haven’t already, now would be a good time to read my old interviews with the last surviving star of Ben Casey, the wonderfully irascible Harry Landers, and my favorite Ben Casey writer, Norman Katkov.

As long as I’m in plugging mode, I’ll also point out that a documentary on which I worked as the primary archival researcher, Casting By, premieres tonight at 9PM on HBO.  (I believe it’s also available on HBO on Demand.)  The director, Tom Donahue, was also foolish enough to put me on camera as a “talking head,” but if you keep your hand poised over the fast-forward button during the first fifteen minutes or so, you may be able to dodge that particular bullet.

Seriously though: Casting By focuses on two important early casting directors, Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster, both of whom got their start in television . . . so there’s enough material in there about shows like Kraft Television Theatre, Route 66, Naked City, and Gunsmoke that the film will be of interest to anyone who reads this blog regularly.  I’ve also gotten to know the filmmakers — particularly Tom, with whom I spent two icy days plundering the archives of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, but also the producers, Kate Lacey and Ilan Arboleda, and the cinematographer, Peter Bolte — and have had the privilege of tagging along on parts of their journey through the festival circuit to this impressive pickup.  (Said journey culminating in a premiere party last week where, appropriately, we all geeked out over the presence of favorite character actors like The Good Wife‘s Zach Grenier and Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche.)  I think the results are very impressive.  So check it out.

VinceCard

“Why not directing?  There’s no big mystery about it.  It’s – well, it’s just having a point of view and – and a certain amount of selection and taste.”

– Vince Edwards

Last month, I wrote about the problems of writing about television direction.  With the auteur concept in film criticism, the collaborative nature of the medium becomes a dangerous trap: how do we determine, through research or comparison, which decisions were made by the director rather than by the writer, the cinematographer, the actors, or the editor?  Television multiplies that problem by sheer volume – most directors racked up a hundred or more TV episodes during their career – as well as access – logistically, how many of those hundred or more shows can be located and screened in quick succession?  Compounding the daunting element of scale is the assumption that television is not a director’s medium.  More than in feature filmmaking, the director’s role is proscribed, with producers, stars, and editors routinely making decisions that would typically fall to the director in cinema.  The process of discerning a television director’s personal style is a kind of reverse engineering.  It’s not enough to study Director X’s episodes of many different series.  One also needs to look at other directors’ episodes of the same series, as a means of identifying which touches are unique to Mr. X and which might be part of a given show’s overall “house style.”  And, perhaps, familiarize oneself with the unquantifiable work of many actors: how are they different under Mr. X’s direction than under someone else’s?

The fraternity of fanatics who have seen enough television to be qualified to undertake such studies is small.  I’m one of them, but even I find the prospect intimidating.  In the back of my mind, I have a list of a dozen or so episodic directors active between the fifties and the seventies who consistently delivered first-rate work.  But it would take a pretty big research grant to fund the hundreds of hours necessary to write authoritatively about even one of those bodies of work.

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Vince CU

Which brings us to Vincent Edwards, the star of Ben Casey, and also an occasional director of television segments.  Edwards might seem an unexpected choice to serve as our guinea pig here, but there are certain factors that make him well-suited to our purpose.  First, his videography is manageable: he helmed only about twenty-two hours of television across nearly thirty years.  Second, he was famous, which means that we have access to more biographical information than we would expect to find for a rank-and-file television director.  Third, the case of the television-star-turned-director is a fairly specific phenomenon that recurs across the history of successful TV series, and we may be able to benefit from certain generalizations about how it happens, and what the results tend to be.

The other factor that makes Edwards interesting is that he’s something of an extreme case.  Edwards came to mind when I was reading reviews of a Mad Men episode directed by John Slattery (who, like his co-star Jon Hamm, has become one of the series’ regular directors).  One mentioned Slattery’s “lovely lyrical images,” another his “usual visual flair.”  The seven episodes of Ben Casey that Edwards directed are also precociously cinematic.  In fact, Edwards’s kid-in-a-candy-shop infatuation with the camera and its possibilities is so manifestly in evidence that his work on Ben Casey has attained a tiny cult following among the handful of aficionados who pay attention to such things.  (The post seems to have been swallowed by the internet, but Edwards-as-director came in for a round of both admiration and scorn a few years back in one of the discursive discussions on auteurist extraordinaire Dave Kehr’s blog.)

