David Pressman, a victim of the blacklist who directed dramatic television for nearly fifty years, died on August 29 at the age of 97.

Pressman had a fractured career.  A distinguished background as an actor and teacher in the theatre, including a long period as Sanford Meisner’s right-hand man at the Neighborhood Playhouse, led naturally to work as a director in the early days of the dramatic anthologies.  His debut came in 1948 on Actors Studio, a show that benefitted from its (nebulous) association with the exciting new acting school of the moment, and won a Peabody.  From there Pressman moved on to some other forgotten dramatic half-hours (including The Nash Airflyte Theatre, pictured above, for which Pressman discovered an unknown Grace Kelly) and then the summer edition of Studio One.

But the door slammed shut in 1952, when CBS reneged on a longterm contract after it learned of Pressman’s leftist past and the director refused to issue a public apologia, as Elia Kazan had just done.  The CBS lawyer who put forth this ultimatum was named Joseph Ream, and as Pressman laughed years later, “he gave me the ream!”

David Pressman (speaking into the microphone at right) in the control room of Actors Studio.  Photo courtesy Michael Pressman.

Pressman survived the blacklist by teaching (his students at Boston University included John Cazale, Verna Bloom, and Olympia Dukakis) and then directing plays.  After David Susskind hired him to direct a few small independent shows, the networks finally cleared Pressman in 1965, but the timing was lousy – he got in a Defenders and a Doctors and the Nurses before those, along most of the other serious dramas then on the air, were cancelled.  Pressman moved on to nine episodes of N.Y.P.D., and in those he worked with some of the great soon-to-be stars of the next decade: Cazale, Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and, in the same episode, Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino.

But, barring a move to Los Angeles, soap operas were the only option, and after a short stint on Another World he settled in as the regular director of One Life to Live for twenty-eight years (surely a record, or close to it).  He won three daytime Emmys.  That’s an impressive accomplishment.  But David’s son, Michael Pressman, has been an episodic director for the past two decades, moving among the top dramas of his time – Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Law and Order, Damages, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer – and it bears pointing out that, if not for the blacklist, David Pressman’s resume would probably comprise a list of the equivalents to those shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

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Fortunately, as was so often not the case with his contemporaries, the historians made good use of Pressman.  The Archive of American Television and Syracuse University both recorded lengthy oral histories on video, and I made my own modest (and as yet unpublished) contribution when I visited Pressman and his lovely wife of sixty-some years, Sasha (who survives him), in 2004 and 2005.  Diminutive, bald, and speaking in a comforting drawl, Pressman reminded me of a miniature Dean Jagger.  He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.

I think my favorite moment in any interview I’ve ever done came during my first meeting with David.  He told me this story of being persecuted for his political activities:

One day the doorbell rang and I opened the door and there was two FBI guys.  They looked like caricatures.  They said, “Do you want to talk to the committee?”  Eugene [his son] was a baby, and Sasha came out and put the baby in my arms.  They said, “Don’t you want to help your country fight communism?”  I said, “I was in World War II.  I was a wounded combat soldier.”  They said, “Well, don’t you want to . . . .”  Whatever it was.  They talked to me.  I said, “I’m doing what I can.”  I don’t remember what I told them.

As he related this encounter, Pressman gestured vaguely toward the front door, and a shiver went down my back.  “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are we sitting in the room where this actually happened?”  Yes: fifty-odd years later we were in the same Central Park West apartment into which the Pressmans moved in 1949.  Everything the Pressmans suffered during the blacklist – the strategy sessions for David’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a producer who fired him, the fretting over how to support three young children without any offers of work – I could look around and imagine all of it going on around me.  As a historian, one learns things at a remove – in the reading room of an archive, in a retirement home a thousand miles away.  This was as close as I’d come to actually being there.

It is, incidentally, shameful that Pressman – one of the few live TV directors who rarely, if ever, worked outside his beloved Manhattan – was passed over for a New York Times obituary.

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More friends of this blog have left us: Kim Swados, who recalled his work as an art director on Studio One in this piece, died on August 30 at the age of 88.  His daughter, Christina, who informed me of his death, has launched a website that will showcase her father’s work.

Actress Peggy Craven Lloyd died on August 30 at 98, after a long period of ill health.  I only met her for about ten seconds once.  But Peggy was married to one of my favorite people, Norman Lloyd, in whose company I spent two unforgettable afternoons.  Norman is still going strong at 96 and I hope this doesn’t slow him down any.

Screw, Sweetie

December 1, 2010

Last night I attended an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York City that promised to showcase a true television rarity.  As a tie-in to Stephen Battaglio’s new biography of David Susskind, the Paley Center planned to screen an unaired television pilot that Susskind produced in 1963: a videotaped adaptation of Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream, which was intended to launch a new anthology series called Command Performance.  Susskind hoped to adapt works by modern and avant-garde authors (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter) for the new show.  It would have been an important follow-up to the classics that Susskind staged on Play of the Week and The DuPont Show of the Month, a way of bringing that commitment to televised literature up to date at a moment when television needed as many infusions of contemporary ideas as it could get.

But, as all of the awkward tenses in the preceding paragraph suggest, very few of those things came off as planned.  Including, lamentably, last night’s screening of “The American Dream.”

