QM Minus Two

September 17, 2009

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Paul Burke and Nancy Malone in Naked City (“Requiem For a Sunday Afternoon,” 1961)

The grim reaper has been working overtime this month: Larry Gelbart, Army Archerd, Patrick Swayze, Henry Gibson, Zakes Mokae, Mary Travers, and the estimable Dick Berg, who granted me a good interview last year.  One of the weird coincidences in television history is that many of the major players – actors, writers, directors, crew – from the Quinn Martin factory are or, until recently, were still alive and available for interviews.  If you were writing about Bewitched or Ben Casey, you were out of luck, but if you tackled a QM show you could compile a decent production narrative by way of oral history.

Now death finally seems to be catching up with QM, claiming Philip Saltzman (a producer of The FBI and Barnaby Jones) a couple of weeks ago, and now both Paul Burke and George Eckstein over the weekend.  Burke, of course, was the second star of QM’s World War II drama 12 O’Clock High, replacing Robert Lansing, whom Martin found too diffident and remote to headline his series.  Burke had a more likeable, down-to-earth quality than Lansing, although he was a less gifted actor.  He was Leno to Lansing’s Letterman.

Burke had also been the replacement star of Naked City, taking over for James Franciscus in what the New York Times’s obituarist, Margalit Fox, called Naked City’s second season.  Technically that’s accurate, but Fox’s phrasing reminded me of how it has never felt true.  In my mind, there were two Naked Citys, the half-hour and the subsequent hour-long version.  Both sprang originally from the pen of the prolific Stirling Silliphant, and both took great advantage of the practical outdoor locations available in New York City.  But the casts were different (save for a pair of supporting players), a full TV season separated them, and the extended length of the later episodes occasioned a major shift in tone. 

The Los Angeles Times’s obit for Burke called Naked City “gritty,” but that’s more true of the Franciscus version, a lean, action-centric genre piece that turned Manhattan into a giant playground for foot and car chases.  The half-hour City had more in common with other contemporary half-hour crime melodramas – there were a wave of these made in New York City in the late fifties, including Big Story, Decoy, and Brenner – than with its own sixty-minute incarnation, which told character-based stories in a much wider tonal range.  The Stirling Silliphant of the first Naked City was the terse pulp writer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and late films noir (The Lineup, Five Against the House).  By 1960, when the hour Naked City debuted, he was the loquacious beat poet of Route 66, a personal writer working an in an ever more idiosyncratic voice.  Because not even Silliphant was prolific enough to write both shows at once, he gradually delegated Naked City to Howard Rodman, whose scripts were even more lyrical and offbeat.

If I haven’t said too much about Paul Burke, it’s because he always struck me as a passive personality, just on the good side of dull.  That sounds like a knock, but it may have made Burke ideal for the hour Naked City, which required the regulars to step aside most weeks to let some grand stage actor – Eli Wallach or Lee J. Cobb or George C. Scott – take a whack at one of Silliphant’s or Rodman’s verbose eccentrics.  One of the best things about Naked City was the relationship between Burke’s Detective Adam Flint and his girlfriend Libby, played by Nancy Malone, that resided on the margins of the show.  The pair were friends as well as lovers, and quite clearly (thanks less to the dialogue than to the sidelong glances between the two actors) sleeping together.  Adam and Libby were one of TV’s first modern, urbane, adult couples: Rob and Laura Petrie without the farce.  Burke may have done his finest work in those scenes.

*

George Eckstein produced Banacek, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and a number of other important television movies of the seventies.  But I suspect more TV fans remember him as a story editor and primary writer for Quinn Martin’s two finest hours, The Fugitive (for which Eckstein co-wrote the two-hour series finale) and The Invaders

Last month Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, chastized me for expressing only modest enthusiasm toward Philip Saltzman’s Fugitive episodes, which included one of Ed’s favorites, “Cry Uncle.”  Well, I’m relieved to report that Eckstein wrote some of my favorite episodes, chiefly “The Survivors” (about Richard Kimble’s complex relationship with his in-laws), “See Hollywood and Die,” and “This’ll Kill You.” 

The latter two paired Kimble, the innocent man on the lam, with actual hoodlums of one variety or another, allowing Eckstein to zero in one of the more intriguing aspects of the show’s premise: how does one live among the underworld of criminals without becoming one of them?  “This’ll Kill You” showcases Mickey Rooney as a washed-up, mobbed-up comedian, whose infatuation with a treacherous moll (the great Nita Talbot) leads him to his doom.  It seems like every TV drama of the sixties wrapped a segment specifically around Rooney’s fireball energy; some were dynamite (Arrest and Trial’s “Funny Man With a Monkey,” with Rooney as a desperate heroin-popper) and some disastrous (The Twilight Zone’s “Last Night of a Jockey,” with Rooney as, well, an annoying short guy).  Eckstein’s seedy little neo-noir gave Rooney some scenery worth chewing.

