May 24, 2012
For “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” one of the two Play of the Week dramas I wrote about earlier this week, producer Henry T. Weinstein and his casting director, Marc Merson, assembled something of an all-star repertory cast for the umbrella show’s three segments. Gertrude Berg, creator and star of The Goldbergs, starred in the last and longest of them, “The High School,” and a number of blacklisted actors made up the company that appeared in two or three: Zero Mostel, Lee Grant, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, and Henry Lascoe. Another blacklistee, Sam Levene, was the on-screen narrator, and Charlotte Rae, a stage actress some years away from television fame in Car 54, Where Are You? and The Facts of Life, flits through the piece in small parts (literally; she’s an angel hanging from wires in the opener, “A Tale of Chelm”).
Then there’s the fellow who plays the character at the center of “The High School,” the teenaged son of Berg and Carnovsky. He was too old for the part (twenty-nine playing fifteen), but this young actor had a memorable face and held his own in scenes opposite the forceful Berg. The man’s name was Conrad Josephs, and he this was to be his only substantial television or film role. He seemed to disappear completely after “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
Of course, that’s not the whole story.
In fact, “Conrad Josephs” was a pseudonym for Conrad Bromberg, the son of the character actor J. Edward Bromberg. The elder Bromberg was a Group Theatre alumnus who appeared in films including The Mark of Zorro and Strange Cargo, but he may be best known as one of the symbolic tragedies of the blacklist; he died of a heart attack a year after refusing to answer HUAC’s questions. Lee Grant has always said that her own stint on the blacklist began when she was observed in attendance at Bromberg’s funeral.
Conrad Bromberg gave up acting soon after “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and became a writer, perhaps best known for his play Dream of a Blacklisted Actor. Recently, I spoke with Bromberg about his memories of making “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
So why the pseudonym? Were afraid that you might be blacklisted by association?
I changed my name because my old man got blacklisted on TV, and I didn’t want to walk around with that kind of curse. It was a reverse thing. I was an actor at the time, and if I went in as Conrad Bromberg, all the producers would say, “Oh, Conrad, it’s so good to see you, I feel so bad about your dad, and I knew him so well. We did this show, and anything I can do for you, I’d love to do….”
The minute I walked out the door, they didn’t do anything, and they didn’t want to know and they gave me the cold shoulder. Their guilt was so deep they just didn’t want to see me, basically. I reminded them of what they hadn’t done during the blacklist time.So I figured I’d change my name and go in as a totally unrelated person.
What do you remember about Don Richardson, the director of the show?
Nice guy. He was very friendly and efficient, and he was always very prepared. I had played the part on the road in Howard Da Silva’s production, in Los Angeles and in Canada and around, so I kind of knew it. And there wasn’t much staging for my part. It wasn’t made a big thing out of. Morris and I knew each other, and Gertrude Berg came and we just rehearsed a couple of times. We all called her Molly. She was known that way, because of the character she played [on The Goldbergs].
Don mainly, as I understand it, the main thing he did, because I think we shot three-camera, was his camera work. That’s what he was hired to do – he was a live television director, not so much an actor’s director, but “I need you to stand here because I’m going to cover you with Camera Two.” That kind of thing.
Da Silva had acted in the 1954 New York debut of The World of Sholom Aleichem, along with Yiddish theater star Jacob Ben Ami and blacklistees Anne Revere and Cliff Carpenter. Along with Ben Ami, the touring company originally comprised Carnovsky, Will Lee, Phoebe Brand, Gilbert Green, and Herschel Bernardi (all blacklistees). The company evolved as it went around the country (a young and very un-Jewish Dick O’Neill appeared in the Washington production), and by the time Conrad Bromberg joined he was performing alongside Gerald Hiken, Sarah Cunningham, and the blacklisted John Randolph, with Da Silva directing but not acting.
Did you change your approach from the stage version?
No. Because we shot it live because it was a stage show. We didn’t have things like close-ups or two-shots.
What do you remember about Howard Da Silva? After the blacklist, of course, he became a welcome presence in many films and television shows.
Howard and I were friends for a long time. He was a very warm, giving kind of a guy. A better actor than a lot of people thought. They kind of pigeonholed him in Hollywood as the gangster or the tough guy or the bartender. He could do an awful lot of stuff, and once he left the theater and went to Hollywood, they pigeonholed him there. And then of course the blacklist came along and stopped his career.
Bromberg later collaborated with Da Silva and Alfred Drake, who had appeared together (as Jud and Curly, respectively) in the original 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma!, on an unsold pitch for a television series about a crime-solving psychoanalist. Drake was to have starred in the show, with Da Silva directing and Bromberg writing.
Had you had any experience in live television prior to “The World of Sholom Aleichem”?
I had done walk-ons when I was an acting student, on things like Big Story, T-Men in Action. It was a quick way to pick up fifty bucks.
And of course Arnold Perl, who wrote “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” was the story editor on both of those shows. Did you know him then?
Yes. Arnold was a very wry, kind of cool, friendly guy. I knew he had been blacklisted. He was kind of an intermediate generation between my father’s generation and mine. When I was 25, my guess is Arnold was 40. There were writers who were part of the blacklisted generation who were younger than the Group Theater people but young enough to have gotten caught up in that whole mess, and Arnold was one.
I remember thinking at the time that he died: Well, Arnold, they finally took the cigarette out of your mouth.
He was a heavy smoker?
