Sidney

April 22, 2011

“Sidney Lumet was wonderful.  He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy.  Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy.  Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”

– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961

He was supposed to last forever.  His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere.  His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago.  A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.

More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview.  No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times.  When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.

I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again.  But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes.  The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film.  But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.

Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost.  We don’t even have a good list of them.  The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty.  The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.

Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant.  Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956.  Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows.  They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.

“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase.  O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”

– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour  / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box

“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama.  It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels.  The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend.  The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.

Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements.  Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera.  Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique.  At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.

Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work.  Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.”  When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.”  The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.

One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material.  Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice.  The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men.  A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics.  “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.”  Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details.  The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.

Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi.  Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre.  Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express.  But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.

Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious.  In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question.  Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.

“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama.  It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan.  Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs.  Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street.  The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.

“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs).  It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son.  The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.

The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent.  It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There.  (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer.  Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss.  Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done.  Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)

Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations.  If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts.  Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top.  Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.

“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up.  I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis.  When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”

 – Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview

“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930.  In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel.  This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore.  Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic.  In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have).  No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows.  In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices.  Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.

In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame.  In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).

In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.”  In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space.  “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child.  It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.

Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey.  Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most.  Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951.  In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.

A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident.  But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident.  Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response.  This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face.  The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification.  The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.

Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites.  Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats.  When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood.  Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow).  Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.

“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style.  Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.”  Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits.  The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow.  Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles.  Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).

During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals.  But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release.  As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices.  At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes.  Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it.  Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads.  There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts.  The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.

“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices.  His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design.  One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in.  The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment.  For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets.  The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.

Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).

“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is.  It is quite the reverse.”

– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean

Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957.  But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds.  Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media.  He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them.  He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy.  Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti.  He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.

But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway.  Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson.  (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.)  The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968.  The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists.  Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly.  Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here.  Seek them out.

I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman.  Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting.  In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978’s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).

Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP.  Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his  the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.

It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain.  Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point.  But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry.  I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world.  The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.

On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could.  For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet.  Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage.  Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change.  Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget.  His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West).  Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.

Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes.  In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.”  Senensky added:

Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky's DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….

Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him.  The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….

Jerry loved cars.  He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets.  But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.

*

I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs.  I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.

The Empty Envelope

March 28, 2011

UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog.  The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media.  Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management.  Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service.  You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use.  You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality.  Get lost, jerk.  Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).

So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!

Cheers,

Netflix

No, I didn’t actually receive that letter.  But I might as well have.  And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.

What am I talking about?  Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.

As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse.  Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.

As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.

How many of those films does Netflix carry?  Not one of them.

One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases.  But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.

(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance.  If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above.  Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)

Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff.  Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival.  So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.

Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department.  The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable.  The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion.  Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix.  That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.

Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them.  All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged.  And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory.  I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.

Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.

How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business?  Because of streaming video.  In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail.  “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.

Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future.  Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD.  Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases.  For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of seven seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.

But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare.  Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library.  In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.

What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards.  If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go.  But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone).  Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs.  So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.

In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given.  A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog.  But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess.  In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master.  And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.

As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them.  So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video.  Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf.  In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city.  But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.

Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies.  I’m not so sure.  I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century.  Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape.  Suddenly, no more Vestron.  I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming.  The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.

But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war.  What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard.  The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now.  Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required.  Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.

The disc will be dead on its own soon enough.  Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.

1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites.  They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.

That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure.  Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.

So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater.  That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67

One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based.  Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent).  It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode.  And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive.  Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.

Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.”  Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife.  We all have knives.  It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!” 

Another way in is through Anthony Perkins.  Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates.  And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.

2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world.  Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl.  It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him.  But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality.  Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders.  Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me.  Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist.  You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.”  Don’t take his word for it.  Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.

3. You can’t always get what you want.  The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color.  That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD.  I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success. 

Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction.  Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite.  But we’ll probably never know for sure.

In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality.  (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.)  So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.

4. But look anyway.  “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD.  This was news.  On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows.  But I hadn’t encountered any film reels.  The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.

When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were.  The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending.  They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category.  I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.” 

When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production.  But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park).  All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless.  And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.

As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”?  Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white.  Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color.  But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet? 

Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color.  But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived.  When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.

As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence).  But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version. 

For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post).  As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece.  Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store.  Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered.  Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions.  Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.

As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him.  At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins.  She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.