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“I just went up [to the producers of Ben Casey] and said, ‘I wanta direct a show.’  They said, ‘OK, we’ll find a script.’”

– Vince Edwards

The script that Edwards pulled was a heavy female melodrama called “Dispel the Black Cyclone That Shakes the Throne.”  The patient of the week was one Clarissa Rose Genet (Mary Astor), a reclusive opera star whose comeback has been thwarted by blindness (because blind people have never become successful recording artists) and also by the controlling impulses of a live-in manager (Eileen Heckart) who prefers that her solo client remain as helpless as possible.  Although Clarissa’s heterosexuality is carefully established by the introduction of an old flame (James Dunn), it’s implied that the hysterical, unsympathetic manager, Polly Jenks (Eileen Heckart), is motivated in part by an obsessive same-sex attraction.  Can Dr. Casey untangle all these unhealthy attachments and convince Clarissa to have the surgery she requires?

“It needed – uh, fluidity,” said Edwards of this rather lugubrious outing.  “Fluidity” translated into a range of showy, often unmotivated camera movements.  Fittingly for someone with a megastar’s ego, Edwards began his directing career on a crane: “Cyclone”’s cold open commences with a crane down into Clarissa’s cavernous foyer, and then a two-minute long-take in which Polly and a doctor (Wilton Graff) outline some of the basic facts of the plot.  Edwards tries to enliven several routine dialogue scenes by sending the camera on a slow, circling prowl around the actors.  There’s a distracting fast pull-back on Astor during a scene in which she makes a pivotal shift in loyalty, from Polly to her estranged, alcoholic daughter (Luana Anders), and an equally flashy zoom in on Heckart at the moment when Polly learns she has been fired.

Amid the expected overzealousness of a freshman director, though, there are good instincts.  Edwards creates a number of stark, forceful close-ups on his actors:

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“Where does the shadow go when the sun has set?” is the last line of the episode – Polly’s, as she contemplates an empty life after her break with the healed Clarissa.  Edwards creates a literal correlative for this line, a dramatic final image in which the camera pulls back, isolating Heckart in a shadowy hospital corridor amid a row of bright spotlights extending into the background.  No actual hospital anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say, has ever employed a lighting scheme of this sort.

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Edwards’s second episode, “For a Just Man Falleth Seven Times,” concerns dying businessman Thomas Hardin (Lew Ayres), who experiences a burst of strength and euphoria during his final hours.  Once buttoned-down, now impulsive, he goes forth into the seedy side of town and proposes marriage to a coded prostitute (Lee Grant).  Edwards tries out more ambitious compositions in the red light district sequences: a handheld camera following Ayres as he walks through the scuzzy streets, a god’s-eye point of view to establish a waterfront dive.  The circling pans from “Cyclone” recur, and Edwards sets up several compositions that can be called signature shots.  The most evident is a positioning of actors at right angles in different planes, which creates a dramatic depth of field and also allows Edwards to eschew the standard shot-reverse shot grammar of the television conversation.  Here it is in “For a Just Man”:

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And an earlier instance in “Cyclone”:

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Amid the show’s rudimentary sets, Edwards sought out striking places to put the camera.  In “For a Just Man” he positions Grant and Sharon Farrell (playing Ayres’s daughter) behind the fence that surrounds the upper-floor terrace (an indoor set) where patients are often seen recuperating.

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An identical shot recurs in Edwards’s next episode, “Every Other Minute It’s the End of the World”:

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The ninety-degree positioning of actors reappears in “Every Other Minute,” too:

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“Every Other Minute” is a convoluted story about a teenaged girl (Patricia Hyland) who’s going blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy; the twist is that her father (Francis Lederer) is a survivor of Nazi medical experimentation and thus vehemently opposes the experimental procedure that Dr. Casey proposes to save Hyland’s eyesight.  The script never recovers from that cringeworthy (in)convenience, not even after a wild second-act curveball.  Edwards, rather like Dr. Casey, is hell-bent on experimentation, most of which does not spring organically from the material.  There’s an attention-grabbing move in a scene between Casey and the German refugee, in which the camera suddenly whirls around a hospital wall and places the two actors in silhouette, behind the window.  The dialogue at that moment is routine; nothing in it compels such an extreme shift in emphasis.  (Casey even turns off an overhead lamp for no reason, except to make the lighting more dramatic.)

