Last week’s look at McCloud leads us into the murky waters of syndication for our sequel.  During the seventies, the New Mexico marshal’s home studio, Universal, cooked up some of the industry’s most creative – one might also say mercenary, or repugnant – ways of squeezing some rerun coin out of its unprofitable properties.  This second part of our McCloud coverage is the story of a show mutilated by its rightsholder, and rescued – four decades later – by an independent DVD label.

In the seventies and eighties, when made-for-television movies were some of the hottest properties on television, enough of them accrued for their owners to bundle them into syndication packages.  These offerings were similar to the packages of old TV shows that cable and local stations could buy, except that they consisted of unrelated telefilms instead of episodes of a single series.  They were a good fit for showcases like CBS Late Night and other time slots that regularly ran old theatrical films.

Once the made-for-TV movie proved its value in off-network reruns, the executives at Universal had an idea: why not create some “new” TV movies out of spare parts?  The “parts” were series that had flopped after a single season, or less.  Because the predominance of “strip” (i.e., five days per week) syndication placed a premium on long-running shows, these failures were perceived as having no rerun value, even if they’d been critical hits.  In the seventies, Universal began to cannibalize these write-offs, sewing together two or more episodes of forgotten series, giving them a generic new title, and dropping them into syndication packages along with authentic telefilms.  With few reference books and no internet to consult, unsuspecting viewers would recognize these hybrids as recycled television episodes only if they’d been among the few to watch the failed show when it was on the air.  That these telefilm Frankensteins were incoherent and unsatisfying – instead of telling a single story, they put the characters through several abrupt, unconnected plots – didn’t matter.  They added to Universal’s profits, without any obvious negative consequences.

Most of the series that Universal cannibalized for this program remain obscure today: Tammy; Mister Terrific; Pistols’n’Petticoats; The Outsider; The Psychiatrist; Matt Lincoln; The D.A.; O’Hara, U.S. Treasury; The Partners; Doctors’ Hospital; Man and the City; Paris 7000; Toma; Chase; Get Christie Love; Sons and Daughters; Lucas Tanner; Griff; Fay; Sara; Mobile One; Kingston Confidential; Gemini Man; Cliffhangers; Turnabout.  But a few of them have since built up enough of a cult following that it seems surprising, in hindsight, that Universal would pilfer them in this way.  When Kolchak: The Night Stalker first entered syndication, only fourteen episodes were made available; the other six were tied up as mutant telefilms.  Alias Smith and Jones, the Roy Huggins-created western, also had some episodes turned into telefilm features and then returned to the syndication package years later.

The other studios “TV movied” a handful of old series this way – Fox (The Man Who Never Was and Blue Light) and QM (Dan August) – but mainly it was Universal that rummaged through the vaults with its extract-every-last-dime philosophy.  And the hybrid TV movies were only the start.  Universal went syndication-crazy in other ways, turning cross-overs into two-parters (a logical idea, actually, that landed an unsyndicated Owen Marshall in the Marcus Welby package) and attaching failed series to successful ones (the few episodes of the George Kennedy vehicle Sarge were syndicated together with The Bold Ones).  The most invasive of these reworkings remains infamous among TV fans: Universal turned Night Gallery, the hour-long horror anthology, into a half-hour syndication package, slicing out large sections of the longer segments and adding stock footage to others to achieve a uniform length.  Then the studio took The Sixth Sense, a one-season occult drama, edited its hour-long episodes down to a half-hour form, and married them to the recut Night Gallerys in order to hit the magic number (100 episodes) that syndicators supposedly desired.  Night Gallery was restored to its original form for a home video release back in 1991, but the uncut Sixth Sense episodes emerged (on the Chiller Channel and then Hulu) only a couple of years ago.

All this effort on Universal’s part ran counter to the creators’ intentions for these shows.  “All the rhythms are off, and it doesn’t play so well any more,” said Night Gallery director John Badham in Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1999).  “On its own it was a very good episode and I was horrified when I saw it,” said Joel Rogosin of The Meanest Man in the West, which combined one of Rogosin’s episodes of The Virginian with one produced by another unit, in Paul Green’s A History of Television’s The Virginian (McFarland, 2010).

The man responsible for this butchery was Harry Tatelman, a Universal vice president whose department oversaw, among other things, the recutting of feature films to meet television censors’ requirements.  Tatelman was a kind of self-hating corporate yes-man, an old-time Lew Wasserman lackey who had started with MCA as a literary agent in the forties.  Tatelman left to produce feature films and some of the Warner Bros. westerns and detective shows in the fifties, returning to the bustling Universal shortly after MCA purchased the studio in 1959.  “Lew made me crawl when I came back,” Tatelman said in Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood (Da Capo, 2001), but his fealty to the company was such that he had no compunction about hacking up other filmmakers’ work behind their backs.  “The resulting pictures were not good, but Harry was widely praised by the financial people for his ability to turn otherwise useless film into money,” said producer and television executive Frank Price in A History of Television’s The Virginian.  “By the time anyone had learned what had happened with the old episodes, it was pretty much too late to change anything.”

