Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one.  A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions.  Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.

I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon.  On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other.  It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation).  The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod.  A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.

Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime.  A thumbnail production history is in order.

The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955.  Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian).  For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair.  Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons.  During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem.  A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.

Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best.  I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong.  Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions.  The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their  thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.”  Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.

During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve.  Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant).  There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.

When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television.  The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee.  Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain.  The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.

Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made.  Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West.  They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade.  Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far.  Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.

The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before.  Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material.   (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.)  Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs.  Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.”  Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”

During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that.  The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy.  But no one took any chances in the storytelling.

*

Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions.  Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed.  Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest.  But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right.  It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above.  But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.

Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic.  They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle.  The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one.  Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal.  Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it.  These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.

Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up.  “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks.  Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle.  Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town.  Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them.  In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.

Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence.  He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others.  Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen.  Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:

WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low.  And the heat.  Sultry-like.  It’s depressin’, for animals and men.

COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions.  Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show.  (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.)  There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.

Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years?  No – they’re still largely a bore.  But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident.  That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool.  Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western.  But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.

One of the more noteworthy DVDs to arrive this year is CBS/Paramount’s June release of the first season of Mannix.  Because Mannix‘s first season differs considerably from the subsequent seven, these initial 24 episodes were not included in the show’s syndication package.  Unlike most of the familiar TV product that’s coming out on DVD these days, the early Mannixs are a time-capsule find that hasn’t been seen on American television for several decades.

I wish I should say that Mannix‘s lost year represents a major discovery, but that’s not quite the case.  Mannix was created by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson, eventually the men behind the juggernauts of Columbo and Murder She Wrote, but in 1967 just a pair of talented freelancers with credits on the likes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Burke’s Law.  With Mannix, Link and Levinson attempted a revision of the private eye genre that anticipated the postmodern pulp reformations of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix

Their hero, Joe Mannix, was not the familiar hard-boiled loner archetype, operating out of a dingy office, with a wise-cracking secretary out front and a battered fedora and trenchcoat on the rack in the corner.  Instead he was a cog in a wheel, one of a fleet of impeccably dressed operatives in the employ of Intertect, a corporate detective agency crammed with high-tech equipment.  (Computers the size of a minivan that shuffled around stacks of punchcards, in other words.) 

Intertect was inspired by Link and Levinson’s experiences at Universal, the first of the Hollywood studios to track its employees by computer.  The Universal of the sixties was run by former talent agents inherited from its parent company MCA, who dressed in black suits and had offices in the fearsome obsidian monolith known as “The Black Tower,” a modern glass executive building that loomed over the front gates.  Lou Wickersham, the head of Intertect, was an insider joke on Lew Wasserman, the legendarily ruthless head of Universal.  (The name Wickersham was derived from “Wasserman” and Lankershim Boulevard, the North Hollywood address of Universal’s main entrance.  Joseph Campanella, who played Wickersham, once told me that his slight resemblance to Wasserman was a factor in his casting.)  Joe Mannix, the series’ nonconformist hero, was the only Intertect operative with the inclination to buck Wickersham’s unfeeling, bottom-line approach to sleuthing.

You can see how Link and Levinson intended Mannix as a platform for venturing into some Big Ideas.  Their scenario was a genre allegory that opened the door for sideways exploration of topics like mechanization, capitalism, the dehumanizing aspects of modernity, and so on. 

But Link and Levinson were out of Mannix even before a pilot was written, and the reins were taken by Mission: Impossible honcho Bruce Geller (who executive produced) and producer Wilton Schiller.  Schiller had produced the last three seasons of Ben Casey and the final year of The Fugitive.  He was competent but uninspired, as were most of the cadre of freelance writers who had followed Schiller from one or both of the earlier shows onto Mannix: John Meredyth Lucas, Chester Krumholz, Barry Oringer, Howard Browne, Sam Ross, Walter Brough.  In their hands, the conflict between Mannix and Lou Wickersham remained a constant element of the series, but it lacked any depth or metaphorical meaning.  The two characters simply bickered like unhappy spouses, and the clash between them never varied much in content or intensity.  It is fascinating to speculate as to how Link and Levinson might have developed their idea.  Might Mannix have become a prototype for the serialized drama of the eighties, with a character conflict at its center that grew more complex and gripping as time went on?

