“I’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.” 

I guess he forgot the name of his own show. 

The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.  Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show.  Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were.  If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.

The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week.  Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look.  I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.

The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun.  He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently.  The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort. 

The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted.  It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story).  When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.”  Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot.  The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart.  In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner.  I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued. 

You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit.  Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.

The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit.  Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself.  Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.  But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired. 

If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state.  The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience.  “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.”  I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack.  But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest. 

Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son.  Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out.  Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.

Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all.  It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue.  The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s.  On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.”  I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter.  So what to do?  It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else.  Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.

There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way.  It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf.  But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format.  So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.

David Dortort (1916-2010)

September 9, 2010

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have quite properly noted the passing of David Dortort, a relatively minor fifties screenwriter who struck gold when he created the aptly-titled Bonanza in 1959.  Dortort died on September 5 at the age of 93.

Bonanza was a vastly popular hit of a kind that’s hard to fathom today.  It was probably the original “flyover show,” that is, a show that scores in the ratings and runs forever without ever earning the approval, or even the attention, of the cognoscenti.  The modern equivalent would be something like NCIS or According to Jim: series that win no awards and get mocked by the press but that obviously work as comfort food for a lot of people.

I remain largely averse to Bonanza.  I haven’t seen all that much of it, but the episodes I recall were banal in their storytelling and persistently flat and cheap-looking in their imagery.  (Which is ironic, and unfortunate, given that Bonanza was the first really important series to originate in color.)  The show got an official DVD release last year and I don’t think it provoked the same excitement of rediscovery that accompanied the digital debuts of Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel (several years ahead of Bonanza, incidentally, despite being in black and white and thus a harder sell). 

Bonanza seemed to get lazy not too long after its longevity was assured.  One of the key stories I’ve found about the show is in Ricardo Montalban’s interview with the Archive of American Television.  When Montalban guested on Bonanza, he was appalled by the stars’ clowning around and their refusal to participate in a serious rehearsal.  Montalban rounded up the actors and reamed them out for their unprofessionalism.  I don’t know if Montalban’s experience was typical, but it jibes with the aspect of Bonanza that I find unpleasant.  The on-screen adventures of Hoss and Adam and Little Joe are also exude a certain tiresome, adolescent self-regard, and if Montalban’s description was accurate, that tone may have originated with the cast.

I did try to interview Dortort for my oral history project, but between my tight schedules and his unreliable health we were never able to get together.  I got as far as compiling a file of pre-interview research, most of which has been covered in the obits for Dortort.  But I did learn a couple of obscure things that might be worth reporting here.  One is that NBC hired Dortort to head its feature film division in the late sixties.  That was a moment when the other television networks entered the theatrical distribution world with some brief success – ABC released Take the Money and Run and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, CBS The Reivers and Scrooge – but for NBC and Dortort the venture was apparently a bust.

The other thing that interested me about Dortort was his inclination to discuss his creation in intellectual terms.  In one interview, he cited Marshall McLuhan and called Bonanza the “conscience of the middle class.”  Not many TV pioneers of Dortort’s generation (especially in the taciturn genre of the western) are willing to entertain such hifalutin notions of the impact of their work.  I would have enjoyed questioning Dortort further about his theories on why Bonanza connected so successfully with such a wide audience – especially since its appear remains something of a mystery to me.

For further reference: The Archive of American Television has a thorough video interview with David Dortort, and there are good websites devoted to Bonanza and Dortort’s follow-up, The High Chaparral.

Murder, He Wrote

December 7, 2009

Today, over on the main Classic TV History website, I have published a feature story entitled Murder, He Wrote.  If the names mentioned therein are unfamiliar, the story may read like an outline of a fictional crime show, an episode of Dragnet or Cold Case or, yes, even Murder, She Wrote.  But the people in this story are real, and the events that it records actually happened.

More than three years have passed between the day when I first heard a rumor about the TV writer who killed his wife back in the sixties.  I did not know the man’s name, or any other information about him, apart from a few details of the crime (some of which turned out to be inaccurate).  But immediately I realized this story fell so squarely into my area of study that I had to report it.  Many times during those three years, I thought I knew the whole story.  And each time, just as I was about to close the file, I learned some new fact that added another tragic, touching, or bizarre layer to it.  Finally, it’s time to turn the tale of Leonard Heideman (or, as he came to be better known, Laurence Heath) over to my readers.

True crime is a new area of reporting for me, and a sobering one.  The violent act committed by Leonard Heideman in the early morning hours of February 23, 1963, continues to reverberate in the lives of his family and friends nearly fifty years later.  Some of those family members and friends were courageous enough to discuss this difficult subject with me.  I hope that I have done justice to them and to all the other parties involved in this story.

