Ben and Zal

February 4, 2012

Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time.  But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common.  Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity.  They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.

The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return.  Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain.  Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.

A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles.  It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life.  In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing.  He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man).  This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian.  Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story.  And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.

Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days.  Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories.  But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward.  The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture?  Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich.  In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack.  But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting.  “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.

Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate).  A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar.  The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”

A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”).  At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook.  It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer.  Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom.  King stole the show from him.  He was one of the most open actors of his generation.  As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show.  King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old.  Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure.  His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again.  Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.

The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face.  Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.

King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine).  Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve.  The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.

Back in April, the Criterion Collection released a welcome DVD of Sidney Lumet’s fourth feature, The Fugitive Kind.  An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1957 play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is an underrated work, an atmospheric movie wrapped around a searing performance from Marlon Brando (who would never interpret Williams on film again).

But the major rediscovery in this release is an “extra,” a one-hour live television drama called “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” which aired as a segment of The Kraft Theatre on April 16, 1958, and has so far as I know been unavailable outside of museums and archives ever since.  Last year Criterion released a box set of eight key live television dramas, which comprised canonical works like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and Rod Serling’s “Patterns.”  While it was delight to see these masterpieces in the limelight again, they had all been in circulation on cable and on videotape since the early eighties.  The arrival of “Three Plays” implies a commitment to plow a little deeper into the vaults and unearth some classic television that’s not only good but also rare.  I’m not sure that Criterion quite understood what they had in “Three Plays” (for one thing, they’ve managed to spell the name of one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, incorrectly on the DVD packaging)*, and most reviewers of the disc have either brushed past the television segment or failed to contextualize it accurately.  But all that matters is that it’s out there for all of us to discover on our own.

“Three Plays,” which appears in its entirety (except for the original commercial segments) in the Fugitive Kind release, comprises three one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams in the lean years before A Streetcar Named Desire established him as one of the essential American writers.  Apart from Williams, the connection between “Three Plays” and The Fugitive Kind is the director of both, Sidney Lumet, who had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language.  All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.

Between them, the three one-acts encapsulate many of Williams’s recognizable motifs in an undiluted form: the naked emotionalism, the fragile female psyches, the decaying grandeur of the Old South, the complex depiction of nostalgia, and what Lumet calls “the destruction of our sensitive souls.”  They’re an essential corollary for anyone who ranks the best cinematic adaptations of Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana) among the most vital of American movies during the fifties and early sixties. 

“Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” opens the hour, either because it was the earliest of the plays chronologically, or because it features the cast’s only marquee names: the graylisted Lee Grant and Gazzara, who had originated the role of Brick in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Contemporary reviewers scolded Gazzara for overacting, and in “Moony” he does revel in full-on torn-shirt mode.  The layer of self-conscious cool that would be an element in his great performances (in the films for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich) is nowhere in sight here, even though Gazzara had it down as early as Anatomy of a Murder, only a year later.  “Moony” is bait for Method-haters, two sweaty people screeching at each other in a squalid room without pause, and if the exercise succeeds it’s because Lumet positions the excess of Moony’s and his wife’s outbursts as the prelude to a single, gentle gesture at the finale.

“The Last of the Solid Gold Watches” is the weakest of the trio, a kind of get-off-my-lawn harangue delivered by Broadway actor Thomas Chalmers with a somber dignity that drags against the youthful vitality of the surrounding performances.  Zina Bethune, only thirteen at the time, offers the best performance in “Three Plays,” as the grotesquely-dressed Willie Starr, who lives in the ruins of her family home and clings to the treasured memory of her deceased older sister Alva.  The technical limitations of live television catch up with “This Property Is Condemned,” in that Bethune speaks so fast and so breathily that some of Williams’s dialogue can’t be caught by the studio microphone.  Still, Lumet gets the point across, gradually peeling off the layers of Willie’s monologue to reveal her as an unreliable narrator and a forlorn and tragic figure. 

It’s useful to compare Lumet’s succinct vignette to the wreck of a movie directed by Sydney Pollack, which bears the title This Property Is Condemned but deviates from Williams’s material to personify the unseen Alva in the form of Natalie Wood.  The Willie Starr scene dramatized in “Three Plays” becomes an expository prologue, sandwiched in the middle of the opening credits.  Pollack’s staging of that scene, along a curve in a defunct railroad track, resembles Lumet’s, despite the contrast between the film’s sunny outdoor location and the TV production’s cramped interior set.  I suspect that Pollack had seen the Kraft Theatre, and he may have understood that even this bastardized remnant of Williams’s play was better than any subsequent scene in his film.  Mary Badham, Pollack’s Willie Starr, is more hardened and less vulnerable than Bethune, so we have a record of two different and, I think, equally valid approaches to the character.

