January 31, 2014
Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87. Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.
Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians. He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.
Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926. His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany. As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.
At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930. Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.
The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs. While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man. But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business. It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.” Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.
In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day. Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said. “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’ Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”
Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx. “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him. The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered. “The film looked awful. I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me. It’s my first picture.’ They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly. He didn’t know what he was doing.’ All the pieces were facing the wrong way. All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”
Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said. He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College). The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.
“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled. I’d had awards with my documentaries. I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].” Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them! No matter what awards I’d won.”
Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston. He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.
After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner. The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman. Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader. He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio. (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.) Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time. But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal. Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.
“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked. “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer. They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything. I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’ Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!”
When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them. (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.) Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver. At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints. He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director.
(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)
“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly. “I was not cut out for it. I liked to freelance.” Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette. That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche. This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later. By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing). Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes. Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.) Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes. But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.
On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles. He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round. Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point. How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?
August 3, 2011
Veteran assistant director, production manager, and producer James H. Brown died on July 10. He was 80.
Brown also directed a handful of television episodes: six Honey Wests, at least one Tales of Wells Fargo, a Wagon Train, an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a trio of Longstreets, a Doc Elliot, and a Circle of Fear. But he spent most of his career in production, a reliable behind-the-scenes man tasked with keeping the creative types on time and on budget.
Brown was a source for several things I’ve written over the years, starting when he was in college in the late nineties. He was at an important place at an important time: Brown spent his first decade in television at Revue Studios during the period when that independent company, a part of the MCA empire, bought Universal Studios and grew into the biggest behemoth in television production. Most of the production office staff at Revue were movie veterans, with careers dating back almost to the silent era. (I interviewed one longtime Revue assistant director, Willard Sheldon, who got his DGA card in 1937). But Brown was just out of college when he began working at Revue in 1953, and he was one of the few people I found who could tell me about the company’s inner workings.
But while Brown gave me some useful background, my attempt to interrogate him for a longer oral history was basically disastrous. Generous with his time but also modest and circumspect, Brown answered my questions with little detail or embellishment. If he had anything negative to say about anyone he ever worked with, those stories went with him to his grave.
As a UCLA student, Brown had no thought of entering the movie business until he became friendly there with members of Alan Ladd’s family, and switched to a major in film. A mailroom job at MCA led to his promotion to second assistant director in late 1955. Brown’s duties in that capacity included “paperwork, doing all the chasing and setting the background. Getting actors out of their dressing rooms, getting extras onto the set.” A junior administrator without an office, Brown would grab a table on the set and make out the next day’s call sheets by hand.
Brown didn’t say so in our interviews, but he must have been viewed as something of a wunderkind at Revue, where his professional advancement happened quickly. He was promoted to first assistant director within a year (now, his primary duty was working with extras to stage the background action), and began to land some choice assignments on the studio’s series. Brown went the extra mile to help the directors to whom he was assigned:
In the early days, when there were quite a few directors coming out from live television in New York and had been used to using three or four cameras, sometimes single cameras really kind of threw them in terms of how to stage and how to use a single camera. So a lot of times I’d take a director home and have dinner at my house and then sit down and go through the script with them and try to help advise him how to use a single camera. And the directors who were coming out of film were used to having more money and a bigger budget, more time to shoot. So I would try to guide them.
Often in Hollywood, but especially at the budget-conscious Revue, directors often viewed their ADs and production managers as the enemy, as spies for the production office. I got the sense that Brown, although loyal to the front office, succeeded by positioning himself as more of an ally to his directors than many of his older, more jaded colleagues were willing to do.
Brown worked on most of the early Revue shows at least a few times as a first assistant: The Restless Gun, M Squad, Johnny Staccato, Riverboat, Checkmate, Laramie. But he was assigned most often to the studio’s dramatic anthologies, which he thought were “treated more as the A-list because of the casting, the producers, and the writers,” and to the long-running western Wagon Train.
On Wagon Train Brown became friendly with Ward Bond, and observed a falling-out between Bond and co-star Robert Horton as the latter sought to get out of his contract and leave the series. “Bond was a wonderful, warm person. Gruff on the outside. Demanding, but not unfairly demanding. I think he felt as if Horton wanted abandon ship, and he was the skipper,” Brown said.
