Edward Adler, a television writer who lived in and wrote about New York City for most of his career, died on June 8, in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91.  Adler, who was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1920, had suffered from dementia in recent years.

Adler’s early work ran the gamut of sixties New York dramas, from an initial feint on The Nurses to a quick pass at Mr. Broadway to significant contributions to East Side / West Side, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D.  Fittingly, he capped his career in the eighties with producing stints on two hard-boiled street shows, the vigilante drama The Equalizer and Night Heat (which was lensed in Toronto, but liked to pretend it was a New York cop show).

“He was the most lovable guy I guess I ever met in my life,” said Buck Henry, a friend for nearly fifty years.  “I don’t know anyone who knew Eddie that didn’t want to protect him, because he always seemed like an innocent.  Eddie was a great example of someone who always lived close to the ground, so to speak.  He wandered through life with his eye and his ear on a kind of New York that doesn’t exist any more.”

Past forty before he ever typed a script page, Adler was something of a literary sensation in the early sixties.  After a succession of odd jobs – short order cook, furrier’s assistant, Catskills chauffeur, numbers runner for a Brooklyn pool hall owner – Adler spent eight years as a New York City cab driver.  During that time, he produced a novel that was published in early 1962.  Notes From a Dark Street was a Joycean compendium of Lower East Side eccentrics, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, favorably or neutrally, no less than six times during the first half of 1962.  One review compared the book to Hieronymous Bosch; another declared it “a carnival of the senses” and proclaimed Adler “the literary find of the year.”

“Most of the greater New York writers of the twentieth century recognized how good it was.  Philip Roth was always ready to lay a quote on it, and Mailer read it and liked it,” recalled Henry.

Adler was not of the intellectual class – his parents were Eastern European immigrants and shopkeepers in Brooklyn, and Adler himself only had two years of college on the G.I. Bill – and the press made much of his self-taught talent, cultivated through avid wartime reading of Dante, Conrad, and Beckett.  Years later, Adler told me how ridiculous he felt when a Time magazine photographer posed him atop a Checker Cab – holding his typewriter.

Notes From a Dark Street sold fewer than three thousand copies and it looked like it was back to the garage for Eddie Adler, until television came calling.  Adler palled around with musicians and writers and Greenwich Village characters; two of his friends were George Bellak, a television writer who was then story editor of The Nurses, and beat scenester David Padwa, whose ex-wife, Audrey Gellen, was developing the new social work drama East Side / West Side for David Susskind.

The Nurses fizzled out – his script, “Many a Sullivan,” was rewritten by Albert Ruben, possibly among others, and the New York Times described Adler’s experience as “bitter.”  But he kept pounding the keys because, as he told the reporter, “Things were not going so good on the hack.”

Fortunately, Adler was a perfect match for East Side / West Side and, in particular, for its initial executive producer Arnold Perl, a blacklist survivor who wanted the series to be as bluntly progressive as possible.  Adler wrote three terrific, tone-setting scripts for East Side / West Side, all of which number among the most downbeat and street-literate tales mounted by that series.  “The Passion of the Nickel Player” covers the world of small-time numbers runners, which Adler knew well.  “One Drink at a Time,” about a pair of truly desperate, derelict Bowery binge drinkers, may be one of the most depressing and sordid hours of television ever made.  (That’s a compliment.)

But the most important was the first, “Not Bad For Openers,” which drew upon Adler’s inside knowledge of the hack racket.  Curiously, he bypassed this obvious subject for his novel and saved it for his first fully realized television story, a study of a cab driver (Norman Fell, probably an apt Adler surrogate) with a gambling addiction.  Adler, who hung around the Long Island City location (a garage out of which he himself had worked) as a technical advisor, was cagey about how autobiographical the script was.  “I knew a couple of people like the lead in the show,” Adler told me, but also conceded that much of his own experience made it into “Not Bad For Openers” (originally, and more vividly, titled “An Arm-Job to Oblivion,” an arm-job being a taxi ride for which the driver doesn’t turn on the meter).

Adler continued writing his slice-of-life stories for Hawk and N.Y.P.D., both late-sixties time capsules of the New York streets.  A fast writer, he served as an uncredited rewrite man on the first series and an official story editor on the second.  “Larry Arrick [a producer of East Side / West Side] used to say, ‘Here comes the fireman,’ which meant that I rewrote very fast, and that carried over into another series that Susskind did, a half-hour cop show called N.Y.P.D.,” Adler said when I interviewed him in 1996.