Although it likely turned a modest profit in the short term, Universal’s thinking seems totally backward in the current vintage television market.  Short-lived television series have become marketable again on niche cable networks like TVLand, Trio, Encore, ALN, RTN, and MeTV; to some extent, they have even displaced played-out behemoths like Wagon Train or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which had so many episodes that some were omitted from syndication just to make the packages manageable.  And while many remarkably obscure television series have enjoyed successful DVD releases, the made-for-television film has remained an almost wholly uncommercial prospect.  (Only the Warner and Sony manufacture-on-demand DVD-r initiatives have, in the last three years, attempted to release vintage TV movies in any number.)  Any number of the series that Universal once chopped up for TV-movie scrap have a hook that a licensor like Shout Factory or Timeless could use for a DVD release: Get Christie Love (blaxploitation); Mister Terrific (superheroes); The Outsider (Roy Huggins’s first draft for The Rockford Files); The Psychiatrist (early work by Steven Spielberg); and so on.

*

Here’s the best-case scenario with one of Universal’s hybrid TV movies: Two episodes of a series are glued together but remain essentially uncut, with only the title sequences replaced.  (Of course, for historians like myself, the removal of the original credits is already a disastrous consequence.)  But it could get much worse.

That’s what brings us to McCloud, which, as a successful, long-running series, would seem to be immune to this indignity.  But McCloud had a pre-history that the other NBC Mystery Movie wheel shows didn’t.  While Columbo and McMillan and Wife debuted as ninety-minute shows in 1971, McCloud had spent its freshman year as part of Four-in-One, an earlier, unsuccessful alternating-series concept.  Instead of taking turns, the four shows under this umbrella (the others were Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, and San Francisco International Airport) would each broadcast six consecutive episodes and then cede the time slot to the next one.  The Four-in-One shows were all an hour in length, which meant that the six 1970 McCloud segments were too short to fit into the same syndication package as the feature-length episodes (which ultimately numbered forty, counting the pilot).

The obvious solution was for the Tatelman unit to glue the hour-long McClouds together into three new segments – The Man From Taos, Manhattan Manhunt, and Murder Arena.  (Was someone at Universal having fun with alliteration?)  Instead of simply fitting two episodes back-to-back, these hybrid McClouds intercut between them, to give the impression that Marshal McCloud was solving two crimes at once.  (This was possible only because Dennis Weaver wore the same brown coat and cowboy hat in almost every scene.)  In an odd way, the recut McClouds anticipated the serial cop shows of the eighties and beyond – real cops do work more than one case at the same time.  But the patchwork syndication edits could not balance the dramatic highs and lows of the originals, and the results were schizoid and semi-coherent.

The toughest episode for Tatelman’s editor – and we know who he was, because the credits of the hybrid telefilms all list one editor, Jean-Jacques Berthelot, whose name does not appear on the hour-long segments – to blend with another one was “Our Man in Paris,” which saw McCloud kidnapped and sent abroad to deliver a package for some smugglers.  Obviously McCloud couldn’t be on two continents at once.  But a scene in the series’ first episode, “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” in which Chief Clifford got so riled up that he put the marshal on a plane back to New Mexico, gave Berthelot the airport segues he needed to drop the Parisian adventure right into the middle of the other segment.  Overdubbing changed the bad guy (Carl Betz) in “Who Says…” from a blackmailer into the leader of an international smuggling ring.  Hey, a villain’s a villain, right?

(Evidently Douglas Heyes, the writer of “Who Says…,” didn’t think so; he replaced his name in the credits with a pseudonym, “Matthew Howard.”)

The “Who Says…”/“Our Man in Paris” hybrid, The Man From Taos, was ninety-four minutes long (two hours with commercials), but the other two were intended for ninety-minute slots and totaled only seventy-three minutes each.  That meant that, for those, some twenty to twenty-five minutes of the original episodes were excised.  Manhattan Manhunt kept almost all of the Broadway murder mystery “The Stage Is All the World,” but discarded the lighter half of “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue,” which had alternated between a dark anti-drug A story and a comedic subplot about a mounted officer’s missing horse.  Murder Arena combined “The Concrete Canyon” (a murder-at-the-rodeo story with meaty parts for an A-list guest cast) with “Walk in the Dark” (a Leslie Stevens teleplay, in which a Central Park stakeout took a backseat to McCloud’s romancing of a policewoman played by Susan Saint James) by making trims to each, which sent both plot-crammed storylines lurching forward at a jerky, breakneck pace.  Clumsy voiceovers laid over awkward cutaways to inserts and extreme long shots – fortunately for Berthelot, McCloud was one of those “shampoo commercial”-era shows that relied heavily on telephoto lenses – created tenuous connections between the bifurcated plots.

