July 18, 2011
Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York. On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.
Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films. Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein. At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.
After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle. Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career. What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director. Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955
His was a quintessentially American story. He was the ultimate self-made man. Sidney was always going forward. He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality. He was the most immediate person that ever lived. Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.
Sidney and I met when we were eighteen. He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress. Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David. That was his last acting part. He replaced Marlon Brando.
He lived with his sister at the time. He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay. Fay brought him up. Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet]. But I liked his father. He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough. A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time. He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.
Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street. We still weren’t married. My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor! I modeled, and that paid the rent. Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.
At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop. I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct. Why don’t you be a director, too? I mean, you’re so good. You can do everything.” So he became a director. And we just had a jolly good time. We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture. Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?
Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special. This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child. Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.
His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste. Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties. I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me. He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing? How’s Sidney?” And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?” I said, “What a great idea. Call him tonight and ask him.” I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS. It’s a new medium.” He said, “I’m not interested. I really like being a teacher.” I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney. I think this is an opportunity.”
Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.” I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!” It was a very funny conversation. He said, “All right, I’ll come down.” And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it. He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.
The intensity of the control room was just his tempo. The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him. He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile. He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors. Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director. Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.
I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times. One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead. But I had my own career. There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses. One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star. I met her on the set of You Are There. That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney. She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.
I was at CBS all the time. I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes. Sidney was in such total control of everything. He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell. Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney. Anything Sidney said, went. We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter. Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot. Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney. She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.
Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality. Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him. He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs. He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality]. Sidney was very stubborn. Sidney always had to win his points. He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself. He was a tough little fighter. That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.
We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall. We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us. Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live! So we got married. It was a lovely wedding, actually. It was at my mom and dad’s house. Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends. Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button. That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned. His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.
Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married. It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home. He was a lousy cook, but I was worse. Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present. I started digging in and doing all those those things. It was a young, fun marriage. We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
Sidney and I first met on Danger. First of all, he was my age. We were exactly the same age. He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre. His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.
On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director. The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt. And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director! Sidney was a wonderful assistant director. He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated. He was right on time. I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production. You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously. So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in. And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.
What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which. I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit. I’m not sure why. The position of the director was open. Sidney did not get it automatically. It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while. And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors. And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.
Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house. We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out. I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing. He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here. But otherwise we didn’t really socialize. We just were different people.
I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental. We did a lot of experimenting in those days. Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects. I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now. If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up. I always knew I could depend on Sidney. He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.
Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan. We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest. The rule in those days was you could never use white. Blue was the equivalent of white on television. Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that. I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry. I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue. Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.” Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that. Sidney didn’t fight me. He said, “Let’s give it a go. Let’s try the white.” I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that. It’ll give us a lot of trouble.” So we did the scene white, literally white. What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies. It integrated beautifully. And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”
I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan. They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera. One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up. And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?” They were good days.
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)
Sidney was wonderful. He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper. First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people. But more than that, he was never at a loss. In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong. Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that. He deserved it, and they gave it to him.
But you knew he was an actor’s director. They all loved working with him. Because Sid was spontaneous. Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge. That’s the way they were going to do it. Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to. He wasn’t locked into it.
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)
He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home. We were dear, close friends for many years.
I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other. Isn’t that amazing? I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.
He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work. It was always personal, always just the two of you. He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.
Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)
The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School. I had no ambition to be an actor. My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially. There was no show biz mom or so forth. A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show. But it paid for my tuition. I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.
On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory. It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.” I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me. Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed. Cut to commercial. The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop. And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day! I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding. Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.
Sidney was tremendously invitational. Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors. Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions. He was not disciplinary in any way.
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)
I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.” We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan. But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator. Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor. Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.
While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head. He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist. The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes. Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue. And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.
He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled. And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side. He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide. But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.
On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play. There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.
Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts. Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.
I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication. I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue. He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.
Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men. I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine. Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so. Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency. And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose. I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.
The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003. We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy. He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy). Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me. He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led. I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both. But my admiration for him is immense.
Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows. We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood. The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster. Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.
12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature. I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows]. The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that. When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset. They said, “Gee, that’s not good. In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.” They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.
I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did. Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while. Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer. He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies. He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront. And so I was left hanging. I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime. If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have. And I understood. But I was hoping for more than that.
In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it. I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy. And I was the fall guy. [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back. Tell him.” I said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”
My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it. Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me. I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”
I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer? Who is taking my job?” He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television]. Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition. But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.
Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney. I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me. I walk in. I say, “Hi, Sidney.” Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?” I said, “Oh, Sidney. I knew you’d get me one way or the other.” Then he and I laughed. I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”
But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all. We worked together a lot, even after the movie. We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.” The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other. He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.
Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)
He was a little crazy, but very nice. He was an ex-actor himself. He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors. He knew the pressure that we were under. Everything was live then. You didn’t get a break.
One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff. He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”
He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?” And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good. Let’s use it.” Or, “Let’s try something else.” Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy. He said, “Let’s have you faint.”
