July 12, 2013
You all did so well on the last one – let’s cue up another round of unbilled bit players!
Aaron Spelling’s Vega$ is a frustrating show in this regard. Every episode is top-heavy with name actors, many of them just popping in for cameos. It’s a Spelling formula that dates back to Burke’s Law, but here it’s coupled with an inattentiveness for the lesser-known bit players that almost seems status-based — as if giving those peons billing would somehow diminish the celebs who adorned the opening titles.
Here are two uncredited actors who appear in the 1978 pilot (written by Michael Mann, but not so’s you’d know). The first is – well, as in many a Spelling script, it’s not entirely clear who the fellow with the large pouf of gray hair is, but he turns up in one early scene to deliver some exposition to Robert Urich. The second (on the far left) is a state trooper who has some bad news about Urich’s car. This is the best look you get at him.
The series was shot entirely in Las Vegas, so it’s possible these guys are local actors who didn’t do much else on film. But they look awfully familiar, so let’s give this a whirl.
July 3, 2013
June 23, 2013
Let us speak now of the Universal Show Reporter Scene.
Here’s a stock scene you’ve watched a thousand times: A big muckety-muck of some sort, usually the toplining guest star of the week, makes a big entrance by, well, making an entrance. Surrounded by an entourage, he or she pushes through a throng of reporters, stopping long enough to field exactly the questions needed to set up the plot.
Of course, lots of shows did versions of this scene, but I seem to associate them mostly with Universal series of the late sixties and early seventies: The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones, Columbo. Apart from the expository value, the reporter scene was a chance to toss a paycheck to a few actors who could use the bread, or a timely credit to continue their insurance eligibility through the Screen Actors Guild. Heck, Regis J. Cordic and Stuart Nisbet probably made half their annual income thrusting plastic microphones into the stars’ faces in those days.
The catch, of course, was that if an episode had a big cast, these one-line pseudo-journalists were the first ones lopped off the end credit roll. This weekend, for instance, I watched the TV movies that launched The Six Million Dollar Man. In the third one, “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” government official Leif Erickson gets quizzed by a pair of sweaty-looking newshounds, both played by uncredited actors. Recognize either of them? (In the first image, only the fellow on the right has a speaking part; the other guy is an extra.)
I’m pretty sure the first actor is Stacy Keach, Sr., but I’d like to hear that one seconded (or not). And I have no idea about portly Reporter #2.
And one more or the road: Here’s a frame from an early episode of Laramie, “The Star Trail.” This older gent on the horse has one moving and fairly lengthy scene, playing the father of a baddie (William Bryant) that guest star Lloyd Nolan has just gunned down. But he, along with several other actors (including the reliable Oliver McGowan, playing a bank president) didn’t make the credits. Anyone recognize him?
June 20, 2013
Last year, I wrote about the 1958-1959 TV series Mike Hammer, and wondered who produced the show. Though it would be unthinkable today, MCA at the time omitted producer credits from some of its television programs.
Recently, I took a minute to poke through Variety‘s digitized archives and solved the mystery (at least partially). As Hammer expert Max Allan Collins suggested in a comment on the original article, MCA lifer Richard (Dick) Irving was the primary producer of the show. Variety first announced the Darren McGavin/MCA package on June 12, 1957, in a piece that noted the earlier Brian Keith pilot based on the Spillane character, but confirmed that neither Keith nor Richard Lewis, the producer of that pilot, would have any involvement in the new series. Rather, “the syndicated private eye skein will be producer by Karl Kramer and Dick Irving, with the latter directing most, if not all of the segments.”
Karl Kramer – whose name you’d probably never heard until now, even if you’re a TV aficionado - was a senior MCA executive, one of the former band bookers who became, according to Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul, the agency’s treasurer and a member of its “ruling elite.” A contender to succeed Jules Stein as the company’s president, Kramer instead became the company’s chief television executive around 1950. Kicked upstairs shortly after the Mike Hammer launch (his title in 1958 was “honorary chairman” of Revue Productions), he retired in the early sixties and died in 1980. (One of Kramer’s daughters was married to sitcom director Jay Sandrich). It’s pretty safe to assume, then, that most or all of the creative decision-making fell to Irving, who incidentally ended up directing fewer than a dozen episodes – an early sign that television production, even in the days when a TV show could have but a single producer, would prove more complex than the executives or the press initially assumed. (Irving also directed all the New York City location shooting, even in episodes credited to other directors.)
One of the very first directors associated with MCA’s production unit – he started on generic, threadbare anthologies like Stars Over Hollywood and The Gruen Guild Playhouse as early as 1951 – the one-time bit actor Irving stayed with the company as a sort of mid-tier creative for nearly two decades. (He was initially assigned to The Virginian, but bumped when Universal hired a “name” – Rawhide creator Charles Marquis Warren – to oversee the prestigious 90-minute Western.) As a producer and occasional director on the likes of State Trooper and Laredo, Irving may be best remembered as a mentor of young talent: he hired both Sydney Pollack (on Shotgun Slade) and Steven Spielberg (on The Name of the Game) early in their careers.
