The TV Watcher

August 11, 2011

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie.  Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books.  I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember.  What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men in with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

The Moviegoer is a wonderful novel about Binx Bolling, an easygoing fellow from an old New Orleans family.  Binx leads a charmed life in which he makes money, seduces his secretary, and fulfills his modest social obligations with apparent ease.  But his glib exterior conceals a crippling lack of purpose, and an internal and mostly ineffectual search for meaning that Bolling relates to the reader (and no one else) in prose that is both funny and poignant.  It is a modernist novel, but Percy anticipates the cinephilia common to postmodern writers like Robert Coover or Steve Erickson.  Lacking his own reservoir of substantial incidents or ideas to draw upon from his own life, Binx Bolling recalls moments from films or television shows as a means, once removed, of relating his thoughts and feelings.

Binx is not merely a moviegoer, but also a regular watcher of television.  On two occasions he describes the plot of a television episode he has seen recently:

In recent years I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. Three of my acquaintances in Gentilly have daughters named Stephanie.  Last night I saw a TV play about a nuclear test explosion.  Keenan Wynn played a troubled physicist who had many a bad moment with his conscience.  He took solitary walks in the desert.  But you could tell in his heard of hearts he was having a very good time with his soul-searching.  “What right have we to do what we are doing?” he would ask his colleagues in a bitter voice.  “It’s my four-year-old daughter I’m really thinking of,” he told another colleague and took out a snapshot.  “What kind of future are we building for her?” “What is your daughter’s name?” asked the colleague, looking at the picture.  “Stephanie,” said Keenan Wynn in a gruff voice.

And later:

I switch on television and sit directly in front of it, bolt upright and hands on knees in my ladder-back chair.  A play comes on with Dick Powell.  He is a cynical financier who is trying to get control of a small town newspaper.  But he is baffled by the kindliness and sincerity of the town folk.  Even the editor whom he is trying to ruin is nice to him.  And even when he swindles the editor and causes him to have a heart attack from which he later dies, the editor is as friendly as ever and takes the occasion to give Powell a sample of his homespun philosophy.  “We’re no great shakes as a town,” says the editor on his deathbed, teetering on the very brink of eternity.  “But we’re friendly.”  In the end Powell is converted by these good folk and instead of trying to control the paper, applies to the editor’s daughter for the job of reporter so he can fight against political corruption.

At first I racked my memory, and then skimmed the videographies of Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell, in an attempt to identify these TV plays.  But, while every film that Binx Bolling sees is a real one, I have a suspicion that Percy invented these two television episodes.  Binx’s (and Percy’s) attitude toward movies is sometimes bemused but often reverent, as in the quote at the top of this post.  There’s a long, lovely passage in which Binx, his girlfriend, and his disabled half-brother go to a drive-in and see an obscure Clint Walker western, Fort Dobbs (1958).  The two brothers take a shared, unarticulated pleasure in certain familiar western tropes, which pass over the head of the young woman in their company.  The cinema is a common language that offers a special pleasure to the initiated.

By contrast, Percy holds television in somewhat lesser esteem, and his descriptions of the two TV shows Binx watches take on a mocking tone.  The plots of these TV shows are a catalog of sentimental cliches which, unlike the moments from Stagecoach and The Third Man that Binx recalls, offer not even a second of iconic truth in which Binx can find meaning.  I suspect that Percy constructed these plots with too much specificity to have cribbed them from real teleplays.

But . . . I could be wrong.  I haven’t seen all, or even many, of the obscure anthology dramas in which Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell guest-starred during the late fifties (when The Moviegoer is set).  The Wynn segment could be any number of things; the Powell could be one of the several dozen Four Star Playhouses that Powell headlined.  Does anyone out there in TV Land recognize either of these as an actual television episode?

Notes From Buck Houghton

November 6, 2009

Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons.  On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series.  At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.

For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded.   But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.

*

The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952.  Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera.  But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.

Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series.  Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time.  Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”

I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well.  He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.”  Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!”  As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency.  Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.

Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format.  Houghton did not approve of the change.  He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.

Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous.  He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company.  (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.)  The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS.  During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos.  It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves.  This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract.  Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star.  He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”

Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him.  (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.)  Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season.  He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.

The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television.  It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets.  Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone.  Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television).  Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him.  According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.

For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home.  Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen.  He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series.  NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on.  Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O.  Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord.  A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.

*

There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998.  Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion.  We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine. 

For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response.  Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.”  Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.

Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out.  Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause.  (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”)  If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy.  I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.

Veteran television writer and story editor Nina Laemmle died on August 12 at the age of 97.

Laemmle held long-running positions as the story editor of several top television shows during the sixties and seventies.  From 1964-1969, Laemmle was the story editor of Peyton Place, and one of the three writers who mapped out the prime-time serial’s complex plotlines (the others were Del Reisman and, for a time, Richard DeRoy).  From there, Laemmle moved over to Marcus Welby, M.D., where she was the medical drama’s “executive story consultant” during its first five seasons.  Following that, she worked on Quinn Martin’s short-lived Tales of the Unexpected (1977) and became a controversial headwriter of the daytime soap Days of Our Lives in the early eighties.

Prior to her stints on those series, Laemmle had worked in the story department at Four Star, Dick Powell’s busy television production company, from about 1958 until 1963.  In that capacity she was credited as the story editor on much of Four Star’s output, including Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Target: The Corrupters, and The Lloyd Bridges Show.

Most television story editors were freelance writers who took staff jobs occasionally.  Laemmle was one of a handful of story gurus who functioned more like a book editor, forging supportive relationships with writers and working with them to develop their material during long, collegial conferences in her office.  On Peyton Place, the show’s youthful writing staff was divided on the value of Laemmle’s motherly but rigorous story meetings: some found it stimulating, others stifling.

Laemmle sponsored the careers of dozens of talented young writers.  When I spoke to her very briefly in 2005, Laemmle seemed especially proud of having given Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) one of his first assignments, on The Lloyd Bridges Show.

Laemmle was born in England on November 20, 1910, with the memorable maiden name of Nina Dainty.  Later, in Hollywood, Nina married Ernst Laemmle, a producer and the nephew of  Universal Pictures mogul Carl Laemmle.  When Ernst Laemmle died in 1950, Nina took a job as a secretary in the film industry to support her three children.

Nina Laemmle’s colleagues described her in terms that evoked the stereotype of the genteel English lady: classy, reserved, private.

Christopher Knopf, past president of the Writers Guild of America and a talented Four Star contract writer during the early sixties, established himself at the studio after Laemmle invited him to write for The Detectives.  In 2003, Knopf described for me the atmosphere that Laemmle helped to create at Four Star:

Nina was very, very creative and helpful with the writers.  She loved the writers.  You could go in and talk story with Nina.  You could say, “I’ve got a problem with this script.”  She’d say, “Come on, let’s have lunch.” 

Being under contract, you went either to a producer – they usually came to you – or you went to Dick [Powell].  Or you went to Nina first and said, “What about this idea?”

You could work on anything.  You’d do pilots.  They were given to you sometimes, or you created them yourself.  Maybe Nina would call you, or you’d go up to Dick or Nina.  Everybody knew everybody.  It was just wide open.  There were no cliques out there. 

Del Reisman, another former WGA president and Laemmle’s colleague on Peyton Place, issued this statement yesterday:

Stories were her passion.  All manner of stories.  Stories from celebrated literature.  Stories from the headlines.  Stories from her own considerable life’s experience.  She applied this passion to whatever project she worked on, from the highly theatrical Peyton Place, serialized for years, to the clean, clear narratives of Marcus Welby, M.D., semi-anthological, a new story each episode.  In the most professional sense, she was obsessed, and offered one hundred percent of her restless mind to all who worked with her and for her.

 

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