For the second season of Mannix, Intertect disappeared without explanation and Joe Mannix worked alone out of a stylish home-office.  Now he embodied the cliche Link and Levinson sought to undermine: a hard-boiled loner type with a wise-cracking secretary.  The initial revisionist concept had devolved into a totally classical text. 

Surprisingly, this wasn’t an altogether bad thing.  Mannix‘s new producers, veteran screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, brought in better writers and directors.  They crafted the familiar elements of the format into an appealing blend of old-fashioned mysteries and jazzy film-noir vibes.  Mike Connors, the series’ star, had a relaxed personality that fit the new Mannix better than the old one.  Connors was like that gregarious but no-nonsense uncle you knew you could count on to scare off the schoolyard bullies.

*

I first watched Mannix in 1995-1996, when the TV Land channel was rerunning it nearly every day.  I was in film school at the time, at the University of Southern California.  College was a frustrating experience, four years of searching for the intellectual stimulation I’d been promised the whole time I was growing up and finding it only on the margins of the experience – in the film archives, from exploring the city of Los Angeles,  or in long conversations with a few kindred spirits, but rarely in classes or amid the general campus population.  Often when there was a lull in the grind of studying or writing dull undergraduate papers, I’d unwind by consuming five or six Mannix segments in a row.  It was just the kind of smooth, undemanding escapism I needed.  It’s kind of a shame, but those marathons of Mannix (sometimes interspersed with Thriller, airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, or Route 66, on loan from a T.A. researching a doctoral thesis on road movies) number among my fondest college memories.

When I received my copy of the Mannix DVDs, I immediately took a look at a particular episode, “Turn Every Stone” – and not because, just by coincidence, it’s the only one credited to writer Jeri Emmett.  If Mannix is forever associated with USC in my memory, “Turn Every Stone” is the episode that reflects that memory back at me.

The climax of “Turn Every Stone” is a shootout between Mannix and the villains (Hampton Fancher and Nita Talbot) in the central courtyard of a tall, distinctive red-brick building.  That building is the Rufus B. Von KleinSmid Center, which stands on the east side of Trousdale Parkway, the main drag of the USC Campus.  (USC benefactors tended to have funny names; don’t get me started on the Topping Center, or Fagg Park.) 

Here’s a shot of Mike Connors and Fancher entering a classroom hallway:

And a better look at the tall, narrow interior columns, which convey the impression that the building all exterior and no interior:

An innovative use for the the basement level’s sunken courtyard:

The Von KleinSmid Center (or VKC, as the students call it) is one of the main classroom buildings at USC, and I probably attended a half-dozen classes in it during my four years there.  It’s one of the most commonly used locations on a campus that’s famous, at least among those who’ve done time there, as a ubiquitous backdrop in movies and TV shows.  When I was a USC freshman, I attended a screening of Copycat (1995), wherein my fellow students went wild upon catching a glimpse of VKC’s tall globe-topped spire; a few days later, I stumbled across Morgan Freeman shooting a scene for Kiss the Girls (1997) in a car being towed down Trousdale Parkway.  But the campus’s onscreen history goes back beyond tacky nineties serial killer flicks.  The Von KleinSmid Center was completed in 1965, and its then-modern architecture made it a magnet for movie companies in the sixties and seventies. 

USC’s most famous turn in the spotlight came during the same year that “Turn Every Stone” was filmed, in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967).  Northern Californians and fans of the movie will be crushed to learn that, during the scene in which Dustin Hoffman pursues Katharine Ross back to Berkeley, “UC-Berkeley” is actually . . . USC.  Our first glimpse of Hoffman on campus during the scene scored to Simon & Garfunkel’s  “Scarborough Fair” comes as he’s walking down the low steps that surround VKC:

Hoffman then walks up a tree-shrouded, diagonal path through Alumni Park to the neighboring building, the thirties-era Doheny Library, the basement of which contains my favorite USC hangout, the Cinema-Television Library:

Later Hoffman and Katharine Ross walk down the same outdoor corridor that we see in Mannix:

The scene where Hoffman stands outside for the duration of Ross’s class was filmed inside VKC (you can tell from the narrow vertical windows), quite possibly in one of the same first-floor rooms where I had classes.  A subsequent shot was photographed through the same VKC window:

All of these buildings still look about the same today as they did forty years ago.