As always, I welcome readers to offer their reactions in the comments area below.

Comedy writer Bob Fisher‘s death on September 19, 2008, has been confirmed by the WGA.  Fisher died two days before his eighty-sixth birthday.

One of the most prolific of sitcom writers, Fisher began in television the fifties by pairing up with a veteran radio writer twenty-five years his senior named Alan Lipscott.  Lipscott and Fisher wrote the first episode of Make Room For Daddy in 1953, and went on to craft teleplays for The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, Bronco, How to Marry a Millionaire, and others.  Following Lipscott’s death in 1961, Fisher began writing with Arthur Marx, and that partnership (which lasted for over twenty-five years) produced episodes of McHale’s Navy, My Three Sons, The Mothers-in-Law, The Paul Lynde Show, and Life With Lucy.  Fisher and Marx were also story editors and frequent writers on Alice from 1977-1981. 

Fisher also wrote occasionally with Arthur Alsberg (on I Dream of Jeannie and Mona McCluskey) and had three plays produced on Broadway: the hit The Impossible Years (with Marx), Minnie’s Boys (with Marx), and Happiness Is Just a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce (with Alsberg), which closed after one performance.

I had tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to arrange an interview with Fisher, and had heard from other writers that he led a peripatetic lifestyle.  So I wasn’t surprised when word of his death surfaced only last month via Mark Evanier’s blog

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Roland Wolpert, a television writer adept at both drama and comedy, died on March 25.  Wolpert was another writer who was too ill to be interviewed by the time I contacted him two years ago, so most of what I know about him comes from the death notice in the Los Angeles Times

Wolpert was born in New York City on December 30, 1923, went to City College, and was a correspondent during World War II.  His television career began with a move to Los Angeles in 1961, and he amassed credits on Naked City, Mr. Novak, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lancer, My Living Doll, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Family Affair, Room 222, Dan August, Emergency!, Good Times, and others.  Wolpert did not write for The Bold Ones, but had a shared creator credit on the series because the Leslie Nielsen “Protectors” segments were spun off Deadlock, a TV movie that Wolpert co-wrote.

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Eventually I’ll publish my interview with writer Juarez Roberts, who died of cancer on February 21.  In the meantime, all I will write here is that he was a long-distance friend and a truly larger-than-life character.  Certainly, he took up more room than Hollywood was ready to make for him.

Juarez was one of the last writers to break into television by throwing a script over the transom of one of the live television anthologies.  In his case, it was a U.S. Steel Hour called “The Little Bullfighter,” which was inspired by stories told to him by a Mexican friend and co-worker at the Los Angeles foundry where Juarez was a foreman.  A second Steel Hour script drew upon memories of his Dust Bowl childhood (he was born in Oklahoma in 1923).

After the anthologies folded, he created scripts for popular Hollywood shows like Hawaiian Eye, Adventures in Paradise, and Checkmate.  He wrote the teleplay for a pilot based on The African Queen, with James Coburn and Glynis Johns in the Bogart and Hepburn roles.  It didn’t sell as a series but the pilot film landed on The Dick Powell Show in 1962. 

Six feet tall, with an Okie drawl that led many to mistake him for a rube, Juarez intimidated some producers and baffled others.  He fought for his ideas even on escapist work, and often lost; he used a pseudonym (George Stackalee) on Bonanza and took his name off a Route 66 altogether.  Forty years after the fact, Juarez was still annoyed that they changed the title of his Channing episode (about boxing) from something provocative (“Blood’s Not Very Red on TV”) to something generic (“Beyond His Reach”).

Juarez’s character was very much formed by his World War II service – he spoke of it often – and I once asked if he’d ever submitted any ideas to the TV series Combat.  “Come on, Stephen, you should know better than that,” he replied with disgust.  Combat met a lot of television critics’ standards for battlefront verisimilitude, but not Juarez’s.

Those stories should give you some idea of how Juarez’s low tolerance for compromise made a life in television impossible for him.  As far as I know, none of Juarez’s work was produced after 1963, although he toiled on some film scripts that were never made.  Sometime in the seventies Juarez turned his back on Hollywood and drifted up the coast to Mendocino, and then to Waldport, Oregon, where he died.  About a year ago, Juarez completed his first novel, which draws upon his own experiences as a paratrooper.  His widow, Sonya, is seeking a publisher, and I hope she finds one.

UPDATE: Sonya Roberts has provided a few corrections (which I have made to the above) and the following photo of Juarez in 1945.  I had not seen it before, but I think it amply illustrates the points I have tried to make about his individualism and strength of will.  

juarez_in_507th_airborne

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