Notes From Buck Houghton

November 6, 2009

Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons.  On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series.  At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.

For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded.   But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.

*

The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952.  Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera.  But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.

Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series.  Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time.  Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”

I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well.  He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.”  Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!”  As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency.  Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.

Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format.  Houghton did not approve of the change.  He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.

Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous.  He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company.  (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.)  The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS.  During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos.  It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves.  This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract.  Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star.  He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”

Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him.  (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.)  Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season.  He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.

The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television.  It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets.  Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone.  Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television).  Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him.  According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.

For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home.  Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen.  He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series.  NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on.  Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O.  Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord.  A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.

*

There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998.  Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion.  We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine. 

For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response.  Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.”  Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.

Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out.  Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause.  (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”)  If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy.  I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.

Lost in the Twilight Zone

August 26, 2009

Time Enough at Last

Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic.  The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel.  Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.

For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone.   Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows  would follow.

Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research.  Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made.  Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
  • Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid.  James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
  • A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.”  Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
  • On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public.  Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set!  (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)

Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog).  His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.

The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes.  Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers.  Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it?  In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438.  Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order.  (Why?  I have no idea.)

Much of the above may seem trivial.  But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings.  Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds.  Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind.  Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent.  Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.

Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected.  His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door.  But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others.  He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.

But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame.  Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera.  There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show.  In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection.  For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.

Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected.  The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary.  Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots.  He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery.  (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.)  In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.”  Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.

*

After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos.  Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year.  During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs.  Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good.  Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.

In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling.  On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal.  The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.

In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre.  Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.”  In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach.  Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted.  But Serling’s move backfired.  Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show.  (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)

What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show.  Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts.  Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network).  Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.

Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set.  Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone.  That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice.  The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.

*

Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject?  Sadly, I think that may be the case here.  I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet.  That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.

It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information.  In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability.  But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props?  Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version?  Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.

Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading.  On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker.  As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone.  Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players.  Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration.  But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.

Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000.  Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs.  The correction is welcome.  But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget.  In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.

Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern.  Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether.  Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on.  The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.

It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them.  (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company).  But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.

*

In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing.  Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents.  He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject.  Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”

In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it.  But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry.  A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions.  In fact, he may owe them to his readers.  It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis.  Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why.  It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.

While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion.  Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989).  Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable.  And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote.  Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.

Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh.  But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks.  Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show.  For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro.  For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators.  And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.

Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.

After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries.  By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons.  First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone.  Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.

In Man with a Camera Bronson plays a freelance photographer named Mike Kovic.  He runs his own business, in consultation with his father (Ludwig Stossel) from the old country.  Kovic even suffers a few ethnic slurs along the lines of Banacek, and it’s possible to view this ethnically-identified but still mainstream-assimilated character as a transition point between early melting-pot shows like The Goldbergs and the totally deracinated TV landscape of the sixties.

Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma.  Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself.  In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.

Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take.  Newspaper drama?  International adventure?  It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so.  Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire.  These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?

In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist.  Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).

Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”).  “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.”  Thanks for the reminder.

A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation.   The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle.  The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside.  It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.

The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap.  And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:

*

If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.

Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes.  Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession.  Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title.  The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution.  Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies.  He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars.  Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.

 

The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation.  In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob.  It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point.  Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible.  Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:

MARSHAL: How long’s it been?

TATE: Ten years.

MARSHAL: The war and then some.  Where’d it happen?

TATE: Vicksburg.  I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.

MARSHAL: You’re home, son.  What do you think of it?

TATE: The same.  A little smaller, a little dirtier.  Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.

Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely.  There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin.  They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife.  All the emotion remains unspoken.  The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically.   But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.

“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde.  Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle.  While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him.  It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”).  Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun).  He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense.  Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility.  At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.

Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication.  Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man.  He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.

Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible.  A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.

I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns.  The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The LonerTate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.

One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name).  McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman.   But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen.  (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)

But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability.  Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions.  The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series.  By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine.  This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.

Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted.  Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.

(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped.  In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion.   I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company.  But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)

*

At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns.  In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.

Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith.  (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.)  It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone.  Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another.  It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.

What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are.  In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured.  In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him.  Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable.  I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera.  But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child.  Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing.  Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.

Laredo, which carries no creator credit, was produced by veteran Universal staffers, all journeymen, including Wagon Train‘s Howard Christie and the director Richard Irving.  So it’s no surprise that the results were undistinguished, but it’s worth noting that the odious premise of Laredo reliably defeated the efforts of some talented writers (John D. F. Black, Gene L. Coon), directors (Harvey Hart, Paul Stanley), and guest stars (Burgess Meredith, Jack Lord, Julie Harris).  In the first dozen or so episodes, only a single performance struck me as original and worthwhile: Shelley Morrison’s recurring role (in a pair of Black-scripted segments) as Linda Little Trees, a slightly-smarter-than-her-tribe female Indian chief who has the catchphrase, “Oooookay.”  It doesn’t sound like much, but Morrison’s befuddled delivery is priceless.

*

If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement.  Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better.  But  it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me.  The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.

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