“There’s a goddamn episode [of Hawk] that I wrote over a weekend.  Paul Henreid directed this episode, and there wasn’t a script for him ready to shoot.  They called me up and I came in and I wrote a script in twenty-four hours,” added Adler.  But he had left his glasses at the summer cabin where his family was vacationing.  “By middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore.  They ran me down to Delancey Street and I got an emergency pair of glasses in fifteen minutes.  And finished the sceenplay and was blind for about three weeks!”

“The big thing about Eddie was that he came through all the time,” said Bob Markell, the producer of N.Y.P.D.  “His writing was kind of Group Theatre writing.  He was the working man’s writer.  It was tough and gritty.  Great sense of humor; very biting.  I loved some of the things that he did.”

Adler left N.Y.P.D. at the end of its first season to work on a screenplay for Susskind’s company, a daring story about race and the police based on Paul Tyner’s novel Shoot It.  The film’s director and star would have been George C. Scott and Al Pacino, respectively, but it fell apart at the last minute.  In the early seventies, Adler partnered with his friend Buck Henry – whom he had met during East Side / West Side, when Henry and Mel Brooks were creating Get Smart in a nearby office – on two other movie projects, during the period after Catch-22 and Milos Forman’s Taking Off made Henry an especially hot property.  One, Seven Footprints to Satan (later renamed Cells), was a generally indescribable effort that the New York Times attempted to describe in 1970 as “a black comedy about kidnapping and assassination” (“more of a melodrama,” Henry says now); the second, Bullet Proof, was, as Henry told the Times,

about an 18 year-old boy and his relationship with his girl and with other citizens of a Long Island community – particularly the members of the local branch of the American Legion who give him a bang-up going away party when he’s drafted . . . . The title refers to the bullet-proof Bibles that are issued to G.I.’s.

“It was fun to write with him, because we spent an awful lot of time, like writers do, goofing off and laughing and watching the ballgame,” Henry told me yesterday.  “I’ve never had many partners; I don’t write well with partners.  But sometimes when we were working together, because we were both highly pretentious literature fans, we would stumble onto something that made us laugh for a day or two.  We wrote a script once in which we were really stuck for a series of pieces of pretentious monologues, so we just got a copy of [Sartre’s] Being and Nothingness, turned to whatever page our fingers went to and copied a paragraph from it.”

The “director of record” for Bullet Proof was Milos Forman, but neither that nor Cells was made.  In the end, Adler never had a feature credit, just the tell-tale gaps that turnaround projects and unsold pilots leave amid a writer’s credits.

“He was always going toward jobs that he was completely unsuited for,” Henry said.  “He got a job on a soap about ten years ago.  He came out here to L.A. to write the bible, as they say, on it.  The first day he was here he opened his car door into traffic and saw it ripped off and dragged a mile away.  Eddie never was able to figure out Los Angeles.  It was a mystery to him, as it is to many hardcore New Yorkers.”

Adler held out in New York as most of the other television writers moved west.  He made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles twice a year, to pitch stories, but drew the line at a permanent relocation – even when a lucrative offer to head-write a soap opera was made.  His credits from the seventies are thin – Gibbsville, a portion of the Benjamin Franklin miniseries, several unsold pilots, and Death Penalty, a made-for-television movie about Salvador Agron, the “Capeman” killer – in part because Adler devoted more and more of his time to his union, the Writers Guild of America, East.  Adler served on the Guild’s council for thirty-two years and was its president from 1983-1991.

Adler’s wife, Elaine Lipton, died in 2003.  (The main character in Death Penalty, played by Colleen Dewhurst, is named for her.)  He is survived by two sons, Tony (a first assistant director) and Joe, and one novel, which “should be always in print, but it isn’t,” as Buck Henry pointed out.  You can buy a copy of Notes From a Dark Street from Amazon for a penny.

And what of a second novel?  True one-book writers – as opposed to writers who wrote only one famous book, or one good one – are rare (and there’s a great documentary about them, in particular one named Dow Mossman, called Stone Reader, by Mark Moskowitz).  Edward Adler is a member of that small fraternity.  There were notes, scraps, various false starts, according to Joe Adler, but nothing ever came together.

Susskind

October 19, 2010

 

The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life.  Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death.  Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.

If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality.  You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well.  As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years.  He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).