Constant. And his wife, Nancy, was always at him about it. And this was before anybody knew that cigarettes did that. And I smoked at the time too, but nobody smoked like Arnold.
May 21, 2012
Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas. It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.
Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties. Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent. The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche. Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.
Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema). Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties. But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television. But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist. Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years. Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production. (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.) The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.
Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.
Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined. Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control. “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable. The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym. (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)
As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat. Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.” By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all. Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role. An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.
If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation. Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good. Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater. His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story. (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)
“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot. Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.” Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism. It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.
Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements. There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.” When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world. Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison. The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.
Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural. The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.” The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous. Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls. Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later. Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here? It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.
Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.” Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God). But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated. “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.
Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion. While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances. Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.
The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing. (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances). The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre. In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.
Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career. The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking. They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin. (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.) The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor. The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear. Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action. Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.
If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere. As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.” The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.
The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles. Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews. The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic. Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.
May 8, 2012
Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives. Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication. The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls. (If only….)
Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins. The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:
In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party. He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.
It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.
Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer. With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience. The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.
Roy Huggins was also a fink.
On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party. He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.
Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked. Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).
And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant. HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming. Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone. Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here). But, in the end, the House won.
It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again. Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC. In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”
The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success. The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist. Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood. Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.
So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order. In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.” He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952. Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so). Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these. It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.
Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare. In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist. (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty; a few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)
It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong. For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection. This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists. If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment. Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors? Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist. Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?
And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week. As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public. I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.
Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.
September 19, 2011
David Pressman, a victim of the blacklist who directed dramatic television for nearly fifty years, died on August 29 at the age of 97.
Pressman had a fractured career. A distinguished background as an actor and teacher in the theatre, including a long period as Sanford Meisner’s right-hand man at the Neighborhood Playhouse, led naturally to work as a director in the early days of the dramatic anthologies. His debut came in 1948 on Actors Studio, a show that benefitted from its (nebulous) association with the exciting new acting school of the moment, and won a Peabody. From there Pressman moved on to some other forgotten dramatic half-hours (including The Nash Airflyte Theatre, pictured above, for which Pressman discovered an unknown Grace Kelly) and then the summer edition of Studio One.
But the door slammed shut in 1952, when CBS reneged on a longterm contract after it learned of Pressman’s leftist past and the director refused to issue a public apologia, as Elia Kazan had just done. The CBS lawyer who put forth this ultimatum was named Joseph Ream, and as Pressman laughed years later, “he gave me the ream!”
David Pressman (speaking into the microphone at right) in the control room of Actors Studio. Photo courtesy Michael Pressman.
Pressman survived the blacklist by teaching (his students at Boston University included John Cazale, Verna Bloom, and Olympia Dukakis) and then directing plays. After David Susskind hired him to direct a few small independent shows, the networks finally cleared Pressman in 1965, but the timing was lousy – he got in a Defenders and a Doctors and the Nurses before those, along most of the other serious dramas then on the air, were cancelled. Pressman moved on to nine episodes of N.Y.P.D., and in those he worked with some of the great soon-to-be stars of the next decade: Cazale, Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and, in the same episode, Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino.
But, barring a move to Los Angeles, soap operas were the only option, and after a short stint on Another World he settled in as the regular director of One Life to Live for twenty-eight years (surely a record, or close to it). He won three daytime Emmys. That’s an impressive accomplishment. But David’s son, Michael Pressman, has been an episodic director for the past two decades, moving among the top dramas of his time – Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Law and Order, Damages, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer – and it bears pointing out that, if not for the blacklist, David Pressman’s resume would probably comprise a list of the equivalents to those shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.
Fortunately, as was so often not the case with his contemporaries, the historians made good use of Pressman. The Archive of American Television and Syracuse University both recorded lengthy oral histories on video, and I made my own modest (and as yet unpublished) contribution when I visited Pressman and his lovely wife of sixty-some years, Sasha (who survives him), in 2004 and 2005. Diminutive, bald, and speaking in a comforting drawl, Pressman reminded me of a miniature Dean Jagger. He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.
I think my favorite moment in any interview I’ve ever done came during my first meeting with David. He told me this story of being persecuted for his political activities:
One day the doorbell rang and I opened the door and there was two FBI guys. They looked like caricatures. They said, “Do you want to talk to the committee?” Eugene [his son] was a baby, and Sasha came out and put the baby in my arms. They said, “Don’t you want to help your country fight communism?” I said, “I was in World War II. I was a wounded combat soldier.” They said, “Well, don’t you want to . . . .” Whatever it was. They talked to me. I said, “I’m doing what I can.” I don’t remember what I told them.
As he related this encounter, Pressman gestured vaguely toward the front door, and a shiver went down my back. “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are we sitting in the room where this actually happened?” Yes: fifty-odd years later we were in the same Central Park West apartment into which the Pressmans moved in 1949. Everything the Pressmans suffered during the blacklist – the strategy sessions for David’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a producer who fired him, the fretting over how to support three young children without any offers of work – I could look around and imagine all of it going on around me. As a historian, one learns things at a remove – in the reading room of an archive, in a retirement home a thousand miles away. This was as close as I’d come to actually being there.
It is, incidentally, shameful that Pressman – one of the few live TV directors who rarely, if ever, worked outside his beloved Manhattan – was passed over for a New York Times obituary.
