My first piece for The AV Club ran last Friday. It’s a look at the ritual of preempting or editing television shows in the aftermath of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing – a ritual that extends back at least as far as the murder of John F. Kennedy. (That’s Martin Milner above, in the strange Route 66 episode “I’m Here to Kill a King,” which was meant to air on November 22, 1963, and bears some disturbing parallels to the assassination.)
As I was researching the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I noticed that the original broadcast dates for at least two of the preempted television episodes have been recorded incorrectly in nearly every reference source. Presumably that’s because historians consulted newspapers’ TV listings without discovering that sudden changes were made after the listings were published. As a sort of wonky footnote, I thought I would untangle those errors here.
Channing, the one-season college drama with Jason Evers and Henry Jones, had an episode entitled “A Window on the War” slated for November 27, five days after the president’s death. An early work by the noted screenwriter David Rayfiel, who was adapting his play P.S. 193, “A Window on the War” involved an adult student’s plot to kill a professor (who is sort of a variation on the teacher character in All Quiet on the Western Front). The subject matter led ABC to push the episode back two weeks, to December 11. The episode that was substituted was Juarez Roberts‘s boxing story “Beyond His Reach,” which had evidently been penciled in for December 11. Wikipedia supplies the correct dates but the Internet Movie Database and the Classic TV Archive still have it wrong.
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour had planned to show “The Cadaver,” a Michael Parks-starring episode about a practical joke involving medical students and a cadaver, as the first post-Kennedy episode, on November 29. Instead, the episode that had been preempted on the night of the assassination, “Body in the Barn,” was shown on November 29, and “The Cadaver” (evidently because of its morbid subject matter) was pushed back until January 17. Most references claim that “The Cadaver” aired as scheduled on November 29 and that “Body in the Barn” didn’t resurface until July 3, in the middle of summer reruns. That’s wrong.
What’s interesting here is that, in their book The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Martin Grams Jr. and Patrick Wikstrom figured this out and printed the correct dates, with an explanation as to why they were given incorrectly elsewhere. That book was published in 2000, and yet all of the data aggregation sites on the internet – the IMDb, Wikipedia, TV.com, Epguides, the Classic TV Archive – still reflect the incorrect dates. It’s a good example of how sites like those tend to grab the low-hanging fruit and overlook more obscure sources. Rely upon them at your own peril.
As documentation, I’ve reproduced some pages from some relevant TV listings below. First, an early Los Angeles Times listing for Channing‘s “A Window on the War” on November 27:
Then a New York Times listing for November 27, giving the evening’s episode correctly as “Beyond His Reach”:
A Chicago Tribune listing for “A Window on the War” on its eventual broadcast date, December 11:
A Hartford Courant listing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “Body in the Barn” on its original airdate, November 29 (no date is given on the clipping, but the episode titles for other series correspond to 11/29):
“The Cadaver” debuting on January 17, 1964, per the Los Angeles Times:
This New York Times TV listing for July 3 is one of several that declares “Body in the Barn” a repeat:
Also in the AV Club article, I mentioned that Espionage switched around its schedule in order to delay an assassination-themed story. That episode was “A Camel to Ride, a Sheep to Eat,” which was pushed back from November 27 to December 18. “The Light of a Friendly Star,” originally scheduled for December 4, was moved up a week. I’m not sure of the original sequence for the episodes in between, but the Classic TV Archive has the final airdates right. (Apropos of nothing, can I tell you how annoyed I am that the British DVD release of Espionage went out of print before I snagged one?)
April 14, 2009
Comedy writer Bob Fisher‘s death on September 19, 2008, has been confirmed by the WGA. Fisher died two days before his eighty-sixth birthday.
One of the most prolific of sitcom writers, Fisher began in television the fifties by pairing up with a veteran radio writer twenty-five years his senior named Alan Lipscott. Lipscott and Fisher wrote the first episode of Make Room For Daddy in 1953, and went on to craft teleplays for The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, Bronco, How to Marry a Millionaire, and others. Following Lipscott’s death in 1961, Fisher began writing with Arthur Marx, and that partnership (which lasted for over twenty-five years) produced episodes of McHale’s Navy, My Three Sons, The Mothers-in-Law, The Paul Lynde Show, and Life With Lucy. Fisher and Marx were also story editors and frequent writers on Alice from 1977-1981.
Fisher also wrote occasionally with Arthur Alsberg (on I Dream of Jeannie and Mona McCluskey) and had three plays produced on Broadway: the hit The Impossible Years (with Marx), Minnie’s Boys (with Marx), and Happiness Is Just a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce (with Alsberg), which closed after one performance.
I had tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to arrange an interview with Fisher, and had heard from other writers that he led a peripatetic lifestyle. So I wasn’t surprised when word of his death surfaced only last month via Mark Evanier’s blog.