*

“To live is to change, to change is to live,” says Tennessee Williams, in his live, on-camera introduction to “Three Plays.”  Understandably, Williams takes care to label these short works as early efforts, perhaps not up to the level of the famous plays and films for which viewers would know him.  He also seems nervous, stepping on the announcer’s intro with his first line and often looking upward at his cue cards.  How did the Kraft Theatre land both Williams and his trio of short plays for this broadcast?  The answer involves some television heavyweights, and much change of the sort to which Williams alludes.

Williams was a hot literary commodity in 1958, with a decade of important plays and movies to his credit and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, due in theaters in the fall.  But Williams’s plays were dense, and too adult to be a natural fit for television.  Even in the “Three Plays,” which have little overt sexual content, it’s surprising that the suggestion of Willie’s casual promiscuity comes through so clearly.  The person who fought to bring “Three Plays” to television without a great deal of censorship or simplification seems to have been Robert Herridge, one of the great forgotten producers of the live era.

Herridge had passed briefly through prime time, with a summer stint on Studio One – summer was when the heavyweight TV producers fled sweltering Manhattan and let the “B” team take over for thirteen weeks.  But he was known mainly for non-commercial programming that ran in the Sunday “cultural ghetto,” minimalist dramas that echoed the style of avant-garde theater and documentaries showcasing the jazz and folk music for which Herridge had a passion.  (Camera Three, The Seven Lively Arts, and The Robert Herridge Theatre were some of the umbrella titles for Herridge’s programs.)  On Kraft he was subordinate to David Susskind, a talent agent who had become a big wheel in the industry as a “packager” of television properties.

With live drama, and its own Television Theatre hour (which dated back to 1947), in their death throes, Kraft took a chance on bringing in a big wheel like Susskind.  Someone, either Susskind or Kraft or Herridge, hatched the idea of adapting a series of important modern literary works on the KraftTheatre.  The idea was to attract more talent, more publicity, more viewers than the usual Kraft fare of original, written-for-television dramas.  These shows kicked of with “Three Plays” and also included “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” and a two-part, Don Mankiewicz-scripted version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that Herridge partisan Nat Hentoff deemed “a far more seizing transformation of the book than Robert Rossen’s screen version.”  Sidney Lumet, who had just been nominated for the Oscar for Twelve Angry Men and had his pick of television assignments, signed on to direct “Three Plays” and “All the King’s Men.”

Susskind, remembered today as a defender of quality television, was no philistine.  He launched East Side / West Side and brought a number of other difficult plays and novels to television on the DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week.  But Herridge was too far out for Susskind, who called him a “kook” and carped that Herridge “tried to substitute nonconformity of dress for talent.”  Herridge earned Susskind’s lasting enmity by shouldering the senior producer aside on the Kraft shows, literally barring Susskind from some of the rehearsals.  Susskind’s staffers Jacqueline Babbin and Audrey Gellen, who worked on the DuPont Show and Play of the Week adaptations (sometimes fronting for blacklisted writers), are credited on “Three Plays” as story editors.  But I would guess that whatever changes were made to Williams’s text were done by Herridge, or by Williams himself with Herridge’s input.

(Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz, late of Studio One, also appears in the credits of “Three Plays,” as an associate producer.  I have no idea whether he was attached to Susskind, Herridge, Kraft, or NBC at that point.)

What’s fascinating about Kraft’s experiment in literature is how short-lived it was.  Susskind and Herridge may have produced as few as a half-dozen segments for Kraft, which morphed into the Kraft Mystery Theatre for the summer and dropped from high- to low-brow with adaptations of pulpy short stories (including a couple of Ed McBain’s early 87th Precinct tales).  In October of 1958, The Kraft Theatre went off the air for good.