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Edwards also sets up some odd shots in a scene where a frantic Hyland go-go dances herself into a coma.  At one point, Edwards creates an impossible image, intercutting overhead shots of the dancers with low-angle shots taken from a hole in the floor (which is, of course, not evident in the wider shot).  A moment later, Hyland appears to be positioned upright against a wall, even though her character is supposed to be lying on the floor.  These shots are disorienting, but without evident purpose.

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Hyland, of whose brief acting career Ben Casey was one of the high points, recently spoke favorably of Vince Edwards as “a lovely, generous director” who instilled “a warm sense of trust in her.”  Fifty years earlier, Eileen Heckart offered a similar endorsement of Edwards’s first time behind the camera: “I didn’t think much of the script, but he was brilliant.  He’d done all his homework.”

All of Edwards’s first three directorial turns feature not just strong performances but, notably, strong performances by women.  In “Cyclone,” the two leads deliver work that’s well within their range – Astor world-weary and formidable, Heckart sharp and shrewish – but there’s also a fine, fragile performance by Luana Anders (below) as the neglected, wistful daughter.  In “For a Just Man,” solid, enjoyable work by Lew Ayres is upstaged by the two younger women in Hardin’s life: open-faced Sharon Farrell, playing Cordelia to Hardin’s lear, and Lee Grant as the waterfront wife, bitter but secretly vulnerable.  (Farrell was dating Edwards at the time; Grant took a similar approach to a similar character two years later on Peyton Place, and won an Emmy for it.)

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It’s commonly assumed that actors who become directors will function best as actors’ directors, and Edwards seems to succeeded in that regard.  “People who are actors often know how to deal with actors really well.  They don’t treat them like a light fixture,” said Hyland.  “There’s just a little more rapport.”  But another, less intuitive scenario is that actors will take performance as something already mastered, and become more consumed initially with mise-en-scene, because it’s the aspect of the job that’s new to them.  This was true of Vic Morrow, the Combat star who started directing for his series a year after Edwards, and of Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, two young character actors who initiated a permanent transition into directing on Ben Casey – and of Edwards as well.

Compared to what came before, Edwards’s next three episodes – “Eulogy in Four Flats,” a quasi-comedy about an old con man who fakes illness so that his neighbors will take care of him; “Three L’il Lambs,” an unsold backdoor spinoff about three newly-minted residents of varying skill and commitment; and “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here,” a silly, cliched yarn about the generational conflict between an aging Latin American revolutionary and his assimilationist doctor son – were comparatively restrained.  The signature shots are still in evidence – for instance, the god’s-eye point of view in “Eulogy”:

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And the ninety-degree positioning of actors in “Three Li’l Lambs”:

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But the eye-catching set-ups are less evident.  In fact, only this restricted composition in “Three Li’l Lambs,” which emphasizes one character’s anxiety about his professional performance and echoes the earlier behind-the-fence set-ups, stands out.  (It’s also another long take that allows a two-person conversation to play out without cuts.)

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A laziness begins to creep in: “Eulogy” contains a twenty-three second shot of Edwards descending a flight of stairs, a shot duration which (along with some of the endless dancing scenes in “Every Other Minute”) suggests that Edwards’s episodes may have come in short.  “Galanos,” in particular, is almost entirely conventional in its lighting and composition.  And the performances are uneven: Norman Alden is quite moving in the scene shown above, in which his character expresses uncertainty about the choice of medicine as a career, but he conspicuously overplays an earlier scene in which the character botches a diagnosis.  Was Edwards passing out of his experimental phase and trying out a more conventional style?  Or was he simply getting bored?  Did it matter that none of his second three episodes included female roles as prominent as those in the first three?

If there were only six Edwards-directed Ben Casey segments, they would form a predictable arc from novice’s enthusiasm into easily-distracted TV star’s boredom.  But there’s a seventh, an episode called “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” which is as overstuffed as its title and as gloriously, wonderfully, touchingly self-indulgent any television episode ever has been.  Into it, Edwards crams every crash zoom, Dutch angle, ostentatious dissolve, extreme overhead angle, and action-framed-by-a-random-object-in-the-foreground composition that he can muster.  (A very small selection of them appears below.)  It is his “Wagon Wheel Joe” moment.