Of the Revue anthologies, Brown worked most often on The General Electric Theatre, whose host was Ronald Reagan. “He always came on the set and had four or five jokes he wanted to tell everybody before he went to work,” Brown remembered of Reagan.
Brown’s favorite directors were John Ford, who he assisted on episodes of The Jane Wyman Theatre and Wagon Train, and Alfred Hitchcock. Brown supplanted Hilton Green as Hitchcock’s first assistant of choice on his eponymous series, and followed Hitchcock to The Birds and Marnie as well. (Ford also asked Brown to assistant direct a feature for him, The Long Gray Line, but Brown was unavailable.) More than any of the rank-and-file episodic directors he worked with, Brown was impressed by Ford’s and Hitchcock’s effortless command of their sets. “They were the best teachers I ever had,” he said.
After leaving Revue, Brown moved briefly to Four Star Productions (where he worked on Honey West and Amos Burke, Secret Agent) and then to Paramount (The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, Longstreet). At Revue, Brown had directed some second units, including a batch of San Francisco exteriors for Checkmate, as well as Robert Horton’s outdoor screen test for Wagon Train and many of Hitchcock’s and Reagan’s introductions for their respective shows. That experience led to his own desultory directing career, which consisted mainly of assignments that fell to him when another director dropped out. Brown also spent a few years directing television commercials (for Sears, AT&T, Dove Soap, Chevrolet, and Maxwell House’s late sixties “my wife” campaign), and briefly considered transitioning into a full-time career as a director.
“I thought about it seriously,” Brown said, “but I had a wife and four children, and financially it was too big a risk. I was working fifty-two weeks a year and begging for time off in production, and as a director, starting out, I knew it was going to pinch financially.”
Instead, Brown became a line producer, with credits on Joe Forrester, The Quest, Dallas, and a number of made-for-television films. He retired in 1992, following an unpleasant experience on the telefilm Danielle Steel’s Secrets. But, as was his way, Brown would never tell me exactly what went wrong on that show.
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 Blue. 87th 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, on its death legs, 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 propery. 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 executive 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.
December 18, 2009
Our last obituary for 2009 (or so I hope) is also a belated one. Based on a search of public records and information provided by the Screen Actors Guild, I have confirmed that actress Mary Scott died on April 22 in Riverside County, Los Angeles, under the name Mary Lydia Heller.
Scott accrued a number of film and television credits from the early forties through the early sixties, but she will probably be remembered as (1) the wife of British character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, in one of Hollywood’s more unlikely May-December romances; and (2) the star of “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” one of the seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the Master of Suspense himself.
Born in Los Angeles on December 9, 1921, Scott began her movie career at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1940. She was still underage when the head of that studio, Darryl Zanuck, spotted her working in the coat-check room at Ciro’s. Zanuck admired her legs and directed an underling to sign Scott to a player contract. She made her film debut in an early scene in Kings Row, as one of the Ross sisters. (The other sister was Julie Warren, who gave up her acting career to marry John Forsythe.)
Hardwicke, an esteemed character actor of the English stage with a famously plummy voice, was under contract to Fox at the same time. Their romance began on a double date in Beverly Hills, and Scott followed the married Hardwicke back to Broadway (where he contrived to have her replace Lilli Palmer, his co-star in Caesar and Cleopatra, when Palmer took ill) and then on to London. Only when she became pregnant with a son, Michael, did Hardwicke divorce his first wife and marry Scott, who was twenty-eight years his junior.
More socialite than serious actress, Scott played small roles in a number of films and TV segments during the fifties. She supported Grace Kelly and Richard Greene (TV’s Robin Hood) in a live production of “Berkeley Square” for the Prudential Family Playhouse, and turned up on M Squad, Hazel, and The Patty Duke Show. “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” a semi-parody of Rear Window, had Scott as distaff version of James Stewart’s character, a mystery writer who thinks her neighbor may have committed a murder.
“Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” was a major showcase for Scott, and much like “Into Thin Air,” an earlier Hitchcock episode built around Hitch’s daughter Pat, it feels as if someone had attempted an act of star-building – albeit perhaps more as a favor than out of true conviction in the prospective star’s talent. Mary Scott appeared in seven more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and, like Pat Hitchcock’s roles on that series, Scott’s parts gradually diminished in size until, in 1965’s “The Trap,” she was just an extra in a crowd scene.
