3 x 87

July 7, 2011

Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.

87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed.  Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase.  In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year.  Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott).  The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.

That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog.  What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.

The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.

In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories.  The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle.  Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars.  Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit).  There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted.  Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.

In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart.  The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray.  In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise).  (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)

Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels.  A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.”  Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer.  (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)

It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind.  In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology).  It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property.  In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.

Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.

Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology.  As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons.  Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.

When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show.  Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA.  Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen.  Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.

(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock.  That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions.  Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season.  Hunter died in 2005.)

Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge.  But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.  Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant.  Or both.

Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit.  O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter.  Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.

On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s.  I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much.  His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final producer, William Frye).  Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.

In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959.  NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.

Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season.  Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs.  87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good.  McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.

(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties.  Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down.  It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still.  I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)

But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched.  None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books.  The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted.  Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott.  Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High?  Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes.  Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press.  I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct.  That, as they say, is show biz.

I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual.  But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise.  When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.”  Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly.  He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.

I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character.  (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.)  It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.

Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys.  That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.

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II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)

The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe.  Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film.  It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.

III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)

Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961).  In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors.  “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me.  “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”

But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?

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V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)

Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.

“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical.  “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story.  He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it.  I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”

VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)

In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.

“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.

VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)

The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company.  The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).

NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor.  “I said, I can’t do that.  It [violates] the purity of the script.  I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.”  Eventually Zagor added the father angle.

*

VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)

Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).

Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.

IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)

Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).

Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film.  (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)

*

X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)

This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves.  In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present.  “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.

Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members.  When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.

*

XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.

In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema.  Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies.  They’re not dumb.  They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed.  They’re ahead of us.”

Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.”  Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.”  Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.”  The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.”  Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”

The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.

XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented.  George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey).  Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors.  The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.

XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.?  Yes and no.  “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me.  “It was an erudite group.  We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors.  Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them.  We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”

But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule.  The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said.  Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered.  Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources.  The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.

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XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising.  She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”

XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper.  Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.

XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis.  It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.

All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.

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