*

The most pernicious aspect of these recut first-season McCloud episodes is that in some ways they have been accepted as the official versions.  For instance, Wikipedia, TV.com, and Epguides.com all list the new titles as the primary ones.  The Internet Movie Database describes “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City” and “Our Man in Paris” as “Part 1” and “Part 2” of The Man From Taos.  That’s inaccurate not only because the original episodes are unrelated, but because they commingle within the recut version.  The Man From Taos doesn’t have a discrete “Part 1” or “Part 2.”

For decades, the first six episodes have rarely been shown in their original cuts.  When Universal released the first two seasons of McCloud on DVD in 2005, it missed the opportunity to restore the hour-long segments to their proper form.  And that would have been that – most old TV shows get one shot on DVD, and no redos – if not for the heroic efforts of Madman Entertainment, an independent Australian label that licensed the Region 4 rights to McCloud.

When Grant Taylor, a DVD producer for Madman, asked Universal for the hour-long episodes, the studio informed him that they had no video elements for the original versions.  But Taylor didn’t give up.  McCloud was “a personal favourite,” he told me in an e-mail last year, and Taylor resolved to do the series justice.  Since not only the American but also the subsequent British and Scandinavian DVD releases had sourced the first season re-edits, Taylor “kind of saw it as the last chance.”

Taylor commenced a search of Australian stations that had rerun McCloud, but found only the recut versions.  On a trip to London, he mentioned his quest to a friend who recalled that a British broadcaster had shown the hour-long episodes many years earlier.  Holding out little hope that the station in question had retained copies of the masters, Taylor checked with his sources there and learned that, “miraculously, all six were still in the vault.”

“We had dubs made and when they arrived at the office it was like the Holy Grail,” Taylor wrote in his e-mail.  “I don’t think I had ever seen the original versions, and after viewing them it was like watching a completely different season. The episodes were so much tighter and made sense, unlike the bizarrely cobbled together feature-versions.  We did a bit of audio restoration and then set about getting them out. To create a definitive release, we elected to include the syndicated feature versions as a bonus, allowing viewers to note the differences.”

The Madman set, which came out in 2010, really does make it possible to observe some night-and-day differences between the original McCloud episodes and the syndication versions.  In general, the Four-in-One edition of McCloud was a quirkier, looser show, more sixties than seventies, more of a character-driven procedural and less the polished mega-mystery it became as part of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise.  Much of the deleted footage is atmospheric: gorgeous second-unit Manhattan scenery (Universal sacrificed production value and time-capsule status when it recut the shows) and relaxed interplay between Weaver and the supporting cast.  The first season of McCloud also had its own title sequence (kind of an ugly one), which disappeared after the show joined the Mystery Movie wheel.

The scenes that were cut for syndication – probably totaling close to an hour across all six episodes – have their minor surprises and delights.  McCloud pitches pennies with street kids in “Walk in the Dark,” outshoots the chief on the firing range in “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” confronts hippies and a modern-day Lady Godiva in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  Joanna Moore achieves a lovely, wistful camaraderie with Dennis Weaver in scenes excised from “The Concrete Corral,” and Leo Gordon’s cameo in Manhattan Manhunt becomes a meaty comic role in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  A number of other actors were cut out of the shortened versions altogether: Maggie Thrett and William Bryant (in “Horse Stealing”), Mwako Cumbuka (in “Walk in the Dark”), and Dennis Fimple (in “The Concrete Corral”).  Doug McClure, then the star of Universal’s The Virginian, makes a quick, inexplicable in-joke cameo as one Gringo Fontana, which didn’t make the cut when “The Concrete Corral” was folded into Murder Arena.

So McCloud gets a happy ending on home video, one of which American fans may still be unaware.  It gets better: in the U.S., Universal dropped McCloud after its first DVD release, but Madman has continued the series up through the fifth season.  The Madman catalog also offers seasons of Ironside and Quincy, M. E. that aren’t available in North America . . . so if you’re placing an order, you might as well stock up!

Thanks to Grant Taylor and Ben Pollock at Madman Entertainment, and to syndication expert “Neil Brock” for sharing his research on the re-edited TV movie phenomenon.

McCloud

February 15, 2012

Ambling through the concrete canyons of New York in boots, cowboy hat, and string tie, Sam McCloud looked more than ridiculous.  “What are you supposed to be, Midnight Cowboy?” somebody asks him in one episode.  McCloud had a fish-out-of-water premise that might generously be called thin: a U.S. marshal from Taos, New Mexico, is reassigned to patrol the streets of Manhattan under some ill-defined information-exchange program, to the bemusement of Marshal McCloud and the perpetual aggravation of his bosses on the N.Y.P.D.  It was a one-joke show – a joke that had, in fact, already been told once, in the movies – and probably the irresistible aw-shucks grin of Dennis Weaver, the affable actor who played McCloud, was the only thing that kept it from being a one-season show.