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What to make of “If You Play Your Cards Right”?  Some of Edwards’s excess is justified by the delirium that is periodically experienced by the central character, a glue-sniffing wife-beater (!) played by Davy Jones (only months before he turned into a Monkee).  Much of it, though, seems to be an expression of disinterest or contempt toward the material, which is difficult to fault.  The script is tawdry and unsubtle, and Jones’s fatal miscasting sinks what ever chances it had; there isn’t even a bit of throwaway exposition to reconcile his British accent with the American ones in which the actors (John McLiam and Louise Latham) cast as his parents speak.  In its final season Ben Casey morphed into a serial, and one could argue (perhaps feebly) that the splintering of episodes like “If You Play Your Cards Right” into three or four discrete subplots invites a disorienting mise-en-scene.  And there’s one other X factor, the replacement of the long-time cinematographer Ted Voigtlander with his former camera operator, William T. Cline.  But Cline’s imagery in the fifth season is generally no more adventurous than the gifted Voigtlander’s had been, and other directors’ episodes in that year are far more sedate.  Plus, there is evidence of a clash between Cline and Edwards.  (In his memoirs, producer John Meredyth Lucas claimed that Edwards packed on the pounds in between seasons, then scapegoated Cline for making him look fat after the need to slim down was pointed out.)  When Edwards went off the directorial rails, it was his own doing.

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The initial assumption one makes about TV stars who begin directing their own shows is that they do so purely as an expression of ego.  (“Isn’t directing a TV show that you’re acting in an exercise in vanity?” is how The Atlantic put it, rudely, to Slattery last year.)  Perhaps.  The actors who launched abortive directing careers off their long-running hits often tend to be the same stars who used their clout to seize control of those shows and push out the original creative teams – for instance, Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel and Alan Alda on M*A*S*H.  Edwards falls into this category to the extent that, after Ben Casey became a hit, the show’s set ran according to his whims.  Although there’s no evidence that Edwards controlled the hiring of producers, or influenced story content, as Boone and Alda did, there was little question of anyone saying no when he expressed the desire to direct.

But it’s important to consider the context behind Edwards’s career move.  Ben Casey’s initial producer, Matthew Rapf, was committed booster for young talent and the series was a training ground for aspiring directors from the beginning.  Sydney Pollack did his first important television work on Ben Casey, and then paid that forward by inviting his friend Mark Rydell out from New York for an on-staff apprenticeship as a director-in-training.  Pollack and Rydell in turn became mentors of sorts to Edwards as he prepared to direct.  Crucially, in the years just before Ben Casey, Edwards had the good fortune to work as an actor for some of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood.  He’d garnered some acclaim for leading roles in two existential, quasi-independent films noir (Murder by Contract, 1958; City of Fear, 1959) directed by Irving Lerner, who (presumably at Edwards’s behest) became a regular director on Ben Casey.  Edwards appeared in The Night Holds Terror (1958) with John Cassavetes, who remained a friend and cast him in a memorable cameo (as a dumb lug who beats up a whole jazz combo in a long pool-hall confrontation) in the second feature he directed, Too Late Blues.  And Edwards was in The Killing (1956), and always spoke proudly of having working with Stanley Kubrick.  A smart observer – and Edwards, whatever his other flaws, was anything but dumb – couldn’t help but absorb some of the creativity and enthusiasm of these men.

Edwards shot home movies and other films with a personal eight-millimeter camera, and became an avid shutterbug; according to his second wife, the actress Linda Foster, Edwards’s still photographs displayed an excellent eye for composition.  (Notwithstanding that a sneering TV Guide article suggested that Edwards mostly enjoyed photographing the pretty nurses on the set of Ben Casey.)  Foster and others suggested that Edwards’s interest in directing was not an indulgence but, in fact, a remedy for some of his diva behavior on the Ben Casey set.  The more cerebral task of directing diverted his attention from the excesses of stardom and other personal problems and refocused it on the work.  “Vince was volatile but when it came directing he quieted right down and got to work.  And he worked hard at it,” said actress Kathy Kersh, who was briefly married to Edwards during Ben Casey and appears in “Three Li’l Lambs.”