5. Sondheim wasn’t first.  Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless.  It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version.  In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular.  Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles.  Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons).  I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production.  Who were they?  Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella.  As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…?  At least for now, that remains a mystery.

Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8.  Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.

Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere.  That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre.  He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.

Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work.  On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes.  And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.

Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide.  I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money.  He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission.  He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000. 

And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series.  Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season.  As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.

On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.

I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that.  They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories.  “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.

The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here.  The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money.  Of course, that’s unfair.  Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business.  A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle.  It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic.  The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics.  It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.

On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit.  His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”).  Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.

Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad.  Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking.  Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers.  Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting.  Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter.  How bad could it be?

“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003

Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year.  His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time.  McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week.  “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.

John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades.  Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors.  Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output.  He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.

Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard.  His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems.  Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies.  According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”

When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family.  Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.

“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”

Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen.  As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students.  Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies.  But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing.  Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.

Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start.  McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected.  Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures.  His wife was a frequent co-star.

Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York.  John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter.  But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim.  He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions.  Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz.  (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)

In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work.  One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.

At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles.  McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work.  McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.

A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959.   A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half.  McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson.  He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade.  For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful.  They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”

Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside).  McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week.  “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey.  McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series.  “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.

During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run.  Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie.  McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.

The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner.  Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain.  Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series.  Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.

According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show.  Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.”  But the identification was more complex than that.  At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).

McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy.  McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series.  “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on.  They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.

Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses.  McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.

The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series.  Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials.  His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.

When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing.  Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back.  “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey.  “It was liberating, almost.” 

What It Was, Was Football

February 6, 2011

Superbowl, Superbowl, Superbowl … let’s see, that one’s football, isn’t it?

What I know, or care, about sports could fill a thimble, but even I understood the importance this week when the Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a tape of the Superbowl I game that was telecast live on both NBC and CBS in 1967.  In an era when 2″ videotape was expensive and bulky, the television networks routinely reused the tapes or even tossed them out just to conserve space.  Most of the first decade of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show remains the most famous victim of this colossal short-sightedness, but the first Superbowl has always been right behind it on television’s “whoops, we maybe shoulda kept that, huh?” list.  As its curator, Ron Simon, points out in the Journal piece, the Paley Center for Media has had Superbowl I perched forlornly atop its most-wanted list since before it started calling itself the Paley Center For Media.

While I’m as delighted about this find as any sports fan, I can’t help but wonder about the real story behind this story.  Because the Journal‘s reporting raises just as many questions as it answers.

First of all, the reporters, David Roth and Jared Diamond, wait until their third-to-last graf before they mention that the Superbowl I tape is incomplete.  The half-time show and a “large chunk” of the third quarter are missing.  Since 80% of the first Superbowl is a lot more than the 0% of the first Superbowl we had until recently, maybe it’s a bit of a buzz-kill to dwell too long on that fact.  But we also can’t take Superbowl I off the missing list yet, either.  Anybody who’s been searching for the show for the last forty-three years will be searching for the missing quarter.  The “Holy Grail,” as executive Rick Bernstein calls it in the Journal, is now just a smaller and not-so-shiny grail.

The other fact that gets rather buried in the Journal article is that the tape’s owner realized its significance back in 2005 – almost six years ago.  It’s not clear exactly when the Paley Center, which “restored” the tape that had been stored in a Philadelphia attic since 1967, became involved, but evidently it was closer to 2005 than to now.  So why are we just hearing the news this week?  The opportunistic timing of the announcement to coincide with this year’s Superbowl is a little tacky.  Given the magnitude of this discovery, shouldn’t the folks at the Paley Center have felt some obligation to disclose it as soon as they knew it?

One reason behind the timing may be money, another critical issue that the Journal reporters don’t get into until the very end of their report.  At one point, Sports Illustrated estimated the value of a Superbowl I recording at $1 million.  According to a lawyer representing the tape owner (who has not been named publicly, I guess for fear of being descended on by thousands of sports fanatics), the NFL offered $30,000 for it.  If my between-line reading is correct, then the long delay, and the timing of the present announcement, stem from years of dickering between the owner of the tape and the copyright holder, neither of whom can benefit much from the Superbowl I tape without the other.  And until that stalemate is broken, no one can view the recording, apparently not even at the Paley Center.

I don’t know enough about the situation to take sides, but it does seem that someone who was smart enough to hold on to something that two entire television networks didn’t think was worth keeping deserves a decent share of whatever profits that recording might yield.

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