Weaver had been a character man for some two decades, in movies (he was the perverted motel clerk in Touch of Evil) but then famous as the jangly, limping deputy Chester Goode on Gunsmoke.  Weaver won an Emmy as Chester and left the show in 1964, but evidently no one told him how inescapably Chester had typecast him as a sidekick and a hillbilly.  In the movies he played supporting roles, and although they let him topline his own television shows now – Kentucky Jones and Gentle Ben – Weaver played second banana to children and/or animals in both of them.

The biographical details are important, because it leads one to wonder just whose idea it was to cast Weaver, that sexless not-quite-a-wimp gimp from Gunsmoke, in a quasi-official remake of the 1968 theatrical hit Coogan’s BluffCoogan’s Bluff is the movie in which Clint Eastwood captures a bad guy and leaves him handcuffed him to a porch rail while he goes inside to bathe in the nude with a pulchritudinous blonde.  It’s built around Clint’s squint and delights in having the sexist pig Coogan be mean to everyone for no special reason.  Even in the watered-down world of television, it’s a leap of logic from all of that to Chester “Muster Dillon!” Goode.

McCloud is watered down, but not as much as you might expect.  It was designed not just to make a leading man out of Dennis Weaver, but also a ladies’ man.  More lounge lizard than gila monster, Sam McCloud gets a lot of action: the show not only gives him a high-society girlfriend (Diana Muldaur) who appears and disappears, without much explanation, at the convenience of each week’s plot (or leading lady), but also parades in front of him an array of smitten policewomen (among them, in the first sex-, excuse me, six-episode season alone, Susan Saint James, Ann Prentiss, and an unbilled Teri Garr), upon each of whom McCloud hit with a semi-skeezy relentlessness.

Tall, slim, aggressive but better-mannered than the bluff Coogan, boasting a mischievous grin and a proto-Sam Elliott ’stache, Weaver was dead-on shrewd in his appoach to the part.  Look at the early McCloud episodes, and you can tell that even though “romantic lead” was not in long supply on the nearly fifty year-old actor’s resume, Weaver understood exactly how to fashion himself into one.  Crimes were committed on McCloud, and eventually Marshal Sam got around to solving them and eventually we shall examine a few here, but McCloud was a personality piece more than a genre exercise.  I’ll bet that the audience for Weaver’s show, an audience that kept it on the air for seven seasons, was mostly female.   For most of its run, McCloud alternated as the NBC Mystery Movie with Columbo and McMillan and Wife, the show that brought Rock Hudson to television; and if my guess about its audience demographic is correct, then one might see Columbo less as a tentpole holding up two lesser shows and more as the brainy outlier in a franchise built out of mustachioed man-candy.

Everything about McCloud apart from the character is unremarkable.  The marshal has an NYPD sidekick/friend/babysitter, played by the handsome but dull Terry Carter.  There’s an authority figure, Chief of Detectives Peter B. Clifford (J. D. Cannon), who gets bent out of shape by McCloud’s minor celebrity status and his intrusive, unorthodox policing methods.  Their relationship is an echo of the establishment/maverick conflict that structured the first season of Mannix, in which the hero (Mike Connors) was an employee of a large corporate investigation firm, rather than the free agent he later became.  Just as it did in Mannix, the idea fails because the McCloud-Clifford conflict remains static and unresolvable.

There was also a casting problem.  In Coogan’s Bluff, the equivalent character (more plausibly, a lieutenant in charge of a single precinct) was played by Lee J. Cobb, whose world-weariness clashed effectively with Eastwood’s taciturn stubbornness.  In the television series, J. D. Cannon played Chief Clifford, taking over for Peter Mark Richman, who played the character in the pilot telefilm.  Cannon was a better actor than the humorless Richman, but he was all wrong to play against Weaver.  An Idaho native, Cannon spoke in a harsh, raspy drawl.   He had a rangy, western flavor, and a wolfish smirk that suggested he was up to something – just like Dennis Weaver.  Weaver and Cannon were two Matt Dillons and no Chester.  Imagine a stereotypical New Yorker type facing off against McCloud – someone like Cobb or Jack Warden or Val Avery – and you can picture how this tiring dead-weight grind could have come alive as an enjoyable weekly sparring match.

*

McCloud went on the air under the stewardship of two Universal contractees: executive producer Leslie Stevens, on the downhill slide after losing the indie company that produced his creation, The Outer Limits; and Glen A. Larson, just beginning his ascendancy toward a peak as TV’s ultimate dreck magnate.  The pair had launched It Takes a Thief two years earlier.  The pilot telefilm (broadcast just as McCloud, but variously retitled for syndication) was credited to some talented paycheck-collectors, Stanford Whitmore (author of The Fugitive’s pilot) and Columbo creators Richard Levinson & William Link, but it was in fact a wholly uncredited rewrite of Coogan’s Bluff.  A few key plot turns were inverted, but the feature film’s basic story – of a transported prisoner lost and then recaptured – was left intact.