So that solves that, except that I couldn’t find any reference to who produced the second (1958-1959) season of Mike Hammer. It’s likely that Irving stayed on, but perhaps not – and it’s also possible that he had an associate producer or story editor whose name still remains lost to history.
One other interesting tidbit I discovered is that – contrary to my assumption that one series followed the other – Mike Hammer and Darren McGavin’s subsequent starring vehicle for MCA, the Western Riverboat (1959-1961), actually overlapped in production. According to Variety, McGavin shot the first two Riverboat episodes prior to May 23, 1959, at which point he went back to shoot another five Mike Hammer segments. “After the five, he’ll continue to shuttle between the two shows, with 11 more Hammers to be made,” the trade paper added. And James Garner thought he had it rough on Maverick!
Riverboat premiered on September 23, and a quick check of the TV listings suggests that, at least in the New York City market, new episodes of Mike Hammer were debuting as late as November 1959. So, for a couple of months that fall, McGavin fans could see their favorite actor headlining two different first-run series at the same time. How many other times in television history has that happened?
June 19, 2013
Name: Dennis Boutsikaris.
Specialty: Edgy, hyperverbal intellectuals, either kindly (like the SAT policeman-turned-academic-mentor he plays on Shameless) or sarcastic (like the arrogant surgeon he recurred as on John Wells’s earlier ER).
Impersonations: He played Woody Allen, opposite Patsy Kensit’s Mia Farrow, in a low-rent 1996 TV movie, and comb-wielding Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Oliver Stone’s W.
Enduring Claim to Fame: As the de facto leading man, in the hilarious, maligned, Green Acres-obsessed sitcom The Jackie Thomas Show. The straight man of the show, Boutsikaris played the fledgling writer whose horrified reactions were often funnier than the punchlines delivered by putative star Tom Arnold, riffing on his own rep as a narcissistic TV star. Boutsikaris and his female lead, the equally underappreciated Alison LaPlaca, were carryovers from an earlier sitcom, Stat.
Where Else You’ve Seen Him: In recurring roles on 100 Center Street, Law & Order, Six Degrees, and many others, and on the New York stage (replacing John Pankow as Mozart in Amadeus, and more recently in the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs).
Second Career: A prolific narrator of audio books, Boutsikaris is the winner of seven Golden Earphone Awards. I do so hope those are in fact shaped like earphones, and made out of gold.
June 11, 2013
The Writers Guild of America has noted the death of television writer Norman Borisoff on April 21, just five days short of his 95th birthday.
Never especially prolific, Borisoff notched an odd grab bag of dramatic TV credits on both sides of the Atlantic: scripts for The Saint, Man of the World, and Herbert Brodkin’s spy anthology Espionage in England during the early sixties, then episodes of Ironside, Judd For the Defense, and I Spy (his only teleplay was also the only two-part episode) back in the States. Prior to that, Borisoff – who had been the editor of UCLA’s campus newspaper The Daily Bruin in 1938! – wrote documentaries; afterwards, he became a young adult novelist.
Among the other odds and ends among Borisoff’s TV credits are one of the final, filmed episodes of the newspaper anthology Big Story, and an adaption of the F. Marion Crawford story “The Screaming Skull” (which had been filmed in 1958) into a TV special that aired early on in ABC’s late-night “Wide World of Entertainment” block. Per Variety, it was one of four horror-themed telefilms, part of an effort to “adapt the techniques, pacing, and stylized acting of the daytime soap operas to the spooky genre.” (Translation: Probably coasting on the success of Dark Shadows, some New York-based producers, in this case veteran ex-Susskind and Brodkin lieutenants Jacqueline Babbin and Buzz Berger, bid on those slots and filled them with low-budget videotaped programs.) Alas, Variety declared The Screaming Skull (1973) “a complete, interminable bomb.”
Perhaps more distinguished than his fiction scripts were Borisoff’s documentary credits, which included the 1950 feature The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (an English-language reworking, supervised by Robert Flaherty, of an earlier German film); Victor Vicas’s 48 Hours a Day (1949), a “proud tribute to the Hadassah nurse,” shot in Israel; segments of Conquest (a CBS News-produced, Monsanto-sponsored series of science-themed programs that alternated in a Sunday afternoon timeslot with See It Now and The Seven Lively Arts) in 1957-1958; and the Emmy-nominated NBC film The Kremlin (1963).
I contacted Borisoff in 2004, after I had a hunch – based on his credits abroad during the McCarthy era, and his return to the U.S. around the time the Red Scare cooled off – that the peripatetic Borisoff might have been blacklisted. But I was wrong: Borisoff informed me that his globe-trotting was all done by choice. We never connected for a full interview, but I did enjoy seeing footage of Borisoff, then 89, walking the picket lines during the 2007 Writers Guild strike.
June 4, 2013
I used to do an occasional roundup post wherein I would comment upon interesting new TV-related articles I’d read. Ever since I’ve been on Twitter (@smilingcobra), I’ve just been posting those links there — it’s more efficient and I never liked putting a lot of effort into writing posts that would become instantly disposable.
