January 8, 2008
Checking in briefly to comment on a trio (they come in threes, you know) of deaths among the pioneers of the early days of television.
Bill Idelson, who died on December 31, was a radio and TV actor who transitioned into comedy writing in middle age. He had a juveline lead in an important radio show, Vic and Sade (note the quote in the LA Times from radio great Norman Corwin, still with it at 95), but I remember his recurring role as Rose Marie’s Oedipally-challenged suitor on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Idelson wrote a few Dick Van Dyke scripts and then, with collaborator Sam Bobrick, a slew of Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith Show scripts, including the classic “Goober Takes a Car Apart.” (Possibly the only Goober-centric episode I can tolerate.) Credits on a multitude of popular sitcoms followed, some written with Bobrick and others with a subsequent partner, Harvey Miller: The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, Love American Style, et cetera. I can’t figure out why these obits for comedy writers never mention their longtime collaborators: is it lazy research on the IMDb (where it’s hard to suss out writing teams within the credits), or posthumous credit-hogging in the families’ press releases?
Herbert B. Swope, Jr., son of the famous journalist, died January 4. He was one of the forgotten TV directors of the live era who never made any real inroads into filmed television or movies. I’m glad there’s an AP obit, but it garbles the chronology a bit. “Ottie” Swope directed or produced a lot of live TV in New York in the late ’40s and early ’50s, mostly for NBC: Lights Out, Robert Montgomery Presents, Armstrong Circle Theatre. Then he moved to L.A. to direct Climax out of CBS’ Television City complex in 1955, then quickly moved into a producing job at Fox, where he oversaw a batch of feature films. While at Fox Swope evidently produced some of their TV shows, including Five Fingers and The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis. (Fox’s burgeoning TV department had become a live TV elephant’s graveyard: this was during the same time that Playhouse 90‘s resident genius, Martin Manulis, was spinning his wheels as their head TV exec.) I don’t know what happened to Swope after the early ’60s; retired early to Florida, it appears, where I’m guessing all the TV historians neglected him. He was on my list, but I never made the call.
Finally, James Costigan died on December 19, but his body wasn’t found by neighbors until a week later. He’d been living on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he’d spent his last years as the neighborhood recluse. Costigan was a successful playwright who began his TV career writing for the usual live dramas (The Web, Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, The U.S. Steel Hour) before he settled in as the primary writer for the Hallmark Hall of Fame from about 1956-60, the period when it accrued much of its prestige. Costigan mostly wrote adaptations but also did the show’s first original script, “Little Moon of Alban,” an Irish rebellion drama that won enough acclaim to morph into a short-lived Broadway play. He also wrote John Frankenheimer’s live production of “The Turn of the Screw” for Ford Startime. During the ’70s Costigan wrote several award-winning movies of the week, including Eleanor and Franklin and Love Among the Ruins. He was nominated for five Emmys and won three.
I wasn’t surprised to read that Costigan died in seclusion; word of his elusiveness had gotten around. I hadn’t seen enough of Costigan’s work to get interested in taking up the search myself, but several people, including a former president of the Writers Guild, had reported to me their unsuccessful attempts to track Costigan down with the idea of recording some sort of oral history. I’ve gotten to know a few TV veterans who bailed on their Hollywood lives very definitively, and others who’ve shunned interviews, but Costigan was apparently in a league by himself. I’m guessing no one ever got to him, and we’ll have to speculate as to why he hid himself away.
UPDATED: The LA Times finds a niece and gets a good quote on Costigan from my friend Del Reisman.