The name of Herman Miller appears nowhere in the telefilm’s credits, but by the first season he is listed as the show’s creator.  Miller was the original writer on Coogan’s Bluff and the restoration of his credit probably represented a heroic victory on the part of either the WGA or a good lawyer against Universal’s laissez-faire intellectual-property pickpocketing.  So cheers to Miller, a relatively minor writer who presumably drafted the key elements of the character; but I’ll bet the talented writers who polished the Coogan’s Bluff script – Eastwood favorite Dean Riesner, Naked City guru Howard Rodman, and (uncredited) Ben Casey/Night Gallery producer Jack Laird – were a bit miffed at being left out of the McCloud bonanza.

Those are some big behind-the-scenes names, and I’ll throw around a few more.  Douglas Heyes (Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Bold Ones) wrote and directed the first episode broadcast.  For the second season, Stevens and Larson were out, replaced by producer Dean Hargrove and associate producer Peter Allan Fields (both key Man From U.N.C.L.E. veterans), who wrote about half of the scripts.  For the third year (which I haven’t watched yet), Larson was back, with Michael Gleason (Peyton Place, Remington Steele) in tow as his story editor.  The paradox is, none of the staff changes mattered much.  McCloud kept it in his pants more successfully the second year, Weaver got to sing (a corny, pro-ecology tune in “Give My Regrets to Broadway”), and that’s about it.  McCloud remained a light show, without much grit or any kind of authorial touch.

*

I enjoy McCloud, even as I’m not quite ready to contest its rep as a placeholder in between outings of Columbo.  Columbo as Mozart, McCloud as Salieri, then.  But even middling shows can turn out exceptional or off-beat episodes.  That’s the fun of television; every week is a new chance, and compulsive viewing is rewarded with pleasant surprises.

The two early standouts are “A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley” and “Top of the World, Ma!”  Fields’s “Tranquil Valley” is a black comedy that’s never very funny, but it has a better guest cast than a lot of the more celebrated cult movies from that era: Vic Morrow, Moses Gunn, Burgess Meredith, Allen Garfield, Joyce Van Patten, Lonny Chapman, Alfred Ryder, Arlene Martel, Bruce Kirby.  Morrow and Gunn play an interracial, eccentric pair of kidnappers who shanghai McCloud to Liberty Island (the real thing; McCloud, like Kojak, intercut between the Universal backlot and some fabulous New York locations).  I’m not the first person to perceive a possible influence of this episode on the central characters in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the existential hit men Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson).

“Tranquil Valley” is an oddity, but “Top of the World, Ma!” (also by Fields, from a story by actor Ray Danton) falls not too short of masterpiece territory.  It’s the story of a violent country bumpkin (Bo Svenson) who comes to New York to avenge himself against some underworld types who have cheated him.  Before it cops out completely in the last few minutes, “Top of the World, Ma!” has a real neon-noir tinge; the sweaty, skimpily dressed photographer’s model played by Stefanie Powers is a frankly coded prostitute and a formidable femme fatale.  The episode maintains a genuine ambiguity as to who the real villain is; at a certain point, the hillbilly earns McCloud’s sympathy, but Svenson is so authentically terrifying that for once the cornpone crimefighter seems to have lost his mind.  Pity the mob guys (more bountiful casting: Robert Webber, Val Avery, Vincent Gardenia) in Svenson’s sights; pity that McCloud couldn’t come up against this kind of opposition in every episode.

This is part of a fall winter spring series looking at some of the many crime shows of the seventies.  Next week: McCloud stars in a real-life detective story!

Late Innings

September 7, 2010

John Ford directed a handful of television shows, but the most Fordian television episode I’ve ever seen is “A Head of Hair,” a Have Gun Will Travel from 1960. 

Scripted by the unsung master Harry Julian Fink, “A Head of Hair” sends Paladin deep into Indian country to find a long-ago kidnapped white woman, who may or may not have been spotted from a distance by a cavalry officer (George Kennedy).  The girl is blonde, but we’ll learn that hers is not the head of hair to which the title refers.  As a guide, Paladin recruits a white man who used to live as a Sioux, but who is now a destitute alcoholic.  The first sparse exchange between them lays out the impossibility of the mission and establishes BJ’s quiet self-contempt:

PALADIN: Would a couple of men have any chance at all?

ANDERSON: Men?  A couple of Oglala Sioux, maybe.  Maybe even me, seven, eight years ago.  But you?  They’d stake you out between two poles and flay you alive.