Parts of the USC campus also turn up for a split-second in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), and in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) – a great tracking shot that traces the route I’d take onto campus through the Jefferson Boulevard entrance, which was just across the street from my first L.A. apartment.  But since I’m a TV historian, and this a TV blog, the television appearances of the USC campus are what I’ve tracked with the most enthusiasm. 

In the original pilot for Harry O, a made-for-television movie called Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On (1973), the Von Kleinsmid Center is the backdrop for a conversation between David Janssen and S. John Launer (a fine character actor whom I interviewed during my USC years):

Outtakes from that sequence made it into the series’ opening titles. . .

. . . giving USC a weekly cameo in Harry O , under Janssen’s star billing card no less, throughout its two-year run:

Continuing its chameleonesque career of imitating other colleges, USC served as just “the University” in an “Until Proven Innocent,” a 1971 episode of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.  Lindsay Wagner played a judge’s daughter from wealthy Santa Barbara who was slumming at “the University” until she could transfer to George Washington University – a pretty typical USC co-ed, in other words.  Once again, the Von Kleinsmid Center is everpresent.  Wagner and Lee Majors roam both the sunken courtyard and the basement-level library (the real thing, not a set) in a lengthy scene.  Here, with Majors, Wagner, and Randolph Mantooth lined up in front of it, VKC looks as if it’s doubling as an acting school for dull Universal contract players.

VKC Owen Marshall

Decades later, USC did a sustained impersonation of Brown University on one of my favorite shows of the past decade, The O.C., as Seth (Adam Brody) visited the Rhode Island school and his inamorata Summer (Rachel Bilson) eventually went there.  But it was another bit of USC TV-fakery that really blew my mind.

I have to indulge in a detour now and explain a bit about why college in general, and USC in particular, were so disappointing to me.  Part of it is that for years of my parents and teachers had promised that college – far more than the public education which preceded it – would be the ideal atmosphere for my adolescent nerdiness.  Their assurances did little to prepare me for the realities of the shallow, alcohol- and party-feuled student life, or the cynicism and toxic academic politics among the faculty. 

But part of it was TV’s fault, because I’d put in a lot of time watching The Paper Chase when I was a pre-teen.  The Paper Chase, one of the great, underrated dramas of the eighties, was a smart, nostalgic portrait of life among law students based on John Jay Osborn’s autobiographical novel.  For a twelve year-old, the distinction between undergraduate life and an idealized Ivory League law school was subtle, and so The Paper Chase – and, really, nothing but The Paper Chase – shaped my conception of what higher education would be.  I had set myself up for a major shock.

Flash forward to my junior year at USC, when I’m conducting a phone interview with Ralph Senensky, a talented episodic television director of the sixties and seventies.  The Paper Chase was Senensky’s last major credit, and as we’re chatting about it, Ralph drops a bombshell on me: The Paper Chase‘s unnamed-East Coast-university-that’s-clearly-meant-to-be-Harvard was actually USC.  Every outdoor frame of it!

Later that year, on a holiday trip back to Raleigh, I dug out the last surviving tape of the Paper Chase recordings I’d made years before, and replayed the show’s final episode on my father’s dying Beta machine.  Sure enough, the office of Professor Kingsfield (the much-feared master teacher played to perfection by John Houseman) was located in the Bovard Administration Building, which is directly across Trousdale Parkway from the Doheny Library.  The Taper Hall of Humanities doubled as a classroom building.  I couldn’t be sure exactly where the exterior of the basement office of the Law Review (which I thought was so cool as a teenager, and which the show’s protagonist, James Stephens’ Hart, held in some esteem too) was, but it’s a redress of a side entrance to either Bovard or the neighboring Physical Education Building.

