Website Update

March 11, 2008

Just a quick posting to draw attention to the debut of a new piece on the oral history page, this one with the television writer Raphael Hayes.  Raphael had a diverse and unpredictable career, mainly in westerns and historical dramas, but with impressive one-off detours through the likes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Defenders.

Raphael will turn 93 tomorrow, so it seemed the perfect occasion to add his interview to the site.

Frank Lewin, the primary credited composer of incidental music for the landmark television dramas The Defenders and The Nurses, died of congestive heart failure on January 18.

The musical name typically associated with The Defenders is Leonard Rosenman, a distinguished young composer of film scores (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause), whom producer Herbert Brodkin had hired to write a short fanfare that served as the opening title theme for The Defenders.  But that was the extent of Rosenman’s contribution; for the first season, The Defenders was underscored entirely with library music, which often gave this distinguished show the sound and feel of a cheap B movie.

Once The Defenders was a hit of sorts for CBS, Brodkin wisely opted to expand its music budget.  He hired Lewin, who had been the music supervisor (i.e., the man who selected and positioned the stock music tracks) for Brenner, a half-hour cop show Brodkin had produced in 1959, to create original scores for every episode beginning with the third season.   At the same time Lewin became the credited composer for The Nurses, the medical show that Brodkin was also producing for CBS.

The difference was immediate and palpable.  Lewin proved to be a rich, innovative talent, and one evidently up to the task of crafting music for over sixty hours of television each year between 1963 and 1965.  Undoubtedly some tracks were reused, but nearly every episode has a unique motif that relates to its subject matter.  The Nurses episode “Gismo on the EEG,” for instance, marked one of TV’s earliest uses of electronic music to accompany its story of a tomboyish nurse who builds an important medical device in the hospital basement.  For “The Leopard Killer,” about an African chieftain stranded in the alienating modern world of an American hospital, Lewin wrote a percussion-driven score to suggest the sound of tribal drums.

(Lewin may also have been involved with both series as a composer or music supervisor prior to his initial credit on them in 1963.  There are also no screen credits identifying the stirring orchestral theme to The Nurses or the jazzy, minimalist alternating solo timpani and sax riffs heard throughout Brenner and over its closing credits.  I wonder if Lewin is responsible for those as well.)

Lewin taught music at Yale and Columbia for many years and composed scores for local theater productions and outdoor historical dramas.  He evidently worked as a music editor or supervisor for other New York-based TV dramas in the ’50s, and on a few movies (Splendor in the Grass, The Angel Levine), but his only important film credit as a composer was on Michael Roemer’s The Plot Against Harry – a film made in 1969 but shelved for twenty years.

Lewin’s website has a photo and a more detailed resume and biography. 

UPDATE: TV music expert Jon Burlingame points out that ASCAP credits the main and end titles of The Nurses to Robert W. Stringer, who received screen credit as the show’s music supervisor for the first season only.  The score for “Night Shift,” the pilot episode, was composed by Glenn Osser.  So my speculation that Lewin might have been responsible for The Nurses theme was inaccurate.  I do suspect that the Brenner motif I described was Lewin’s work – either an original composition or a very skillful arrangement of existing cues – although I should add that what I called a “sax riff” may be a different woodwind which my very untrained ears can’t identify.

UPDATE, 2/6/08: Members of Mr. Lewin’s family have contacted me with a couple of corrections, and the text has been adjusted to reflect those.  The Lewins also report that Frank did compose the Nurses main title theme – that he called it “his Tchaikovsky” because of its “sweeping, romantic character.”  Assuming that’s true, it’s interesting to speculate why Lewin never received credit for his work (as Leonard Rosenman did for his Defenders theme).

Later this month I’ll compile a roundup of the important early TV people who died over the course of 2007.  In the meantime, I’m going to post some reminiscences this week concerning a few of them who I was fortunate enough to have known personally.