But Anderson takes the job because he needs drinking money.  The series of tense confrontations with the Nez Perce through which he and Paladin then navigate are not standard cowboys-versus-Indians stuff.  They are precise, specific rituals of masculine and tribal pride, none of which take a predictable shape.  Because Paladin is a novice among the Nez Perce and Anderson is an expert, Fink has a clever device by which to clue the audience in on what’s at stake in each conflict.  Gradually, these question-and-answer sessions also disclose a profound philosophical schism between the two men.  Paladin is preoccupied with personal honor and ethics, while Anderson is consumed with a self-abasing nihilism.  Both are deadly pragmatists, but only one of them will take the scalps of dead braves.

The Nez Perce mission concludes in victory, but it comes with a price.  Success turns the two trackers against one another, for reasons that Paladin cannot understand until after violence erupts between them.  “Why? Why?” are Paladin’s last words to Anderson in “A Head of Hair,” and only the answer is the unsatisfactory moral of the story of the scorpion and the frog: because it was in his nature.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that “A Head of Hair” falls chronologically between the two John Ford westerns that depict a two-man journey into the wilderness in search of a missing white woman (or women) in the custody of Indians.  Both of the films imagine such captivity as a kind of unspeakable horror.  “A Head of Hair” doesn’t dwell on that aspect of the story, but it does glance at the repatriated Mary Grange (Donna Brooks) long enough to construe her as lost, maybe for good, in the breach between two cultures.  Another spare Fink line: “I would have gone with him,” Mary says, looking sadly after a departing Anderson.  “They say the Sioux are kind to their women.”

I haven’t yet identified the actor who plays Anderson because that’s the blinking neon sign that points to Ford.  It is Ben Johnson, the ex-stuntman who was an important member of Ford’s “repertory company” during the late forties and early fifties.  Johnson delivers what may be his finest performance prior to the Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show: understated, unadorned, just barely hinting at a deep well of sadness and self-loathing.  Imagine that line – “maybe even me, seven, eight years ago” – in Johnson’s voice and then picture the flicker of a weary smile that goes with it. 

There’s another Ford fellow-traveler in the mix here, too: the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, was the son of Victor McLaglen, who won an Oscar for The Informer and overlapped with Ben Johnson in two of the Cavalry Trilogy films.  McLaglen didn’t have Ford’s eye but he did get to shoot “A Head of Hair” on location (in Lone Pine?), and frame his actors against the landscape in a way that reminds us the wilderness is part of the story.  The precision in McLaglen’s compositions match the precision in Fink’s scenario; when those three braves whose scalps are about to be up for grabs turn their backs on Paladin, there’s room to believe that maybe gunplay really has been avoided.  All that’s left is something to give “A Head of Hair” some size, and that comes via Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping brass- and woodwind-driven score.  It was one of only two that Goldsmith wrote for Have Gun Will Travel.

“A Head of Hair” falls within a string of amazingly strong segments that opened Have Gun’s fourth season.  There’s another Fink masterpiece, “The Shooting of Jessie May,” a four-character confrontation that ends in a really shocking explosion of violence; “Saturday Night,” a jail-cell locked-room mystery with a dark underbelly; “The Poker Fiend,” a study of degenerate gambling with an existential component and a mesmerizing, atypically internal performance from Peter Falk; and “The Calf,” a cutting allegory about a man (Denver Pyle, also a revelation) obsessed with the wire fence that marks his territory.  Lighter entries like the baseball comedy “Out at the Old Ballpark” and “The Tender Gun,” with Jeanette Nolan as a crotchety female marshal under siege (Nolan, like Walter Brennan, had a with-teeth and a without-teeth performance; guess which one this is), are not as strong but they do demonstrate the impressive tonal range of Have Gun.  One measure of a great television series – one which The X-Files taught me – is the extent to which it can avoid being the same show each week while still remaining, on a fundamental level, the same show each week.

*

The source of the fourth-season shot in Have Gun’s arm?  A new producer and story editor, Frank Pierson and Albert Ruben, took over, and it’s not a coincidence that both were superb writers.  By that time, the star of the series, Richard Boone, had seized control of it in a way that would soon be common for TV stars but that was unprecedented in 1960. 

Boone got to direct a lot of episodes but, more importantly, he had approval over the story content and the behind-the-camera personnel.  A snob who thought he should be doing serious acting, not westerns, Boone set out to make Have Gun as un-western a western as possible.  That’s probably how Pierson and Ruben got their jobs: Boone wanted bosses (or “bosses”) who would be down with phasing out the cowboy schtick in favor of broad comedies, existential tragedies, pastiches of Verne and Shakespeare, and so on.  Of course, Pierson and Ruben fell out of favor with Boone and he kicked them to the curb after a year or so . . . but that’s a story for another day. 