But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer.  It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel.  Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.

Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings.  Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern.  Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered.  In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep.  Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks.  Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows.  It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.

A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career.  Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill.  Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product.  He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting.  Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down.  Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up. 

In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow.  Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him.  I was not alone in this.”  In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle.  One of them was anything before yesterday.  So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.”  Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark.  He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.

A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked.  I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly.  In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t.  Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company.  After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.

Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell.  Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear).  Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it.  His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change.  It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went.  Had he been bipolar during his entire career?  Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t.  Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television?  Because they were crazy.

*

In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib.  (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry).  James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling.  It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.

(There’s another connection to Mad Men.  Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)

James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.”  No.  Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories.  There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance.  There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies.  There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop. 

Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less.  A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited.  Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages.  His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties.  One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself.  Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.”  Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling?  Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?

Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here.  Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying.  I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence.  Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great.  Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.

Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era.  Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end.  Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial.  He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.

But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk.  Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner.  But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price.  (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.)  Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.

But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.”  Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage.  The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.

*

Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between.  The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.

Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996.  For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know.  Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.

There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew.  The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side.  And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs.  Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode.  (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)

Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!).  But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.

In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles).  As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.”  (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.)  Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go.  Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”

That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw.  Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.

Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass.  His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story.  But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten.  In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.

Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did.  It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not.  But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format?    Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.

(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary.  That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)

Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit?  Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights.  Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands.  He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision.  That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true.  A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject.  But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.

*

Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced.  You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that.  Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home.  Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties.  You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).

At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially.   You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes.  If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape.  If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there. 

An excerpt from David Susskind: A Televised Life can be found here, and the book’s official website is here.

One of the reasons I created my website is to promote the idea of methodical, granular scholarship in the field of television history and commentary, which too often seems to operate only on a popular (read: ignorant or lazy) plane.  What I’ve written in the previous post are some not terribly original generalizations about Crime Story.  It would probably be more useful for me to focus on the primary texts, which, in the case of TV episodes, are always the on-screen credits.  If you write about television, you need a good eye for all those names and a good memory for what they mean.

Case in point: I’ve written a lot about “Michael Mann” in the last post.  That’s a kind of shorthand that would be irresponsible without further clarification.  Mann was the executive producer of Crime Story, but the show was created by two writers named Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger.  Reininger was a former stockbroker with few credits when his spec script caught Mann’s attention.  Adamson was a veteran Chicago cop, and some of the material in Crime Story is said to have been based on his own police career.  Both, in other words, were Mann proteges.  And when one considers that the actor playing Torello, the character based on Adamson, was also a former Chicago cop plucked from obscurity by Mann (for a role in his debut film, Thief), one begins to see how a producer with vision can shape the world of a television series without actually being the person who has created or even written most of the material.

Sometimes sorting through the names in a show’s credits can lead to the wrong conclusions.  For instance, the incidental music for Crime Story was composed by Todd Rundgren (for a number of the early episodes) and Al Kooper.  From that one would surmise that, certainly, Michael Mann’s taste in music is hip, since Rundgren was one of the most talented rock/pop producer/singer/songwriters of the seventies, and Kooper is a legendary session musician who played with Dylan and produced early Blood, Sweat and Tears and Lynyrd Skynyrd albums.  One might also assume that Crime Story’s original music is terrific, but that’s not the case, at least to my ears; it’s awfully generic, neither richly sixties-period nor committedly eighties-synthesizer in the manner for which Mann’s films of the time are famous.  Kooper also served as the series’ music supervisor, which means that he was – as the jokey credits for the clip show episode, “Crime Pays,” identify him – the “Guy Who Picks the Songs For the Show.”  In that capacity, Kooper excelled, for the pop tunes that underscore many scenes are indeed well-chosen.  At least, I think they are – there are contradictory reports from fans circulating that Anchor Bay, which released the DVDs which contain the only version of Crime Story I’ve seen, may or may not have replaced some of the songs with stock music.  So it’s possible that I’m criticizing Rundgren and Kooper for something that might not represent their work at all. 

One of the things that surprised me, but shouldn’t have, as I was watching Crime Story is that despite the show’s ready availability and relatively recent vintage, its writing and directing credits are not accurately documented anywhere on the many internet sites devoted to movies and TV shows.  So I will reproduce them here:

(1) Crime Story (9/18/86).  Teleplay by Chuck Adamson  David J. Burke  Gustave Reininger.  Story by Chuck Adamson  Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Abel Ferrara.