More friends of this blog have left us: Kim Swados, who recalled his work as an art director on Studio One in this piece, died on August 30 at the age of 88. His daughter, Christina, who informed me of his death, has launched a website that will showcase her father’s work.
Actress Peggy Craven Lloyd died on August 30 at 98, after a long period of ill health. I only met her for about ten seconds once. But Peggy was married to one of my favorite people, Norman Lloyd, in whose company I spent two unforgettable afternoons. Norman is still going strong at 96 and I hope this doesn’t slow him down any.
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick cord of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
October 19, 2010
The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life. Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death. Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.
If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality. You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well. As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years. He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).
But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer. It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel. Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.
Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings. Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern. Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered. In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep. Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks. Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows. It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.
A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career. Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill. Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product. He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting. Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down. Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up.
In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow. Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him. I was not alone in this.” In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle. One of them was anything before yesterday. So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.” Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark. He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.
A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked. I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly. In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t. Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company. After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.
Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell. Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear). Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it. His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change. It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went. Had he been bipolar during his entire career? Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t. Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television? Because they were crazy.
In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib. (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry). James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling. It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.
(There’s another connection to Mad Men. Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)
James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.” No. Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories. There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance. There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies. There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop.
Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less. A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited. Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages. His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties. One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself. Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.” Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling? Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?
Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here. Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying. I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence. Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great. Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.
Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era. Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end. Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial. He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.
But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk. Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner. But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price. (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.) Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.
But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.” Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage. The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.
Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between. The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.
Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996. For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know. Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.
There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew. The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side. And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs. Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode. (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)
Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!). But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.
In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles). As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.” (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.) Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go. Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”
That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw. Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.
Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass. His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story. But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten. In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.
Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did. It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not. But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format? Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.
(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary. That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)
Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit? Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights. Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands. He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision. That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true. A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject. But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.
Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced. You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that. Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home. Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties. You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).
At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially. You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes. If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape. If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there.
After Allan Manings, a television comedy writer, died on May 12, the Los Angeles Times ran a medium-length obituary which offered an adequate summary of Manings’s career. The obit foregrounded some warm quotes from his stepdaughter, the actress Meredith Baxter, which I suspect would not have received as much prominence had Baxter not made news recently by revealing her homosexuality. What’s most interesting about Dennis McLellan’s piece in the Times, though, is what it left out.
Manings came to prominence late in life. In his mid-forties, he won an Emmy as part of the original writing staff of Laugh-In. In fact, according to an invaluable interview with Manings in Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to a Nation: A History of American Television Writing, Manings was the first writer sought out by Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, to work on the show. Manings served as a head writer on the popular sketch show for four seasons, and was thought of (in Schlatter’s words) as the “conscience of Laugh-In,” because he fought more aggressively than anyone else to include political material in the show’s gags. When all ten of Laugh-In’s writers crowded on stage to accept their Emmy in 1968, it was Manings who quipped, “I’m sorry we couldn’t all be here tonight.”
After Laugh-In, Manings became a part of Norman Lear’s expansive sitcom factory of the seventies, helping to develop Good Times in 1974 and co-creating One Day at a Time the following year. Manings wrote One Day at a Time with his wife, Whitney Blake (Baxter’s mother), and the pair derived the show’s original premise from Blake’s own experiences.
The earliest of Manings’s credits cited in the Times obituary is Leave It to Beaver. Manings wrote two episodes of Beaver during its final seasons, and didn’t particularly care for the show; he was already looking ahead to the more realistic humor of the Lear era. (I had thought for a long time that Manings was the last surviving Leave It to Beaver writer, but I realize now that that distinction probably belongs to Wilton Schiller, a writer better known for his work on dramatic series like The Fugitive and Mannix.)
Leave It to Beaver was also Manings’s comeback from the blacklist, and that’s the conspicuous omission from the Los Angeles Times obit. Manings had gotten started in television writing a “few sketches” (Stempel) for Your Show of Shows and then joined the staff of one of its successors, The Imogene Coca Show, along with his then-writing partner, Robert Van Scoyk. After a year or two, Manings’s agent tipped him off that he’d become a political sacrifice, and Manings took refuge in a novel place: Canada. (Although many blacklistees went to England, Mexico, France, or Spain in search of work, I can’t think any others of note who spent their lean years in Canada.) Manings may have found some work in live television there, but after a time he ended up working on a forty-acre horse farm. Manings sold manure to other local farmers and realized, as he related to Tom Stempel, that Hollywood would pay more for horse shit. As soon as the blacklist began to thaw, Manings moved to Los Angeles.
(A footnote: In his interview with Stempel, Manings identified Beaver as the show that ended his exile, although Manings’s papers reveal that Ichabod and Me, a dud sitcom created by Beaver producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, was probably his first post-blacklist credit, in 1961.)
Manings’s blacklisting is no secret, and I’m certainly not implying that some rightist conspiracy has suppressed the facts. Still, it’s curious that the Times steered so carefully around that portion of Manings’s biography. It seems doubtful that McLellan simply didn’t know about it, since his obit references Manings’s political activism more than once. There’s a quote from Lear about Manings’s commitment as a voter and a citizen, and Baxter describes him as “a very outspoken liberal.” Perhaps it’s just that the blacklist is old news these days, first to be sacrificed for length ahead of soft quotes from celebrities.
Ironically, in Stempel’s book, Manings chose to clam up about the blacklist, too. His only direct quote on the matter is: “I fronted for some, others fronted for me.” I’d always hoped for, but never got, a chance to press Manings further on the subject.