Regime change and star ego-trips also characterized Wanted: Dead or Alive in its third and final season.  Steve McQueen had always been the whole show, but by 1959, everybody knew he was destined for major stardom, including McQueen himself, who seemed to be using the final run of episodes as a laboratory in which to determine exactly which tics and slouches to incorporate into his definitive screen persona.  Wanted: Dead or Alive also got a new producer for its home stretch, a man named Ed Adamson.  Supposedly McQueen drove him crazy.  Adamson was a prolific writer and, either to save money or time or just because McQueen was all the hassle he could take, he took the unusual step of divvying up all twenty-six of that year’s script assignments between himself and one other writer, Norman Katkov.

Katkov was one of my first oral history subjects.  Since I published that piece, I’ve used this blog to weigh in on some of Katkov’s work that I hadn’t seen at the time of our interview.  The most important of the shows that were unavailable to me then was Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Katkov’s fourteen episodes represent his only sustained work on a series other than Ben Casey, and so I am a little disappointed not to be able to call them another set of overlooked gems.  In most cases, without consulting the credits, I’d have a hard time telling which episodes are Katkov’s and which were written by Adamson, a straight-arrow action and mystery man. 

Katkov managed a couple of idiosyncratic scripts, like “The Twain Shall Meet,” in which Josh Randall teams up with a fancy easterner named Arthur Pierce Madison (Michael Lipton).  Madison is a journalist, which allows Katkov (a former beat reporter) to get in some knowing gags.  Contrary to the usual genre expectation of the western hero’s stoic modesty, Josh is intrigued, even flattered, at the prospect of having his exploits recorded for posterity.  Mary Tyler Moore has an amusing bit as a saloon girl who’s even more dazzled by the prospect of fame.  Katkov focuses on the differences in how Josh and Madison make their respective livings: the contrast between physical and intellectual (and, amusingly, steady versus freelance work).  In a quiet moment, Madison asks, “Is it all you want?”  Josh replies, “Almost.”  Westerns did not thrive on introspection, so it’s a shock to see a show like Wanted: Dead or Alive take a pause to contemplate whether its hero is happy in his work.

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Does it seem as if this space circles back sooner or later to a small group of very good writers?  I would argue that the history of television circles that way, too.  Anthony Lawrence: another oral history subject on whom I’ve followed up here, first on The Outcasts and now on Hawaii Five-O.  Lawrence logged one episode each in the third and fourth season, and the trademarks I described out in my profile are evident in both.  There are the show-offy literary allusions: “Two Doves and Mr. Heron” ends with a quote from the Buddha.  There is the interest in topical issues, which began on Five-O with the germ-warfare classic “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu” (germ warfare).  Lawrence followed that up with scripts on homosexuality (Vic Morrow, fruity in more ways than one, as a whack-job who fondles John Ritter in “Two Doves”) and Vietnam (“To Kill or Be Killed”). 

There is also what may be Lawrence’s defining trait as a writer: the unpredictable burst of emotional intensity within otherwise routine material.  “To Kill or Be Killed” reminded me of how puzzled I was that the same Outer Limits writer could have come up with both the heart-rending “The Man Who Was Never Born” and the diffident, heavy-handed “The Children of Spider County.”  In “To Kill or Be Killed,” Lawrence caps three hit-or-miss acts of family melodrama (dove son vs. hawk father) with a long, exhausting monologue – a tape-recorded suicide note that plays over horrified reaction shots of the other characters.  It might seem like lazy writing, and maybe it was, to withhold all the emotion from a script and then dump it into the final minutes.  But I think Lawrence was crazy like a fox.  That monologue concerns My Lai (under a different name), something a lot of people watching Hawaii Five-O probably didn’t want to hear about, and with his crude structural tactic Lawrence drops the topic in their laps like a turd on the dinner table.

Hawaii Five-O, in its fourth year, is almost exactly the same show as it was in its first.  It’s still a show that allows for a lot of variety in its formula – or rather, the alternation between six or eight different formulas.  Unlike on Wanted: Dead or Alive, one can detect an individual authorial touch in many of the episodes.  The lurid pulp shocker “Beautiful Screamer” is pure Stephen Kandel.  The dullest espionage outings and the most heavy-handed McGarrett lectures usually trace back to the team of Jerry Ludwig and Eric Bercovici, who, unfortunately, wrote quite a few of each. 

One of the most popular Five-Os, “Over Fifty? Steal,” falls into this stretch of the series.  It was penned by a writer new to the show, E. Arthur Kean.  It’s a semi-comedy in the cuddly-oldster-as-criminal-mastermind genre, featuring a smug Hume Cronyn as a serial robber who goes out of his way to taunt McGarrett and crew.  I like “Over Fifty,” but Kean’s second script for the series deserves more attention.  More diamond-hard than heart-shaped, “Ten Thousand Diamonds and a Heart” is another caper, but played deadly straight this time.  It starts with a parking garage prison bust and turns into a jewel heist, which Kean sets up as a battle of wits between another master criminal (Tim O’Connor) and an impregnable high-rise.  Kean fusses over the details: scale models, elevator schematics, medication for a bum ticker.  Somehow, he makes the minutiae fascinating.  They’re the diamonds, and the heart is the clash between O’Connor and the “banker” (the guy who’s funding the heist) played by Paul Stewart.  It’s a portrait of two paranoid career criminals who can’t trust anyone but themselves, gnashing at each other until they tear their own caper apart.