Asked if Edwards was a cinephile, Foster said no, but noted that his filmgoing was highly focused.  “He’d say we’ve got to go this or we’ve got to go see that.  It was quite specific.  He was never a ‘let’s go to the movies’ type of person.  The only movie I remember he liked [in the seventies], he was crazy about Stallone and Rocky.”  Earlier, in a 1966 interview, the actor cited at least one influence that suggested he’d been paying attention to new developments in the cinema: Richard Lester’s peppy mod comedy The Knack … And How to Get It, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1965.  Given the chronology, The Knack almost certainly explains the left turn in Edwards’s style between “Dr. Galanos” and “If You Play Your Cards Right.”  In that interview, Edwards complained about “old-school” (his words) directors who “are so determined to keep the picture in frame that everything becomes ‘static’” (the reporter’s paraphrase, apart from the last word).  Lester seems to have liberated Edwards as a visual stylist.

Unfortunately, at the same time, ABC liberated the actor in a different way: they cancelled his show at the end of the 1966 TV season.

*

“[Directing] brings a different sort of adulation.  Kazan isn’t mobbed by teen-agers.”

– Vince Edwards

However much Edwards might have enjoyed his work on the back end of the camera, becoming the next Elia Kazan wasn’t on his mind when Ben Casey went off the air in 1966.  His priorities, according to a 1965 TV Guide interview, were marriage, kids, and a movie career.  Edwards left Ben Casey with a three-picture deal at Columbia and a successful nightclub act that he’d originated during his summer vacations.

Edwards also had a crippling addiction to gambling – specifically, horse racing – one that had been amply covered in the press and that earned him a reputation around town for epic unprofessionalism.  He regularly bolted from the set during the middle of the day to go to the racetrack, and even though he’d made millions off of Ben Casey, he was always putting the touch on friends and co-workers for a loan.  His lazy attitude towards acting didn’t help, either.  While rival TV doctor Richard Chamberlain, also a wooden unknown when Dr. Kildare made him a star, studied the craft and grew into an acclaimed performer, Edwards clung to the snarl and the somewhat smarmy charm that landed him the Ben Casey role.  His one-expression-fits-all acting was fodder for nightclubs’ and columnists’ wit.  After the three films he top-lined flopped, Edwards had nowhere to go but back to television.  If you play the ponies wrong, you too can be a loser.

In 1971, Edwards starred as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, a clear attempt to recreate the magic of Ben Casey; it failed after one abbreviated season.  In the meantime Edwards had married (twice) and fathered three kids; with movie and now even TV stardom eluding him, he’d tried all of those goals he enumerated in 1965.  Directing worked its way back to the top of the list.  One of the last Matt Lincoln episodes was his first directing credit in five years, and his deal with Universal (which produced the series) extended to the closest thing to an auteur effort in Edwards’s videography.  Maneater (1973), starring Ben Gazzara and Sheree North, was the first project that Edwards directed without also acting in.  He originated the telefilm himself.  The story idea about tigers on the loose came from a crony and former stand-in, George Frazier, who had been an animal trainer, and Edwards wrote the teleplay with another member of his entourage, an occasional Ben Casey writer named Marcus Demian.  (Horror master Jimmy Sangster did a credited rewrite.)  Cecil Smith, TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that Edwards “builds a fine sense of tension” in his direction, but Maneater earned little attention and mixed reviews.

According to Foster, Edwards expressed a preference for directing over acting more than once, and “tried to develop a couple of things,” but Maneater became the only film or television project that he would originate.  During the seventies, Edwards’s always precarious personal life took a nose-dive.  He’d been to several psychiatrists to try to control his gambling, but always ended up ditching the sessions and heading to the track.  Foster divorced him after nearly a decade of marriage, because of the gambling, and in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.

It’s likely that most of Edwards’s directing credits after Maneater were undertaken primarily out of financial necessity.  He enjoyed a parallel career going back and forth between acting and directing, but most of the directing gigs came from producer friends; Edwards never established himself as a sought-after director.  Nearly all of his episodic directing during the seventies and eighties traces back to either David Gerber, Aaron Spelling (a pal since the sixties who called Edwards his “itty-bitty buddy,” and with whom Edwards shared a business manager), or Glen A. Larson (at whose Hawaii estate Edwards married his third wife in 1980).

