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.

Fall Obits

November 24, 2010

Regrettably, the obituary clipping pile has been mounting again.  As usual, I’m passing over comment on some well-known figures, like the dramatic director Lamont Johnson and Fox television executive William Self, in order to briefly mention some deaths which have been less widely reported.

Bill Bennington, who died on September 26 at the age of 96, was a live director who specialized in event and sports programming.  According to director John Rich, who was his assistant for a time in the early fifties, Bennington directed the first Academy Awards telecast and the unsuccessful attempt of English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim from the California coast to Catalina Island, both in 1952.  At the time, Bennington was a staff director for NBC’s West Coast operation, where he also directed for Betty White’s daytime variety show.  When ABC began broadcasting NCAA games in 1960, Roone Arledge hired Bennington away from NBC to be the primary director of the network’s football games.  According to sportswriter W.C. Heinz, it was Bennington who cut to the first crowd shot in a televised football game, during a 1952 broadcast of the Poinsettia Bowl.  (Bennington’s death was mentioned in the latest DGA Monthly, and confirmed via the Social Security Death Index.  I haven’t found an obit, even a paid one.)

Lloyd Gross was another live director, a CBS staffer who worked on many types of shows before getting pegged as a game show man.  He directed episodes of the live seriocomedy Mama, broadcasts of Perry Como’s and Mel Torme’s eponymous shows, and live coverage of early Miss America pageants and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades.  His game show resume included some of the most popular entries in that genre: Beat the Clock, Masquerade Party, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, and Supermarket Sweep, the 1965 hit that kept David Susskind’s high-toned Talent Associates production company afloat during lean times.  Gross died at 92 on October 16.

Michael N. Salamunovich was a veteran assistant director and production manager who died on October 23 at age 88.  As a staffer at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions, Salamunovich worked on nearly every series produced at that studio from the late fifties until its collapse in 1965: Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Rogues, Honey West, and so on.  I’ve transcribed the credits of hundreds of those shows, and Salamunovich always stood out for a silly reason: his name was so long that it forced whoever made up the credits to add an extra line to the regular template.  Salamunovich stayed in the business well past the usual retirement age: his last job was as the unit production manager on ER during its early seasons.

Michel Hugo was a tremendously prolific director of photography from the late sixties through the mid-nineties.  Born in France in 1930, he died in Las Vegas (where he taught at the University of Nevada) on October 30.  Hugo did long stints as the DP on Dynasty and Melrose Place, but his credits from his first decade or so in Hollywood contain a multitude of cult items: series (Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco), movies of the week (Thief, Earth II, The Night Stalker, The Morning After), and feature films (Head, Model Shop, R.P.M., The Phynx, One Is a Lonely Number, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Bug).  I’m going out on a limb here, just surveying the titles rather than going back to the video for a second look, but I’m going to suggest that Hugo may have been a practitioner of a specific look that I kind of miss: essentially realistic, proficient in the stylistic flourishes of the era (your lens flares and your rack focuses), but also unapologetically colorful and brightly lit enough to work on television. 

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I should also note that the links above to the paid death notices for Gross and Salamunovich will likely no longer be valid in a few days.  That’s because the paid obits for most major U.S. papers have been hijacked, in their on-line form, by an outfit called Legacy.com, which firewalls the obituaries (and reader comments) after thirty days unless someone pays to “sponsor” them.  This practice strikes me as rather crummy, to put it mildly . . . especially since I’m beginning to find evidence that the death notices are not even being stored in the electronic archives of the newspapers in which they appeared in print.

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