I had seen a few of Kean’s earlier scripts, for The Fugitive and The F.B.I., without having much of a reaction.  But the Hawaii Five-Os that mark him down as, in the Sarrisian lexicon, a Subject For Further Research.

*

Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland.  Further research department: one of those turkeys marked the prime-time debut, as far as I can tell, of one E. Arthur Kean.

A few fourth-year episodes written by series veterans like Jerry McNeely and Archie L. Tegland still felt the old Dr. Kildare: tough, smart, sagacious.  Tegland’s “A Reverence For Life” trots out one of the standbys of the medical drama, a story of a patient who refuses life-saving treatment due to her religious convictions.  My own inclinations always favor science over superstition; but Dennis Weaver, with his innate humility, is so perfect as the Jehovah’s Witness whose wife is dying that I was rooting for him to prevail in his faith.  

I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  But Kildare’s fourth year includes duds from other good writers, like Adrian Spies (Saints and Sinners) and Jack Curtis (Ben Casey), and that’s often a sign of tinkering from upstairs. 

By 1964 Richard Chamberlain was one of TV’s hottest stars, a heartthrob with a viable recording career.  MGM (which produced Dr. Kildare) had cashed in on his popularity by building three medium-budget feature films around him in three years.  Both the studio and the network had a big investment in Chamberlain, and I’m guessing that executive producer Norman Felton may have capitulated to pressure to give viewers a maximum dose of Chamberlain romancing and singing.  I’m not kidding about the singing: “Music Hath Charms” is a plotless let’s-put-on-a-show show about an amateur night for the hospital staff.  I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.

I’ve proposed corporate greed as the major cause for the de-fanging of the once sharp Dr. Kildare, but there’s also the David Victor factor.  In the years before signing on as Norman Felton’s right-hand man, Victor was a hack genre writer (with a partner, Herbert Little, Jr., who disappeared after Victor hit the big time).  In the years after he and Felton parted ways, Victor copied the Kildare format and quickly ran it into comfortable mediocrity as the head man on Marcus Welby.  Was Victor the source of the blandness that set in on Kildare as the show’s exec, Norman Felton (by all accounts a discerning producer), turned his attention to developing The Lieutenant and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time – but if so, Victor was in an even wronger place at an even wronger time a year later, when he moved over to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the supervising producer who supervised that show’s second- and third-season slide into cringeworthy camp.

*

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: When we last checked in on TV’s favorite spies, we found a mortified Robert Vaughn frugging with a man in a gorilla suit.  I had hoped to follow that cheap shot with a report on how The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rebounded in its final half-season, as new producer Anthony Spinner followed the network’s oops-we-fucked-up orders to take out the yuks and put back the action.  I’d heard that the fourth season was “too grim,” but hey, I like grim.  Especially if it’s the alternative to Solo and Kuryakin partying with Sonny and Cher or riding on stinkbombs (funny for Kubrick, not for Kuryakin).  Grim is good.

Didn’t work out that way.  The fourth season isn’t grim, it’s dull.  The plots are perfunctory, the characters cardboard, the casting uninspired.  The books say that Spinner tried to bring U.N.C.L.E. back to its roots, but the shows play like nobody much cared what went on the screen.  I gave up when I got to “The THRUSH Roulette Affair,” which rien ne va pluses with one of the laziest deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen.  See, THRUSH baddie is torturing some guy with a machine that figures out the victim’s worst fear and then gets him to talk in a room full of (not at all scary) footage of said fear.  In this case, the poor sucker is more afraid of being run over by a train.  Wouldn’t you know it, when the shit hits the fan, the evil scientist bursts out with a clumsy load of exposition: turns out he tested the machine on the main THRUSH baddie (Michael Rennie), and his greatest fear is exactly the same as the other guy’s.  Two trainophobes in a row!  Which means that when the U.N.C.L.E. guys shove Rennie into the scaring-to-death machine, all of that (not at all scary) train stock footage is already cued up!

Usually I don’t even notice plot holes but, seriously, this one’s just insulting.  How could Spinner or the writer (Arthur Weingarten) or the story editor (Irv Pearlberg) not come up with anything better than that?  Especially since they swiped the idea from 1984 in the first place?

Another of the fourth season U.N.C.L.E.s spieled some boring Latin American palace intrigue (featuring not-at-all-Latin American Madlyn Rhue), which got me to thinking.  The Lieutenant ended by sending its stateside serviceman hero off to die in Vietnam.  U.N.C.L.E. should’ve gone out the same way, with Solo and Kuryakin headed off to Chile to assassinate Salvador Allende.  That would’ve been my kind of grim.

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