I always surmised that Scott was part of either Hitchcock’s or producer Joan Harrison’s social circle, but I could never find any substantial information on her. For years I tried, off and on, to track her down, but I had no idea if she was still living or even how old she was. In “Blanchard” Scott wore her hair in an unusually short, tomboyish cut that subtracted some years, and in the pre-Internet Movie Database era, there was no source that connected her TV credits with those of the obscure pre-war Fox contract actress. And then Scott seemed to have disappeared after her last Hitchcock appearance. She was a mystery, with a name too common to track down. Finally I found her – eight months too late.
But then I made another discovery that partly makes up for that disappointment. In 2000, Scott published a memoir, Nobody Ever Accused Me of Being a ‘Lady,’ through a now-defunct British vanity press. It is a disjointed and somewhat superficial book, but a fascinating read. Scott offers a matter-of-fact account of many personal tragedies: abandonment by an alcoholic father; molestation by a neighbor at age five; a brother’s death in combat during World War II; and finally the drug-related suicide of Michael Hardwicke in 1983.
Candidly, she depicts her show business career as a welcome escape from those grim events, and perhaps that’s why her autobiography ends up dwelling more on party-going and name-dropping than on matters of substance. (Among the gossip: affairs with Ronald Reagan and David Niven; Darryl Zanuck, diminutive penis exposed, trying to rape her in his office at Fox.)
Still, Scott turns a droll phrase now and then – Charles Laughton cut a figure “like a limp macaroni tube” – and while she left many of my questions unanswered, this passage went a long way toward satisfying my curiosity about her attraction to Sir Cedric:
He was the most distinguished man I had ever met. He displayed a sly wit which was so subtle that it might easily have been missed if one was not alert. He dressed immaculately – Savile Row, naturally. And while Cedric did not have conventional good looks, he had – and I hate using this term, but it really fits – class . . . and plenty of it. His honesty and integrity were above reproach. His voice, sonorous, deep and rich, . . . was like a good vintage wine; it kept improving. It was his premier instrument and I often wished that I could bottle it.
And as for Hitchcock? Scott does recount a few stories about working and dining with Hitch . . . but for those, you’ll have to track down her book.
May 27, 2008
After a pretty public battle with cancer during the past year, Sydney Pollack left us on May 26 at the age of 73. That’s not exactly young but it comes as a bit of a shock still, because Pollack had been so robust in recent years, so visible within the industry, and so active (and marvelous) as a character actor in movies like Eyes Wide Shut and Michael Clayton. Word of Pollack’s illness first emerged last August when he dropped out of Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 presidential election that premiered a day before he died. (Jay Roach of Austin Powers replaced him.) Pollack had sworn off television the second the had enough clout to do so, after he won an Emmy for directing a Chrysler Theatre segment called “The Game” back in 1965. Recount would have been the first thing he directed for television in 43 years. Obituarists like me would be remarking about what a long path he’d taken to come full circle.
I wish I could say something positive about Pollack the man, who I found rather smug and standoffish during my only encounter with him, or about his movies. Pollack’s films tended to garner praise for their “adult” good taste and their classical, old-fashioned style. I thought they were banal and middlebrow, and that none of them excepting a few of the earliest ones did anything to stimulate the senses or the intellect.
But Pollack was an ideal episodic television director, and for a short time, a tremendously important one. Between 1961 and 1965, Pollack enjoyed a meteoric rise from assignments on a few journeyman westerns (Shotgun Slade and The Tall Man) through the top episodic dramas (Ben Casey, The Fugitive, The Defenders) and into the handful of remaining anthology hours (Kraft Suspense Theatre and the Chrysler Theatre, both shot on film, not staged live) still on the air in the mid-sixties. That wasn’t as unusual an accomplishment as it sounds. In television at that time, one tended to either get stuck in the episodic rut for a long haul, or make the leap to features quickly; ambitious young directors and their agents understood that the clock was ticking. Stuart Rosenberg, Elliot Silverstein, Robert Ellis Miller, and Mark Rydell were the Big Five along with Pollack who vied for the top TV jobs throughout the early sixties and then got their first important movies between 1965-1967; if one compares their television resumes, the chronologies and the shows that crop up look a lot alike. But Pollack was younger than any of them and among his contemporaries he may have the record for the smallest number of TV segments done before the pole-vault into the big leagues was achieved.