Roland Wolpert, a television writer adept at both drama and comedy, died on March 25. Wolpert was another writer who was too ill to be interviewed by the time I contacted him two years ago, so most of what I know about him comes from the death notice in the Los Angeles Times.
Wolpert was born in New York City on December 30, 1923, went to City College, and was a correspondent during World War II. His television career began with a move to Los Angeles in 1961, and he amassed credits on Naked City, Mr. Novak, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lancer, My Living Doll, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Family Affair, Room 222, Dan August, Emergency!, Good Times, and others. Wolpert did not write for The Bold Ones, but had a shared creator credit on the series because the Leslie Nielsen “Protectors” segments were spun off Deadlock, a TV movie that Wolpert co-wrote.
Eventually I’ll publish my interview with writer Juarez Roberts, who died of cancer on February 21. In the meantime, all I will write here is that he was a long-distance friend and a truly larger-than-life character. Certainly, he took up more room than Hollywood was ready to make for him.
Juarez was one of the last writers to break into television by throwing a script over the transom of one of the live television anthologies. In his case, it was a U.S. Steel Hour called “The Little Bullfighter,” which was inspired by stories told to him by a Mexican friend and co-worker at the Los Angeles foundry where Juarez was a foreman. A second Steel Hour script drew upon memories of his Dust Bowl childhood (he was born in Oklahoma in 1923).
After the anthologies folded, he created scripts for popular Hollywood shows like Hawaiian Eye, Adventures in Paradise, and Checkmate. He wrote the teleplay for a pilot based on The African Queen, with James Coburn and Glynis Johns in the Bogart and Hepburn roles. It didn’t sell as a series but the pilot film landed on The Dick Powell Show in 1962.
Six feet tall, with an Okie drawl that led many to mistake him for a rube, Juarez intimidated some producers and baffled others. He fought for his ideas even on escapist work, and often lost; he used a pseudonym (George Stackalee) on Bonanza and took his name off a Route 66 altogether. Forty years after the fact, Juarez was still annoyed that they changed the title of his Channing episode (about boxing) from something provocative (“Blood’s Not Very Red on TV”) to something generic (“Beyond His Reach”).
Juarez’s character was very much formed by his World War II service – he spoke of it often – and I once asked if he’d ever submitted any ideas to the TV series Combat. “Come on, Stephen, you should know better than that,” he replied with disgust. Combat met a lot of television critics’ standards for battlefront verisimilitude, but not Juarez’s.
Those stories should give you some idea of how Juarez’s low tolerance for compromise made a life in television impossible for him. As far as I know, none of Juarez’s work was produced after 1963, although he toiled on some film scripts that were never made. Sometime in the seventies Juarez turned his back on Hollywood and drifted up the coast to Mendocino, and then to Waldport, Oregon, where he died. About a year ago, Juarez completed his first novel, which draws upon his own experiences as a paratrooper. His widow, Sonya, is seeking a publisher, and I hope she finds one.
UPDATE: Sonya Roberts has provided a few corrections (which I have made to the above) and the following photo of Juarez in 1945. I had not seen it before, but I think it amply illustrates the points I have tried to make about his individualism and strength of will.
June 26, 2008
The writer Eliot Asinof died on June 10. He was best known for his books about sports, both fiction and non-fiction, and in particular Eight Men Out, which documented the Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred in 1919, the year of Asinof’s birth. Asinof was also a television writer active during the days of live television dramas.
I’m late weighing in on Asinof’s passing, but I wanted to comment on a couple of intriguing aspects of his career that were overlooked by the obituaries. Asinof was blacklisted during the Red scare of the fifties, a fact I did not know until this month, and one which may account for the paucity of known television credits on his resume.
Asinof also had a connection to the blacklist that was not noted by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times obits, or any others I read. Before he was himself blacklisted, Asinof acted as a front for at least one other blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein. A “front” was someone who, in essence, impersonated a writer who could not work under his own name. The front presented the blacklisted writer’s work as his own, in many cases even participating in story conferences and rehearsals. This elaborate ruse became necessary after the television networks realized that many blacklisted writers were using pseudonyms and demanded that TV shows produce a real, live person to match any new names that appeared on scripts. Fronting was a thankless and potentially risky task, and it’s possible that it hastened Asinof’s own political troubles, although according to the New York Times Asinof’s FBI file indicated another, more fitting reason for his blacklisting: he had signed a petition on behalf of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Years later Walter Bernstein wrote one of the best books about the blacklist, a personal memoir called Inside Out. Bernstein identifies his fronts only by first name, although we know who most of them are; “Howard,” for instance, was the talented Naked City and Route 66 writer Howard Rodman. Asinof, then, is named only as “Eliot,” and Bernstein gives us a vivid portrait of him:
Eliot was God’s angry man, perpetually at war with the world’s injustice. He did not suffer fools gladly. He was capable of storming unannounced into an editor’s office and terrorizing the place. At times it seemed as though anger was what fueled him and gave him purpose . . . . It also made his life difficult. He could not fathom the difference between demurral and argument. There was a certain purity to Eliot, no capacity to dissemble, and that didn’t help either.