Last December, in this interview, Meredith Baxter discussed the reactions of some of her family members after she decided to come out of the closet. She mentioned her stepfather, although only by his first name, so I doubt that anyone realized (or cared) that she was talking about Allan Manings. But through her, Manings got in a marvelous last word.
“I went to Allan and I said, ‘I’m dating women,’” Baxter related. “And he said, ‘Hmm. So am I.’ And that was that.”
As long as this entry is getting filed under the Corrections Department, we may as well turn our attention to one David E. Durston, who also died this month. Durston is remembered mainly as the auteur behind the low-budget cult horror film I Drink Your Blood. I’ve never seen the movie, and I know little about Durston. Judging by his resume, as enumerated in this perhaps lengthier-than-deserved Hollywood Reporter obit, Durston seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.
Picking on the recently deceased is a joyless exercise, but in the interest of the historical record, I have to call foul on this claim, quoted from the Hollywood Reporter but repeated in substance by many other sources: “Durston wrote for such ground-breaking TV shows as Playhouse 90, Rheingold Playhouse, Tales of Tomorrow – one of the earliest science fiction anthology shows – Kraft Theatre, and Danger.”
Resume padding is common in the entertainment industry (and everywhere else), and in the pre-internet days you could get away with it for a long time. When I interviewed one prominent writer-producer of the sixties and seventies, I asked him about the Philco Television Playhouse, which had turned up on some lists of his credits. Somewhat embarrassed, the man admitted that he had never written for Philco. When he was young and struggling, Philco (the anthology on which Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” debuted) was the most prestigious credit a television writer could have, so he simply added it to his resume. In his case, the chutzpah paid off. I think Durston may have tried the same thing.
A writer named Stephen Thrower, who interviewed Durston at length, has compiled the most detailed list of Durston’s credits that I can find. Note how it remains vague about the big dramatic anthologies – Danger, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90. No dates, no episode titles.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Thrower’s resume for Durston lists four teleplays for Tales of Tomorrow, and three of those are confirmed in Alan Morton’s The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series (Other Worlds, 1997). A fourth, “The Evil Within,” is credited on-screen to another writer, Manya Starr. Then there’s the Rheingold Playhouse – or, actually, there isn’t, because there was no Rheingold Playhouse. Durston may have meant this production, “A Hit Is Made,” which seems to have been a one-time live broadcast, sponsored by Rheingold Beer and telecast from Chicago in 1951. A few years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., hosted a dramatic anthology called the Rheingold Theatre, and by christening the earlier show the “Rheingold Playhouse” Durston could have hoped to confuse it with the more impressive Fairbanks series.
It’s very difficult to verify credits from Danger or the Kraft Television Theatre. Many of the segments are lost. Often the credits would be dropped if an episode ran long, or the reviewers for the trades or the newspapers simply wouldn’t catch them as they watched the show live. But the records for Studio One are closer to complete, and I’m convinced that I have seen an accurate list of writing credits for the entire run of Playhouse 90. David Durston’s name is not among them. Moreover, Playhouse 90 was a Rolls Royce of a show, very self-conscious about its prestige. With rare exceptions, only established “name” writers were invited to contribute to Playhouse 90, and Durston would not have fit that description.
Of course, it is possible that Durston contributed to one of these shows without credit – but all of them? I could go on: this book offers a Durston bio with still more credits that look bogus, including, of all things, Hart to Hart, whose writers have been well-documented and do not seem to include Durston. But you get the idea. Entertainment news does not, and never has, received the same scrutiny by editors and fact checkers as “real” news. Much of the information that gets accepted as fact is just plain wrong.
(And if anyone out there can provide any solid facts about the David Durston credits I’ve disputed, by all means post them below.)
September 30, 2009
The best vintage TV artifact I’ve seen lately is “What Makes Sammy Run,” a two-part adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel. Shot on videotape for the prestige anthology Sunday Showcase in 1959, this version of “Sammy” was considered partially lost for decades, until the recent discovery of the second half at the Library of Congress. The complete show has now been released on DVD by Koch (which produced last year’s historic Studio One set), along with substantive extras detailing its production and rediscovery.
I’ve always thought that Schulberg’s novel has been somewhat overpraised. Schulberg was only twenty-seven when he published What Makes Sammy Run?, and his blunt prose style is sometimes grating. His characters never take on any life beyond whatever symbolic purpose Schulberg has for them, and the debt owed to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a heavy one. Still, in Sammy Glick, Schulberg created a pop-culture archetype. Was Sammy’s unapologetic avarice and boundless self-regard something new in 1941? I can’t answer that, but the name of Sammy Glick has been an all-too-useful shorthand for a certain aspect of our common character ever since.
Sunday Showcase cast a relative unknown, Larry Blyden, as Sammy. But the director, Delbert Mann, and the top-billed star, John Forsythe (two seasons into his run on the successful sitcom Bachelor Father), were big names. Blyden and Forsythe are both terrific, and their performances emphasize what I think is the most complex element of Schulberg’s novel. Forsythe’s character, Al Manheim, is a New York theater columnist-slash-playwright, and a flattering surrogate for the reader in his reactions to Sammy. Manheim is sophisticated, talented, introspective, and in every way Sammy’s moral and intellectual superior. But Glick surpasses or co-opts Al at every turn. That’s why Manheim becomes obsessed with the question that the novel’s title poses. Sammy, for his part, feels safe around Al because he poses no threat, and exempts him, to an extent, from his Machiavellian maneuvering. When Sammy more than once calls Al his “best friend,” he’s sincere – Al is the closest thing to a friend that a Sammy Glick can have – but for Manheim the phrase carries a bitter irony, because Sammy represents everything he despises. Centrally, Schulberg’s manifesto is that philistinism will always trump refinement. The message and the messenger may be elitist, but in a culture that gives us Fox News and reality shows, how can one not rally around Manheim’s point of view?
