Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91.  Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays.  “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work.  I never had to look for it.”

After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper.  It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries.  His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.

“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.

Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them.  Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor.  Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal.  Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed.  In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.

Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.

“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell.  “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not.  He had no pretensions.  More often than not, the shows were good shows.”

In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script.  Boretz took full advantage of his access.  “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor.  When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled.  “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me.  But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”

*

Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella.  The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.”  He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake.  The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.

But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing.  He told me that

I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have.  What do you think of it?  “That’s not a bad idea.”  I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that?  I would bleed them a little for ideas.  Then I would take them to lunch.  I belonged to the Princeton Club.  Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years.  But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.

Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance.  (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.)  Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit.  When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories.  The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story.  These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view.  Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.

For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting.  The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland.  Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that

The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom.  The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense.  Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority.  Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.

Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message.  It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.

Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.”  But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist.  A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics.  His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted.  Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too.  At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold.  Boretz refused.  “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.

Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it.  “It was a classy show,” Boretz said.  His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner.  Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.

*

One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane.  Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan.  Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.

When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.”  Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn.  In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action.  Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses.  Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children.  Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.

“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded.  It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration.  One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors.  Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her.  It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.

Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center.  Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three.  “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965.  “My name, to me, has value.  It’s all I’ve got.”

Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast.  Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar.  He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses).  One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.

Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969.  Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that

when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to.  Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in.  One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?”  I said, “I don’t know.”  I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage.  You want to write a script around it?”  He wrote a hell of a script.  I loved Alvin.

All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused.  “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel).  “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I.  “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000.  The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him.  M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:

Twenty-two years.  That’s how long for me, twenty-two years.  Cab driver.  You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there.  Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip.  Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all.  Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift.  I opened it in my apartment.  I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it.  I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .

*

In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties.  What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation.  Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms.  Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem.  The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.

“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station.  Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time.  Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.

Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.

A Hot Dog Makes Her Crazy

February 11, 2010

Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .

Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?

Yes.  For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York.  That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon.  Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year. 

This aspect of geography might seem trivial.  But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.  

There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era.  The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe.  They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City

But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse.  Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show.  The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away.  Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids. 

Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door.   Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself.  In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”

Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban.  And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties.  Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”).  Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”).  Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit.  And so on. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy.  William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy.  Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels.  Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).

The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.  Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane.  (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.) 

The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise.  I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.

Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season.  The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.”  The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series.  The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television.  Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes.  East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation.  The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse  viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence.  It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.

The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year.  William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness.  Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator.  Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well).  Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972. 

Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent.  Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits.  He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.


One of the many New York stage actors who appeared on The Patty Duke Show was a teenaged John Spencer (in “How to Be Popular”), thirty-five years before he played Leo McGarry on The West Wing.

So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content.  Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else.  The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke.  My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing.  Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent. 

Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material.  In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery.  When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.

The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s.  I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl.  Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty.  Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:   


Patty Duke as Cathy Lane


Patty Duke as Patty Lane

It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD.  (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)

Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls.  Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot.  As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise.  But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show.  Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.

It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy.  Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out.  In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses.  She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show.  The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city).  It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen.  This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”). 

Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity.  The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly.  If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base?  Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.” 


Eddie Applegate as Richard

It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966.  So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.

That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City.  I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles.  It turns out that the motive was more sinister.  As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws.  Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role.  In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day.  Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run.  Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher.  The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.

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