Pollack in a rare leading role (he began as an actor, but mostly in supporting parts) in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock Presents segment “The Contest of Aaron Gold”
And how does the early work stand up today? Energetic, inventive, youthful, far livelier than the most TV episodes of the time, but notably devoid of personality. The shows are kid-in-a-candy-store exercises in technique, all tracking pull-backs and crane shots, most of it just restrained enough to complement the material rather than overwhelm it. Pollack’s Cain’s Hundreds and “The Black Curtain,” a flavorful, seedy Cornell Woolrich adaptation for The Alfred Hitchock Hour, are experiments in noir lighting and composition, deliberate studies in a particular style.
The film critic Scott Foundas, one of the few to write about Pollack’s TV period, describes a “dazzling … cubistic montage of bustling street scenes to suggest the disorientation felt by a timid Native American boy ill at ease in the big city” in the Ben Casey “For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses.” “Karina,” a Frontier Circus, begins with an abstraction, a harlequin against blackness, walking straight into the camera. A moment later a shot of Elizabeth Montgomery’s gartered legs glimpsed in a crystal ball ripple-dissolves into the real thing. Then a shot of her as a black-clad wraith, cape swirling, running into and over the camera. That’s all in the teaser – and everything after the opening titles is routine. These sound like gratuitous, indulgent flourishes wedged incongruously between whole acts of standard rhythmic shot-reverse shot framing that Pollack couldn’t vary and keep to his tight production schedule – and that’s exactly what they are. But the truth is that so much of television looks so monotonous, one tends to take the visual pleasures where they come without dwelling too much on how unmotivated or immature they might be.
Since Pollack was working on the best TV shows in Los Angeles, the material was very good – the writers Pollack worked with, Howard Rodman and Stirling Silliphant and S. Lee Pogostin, put more of a personal stamp on the episodes than he did – and so were the performers hired to guest-star. That was Pollack’s saving grace: he was good with actors. “King of the Mountain,” a Cain’s Hundred, is a fine three-character piece with Edward Andrews as a corrupt cornpone bigwig and Nashville‘s Barbara Baxley as his sullen, suffering wife. Robert Duvall, not always his subtle, reliable self this soon, has key early roles in that segment as a crooked, slow-moving sheriff’s deputy who finds the buried vestiges of his decency, and in Pollack’s Arrest and Trial (Rodman’s “The Quality of Justice”) as a child killer. There are delicious riffs from Pat Hingle as a smiling, straight-out-of-Jim Thompson psycho lawman (Cain’s Hundred‘s “The Fixer”) and a Vegas high-roller in a string tie (Kraft‘s “The Name of the Game”); and Cliff Robertson, going from broken-down fighter pilot on Ben Casey (“For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses”) to a compulsive gambler on the Chrysler Theatre (“The Game”). And, of course, there’s “A Cardinal Act of Mercy,” the Ben Casey tour de force in which Pollack coaxed perhaps the finest of Kim Stanley’s few recorded performances out of the fragile actress. She won an Emmy. Already Pollack was forming, not a stock company of character actors, but a model in miniature of the succession of crucial star relationships (with Robert Redford, famously, but also Jane Fonda and others) that would drive his movie career.
