A Hot Dog Makes Her Crazy

February 11, 2010

Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .

Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?

Yes.  For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York.  That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon.  Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year. 

This aspect of geography might seem trivial.  But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.  

There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era.  The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe.  They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City

But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse.  Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show.  The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away.  Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids. 

Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door.   Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself.  In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”

Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban.  And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties.  Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”).  Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”).  Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit.  And so on. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy.  William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy.  Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels.  Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).

The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.  Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane.  (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.) 

The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise.  I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.

Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season.  The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.”  The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series.  The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television.  Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes.  East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation.  The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse  viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence.  It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.

The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year.  William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness.  Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator.  Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well).  Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972. 

Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent.  Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits.  He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.


One of the many New York stage actors who appeared on The Patty Duke Show was a teenaged John Spencer (in “How to Be Popular”), thirty-five years before he played Leo McGarry on The West Wing.

So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content.  Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else.  The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke.  My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing.  Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent. 

Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material.  In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery.  When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.

The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s.  I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl.  Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty.  Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:   


Patty Duke as Cathy Lane


Patty Duke as Patty Lane

It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD.  (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)

Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls.  Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot.  As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise.  But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show.  Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.

It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy.  Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out.  In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses.  She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show.  The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city).  It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen.  This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”). 

Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity.  The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly.  If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base?  Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.” 


Eddie Applegate as Richard

It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966.  So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.

That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City.  I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles.  It turns out that the motive was more sinister.  As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws.  Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role.  In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day.  Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run.  Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher.  The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.

Prolific television writer and producer Philip Saltzman died on August 14 at the age of 80.  Saltzman, who had been hospitalized at the Motion Picture Home, suffered from an advanced form of dementia.

Saltzman began writing for television in the late fifties, on half-hour cheapies for Ziv (Mackenzie’s Raiders, Lock Up) and then for slightly more distinguished westerns like Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rifleman.  Soon Saltzman joined the burgeoning ranks of young writers pumping life into the later seasons of Warners’ cookie-cutter detective shows, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6.  “Four-Cornered Triangle,” a noirish story of obsessive love that is Saltzman’s best Eye, remains a perfect example of how to base a formulaic show around character rather than action or genre cliches.

One of television’s top freelancers during the sixties, Saltzman composed teleplays for action and dramatic series like Richard Diamond Private Detective, Five Fingers, The Third Man, The Detectives, Stoney Burke, Dr. Kildare, Run For Your Life, and The Wild Wild West.

“The Voice of Gina Milan,” a Run For Your Life two-hander, paired adventurer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) with an Italian girl of mystery (Susan Strasberg) who turns out to be an brilliant opera singer in momentary flight from her destiny.  The steam runs out of this romance once we find out Gina Milan’s identity and the nature of her problem; but Saltzman’s story (completed by the talented John W. Bloch) remains admirably claustrophobic, and his lovers have a mischievous, carefree byplay suggestive of the lush-life atmosphere that Run For Your Life always struggled to evoke.

“The Voice of Gina Milan” has a killer ending, and a sucker-punch of a third-act twist also distinguishes my favorite Saltzman script, “To Catch the Kaiser.”  This Stoney Burke entry places the titular rodeo hero in the clutches of Eileen Fowler (Diana Hyland), a beautiful trick rider who hires Stoney (Jack Lord) to corral the majestic horse that crippled her.  “Kaiser” is one of those magic hours in which every element comes together: Tom Gries’ forceful closeups, the editing of the exciting horse-and-jeep chase, Hyland’s typically quicksilver performance, and Dominic Frontiere’s proto-Outer Limits scoring, which teases out the baroque emotions in Saltzman’s teleplay.

Without ever dropping an obvious clue, Saltzman gradually aligns the viewer with Stoney’s uneasy feeling that Eileen and her father (John Anderson, his glum, gravelly drawl vital to the brooding pall that hangs over everything) are withholding something.  The truth that Saltzman finally reveals is a cruel one, but he follows it (too fast, maybe, but fifty minutes is a tight noose) with a welcome, bittersweet note of catharsis.

Saltzman also wrote regularly for producer Quinn Martin’s 12 O’Clock High and The Fugitive during the sixties.  His Fugitives were always solid, if not among the very best episodes; the highlight was perhaps “Trial by Fire,” one of the handful of segments that brought Dr. Kimble back to his hometown of Stafford, Indiana, this time to interrogate an alleged witness (Charles Aidman) to the one-armed man’s crime.  Saltzman did a year as an associate producer on 12 O’Clock High, then two as the producer of Fox’s half-hour cop series Felony Squad.

In 1969, Saltzman began a a decade-long, full-time association with Quinn Martin Productions by taking the helm of its most dubious property, the long-running The FBI.  Saltzman ably replaced the producer of The FBI’s first four seasons, the gifted writer Charles Larson, and continued Larson’s strategy of ignoring the cardboard cops (denied any complexity at Mr. Hoover’s insistence) as much as possible in favor of the colorful and often sympathetic criminals.

After his own four-year stint with The FBI, Saltzman moved over to QM’s Barnaby Jones.  Saltzman always managed to sound authentically enthusiastic about this geriatric private eye show, which was lambasted by critics and had the misfortune to be rumored as Richard Nixon’s favorite program.  Gamely, Saltzman called it the “Playhouse 90 of the Mississippi,” referring to Barnaby’s popularity in the heartland.

Saltzman ran Barnaby Jones for seven of its eight seasons, during and after which he also wrote or produced a number of other failed pilots, made-for-TV movies, and short-lived shows for Martin.  An expert, by then, on the possibilities of crime-fighting by senior citizens, Saltzman wrapped his career by producing several of the revived Perry Mason and Columbo television movies in the late eighties.

I know little about Saltzman’s background, although one source states that he was born in Mexico; if that’s accurate, he may have been a child of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.  Saltzman’s widow is Caroline Veiller, daughter of the screenwriter Anthony Veiller (The Killers, Moulin Rouge, The Night of the Iguana).

I never met Saltzman myself, but I am relieved that another TV historian, Jonathan Etter, interviewed Saltzman at length for both his 2003 biography of Quinn Martin and a subsequent Filmfax piece.

Saltzman

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