The TV “Sammy” opens and closes with an on-the-nose framing sequence, structured to make it clear that despite his own eventual success Al remains forever obsessed with Sammy. Apart from that, the teleplay, by Budd Schulberg and his brother Stuart, stays remarkably faithful to the source. Even elements of the novel that would have had to be excised for a feature film adaptation somehow escaped NBC’s censors. “Sammy” displays a sexual frankness far beyond anything I’ve seen in fifties television. Laurette Harrington, Sammy’s trophy bride, retains the sexual perversity that proves critical at the climax. There are a couple of shocking throwaway lines – one in which a starlet casually explains how she whored her way to the top, and another in which Sammy arranges a threesome – that add to the deliciously seamy atmosphere. The Sunday Showcase casting – Blyden, Norman Fell, Milton Selzer, David Opatoshu – also leaves little doubt as to the Jewishness of Schulberg’s characters, a touchy subject among critics (Sammy Glick has been called an anti-semitic caricature) and one that a film version would certainly have played down.
The only area where the TV “Sammy” goes soft is in its depiction of unionization. Schulberg’s book includes a thinly veiled chronicle of the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the Writers Guild of America), a bitter struggle that’s also the subject of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s excellent non-fiction account The Hollywood Writers Wars. In the novel, the Guild story vies with Sammy’s rise to power as the most significant storyline. The Schulbergs’ teleplay drops the matter entirely apart from briefly identifying Kit Sargent (the all-purpose leading lady, a Dorothy Parker-ish writer and love object for both Al and Sammy played by Barbara Rush) as one of the Guild’s founders.
I’ve never seen anyone else advance this idea, but it seems obvious to me that Kit Sargent is in part a version of Virginia “Jigee” Ray, Schulberg’s wife during the period when he wrote What Makes Sammy Run? Jigee, otherwise a forgotten figure, emerges as the heart and soul of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s book. A beautiful, confident, and sexually free-spirited young dancer and intellectual, Jigee led a Communist Party study group among the Hollywood movie crowd in the late thirties. Before (and perhaps after) she settled down with Schulberg, Jigee was courted actively by Milton Sperling and Ring Lardner, Jr., and less successfully by other notable writers. No less than seventeen of the men Schwartz interviewed for her book confessed to having been in love with Jigee, who appears as a character not only in Sammy but in Lardner’s The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, Arthur Laurents’s A Clearing in the Woods, and Irwin Shaw’s Two Weeks in Another Town. She may also have been partly the basis for the Barbara Streisand character in The Way We Were, written by Laurents.
Understandably, Schwartz became fascinated with Jigee, whose tragic (and all too literal) flameout can be seen as a perverse metaphor for the demise of the Hollywood progressive movement during the McCarthy period. After a marriage to another screenwriter, Peter Viertel, and an affair with Ernest Hemingway, Jigee became a desperate alcoholic and, like Schulberg, a fink for the House Un-American Activities Committee. She burned to death in 1960, after setting her nightgown on fire with a cigarette while drunk. It was only four months after Sunday Showcase broadcast its version of “Sammy,” and I wonder if Jigee tuned in.
In an interview for the DVD, Schulberg claims that he dropped the Guild story from his teleplay because it was less dramatic than Sammy’s scheming. That may be true. But I wonder if NBC, even as it turned a blind eye to the other adult elements of the show, balked at dramatizing the formation of a union that had been fingered (wrongly, of course) as a source of Soviet infiltration at a time when the blacklist was still in force. In the same interview, Schulberg finally confirms a rumor about which he had often been coy: that the producer Jerry Wald was his primary model for Glick. The other half of that legend, which Schulberg does not discuss, is that the relationship between Glick and his long-suffering ghostwriter Julian Blumberg derived from an incident of credit-stealing involving Wald and Julius Epstein (sometime before Epstein and his brother Philip wrote Casablanca and became top Hollywood writers). I mention this as a way of pointing out that, in Schulberg’s book, Sammy is not just a force of all-consuming evil. He represents a type of unfettered capitalism for which Schulberg offers organized labor as a solution. Dropping the Guild angle removes “Sammy” from its political context and, I think, weakens its impact.
One other curious flaw in the TV “Sammy” may derive from its union-phobia; at least, I can’t conceive of any other explanation for it. For television, the Schulbergs opted to update the novel to the then-present day – but only partially. The fashions are pure fifties, Tennessee Williams gets name-checked as the hot ticket on Broadway, and Monique Van Vooren’s trampy starlet character Zizi Molnari (not in the book, as I recall) is a rather cheap and ungentlemanly burlesque of Zsa Zsa Gabor. But the plot retains elements that only make sense in the thirties: Sammy’s journalistic success as a radio columnist (hardly a beat for an up-and-comer by the fifties, although making Sammy a TV reviewer would have made a lovely irony); the importing by the bushel of reporters and playwrights to write for the talkies; the Golden Age backdrop of movie studios led by all-powerful moguls, as yet unchecked by the threat of television; and of course the lowly status of pre-unionized writers. The agent Sammy cold-calls to launch his Hollywood career is still Myron Selznick, who died in 1944, just before Williams’ first stage success. So the TV “Sammy” plays out in a weird and factually impossible netherworld of both pre- and post-war Hollywood.