After (and only after) members of the audience had bought their tickets and taken their seats, Paley Center curator David Bushman sheepishly announced that his organization had acceded to a last-minute “request” from Albee’s representatives that the Susskind program not be shown.  (The not-terribly-inspired substitution was the famous East Side / West Side episode, “Who Do You Kill?”)

The reason no one ever saw “The American Dream” back in 1963, and presumably the reason Albee still objects to it, stemmed from a colossal error of judgment and ego on Susskind’s part.  As a way of courting Albee (and, if the series sold, other important playwrights), Susskind offered him a Dramatists Guild contract for the show.  Among other things, that guaranteed Albee a right rarely afforded to television writers: full approval of any changes to his script.  During production, Susskind made some trims to Albee’s play (“several pages of dialogue and a few phrases,” according to Battaglio) which the author declined to approve.  Susskind shot the modified script anyway.  Albee watched the finished tape and refused to sign his contract.  Susskind’s show was now worthless, since he did not have the rights to the underlying material.  How could an experienced producer make such a rookie mistake?  According to associate producer Jack Willis (a guest at last night’s non-screening, which was redeemed by a lively discussion about Susskind that also featured Battaglio, actress Rosemary Harris, writer Heywood Gould, producer George C. White, and Susskind’s son Andrew), Susskind was such a consummate schmoozer that he presumed he could simply charm Albee into complying.  But Susskind was wrong.  “The American Dream” was shelved and Command Performance died an embarrassing death.

When I read this account of “The American Dream,” I felt that Albee emerged as the hero of the story.  Given an authority all too infrequently granted to writers, Albee exercised it in defense of his words.  He refused to compromise in the face of pressure from commercial interests.  The fact that the elisions made to his play may have been rather minor – a few years later, Albee expressed public approval for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though it too made some cuts to shorten Albee’s play – only strengthens my admiration for Albee’s stubbornness.  My work as an oral historian, with its focus on oral histories with writers and directors, has turned me into a near-absolutist in the defense of artists’ rights.  Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but I’m on board with Howard Roark when he blows up those corrupted buildings.

However: 2010 is not 1963.  Susskind, when he cut Albee’s text, did so for commercial reasons, and he hoped to profit financially from “The American Dream.”  At the time, Albee’s play was relatively new.  His dismay at the idea of a large television audience being exposed to the work in an altered form was understandable.  But the Paley Center screening would have been in a historical context, not a commercial one.  The audience, unlike the television viewers of 1963, would have been made aware that Albee’s play had been altered without his approval.  Those alterations would have been fodder for a discussion among experts.  The issue of authors’ rights, in general and in the case of “The American Dream,” would have received worthwhile public scrutiny.

And after forty-seven years, “The American Dream” is not the same artifact it once was.  Then, it was a new, and arguably compromised, production of a work by a fashionable young writer.  Now, it is a rare recording of an early play by a legend of the American theater.  Botched or not, it has tremendous historical value.  It’s also a collaborative effort.  Albee, in suppressing it, buries not only his own work but the work of some gifted performers – Ruth Gordon, Celeste Holm, Sudie Bond, Ernest Truex, and George Maharis – and a talented director, David Pressman.  (All of whom Albee approved back in 1963, per the terms of that same Dramatists Guild contract.)  For Pressman, who is still alive at 97, “The American Dream” represented a comeback after ten years on the blacklist.  I cringe at having to point out the irony that, decades later, this work that Pressman finally did get to direct cannot be shown publicly, for reasons that are altogether different but no less objectionable.

It’s very difficult for an artist not to hold the high ground in an ethical dispute, but in my view, Mr. Albee has managed to cede it in this instance.   It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I’m willing to frame Albee’s 1963 showdown with Susskind as Art vs. Capitalism.  Last night, it was Art vs. History.  That’s a much tougher battle to take sides on, but here the latter trumps the former.  It’s time for Mr. Albee to consider the bigger picture.  And the Paley Center, which is an institution charged with preserving history, should have stood up to Albee and insisted on screening “The American Dream” – at its own legal peril, if necessary.

Last night, someone told me that “The American Dream” resides in the center’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by visitors in New York in Los Angeles.  I can’t find it in their online catalog, but I hope that’s true.  I’d sure like to see it someday.

I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual.  But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise.  When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.”  Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly.  He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.

I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character.  (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.)  It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.

Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys.  That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.

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II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)

The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe.  Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film.  It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.

III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)

Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961).  In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors.  “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me.  “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”

But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?

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V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)

Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.

“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical.  “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story.  He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it.  I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”

VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)

In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.

“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.

VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)

The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company.  The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).

NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor.  “I said, I can’t do that.  It [violates] the purity of the script.  I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.”  Eventually Zagor added the father angle.

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VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)

Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).

Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.

IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)

Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).

Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film.  (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)

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X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)

This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves.  In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present.  “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.

Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members.  When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.

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XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.

In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema.  Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies.  They’re not dumb.  They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed.  They’re ahead of us.”

Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.”  Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.”  Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.”  The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.”  Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”

The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.

XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented.  George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey).  Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors.  The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.

XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.?  Yes and no.  “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me.  “It was an erudite group.  We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors.  Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them.  We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”

But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule.  The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said.  Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered.  Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources.  The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.

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XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising.  She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”

XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper.  Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.

XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis.  It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.

All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.

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