However, I can’t resist a little annotation on two recent articles that are totally unrelated but still strike me as two halves of the same whole. One is Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to make an auteurist case for the episodic television director. The other is a DGA Magazine article about directing The Good Wife. Where Seitz compiles through-lines by looking at the TV shows themselves, Ann Farmer comes at it from the other direction, by polling some Good Wife producers and directors in search of concrete examples of the directors’ contributions to specific episodes. (Totally irrelevant coincidence: When I interviewed veteran TV director Michael Zinberg for last year’s “Turkeys Away” oral history, he called me from the set of The Good Wife. Which reminds me, I’m still waiting for that introduction to Archie Panjabi.)
Whereas the role of the television writer changed seismically when episodic television shifted from a freelance to a staff model, the of the episodic director is essentially the same as it has been since the fifties. The almost complete separation of filmic and three-camera sitcom directors, the director’s hierarchical disadvantage relative to producers and actors and cameramen who work on their shows full-time, the gulf between A-listers who direct the hot shows and rank-and-file directors who get stuck with everything else — none of those factors have changed much since the late fifties. There have been some intriguing exceptions to these old patterns in recent years – a director’s occasional commitment to a staff job on a show, as Seitz noted, or the relatively new form of the one-camera sitcom – but none of them have become the rule. Plus, even those new things aren’t that new: in the old days, a director would turn producer once in a while (Walter Grauman on Felony Squad, Boris Sagal on T.H.E. Cat), and hybrid half-hour dramedies like The Law and Mr. Jones, which were the closest antecedent to single-camera comedies, attracted an odd mix of comedic and dramatic directors, just as today’s single-cams pull in both established TV comedy directors and indie-film outsiders (whose widespread infiltration of episodic TV during the HBO era of the early 2000s is also something that a few older shows like East Side / West Side and The Bold Ones tried).
So, nothing is new under the sun — which is why it’s remarkable, and frustrating, and revealing, that the subtext of that Good Wife piece is one of defensiveness, and that the idea Seitz is getting at is so hard to pin down. It’s easy to talk out one’s ass about “the director” — to simply default to auteurist lingo in criticism and write that Thomas Schlamme did this or that, without actually investigating who came up with what idea. But to really write authoritatively about a TV director’s work, or style, is extremely challenging. A glance at Seitz’s scattershot examples shows how much work is left to be done: there are nods to The Twilight Zone (John Brahm) and All in the Family (Paul Bogart), but most are from post-2000 shows Seitz has written about elsewhere. Of course, there are TV director auteurs from every era, but we’ve only scratched the surface in picking them out or isolating what qualities differentiate them from their peers. John Frankenheimer’s roving camera made him a behind-the-scenes star of the Playhouse 90 period, and most of my fellow sixties television cultists have figured out that Sutton Roley – the Orson Welles of early television – crammed nearly every TV episode he directed with a ton of strange angles and extreme lenses. But there are dozens of other early episodic directors with an eye almost as bold as Roley’s, and an especially problematic class of “actor’s directors” (like Paul Bogart, whom Seitz mentions) whose touch is probably only detectable by subtraction. (Many episodic TV directors had, or have, their own “stock companies” — but while we know all of those beloved John Ford and Preston Sturges actors well, we haven’t yet enumerated Paul Bogart’s or Ralph Senensky’s favorites.)
Most of us watch television by program, whether it’s one episode per week or in marathon form. To write knowledgeably about an episodic director’s work, you’d have to turn that sideways, and scrutinize specific episodes of dozens of different series, with an eye peeled for formal connections that aren’t always obvious. Then you’d have to try to account for factors that derived from other creative contributors, or “house styles.” Series like Ben Casey or Star Trek had such distinctive lighting schemes that you would expect any director’s episodes of those shows to vary from their personal “look,” whatever it might be. A series star’s performances aren’t likely to vary much from episode to episode (or are they?), but what can be discerned by comparing actors’ one-off work across many shows, for particular directors? Why might Don Gordon have walked through a dozen guest shots and then absolutely nailed the title role in The Defenders‘ “Madman”? Was it simply a response to stronger-than-usual material, or was the director (Stuart Rosenberg) the x factor? Or why, to put it another way, might Sutton Roley’s touch be more muted on some series than others? Probably because of budget constraints, or producers and cinematographers who preferred a less showy style. Roley always fought the system, which is why his body of work stands out, but there are other directors who did extremely innovative work on “friendly” shows and totally anonymous work on other series.
In the DVD-and-torrenting era, the texts are available for this kind of scrutiny in a way that they weren’t until ten or fifteen years ago — but I haven’t taken it on, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has, either. (Actually, I do know some gonzo cinephiles who are expert on some of the TV-movie directors of the seventies, but little or none of their work has been published yet.) Finding the director’s touch, I think, is the ultimate brain-teaser of television scholarship.
P.S. So, I’ve been missing in action for a while, huh? Writing for money and sundry other things have kept me away from the important work for longer than planned. If things go as planned, though, this space should be sputtering slowly back to life over the next couple of weeks.