My only concern was that the second script [to bear Asinof's name] was for a producer who really was a fool and would require foolish script changes. Eliot had to go in as the writer to listen to this, and even though it was not his own script, his sense of injustice was boundless. It was a toss-up whether he would simply, if colorfully denounce the producer for what he was (not just for what he was doing) or just hold him out the window until he saw the error of his ways. Fortunately Eliot did neither of these and the shows went on without incident . . . .
Because Asinof was a writer himself as well as a front for Bernstein, it’s difficult to sort out which of his credits belong to whom. The Goodyear Television Playhouse segment “Man on Spikes” was an adaptation of Asinof’s first novel, a baseball story, so we can assume that Asinof himself wrote that teleplay. On the other hand, we know that Bernstein was an uncredited presence on various David Susskind projects, including the prestigious DuPont Show of the Month – another of his fronts, a non-writer named Leslie Slote, received credit for several of those – so I would tend to put the Asinof-attributed “Body and Soul” episode, an adaptation of the 1947 Robert Rossen-Abraham Polonsky film with Ben Gazzara in the John Garfield role, into the Bernstein column. But “Body and Soul” was a boxing story, so perhaps Asinof the sportswriter made some contributions as well? And I have no idea if Asinof’s 1956 Climax script is really his, although I’d guess that it predates his association with Bernstein.
(During the seventies, Asinof prevailed in a legal battle with David Susskind over the latter’s planned television adaptation of Eight Men Out. Asinof wrote a book called Bleeding Between the Lines, now out of print, about the Susskind litigation.)
Asinof has an inconsequential credit on at least one episode of the anti-mob, Untouchables knockoff Cain’s Hundred; the credits of the 1961 “Markdown on a Man” segment read, “Teleplay by Eliot Asinof and Paul Monash; Story by Irving Elman and Paul Monash.” I had assumed, because this series falls after the worst of the blacklisting period, that this was an authentic Asinof script. Now I’m not so sure.
Cain’s Hundred was produced by Charles Russell, the legendary figure who had endangered his job with CBS by hiring Bernstein, Arnold Manoff, Abe Polonsky, and other blacklistees to write in secret for Danger and You Are There. Russell essentially created the front system. Asinof would have known him from New York too. But there’s a passage in Inside Out (on pages 242-243) in which Bernstein recounts a trip to Los Angeles with Manoff to help out their old friend Russell, who had moved west to produce an “adventure show” and was struggling with the assignment. Russell was drinking heavily, in conflict with his bosses, and saddled with crummy scripts. Inside Out doesn’t give the name of the show in question, but Bernstein writes that the “lead actor was a stiff.” That certainly describes Mark Richman, who played Nicholas Cain, but it could also apply to Gardner McKay, the star of Adventures in Paradise, which Russell produced briefly during the preceding TV season. Was Asinof another New York writer scooped up by Russell to patch up weak teleplays, or was he lending his name to cover Bernstein’s involvement as late as 1961?
The task of mapping Asinof’s blacklist-era credits gets even thornier. In the obituaries, Asinof’s son mentioned the westerns Wagon Train and Maverick as series for which Asinof wrote. I can’t be certain about Wagon Train, but Ed Robertson’s reliable Maverick: Legend of the West indicates that Asinof never received screen credit on an episode of Maverick. Are the obits in error? Did Asinof write for Maverick under a pseudonym? There are a handful of names among the Maverick credits that I can’t verify as real people, but it’s also possible Asinof sold the show an outline or a script that was never produced. Asinof was able to get some work, for himself and for Bernstein, under his own name throughout the height of the blacklist in television in the late fifties. But many lesser-known writers and actors were the victims of an incomplete blacklisting – they could get work at some networks and from some producers, but not others – and this may have been the case with Asinof.
One teleplay not mentioned in Asinof’s obituaries is almost certainly his own work, and deserves comment. It’s a 1964 episode of the college drama Channing entitled “Swing For the Moon” – a baseball story. Asinof’s dialogue is a little clunky, but the story of a promising young athlete (Charles Robinson) and the overbearing older brother (Ralph Meeker) who tries to quash his dreams of a ballplaying career has an emotional resonance.
An addendum: Various online sources indicate that Martin Balsam played inherited John Garfield’s Charlie Davis role in the Play of the Month version of “Body and Soul.” But after some checking I found evidence to support my conviction that it had to be Gazzara – Martin Balsam as a boxing champ is a bit of stretch, even by the sometimes imprecise standards of live TV. Gazzara may also have mentioned it in his autobiography In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, but if so I’ve already forgotten.