(2) “Final Transmission” (9/19/86).  Teleplay by Richard Christian Danus.  Story by Chuck Adamson  Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Leon Ichaso.

(3) “Shadow Dancer” (9/26/86).  Teleplay by Richard Christian Danus.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Leon Ichaso.

(4) “St. Louis Book of Blues” (9/30/86).  Teleplay by Tony Castro & Carlton Cuse.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Leon Ichaso.

(5) “The War” (10/7/86).  Teleplay by Chuck Adamson and Tony Castro & Carlton Cuse.  Story by Chuck Adamson  Gustave Reininger  David J. Burke.  Directed by Leon Ichaso.

(6) “Abrams For the Defense” (10/14/86).  Teleplay by David J. Burke & Kenneth Michael Edwards.  Story by Michael Mann.  Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.

(7) “Pursuit of a Wanted Felon” (10/28/86).  Teleplay by Eric Blakeney & Gene Miller.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Michael Mann.  Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.

(8) “Old Friends, Dead Ends” (11/4/86).  Teleplay by Loraine Despres and Chuck Adamson & David J. Burke.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Bobby Roth.

(9) “Justice Hits the Skids” (11/11/86).  Teleplay by Clifton Campbell.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Michael Mann.  Directed by Mario Di Leo.

(10) “For Love or Money” (12/5/86).  Teleplay by Chuck Adamson & David J. Burke.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Bobby Roth.

(11) “Crime Pays” (syndicated only).  Teleplay by David J. Burke.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Mario Di Leo, Abel Ferrara, Leon Ichaso, and Bobby Roth.  [Ferrara’s and Ichaso’s contributions appear to consist only of flashbacks from their earlier episodes.]

(12) “Hide and Go Thief” (12/12/86).  Teleplay by Clifton Campbell.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Francis Delia.

(13) “Strange Bedfellows” (12/26/87).  Teleplay by David J. Burke.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Francis Delia.

(14) “Fatal Crossroads” (1/9/87).  Teleplay by Clifton Campbell and Chuck Adamson.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Michael Mann.  Directed by Gary A. Sinise.

(15) “Torello on Trial” (1/16/87).  Teleplay by Robert Eisele.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Gary A. Sinise.

(16) “The Kingdom of Money” (1/30/87).  Teleplay by David J. Burke.  Story by Robert Eisele & Michael Mann.  Directed by James A. Contner.

(17) “The Battle of Las Vegas” (2/6/87).  Teleplay by Eric Blakeney.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.

(18) “The Survivor” (2/13/87).  Teleplay by David J. Burke and Chuck Adamson.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger.  Directed by Alan Myerson [misspelled “Meyerson” in the credits].

(19) “The Pinnacle” (2/27/87).  Teleplay by Robert Eisele.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Robert Eisele.  Directed by John Nicolella.

(20) “Top of the World” (3/6/87).  Teleplay by Peter Lance & Frederick Rappaport.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Peter Lance.  Directed by Michael Mann.

(21) “Ground Zero” (3/13/87).  Teleplay by Robert Eisele & Frederick Rappaport and Frank Megna & Peter Lance.  Story by Chuck Adamson & Michael Mann.  Directed by Peter Medak.

Of course, the writing (and even the directing) credits of a television series don’t always represent who really did what behind the scenes, but they’re the essential starting point in trying to sort the creative contributions of the people involved.  To judge by their plenitude of story credits, Adamson (also credited as executive story editor) and Reininger mapped out the basic plotting of the series, with contributions from Mann and story editor David J. Burke (who was replaced by Robert Eisele late in the season).  Then the teleplays were farmed out, at least in part, to be fleshed out by freelancers who appear to have been hired for two or three episodes apiece.

Some of those freelancers deserve further comment.  The first name that jumps out is Carlton Cuse, who is now, as one of the showrunners for Lost, one of the hottest TV writer-producers in Hollywood.  His writing partner on Crime Story, Tony Castro, is a fascinating figure in a different sort of way, a journalist, Angeleno scenester, and eventual ex-con, exactly the sort of larger-than-life character who repeatedly turns up in Mann’s circle.  And I’m delighted that Castro’s foray into TV writing remains obscure enough that, as of this writing, he doesn’t appear to have an IMDb entry.

