July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more controversial. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently arrived on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.