My favorite moment in Larry Blyden’s career-making performance – even in his game-show host phase, he played variations on Sammy for the rest of his life – occurs when Sammy eavesdrops on Al and Kit during a phone call he has set up to bring the estranged lovers back together. “They’re puttin’ the knock on me,” he coos. “I love it!” Blyden understands Sammy’s absence of shame; he’s as uninhibited as the character. The irony is that by today’s standards Schulberg’s “Sammy,” like Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, doesn’t go far enough. Sammy experiences a downfall, of sorts, at the end, when his shiksa bride betrays him sexually. But Sammy’s vulnerability at the hands of this cruel blonde goddess seems characteristeric of a mid-century type of assimilation fantasy that’s now passé. A modern Sammy would be more likely to shrug off Laurette’s promiscuity, or else join in. Nothing would phase him.
“Sammy Glick kind of won the debate,” Schulberg admits in the DVD interview, which was recorded ten months before his death in August. Schulberg’s most potent line occurs in the epilogue to “Sammy,” and appropriately, it’s Sammy who says it: “Sure, Al, . . . but what about the other question? The real question? What makes you, and you, and all the rest of you, run after me?”
June 26, 2008
The writer Eliot Asinof died on June 10. He was best known for his books about sports, both fiction and non-fiction, and in particular Eight Men Out, which documented the Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred in 1919, the year of Asinof’s birth. Asinof was also a television writer active during the days of live television dramas.
I’m late weighing in on Asinof’s passing, but I wanted to comment on a couple of intriguing aspects of his career that were overlooked by the obituaries. Asinof was blacklisted during the Red scare of the fifties, a fact I did not know until this month, and one which may account for the paucity of known television credits on his resume.
Asinof also had a connection to the blacklist that was not noted by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times obits, or any others I read. Before he was himself blacklisted, Asinof acted as a front for at least one other blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein. A “front” was someone who, in essence, impersonated a writer who could not work under his own name. The front presented the blacklisted writer’s work as his own, in many cases even participating in story conferences and rehearsals. This elaborate ruse became necessary after the television networks realized that many blacklisted writers were using pseudonyms and demanded that TV shows produce a real, live person to match any new names that appeared on scripts. Fronting was a thankless and potentially risky task, and it’s possible that it hastened Asinof’s own political troubles, although according to the New York Times Asinof’s FBI file indicated another, more fitting reason for his blacklisting: he had signed a petition on behalf of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Years later Walter Bernstein wrote one of the best books about the blacklist, a personal memoir called Inside Out. Bernstein identifies his fronts only by first name, although we know who most of them are; “Howard,” for instance, was the talented Naked City and Route 66 writer Howard Rodman. Asinof, then, is named only as “Eliot,” and Bernstein gives us a vivid portrait of him:
Eliot was God’s angry man, perpetually at war with the world’s injustice. He did not suffer fools gladly. He was capable of storming unannounced into an editor’s office and terrorizing the place. At times it seemed as though anger was what fueled him and gave him purpose . . . . It also made his life difficult. He could not fathom the difference between demurral and argument. There was a certain purity to Eliot, no capacity to dissemble, and that didn’t help either.
My only concern was that the second script [to bear Asinof's name] was for a producer who really was a fool and would require foolish script changes. Eliot had to go in as the writer to listen to this, and even though it was not his own script, his sense of injustice was boundless. It was a toss-up whether he would simply, if colorfully denounce the producer for what he was (not just for what he was doing) or just hold him out the window until he saw the error of his ways. Fortunately Eliot did neither of these and the shows went on without incident . . . .
Because Asinof was a writer himself as well as a front for Bernstein, it’s difficult to sort out which of his credits belong to whom. The Goodyear Television Playhouse segment “Man on Spikes” was an adaptation of Asinof’s first novel, a baseball story, so we can assume that Asinof himself wrote that teleplay. On the other hand, we know that Bernstein was an uncredited presence on various David Susskind projects, including the prestigious DuPont Show of the Month – another of his fronts, a non-writer named Leslie Slote, received credit for several of those – so I would tend to put the Asinof-attributed “Body and Soul” episode, an adaptation of the 1947 Robert Rossen-Abraham Polonsky film with Ben Gazzara in the John Garfield role, into the Bernstein column. But “Body and Soul” was a boxing story, so perhaps Asinof the sportswriter made some contributions as well? And I have no idea if Asinof’s 1956 Climax script is really his, although I’d guess that it predates his association with Bernstein.
(During the seventies, Asinof prevailed in a legal battle with David Susskind over the latter’s planned television adaptation of Eight Men Out. Asinof wrote a book called Bleeding Between the Lines, now out of print, about the Susskind litigation.)
Asinof has an inconsequential credit on at least one episode of the anti-mob, Untouchables knockoff Cain’s Hundred; the credits of the 1961 “Markdown on a Man” segment read, “Teleplay by Eliot Asinof and Paul Monash; Story by Irving Elman and Paul Monash.” I had assumed, because this series falls after the worst of the blacklisting period, that this was an authentic Asinof script. Now I’m not so sure.