Coming near the nadir of my disillusionment with film school (I’d just completed my one grueling film production class), this seemed a particularly cruel blow.  I had gone back to revisit my cherished ideal of what college should have been and found those industrious, earnest grad students of my TV-fueled fantasy walking the same sunny SoCal campus that encircled my own dreary reality.

That moment was probably my first brush with a quality of living in Los Angeles that I later came to love.  I always get blank looks when I try to explain this to non-Angelenos (especially the ones who’ve been there and back and complain that there are no tourist attractions to visit), but one of the wonderful things about L.A. is the constant and somehow comforting awareness that you’re living out your life in the world’s biggest movie set.  The places you pass through in your daily travels are the same backdrops you see in countless movies and TV shows, and as you move through them the collective fiction of your moviegoing experience forms a sort of overlay upon your “real” life.  If you’re a film buff like me, your awareness of this duality is constant.  Los Angeles is a meta-city.  Elaine and Benjamin’s Berkeley is Hart and Ford’s Harvard is my USC, and who am I to privilege one of these meanings over another?  Some people come for the climate, some for the laid-back attitude (which is no myth, trust me) . . . but this is why I love L.A.

Thanks to David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles for the crash course in campus architecture.  Updated 7/29/09 to include the Von Kleinsmid Center’s Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law episode.

Bernard L. Kowalski died on October 26.  He was one of the most creative director-producers of the ’60s, whose passing rated more attention in the press than this sole, belated Variety obit.  I guess his primary claim to fame is having directed the Mission: Impossible pilot, and later several of the good, early Columbo segments.

Mission was the culmination of a brief, productive collaboration with its creator, Bruce Geller, with also included some good episodes of The Dick Powell Show and one amazing, postmodern, ahead-of-its-time season of Rawhide.  (Too ahead of its time: they got fired.)  Sam Peckinpah made their partnership a trio for a time, but he was too volatile for it to last.

The year that Bernie launched Mission: Impossible, he directed or produced a total of five successful series pilots – for Mission, The Monroes, The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Rat Patrol (Kowalski produced, Tom Gries directed), and NYPD.  I can’t imagine that’s not a record.  The NYPD pilot would never be broadcast; Kowalski’s show featured Robert Hooks, Frank Converse, and Robert Viharo as a multiracial team of young detectives.  When the show went to series a year later, Viharo was gone, replaced by Jack Warden as an older police captain.

Bernie had two flirtations with feature careers – early on, as a director of low-budget sci-fi and action films (Attack of the Giant Leeches) for Gene and Roger Corman, and for a while in the late ’60s and early ’70s after his TV career had peaked with that string of hit pilots.  Those movies (Krakatoa – East of Java, Macho Callahan, SSSSS) were eclectic but not very good, and Bernie slid back into episodic TV.  His credits include long stints on a raft of classics or, at least, popular hits: The Rebel, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Banacek, Columbo, Baretta, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Jake and the Fatman.  The conclusions one draws from that list, I guess, are that Bernie had a skill for handling masculine action material, and that he was a good man to call in if you had a temperamental star who liked to throw his weight around.  Bernie was an easygoing guy, but he didn’t take any crap from anybody.

I met Bernie in January 2006, and we spent more than three hours at his Northridge home, just covering the pre-Krakatoa years (plus a little bit of Columbo).  His memories were vivid, funny, and forthright (he admitted, for instance, that the visual style of Mission: Impossible was cribbed straight from The Ipcress File).  Plus, it’s always a bonus to talk to someone in the house where they’ve lived for many decades.  At one point Bernie gestured toward the front lawn as he was telling me a story about a fistfight that erupted between Sam Peckinpah and the writer James Lee Barrett, and I realized I was sitting in the same den where Peckinpah and Lee Marvin and many others had caroused with Bernie over the years.

Bernie and his wife Helen were very warm and hospitable that afternoon, and I wish I’d stayed in touch; I still don’t even know how Bernie died (he seemed in pretty good health two years ago).  It’s a common occurrence for an historian, but it still makes me sad.

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