I’d love to see Criterion follow up this release with a package of the other Susskind-produced Krafts, which survive.  But to be honest, what I’d like even more is a collection of the lesser-known original dramas from the year or two preceding the Susskind shows.  These were teleplays written by some of the finest writers of the late-live television era: James Leo Herlihy, James Lee Barrett, John Gay, Paul Monash, Will Lorin, David Davidson, Robert Crean, Richard DeRoy, Robert Van Scoyk, Alfred Brenner.  Larry Cohen, only twenty and still in the army, contributed some of the Mystery scripts, and even Jack Klugman (yes, that Jack Klugman) wrote a couple.  I’ll bet an audit of those kinescopes would yield some fine, forgotten work.

Tennessee Williams, television host.

* Update, 6/24/2010: The original version of this piece also noted the misspelling of Gazzara’s name on the Criterion website, which was corrected shortly after publication.  Notes on sources: Sidney Lumet quote is from a video interview on the Fugitive Kind DVD; Nat Hentoff quote and some of the Robert Herridge background are from “A TV Exclusive! The Passion of Huckleberry Dracula,” collected in The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001).

Arrest and Trial

June 4, 2008

Debuting today on the website is the last of the dispatches from the archives that got killfiled when the late, lamented Television Chronicles magazine received its cancellation notice back in 1998.  It’s a lengthy production history and critique of the hybrid 1963-64 police procedural-slash-courtroom drama Arrest and Trial, now remembered mainly as a footnote in TV history due to its structural resemblance to Law & Order.

As a footnote is arguably how Arrest and Trial should be remembered.  It’s not a classic on the order of East Side/West Side or The Invaders.  When I took on the show, it was on the assumption that its blatant emulation of elements of Naked City (in the arrest half) and The Defenders (in the trial half) would mean it might rank alongside them.  As I actually watched and wrote about Arrest and Trial, I realized that the attempt to combine the disparate virtues of those two classics had created something of a misshapen mess – and I wondered if the series was worth the amount of time and the number of words I’d devoted to it.  But as Timeless Media began releasing Arrest and Trial on DVD last fall, it seemed like a good time for me (and perhaps my readers) to reconsider the series. 

In polishing the piece a bit and revisiting some of the episodes, I’ve been reminded of the virtues that do make Arrest and Trial eminently watchable.  Ben Gazzara was one of the most inventive actors of his generation, with an intimate technique well-suited to the small screen.  The show’s sizable budget permitted more location shooting than just about any other Universal TV production ever managed, and so Arrest and Trial offers a terrific tour of 1963 Los Angeles.  (And as I know the city better now than I did ten years ago, I’d love to have time to watch the episodes again just to try to figure out where each one was filmed.  If anyone Angelenos who are seeing the show on DVD care to, I hope they’ll post some notes along those lines in the comments here.) 

I was also struck by how Arrest and Trial‘s image of law enforcement is so far removed from both our actual and fictionally represented experiences that it’s like something beamed in from another planet.  The Civil Rights-era plainclothes detective (played by Gazzara) who heads up the first half of Arrest and Trial is not just soft-spoken and empathetic – the kind of guy whose shoulder you just want to lean your head on – he’s also a frank advocate of the policeman as social worker and psychiatrist instead of head-buster.  You can imagine how real-life cops of the twenty-first century would guffaw if they somehow found this program in their Netflix queues.  Today our police have dropped all pretense of having a relationship with civilians that’s anything but adversarial – and our cop shows and cop movies, both those that demonize and even those that glorify the police, get a visceral charge in depicting the collateral damage that their subjects inflict on anyone unlucky enough to get between a cop’s foot and an ass that needs kicking.  I live in a city where the police department has enacted blatantly unconstitutional policies against its citizens, over and over again, and been rewarded not with censure but with municipal and judicial approval.  So seeing Arrest and Trial again after ten years moved me unexpectedly.  It was a reminder of one way in which we’ve lost our way since the sixties.  Or, if that’s too naive, it’s a depiction of a civic ideal that we might never have had – but that we should still be trying for.

To date Timeless Media has released two DVD collections of Arrest and Trial, containing 18 of the series’ 30 episodes.  Of the thirty, four episodes are essential: “Journey Into Darkness,” “Funny Man With a Monkey,” Sydney Pollack‘s “The Quality of Justice,” and “The Revenge of the Worm.”  Thus far only the first two are available among the DVDs, so one hopes a third volume will emerge.

If you make it all the way to the end, don’t neglect the episode guide, which contains a lot of wonky trivia – episode budgets, shooting dates, unused episode titles, uncredited writers and actors – gleaned from the series’ production files.

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