Cain’s Hundred was produced by Charles Russell, the legendary figure who had endangered his job with CBS by hiring Bernstein, Arnold Manoff, Abe Polonsky, and other blacklistees to write in secret for Danger and You Are There. Russell essentially created the front system. Asinof would have known him from New York too. But there’s a passage in Inside Out (on pages 242-243) in which Bernstein recounts a trip to Los Angeles with Manoff to help out their old friend Russell, who had moved west to produce an “adventure show” and was struggling with the assignment. Russell was drinking heavily, in conflict with his bosses, and saddled with crummy scripts. Inside Out doesn’t give the name of the show in question, but Bernstein writes that the “lead actor was a stiff.” That certainly describes Mark Richman, who played Nicholas Cain, but it could also apply to Gardner McKay, the star of Adventures in Paradise, which Russell produced briefly during the preceding TV season. Was Asinof another New York writer scooped up by Russell to patch up weak teleplays, or was he lending his name to cover Bernstein’s involvement as late as 1961?
The task of mapping Asinof’s blacklist-era credits gets even thornier. In the obituaries, Asinof’s son mentioned the westerns Wagon Train and Maverick as series for which Asinof wrote. I can’t be certain about Wagon Train, but Ed Robertson’s reliable Maverick: Legend of the West indicates that Asinof never received screen credit on an episode of Maverick. Are the obits in error? Did Asinof write for Maverick under a pseudonym? There are a handful of names among the Maverick credits that I can’t verify as real people, but it’s also possible Asinof sold the show an outline or a script that was never produced. Asinof was able to get some work, for himself and for Bernstein, under his own name throughout the height of the blacklist in television in the late fifties. But many lesser-known writers and actors were the victims of an incomplete blacklisting – they could get work at some networks and from some producers, but not others – and this may have been the case with Asinof.
One teleplay not mentioned in Asinof’s obituaries is almost certainly his own work, and deserves comment. It’s a 1964 episode of the college drama Channing entitled “Swing For the Moon” – a baseball story. Asinof’s dialogue is a little clunky, but the story of a promising young athlete (Charles Robinson) and the overbearing older brother (Ralph Meeker) who tries to quash his dreams of a ballplaying career has an emotional resonance.
An addendum: Various online sources indicate that Martin Balsam played inherited John Garfield’s Charlie Davis role in the Play of the Month version of “Body and Soul.” But after some checking I found evidence to support my conviction that it had to be Gazzara – Martin Balsam as a boxing champ is a bit of stretch, even by the sometimes imprecise standards of live TV. Gazzara may also have mentioned it in his autobiography In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, but if so I’ve already forgotten.
January 28, 2008
I’m extremely skeptical of the Internet Movie Database for a number of reasons, most of them basic conceptual flaws: the complete lack of sourcing for any of its information; its failure to designate entries which may be incomplete or unverified; its labyrinthine and opaque process for accepting (or ignoring) corrections; and its disinterest in consulting experts in lieu of accepting unpaid “submissions” by people who must, like the old joke about people who can’t get out of jury duty, have too much time on their hands and no productive outlet for their knowledge. But recently I noticed a practice that’s disturbing and wrong-headed even by the IMDb’s dubious standards. On the IMDb page for most major recent American films, the acronym (WGA) appears in parentheses next to the film’s writing credits. The “WGA” is clickable and leads to this page, which explains that since 1999 the Writers Guild of America “has been furnishing credits directly” to IMDb. Following that are a handy explanation of both the WGA’s jurisdiction (which extends to “USA-controlled live-action film and TV projects, produced . . . by studios or major independent producers,” i.e., signatories to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement – the same companies that are being struck by the Guild right now) and its rather intricate process for determining those credits.
However, buried in the next-to-last paragraph of this lengthy document is a crucial disclaimer:
The IMDb will not accept uncredited writers for titles with WGA-determined credits.
In other words, for the past nine years, the IMDb has been colluding with the Writers Guild of America to suppress critical information about how some movies were written.
I guess I should step back a moment and explain the WGA’s process for determining screen credits. It’s always been common, from the early days of the Hollywood studios up to the present day, for movies and TV shows to be written by committee – by a succession of different writers put on the project by a producer or director. In the 1930s, the studios treated writers as interchangeable and disposable; weird on-screen credits like “adaptation by” or “additional dialogue by” proliferated, and it wasn’t uncommon for an unscrupulous producer to steal the writer’s credit for himself (or a flunky or nephew). Outrage over these practices were part of what led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) in 1933. Wresting control of writers’ on-screen credits from the studios was a major victory for the nascent Guild.
Today the WGA has, in its own words, a “strong feeling against a multiplicity of credits” on a film. In other words, not every writer who contributes a few lines, or even certain major ideas, to a screenplay will receive credit. When multiple writers have taken a whack at a troubled screenplay, only those who contributed substantially to the finished film will be awarded credit. When a dispute arises, the matter goes to the WGA’s arbitration committee, a group of members who read all the drafts of the screenplay and issue a binding version of the final credits. The arbitration process is viewed by most in the industry as essentially honorable and fair – albeit responsible on occasion for a perplexingly bad call. In some cases even writers who “won” screen credit have opined publicly that they didn’t deserve it.