So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something. There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.” I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].
[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy. Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.” So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.
He was a lot of fun. A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension. I did A View From the Bridge. He directed that. One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back. So Sidney would break up. He’d never get mad at anybody.
He gave me my first big break. He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that. The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker. That was my first big part. I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake. This is one of the lead roles. When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?” I did a lot of extra work. I was a very busy extra. And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.” No audition or anything. He said, “I want you to do it. Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”
When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part. He gave a big shot in that. There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role. But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something. So he got a very nice review for me doing my part! He got my review. They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part. That was kind of heartbreaking.
[Technically] he was perfect. He’d say, “Cut two seconds.” Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.” He had a mind like a clock.
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)
David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre. He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him. Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie. Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type. The two were just real opposites. I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him. Sidney got along well with [both of them]. He knew how to handle people.
Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head. He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.” It was just hysterical. People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed. Everyone loved Sidney.
When he was working, he was just the opposite. He was intense. He was super-serious. Technically brilliant. He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right. He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance. I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone. Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast. He really kept an arm’s length. But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer. He kissed everybody. Sidney combined everything good.
“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter. Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type]. I liked Neville a lot. Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.
Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party. Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place. I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived. I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street. It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes. Everybody came. Susskind came. Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife. The apartment was just jammed. People were having a good time. Music was playing. Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap. I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out. Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?
Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her. All the shards went up into her back. We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.” I went in to see how she was. When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood. So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up. I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.” I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock. I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party. All I cared about was Georgine.
Georgine lived in Princeton. I said, “You’ve got to stay over here. You can’t go back to Princeton.” We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it. And everyone was there! It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door. He said, “You know what, Chiz? All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run. They were scared. And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.” Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay. Don’t run from this.” That was his code. I think it came right out of the war, out of battle. You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for. I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)
There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One. My son was about to be born at that time. We reached the dress rehearsal. My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth. But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out. Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here? You belong with your wife. Get out of here.” I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.” But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days. It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The rules got suspended somehow. But not him. He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation. I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part. But he was a gambler.
I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side. He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.” I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that. I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor. He would say, “Keep that in.”
In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.” I was walking on air after that one.
We were a company. We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people. We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors. I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.
Sidney did an interesting thing. He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too. He said, “Which one would you like to play?” He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least. And I chose a different part. I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio. Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.” And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part. It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one. That’s easy for me. I know how to have fun with that.” I was wrong. If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.
We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down. The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made. He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy. Authentically crazy. And I had trouble with that one. So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things. One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion. Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed. I don’t know if it worked or not. But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.
He directed me on stage, too. He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater. I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him. There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors. Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.” He had another category called his “New York actors.” And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category! We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York. I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language. I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it. I couldn’t change his point of view. But I saw his point.
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)
Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination. I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity. He was all over the place. He knew everything. He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov. He fiddled. Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew. He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else. Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors. But always at an intense, high decibel.
I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio. Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it. We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them. It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.
He was a Method director, of course. All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting. What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand. The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about. That’s not the way he worked.
[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all. I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on. Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all. I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly. It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing. A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.
When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it. He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem. He was that kind of friend, that’s all.
Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them. Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.” He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances. He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look. There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.
All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).
April 19, 2010
Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue. That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.
If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties. The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation. The first name makes all the difference. Original recipe Cos is the one you want.
Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently. It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time. There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention. A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot). Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment. It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.” But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.
The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula. It goes in all different directions. Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor. Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach. That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy. Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.
In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog. That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure. Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work. Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.
My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable. Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them. “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs. “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money. Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies. The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame. It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem.
A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing. This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet. The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests. Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.
Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible. In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children. Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play. (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick. The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)
Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby. Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises. In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy. Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.
And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.” She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her. With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal charged with enforcing. A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.
My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife. Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet. But she disappears after a few episodes. That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.
Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.” Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned. Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series. Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.
In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for. He is a victim of racial profiling. But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show. Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.
Is that a cop-out? I’m not sure. Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do. He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool. Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.
In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine. Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him. Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot. The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.
(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)
At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper. In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts. The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable. It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969. The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme. Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect. A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture. But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.
The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality. To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player. He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode. Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable. Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning. The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience. In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.
That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet. Did Cosby oppose interracial dating? Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations? Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera? Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?
Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh. Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors. Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater. My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny. Sometimes.
In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show. An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week. Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players. The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track. The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute its structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.
A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic. The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth. If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places. Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.
The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.” The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend. Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill. The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.
Love American Style is always like that. Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male. It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce. The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman. (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.) Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines. Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.
Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic. But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I? Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.
One reason for that is the anthology structure. If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less. This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week. Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom, goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.
“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute. “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom). “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard. What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Davis, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic. And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.
Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob. It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.” I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.
Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments. The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent. The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white). That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show. It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s. Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied. (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)
But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race. The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples. After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism. I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek. Now I’m starting to get the picture.