(Another important personage along these lines from Crime Story is actor John Santucci, who plays Luca’s wheedling sidekick Pauli Taglia.  Santucci was a real-life Chicago safecracker and small-time mafioso who was the basis for James Caan’s character in Thief.  His bug-eyed, psychotic stare is a key visual element of Crime Story, and probably an influence on the cartoonish, semi-comic secondary mobster characters of David Chase’s The Sopranos.  But I think Mann’s obvious infatuation with Santucci turns into a major flaw, as the double-dealing Taglia’s ability to survive Luca’s wrath despite his obvious treachery becomes ever more hard to accept, especially in the ludicrous, slap-in-the-audience’s-face season finale.)

Among the series’ other writers, it’s worth noting how many appear to have gone on to major careers in television after scoring early credits, if not their very first TV assignments, on Crime Story: Eric Blakeney (21 Jump Street), Peter Lance (Wiseguy), Clifton Campbell (Profiler), my fellow Raleigh native David J. Burke (SeaQuest DSV), and Cuse.  There were others with more experience (Richard Danus, for example, had co-written Xanadu) but Mann, very much an outsider working within the system, had the confidence to staff his show almost entirely with newcomers. 

Crime Story’s directors were a more seasoned lot of rank-and-file episodic veterans, although even there one sees some odd choices.  Gary Sinise, then a major actor/director in Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre company, would have been a known quantity to Mann but a total nobody in Hollywood when he played a big guest role in one episode and then returned to make his debut behind the camera on the pivotal “Torello on Trial” episode (which engineered the move from Chicago to Las Vegas).  An even more left-field candidate was Leon Ichaso, the Cuban independant filmmaker who helmed the first four segments following the pilot; Ichaso came full circle within the Mann realm decades later when he directed Pinero (2001), a biopic about the self-destructive playwright Miguel Pinero, another outsider figure whose biggest flirtation with the mainstream was a writing/acting stint on Miami Vice.

Finally, I want to comment on an episode that stands out a bit from the others, “Abrams For the Defense.”  It was the first to center around David Abrams (Stephen Lang), a liberal defense attorney who at first seemed altogether tangential to the main thrust of the show (although eventually it became clear that the writers were positioning him as a crusading anti-mafia prosecutor).  I’ll bet the show’s diehard fans hate this episode, because it largely ignores the mob storylines.  Instead, the story is about Abrams’ defense of an angry black man (Ving Rhames) who punches out his criminally negligent slumlord.  At the risk of seeming completely obsessed with the sixties social drama East Side / West Side, I’m going to posit a theory here: that “Abrams For the Defense” is an intentional homage to the most famous episode of that earlier series, “Who Do You Kill?” 

Both shows open with a scene in which a tenement child is bitten by a rat, and both chart the various abuses the child’s parents suffer afterward at the hands of an implicitly racist bureaucracy.  In “Who Do You Kill?” the baby dies but the show still ends on a note of very fragile hope.  “Abrams For the Defense” spares the child’s life but ups the ante on despair, appending a grim fate for Rhames’ character just when it seems that Abrams and his white liberal friends (including the cops) have made a positive difference in his life.  It’s as if someone behind Crime Story remembered how grim and uncompromising East Side / West Side had been and thought, “Well, I can top that!”

And here’s a corollary to my theory.  The teleplay for “Abrams For the Defense” is credited in part to one Kenneth Michael Edwards.  Edwards is the only writer from Crime Story’s first season for whom I can find no other credits on the internet, and who isn’t listed in the Writers Guild of America’s online database (at least not with that middle initial).  Michael Mann’s middle name is Kenneth.  I’m going to speculate, then, that “Kenneth Michael Edwards” could be a pseudonym of Mann’s, and that “Abrams For the Defense” is specifically his tribute to East Side / West Side. 

Mann was twenty when East Side debuted in 1963, old enough to have seen it during his formative creative years – and 1963 is the year in which Crime Story is set.  Was Mann a fan of East Side / West Side?  Is there some connective tissue between Neil Brock’s growly broken-nosed swaggering masculinity and Mike Torello’s suave broken-nosed swaggering masculinity?  If my guess is correct, that would make the atypical “Abrams For the Defense” the only Crime Story segment for which Mann is the primary writer, and therefore a key episode in his canon alongside the only one Mann directed, the climactic “Top of the World.”  (Why would Mann use an alias for the teleplay and his own name for the story credit?  I have no idea.)

In any case, it’s a riddle for future Mannologists to unravel.

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