The problem is that while the WGA system might serve the interests of working writers, it’s counterproductive for historians. Those of us who write about movies need, very obviously, as much insight into the production history of a film as possible. If you’re writing about John Frankenheimer, for instance, you need to know that The Train was “really written” not by the credited team of Frank Davis and Franklin Coen, but by the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale.
As it happens, the IMDb doesn’t record that tidbit about The Train, but for older films it does often list uncredited contributors to the script. Its Ben Hur page, for instance, offers this breakdown of the film’s on-screen writing credits:
Lew Wallace (novel) (as General Lew Wallace)
Karl Tunberg (screenplay)
and then the following:
Maxwell Anderson uncredited and
Christopher Fry uncredited and
Gore Vidal uncredited
The names of the unacknowledged writers (and the prospect of analyzing their work on the film) are far more tantalizing than that of the journeyman, Karl Tunberg, who received sole screenplay credit. And that’s a relatively minor example. How could anyone hope to untangle the creation of The Wizard of Oz if its list of uncredited writers were unavailable? Again, a reproduction of the IMDb’s writing credits for the film:
L. Frank Baum (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”)
Noel Langley (screenplay) and
Florence Ryerson (screenplay) and
Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay)
Irving Brecher uncredited
William H. Cannon uncredited
Herbert Fields uncredited
Arthur Freed uncredited
Jack Haley additional dialogue (uncredited)
E.Y. Harburg uncredited
Samuel Hoffenstein uncredited
Bert Lahr additional dialogue (uncredited)
Noel Langley adaptation
John Lee Mahin uncredited
Herman J. Mankiewicz uncredited
Jack Mintz uncredited
Or, to approach it from the other direction, anyone writing a biography one of Hollywood’s legendary “script doctors” – first-rank screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bo Goldman, or Alvin Sargent who have earned much of their living by punching up high-profile screenplays without credit – will have a tough time of it. Such a figure’s involvement in a project is often a closely guarded secret, rarely reported in the press or the trades and disseminated only by word of mouth. The IMDb could and should function as a repository to collect this data.
Of course, uncredited script revisions are “facts” that lie outside of a film’s official history, and should as such be treated cautiously. And one of the IMDb’s major weaknesses is that one can’t evaluate the sources of its data; if, for instance, I managed to add Young’s and Dimsdale’s names to its page for The Train, you wouldn’t know that I gleaned their names from Frankenheimer himself, via his audio commentary on the DVD of the film.
Still, there’s nothing to stop the IMDb from adding Young and Dimsdale to their page for the The Train. But for any film made after 1999, that would be specifically forbidden.
How important is this matter? Essential, given that it’s still common practice for major blockbusters to be worked over by many (even dozens) of writers. If the Los Angeles Times considered it newsworthy that such well-known writers as Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl, and John Lee Hancock took a pass at the screenplay (if you can call it that) for Bad Boys 2, then it’s inexcusable that this reporting cannot be archived somewhere in the one place that is (for better or worse) everyone’s first stop for information about movies.
And, since this is a blog about classic television, consider what triggered my musings on the subject in the first place: the fact that Horton Foote wrote a draft of Denzel Washington’s new film The Great Debaters. Bad Boys 2 might provoke a scoff, but Foote is one of the most significant television writers and playwrights of his generation. Any project on which he labored, no matter how insignificantly or futilely, is of interest to historians. Foote’s participation in The Great Debaters is not recorded on the IMDb, nor will it ever be under the IMDb’s current policy.
It all reminds me of the cringeworthy conclusion to the Guild’s otherwise laudable project to restore the credits of blacklisted writers who worked under the table due to political oppression during McCarthy era. During the 1990s the WGA undertook a comprehensive review of movies known to have been written by blacklistees, and to restore those writers’ names to the official credits (credits that originally went to fronts or pseudonyms) in its records. The research was rigorous and conservative, and for all the credits it amended, the Guild reluctantly denied many that could not be substantiated.
A heroic effort. But then the WGA somehow convinced the major studios to physically alter the onscreen credits of many of the affected films. The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s title card “Screenplay by Pierre Boulle” – notorious because Boulle spoke no English – was optically or digitally changed to “Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman” on all new prints and home video editions. Not only was this historical revisionism at its most Orwellian, but in a savagely ironic way it contradicts the purpose of the Guild’s project. By effacing Boulle’s absurd screen credit, the Guild erased evidence of the bitter farce that was McCarthyism. (Plus, it was unnecessary: Why not simply add a new title card at the beginning or end of the film, with the names of the actual writers and an explanation of their initial omission, similar to the preservation credits appended to films that have undergone restoration?)
According to Craig Mazin, a Guild member whose blog contains the only other discussion of this issue I could find on the internet, the WGA pushed for its relationship with the IMDb as part of a general preference for keeping its arbitration backstories confidential. Fair enough. But why should the IMDb roll over for a special interest group whose goals run contrary to its own? All that’s admitted on its WGA page is that the Guild has now spared the IMDb staff the oh-so-arduous task of retrieving certain TV and movie credits from published sources. Hmmm . . . I wonder if there’s anything else the WGA might also have offered to secure the cooperation of the IMDb (or its corporate owner, Amazon.com)?
I don’t really expect any better than this from the Internet Movie Database, and I realize it’s ill-timed to bash the Writers Guild when it’s fighting for its relevance in a critical strike. But come on, WGA: you guys are my heroes, and you’re letting me down.