Most of those shows, with the exception of Gerber’s Police Story, can be charitably called junk, and Edwards was no longer the biggest wheel on the set but, now, just another down-on-his-luck journeyman director.  Ten years after the impossible object that is “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” do we find anything of the old exuberant Vince Edwards, cineaste, in the likes of Larson’s pablum?  Surprisingly, yes – if only a glimmer.

It’s harder to analyze performance in the likes of BJ and the Bear and The Fall Guy than in Ben Casey.  Most of the shows Edwards directed in the seventies emphasize action and spectacle over character-driven drama.  Of the seven Edwards-directed segments I was able to view, the most accomplished performance came from a young actress: Anne Lockhart (below), playing the guilt-ridden girlfriend of a villain in a two-part Hardy Boys.

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Lockhart also turns up in Edwards’s Battlestar: Galactica two-parter, “The Living Legend” (which inspired perhaps the high point of Ronald D. Moore’s remake of that series, making it, in hindsight, the most significant of Edwards’s later directing efforts), giving a less polished performance but still a striking, sexy one.  Lloyd Bridges, the primary guest star in “The Living Legend,” does all the things you’ve seen Bridges do a hundred times before, but Edwards assists him with a shadowy entrance that foreshadows the direction his character will turn:

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Edwards’s other excursion into the Battlestar empire was a single episode of Galactica 1980, “The Super Scouts Part 1.”  In one shot Edwards revives the familiar right-angle positioning of actors that he used repeatedly in Ben Casey:

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“Super Scouts” also brings back another favorite Casey tic, the slow circling pan, which is why this child actor ends up addressing Lorne Greene over his shoulder in their scenes together:

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Greene and the boy have scenes together on the same set in the second half of this two-parter, which was directed not by Edwards but by Sigmund Neufeld, Jr.  While the gauzy fog filter is used there, too, the camera remains static in Neufeld’s scenes.  Thus Galactica serves as a rare petri dish in which elements of house style (the filter) can be distinguished from choices made by individual directors (the camera movement).

There are new techniques, not evident during Ben Casey, that Edwards favors in the seventies shows.  Here’s a close-up of Lorne Greene from “The Living Legend” in which the actor is positioned toward one side of the frame while others bustle out-of-focus in the background in the other half of the image:

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A nearly identical set-up occurs at least three times in Edwards’s episode of BJ and the Bear, “Silent Night, Unholy Night.”  Edwards also displays a facility for staging action in real locations, something that Ben Casey – which very rarely left the soundstage – afforded little opportunity to do.  Scenes shot in a bank and a department store in “The Super Scouts Part 1” and on the USC campus in Edwards’s episode of David Cassidy – Man Undercover capture more of the flavor of those locations than one typically observes in television location shoots.  The “Super Scouts” sequence in which Barry Van Dyke “accidentally” robs a bank builds a unexpected amount of tension as it progresses.  As a standalone sequence, it’s more effective than the banal story into which it’s integrated.

Edwards’s rebirth as a TV director fizzled out in the early eighties.  There was one outlier, an In the Heat of the Night episode in 1990, and then nothing.  According to Linda Foster, he never defeated his addiction to gambling.  “He never was going to be a serious filmmaker, because he was too interested in the sixth race at Santa Anita,” said Mark Rydell, who noticed Edwards’s divided focus even as he began preparing for his first turn as a director.  “He was a little bit like a rabbit running around rabbit holes.  I don’t think he had the patience and discipline to see things through half the time.  And he’d get frustrated and take himself off to the racetrack,” said Foster.

“The ultimate satisfaction in film is the director’s.  I love it,” said Edwards in 1973, in what may have been his final recorded statement on the subject.  “But it’s two months’ work for two weeks’ pay.  As an actor, you come in to do an 11-day TV movie, take the money and run.  You can’t do that as a director.  At least I can’t.  I have to be involved every step of the way through post-production up until it’s on the air.”

*

Sources (in addition to linked text above): Dwight Whitney, “Anybody Know What Kind of Mood Vince-Baby Is in Today?” TV Guide, April 4, 1964; Whitney, “Vince Baby Plays It Cool,” TV Guide, February 18, 1967; Cecil Smith, “Will Ben Casey Make a Comeback?” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1973; Kathy Kersh interview in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul, Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 (McFarland, 2002); John Meredyth Lucas, Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (McFarland, 2004); and July 2013 telephone interviews with Patricia Hyland Tackett, Mark Rydell, and Linda Foster Winter.

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