Dutch angles, not dated at all: Piper Laurie in “Something About Lee Wiley”
As one of the top-of-the-heap young directors, Pollack enjoyed a certain amount of control over the material he worked on, a considerable rarity. It was during the anthology period that he first connected with David Rayfiel, later the most important of his screenwriters, and I’m guessing that Rayfiel’s TV scripts for Pollack bear the director’s clearest thumbprint out of all his small-screen work. “Something For Lee Wiley,” a lush twenties melodrama about a female singer blinded in a riding accident, was a 1963 Chrysler with a terrific star turn by Piper Laurie and some gorgeous color photography (Pollack’s first). Foundas wrote that its “air of dreamy fatalism and a jagged use of flashbacks . . . directly anticipates They Shoot Horses Don’t They?“ That gets at another influence that Pollack’s work begins to show around this time, an influx of dutch angles, freeze frames, interpolated stills, and tricky edits. Perhaps Pollack merits another award: as the director who imported the biggest undigested European New Wave influence into sixties television. The obvious contemporaneous reference point is Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the mid-sixties American cinema’s boldest attempt to grapple with the New Wave form in the raw; Pollack’s most avant-garde TV efforts hold the same fascination as the Penn film, more fascinating objects than real successes. Oh, and there’s the jazz music, another New Wave signpost that Pollack appropriated with as much constancy as possible in episodic TV: “Lee Wiley” was scored by Benny Carter, “The Watchman” (the second Rayfiel script, for Kraft) by Lalo Schifrin. Early harbingers of the inexcusable Dave Grusin muzak to come.
The Pollack-Rayfiel collaboration curdled on “The Watchman,” a talky, pseudo-existential mess that limned the thirty-year relationship between a Spanish guerrilla (Telly Savalas), his Boswell (Jack Warden), and the woman they shared (Victoria Shaw). Pollack pulled off some stunning beauty shots, stumbled over a clumsy expository gimmick (Warden addresses a psychiatrist who remains off-camera), and emphasized the romance between Warden and Shaw. It was the same trick he would fall back on in The Way We Were: duck the half-baked ideas in the script and pour on the emotion.
(There’s at least one more Pollack-Rayfiel effort, an unsold pilot called “The Fliers,” starring John Cassavetes, that I’ve been unable to see.)
Pollack would’ve blanched at my assessment of his film career; he disowned his early films, like the earnest, urgent The Slender Thread, and most especially his TV work. I can guess why: he probably felt there were too many camera moves, too many crude cuts, in comparison to the smooth style of his features. In his book Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley, Jon Krampner got some good, specific quotes from Pollack about that Ben Casey segment, so the memories were there if Pollack chose to dredge them up. But in virtually every other interview I’ve read, when he was asked about his TV work, Pollack copped a superior attitude, putting down both the shows and his own contributions to them. Which is fine if you’re, say, Robert Altman and your style really did evolve into something revolutionary; conversely, if your career has instead yielded sentimental, brain-rotting slop like The Way We Were (which is the blacklist rendered as a Hallmark card) and Out of Africa, then curt dismissals of the rambunctious, promising early impulses might be taken as snooty and ungracious.
I don’t make that comparison arbitrarily, for Altman was another contemporary of Pollack’s who moved up from TV into features in the late sixties. Altman worked on Kraft Suspense Theatre, too – got fired off it, actually; he had a hard head and his ten-year trudge through TV had a lot more detours and tangents than Pollack’s. Altman’s TV segments are eccentric, personal, audacious, while Pollack’s are clever, imitative, pretentious, and ultimately writer- and actor-centric. You can see the blueprint for their film careers right there in the television resumes. Altman, for what it’s worth, seemed to cherish his TV work in his later years, took pride in it alongside his films (almost to a comic extent, considering how powerful some of those are), even recorded audio commentaries for DVDs of his Combat episodes.
In mid-1965, Pollack directed “The Game,” a Chrysler Theatre which was, like his earlier Kraft piece “The Name of the Game,” a taut, claustrophobic gambling story set entirely within the interior of a casino. It’s a remarkable work that I’ll write about in another context later. Even before “The Game” won him an Emmy the following year, Pollack had run into some sort of conflict with the suits at Universal and turned the final editing over to his writer, S. Lee Pogostin. The statue clenched Pollack’s ability to flip the bird to TV for good (he’d already finished The Slender Thread). Robert Altman’s exit from TV came around the same time, when he told Variety that Kraft’s Suspense Theatre was as bland as its cheese (it wasn’t, but no matter) and necessarily had to clean out his office at that enterprise; it was a long winter before MASH. Pollack wafted out of TV on the golden wings of his Emmy. He was 31 – the same age I am now.
Jack Warden (note how skillfully Pollack integrates his shock of red hair into the mise-en-scene) and Telly Savalas in “The Watchman”