David Shaw, who died on July 27, was one of the last of the live television playwrights, specifically, one of the last survivors from the group of young writers nurtured by Fred Coe at the Philco Television Playhouse.  (Only Horton Foote and Tad Mosel remain.)  Shaw was one of the older and less celebrated writers among the illustrious group that came to include Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Sumner Locke Elliott, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Gore Vidal.  He was often tapped by biographers and rarely written about himself.  During the 1970s, he turned his back on writing and took up his first love, painting.  Shaw received better writeups than I expected in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but I don’t think anyone quite grasped that he was essentially a comedy writer.  Nowadays everyone thinks of the live anthologies of the fifties as dramas, but in fact they were porous enough to accomodate many genres, and most of David’s originals (like “Nothing to Sneeze At,” based on his misadventures at a Catskills resort) were comedic in tone.  Shaw could thrive quite well writing for legal dramas (The Defenders) or westerns (the TV version of Shane, which he produced), but he also made contributions to Coe’s Mister Peepers, and both of his Broadway credits were musical comedies.

Speaking of light comedy, my own relationship with Shaw began with a meet-cute.  Given his historical significance I had wanted to interview him for years, but my letters through the Writers Guild went unanswered.  I knew that he was married to the actress Maxine Stuart, and that author Jon Krampner had interviewed him at length for his Fred Coe biography, so I did have some rather labyrinthine alternatives for tracking Shaw down that I hadn’t pursued. 

In the meantime, though, I ran into him at the mall.  One day in 2004 I was killing time at the Century City shopping center while I waited to meet someone when I spotted Stuart’s unmistakable face – she’s the landlady in the famous Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” among other things – and I was sure that the elderly gentleman with her had to be Shaw.  So I followed them into a drugstore and, while a bemused David collected their prescriptions, introduced myself to Maxine (who couldn’t have been nicer), got their phone number, and made arrangements to vist them during my next trip to L.A.  I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve walked past a writer or director on the street, someone whom I’d like to meet, and not recognized him because only the name, not the face, was known to me.  Here was a instance which suggested that it might be happening all the time, exposed in this case only because the writer in question happened to be married to a recognizable actress.

David was a tough interview.  He was a very nice man, but as I anticipated from someone who had sworn off his television career long ago, he wasn’t falling over himself to engage with my questions.  If I asked him anything speculative or too detailed, he’d just say he didn’t remember and wait for my next pitch.  I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting.  Jon Krampner, asking mainly about Fred Coe, got much more vivid material from Shaw, and I think it’s both because Shaw was essentially modest – more willing to talk about others than himself – and because Coe’s genius was one of the subjects that got him fired up.

When Shaw died, the Archive of American Television posted its oral history with him online, so I got the chance to see how their interview compared to mine.  It turned out that the two interviews were only done about a month apart, and that the Archive had roughly the same amount of time with David that I did, so it made for a good case study in comparing techniques.  On the whole I’d say that we came out about even.   I was a little relieved to see the Archive’s interviewer, Gary Rutkowski, get a lot of the same disinterested one-word answers that I got, although I think by the end Gary persevered and elicited a few more good stories out of Shaw than I did.  But both of us should have asked David about a show that I hadn’t seen then, but now think is his magnum opus, a Defenders script called “Ordeal.” 

“Ordeal” is the story of an adulterous couple, genuinely in love, who turn on each other after they’re arrested for the murder of the man’s wife and pursue the ill-advised strategy of a joint defense.  Shaw shows us the actual crime in the prolog: it’s actually a hit that the unhinged wife takes out on herself, although no one but the audience ever gets to know that.  It’s a neat structural trick that clears the way for Shaw to focus not on plot but on the nature of love, namely, whether its essence is selfish or selfless when the chips are really down. 

Most of what’s good about “Ordeal” speaks for itself, but one thing nags at me now: Shaw’s decision to make the protagonist, who’s basically a self-involved heel (or at least the performance by Robert Webber, who specialized in such characters, tips him that way), a television writer by profession.  Boy, is that on the nose – a television writer penning a television script about a television writer.  But I can’t quite get the message: Was Shaw inscribing something autobiographical in the generally sensitive treatment of adultery (then a fairly rare topic on television), which comes across as not unreasonable behavior for people mired in loveless relationships?  Or was he just blowing a big raspberry to his chosen profession in making this spineless, cheating sleaze a TV writer?  Or am I reading too much into Shaw’s cynicism, and the television milieu was just a way to slip in a few clever in-jokes (especially about the onerous New York-to-L.A. commute)?   

Of course, it’s possible that if I had asked David all of that, he would’ve looked at me skeptically and said he didn’t remember – but the point is, I missed my chance, and now we’ll never know.

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