I interviewed Eckstein briefly in 1998 while researching my article on The Invaders.  Eckstein is only quoted in the published version a few times, because he was incredibly circumspect.  Not only would he not say anything bad about anyone, he’d barely say anything at all about them.  I suspect Eckstein agreed to talk to me only because I had gotten his number from another gentleman of the old school, Alan Armer, who had been his boss on the two QM shows.  I wish I could have asked him more – especially now, as I am just reaching the point in the run of The Untouchables (which I had never seen before its DVD release) when Eckstein, making his TV debut, became a significant contributor.  It’s always a race against time.

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The writer Eliot Asinof died on June 10.  He was best known for his books about sports, both fiction and non-fiction, and in particular Eight Men Out, which documented the Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred in 1919, the year of Asinof’s birth.  Asinof was also a television writer active during the days of live television dramas.

I’m late weighing in on Asinof’s passing, but I wanted to comment on a couple of intriguing aspects of his career that were overlooked by the obituaries.  Asinof was blacklisted during the Red scare of the fifties, a fact I did not know until this month, and one which may account for the paucity of known television credits on his resume. 

Asinof also had a connection to the blacklist that was not noted by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times obits, or any others I read.  Before he was himself blacklisted, Asinof acted as a front for at least one other blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein.  A “front” was someone who, in essence, impersonated a writer who could not work under his own name.  The front presented the blacklisted writer’s work as his own, in many cases even participating in story conferences and rehearsals.  This elaborate ruse became necessary after the television networks realized that many blacklisted writers were using pseudonyms and demanded that TV shows produce a real, live person to match any new names that appeared on scripts.  Fronting was a thankless and potentially risky task, and it’s possible that it hastened Asinof’s own political troubles, although according to the New York Times Asinof’s FBI file indicated another, more fitting reason for his blacklisting: he had signed a petition on behalf of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Years later Walter Bernstein wrote one of the best books about the blacklist, a personal memoir called Inside Out.  Bernstein identifies his fronts only by first name, although we know who most of them are; “Howard,” for instance, was the talented Naked City and Route 66 writer Howard Rodman.  Asinof, then, is named only as “Eliot,” and Bernstein gives us a vivid portrait of him:

Eliot was God’s angry man, perpetually at war with the world’s injustice.  He did not suffer fools gladly.  He was capable of storming unannounced into an editor’s office and terrorizing the place.  At times it seemed as though anger was what fueled him and gave him purpose . . . . It also made his life difficult.  He could not fathom the difference between demurral and argument.  There was a certain purity to Eliot, no capacity to dissemble, and that didn’t help either.

And:

My only concern was that the second script [to bear Asinof's name] was for a producer who really was a fool and would require foolish script changes.  Eliot had to go in as the writer to listen to this, and even though it was not his own script, his sense of injustice was boundless.  It was a toss-up whether he would simply, if colorfully denounce the producer for what he was (not just for what he was doing) or just hold him out the window until he saw the error of his ways.  Fortunately Eliot did neither of these and the shows went on without incident . . . .

Because Asinof was a writer himself as well as a front for Bernstein, it’s difficult to sort out which of his credits belong to whom.  The Goodyear Television Playhouse segment “Man on Spikes” was an adaptation of Asinof’s first novel, a baseball story, so we can assume that Asinof himself wrote that teleplay.  On the other hand, we know that Bernstein was an uncredited presence on various David Susskind projects, including the prestigious DuPont Show of the Month – another of his fronts, a non-writer named Leslie Slote, received credit for several of those – so I would tend to put the Asinof-attributed “Body and Soul” episode, an adaptation of the 1947 Robert Rossen-Abraham Polonsky film with Ben Gazzara in the John Garfield role, into the Bernstein column.  But “Body and Soul” was a boxing story, so perhaps Asinof the sportswriter made some contributions as well?  And I have no idea if Asinof’s 1956 Climax script is really his, although I’d guess that it predates his association with Bernstein.

(During the seventies, Asinof prevailed in a legal battle with David Susskind over the latter’s planned television adaptation of Eight Men Out.  Asinof wrote a book called Bleeding Between the Lines, now out of print, about the Susskind litigation.)

Asinof has an inconsequential credit on at least one episode of the anti-mob, Untouchables knockoff Cain’s Hundred; the credits of the 1961 “Markdown on a Man” segment read, “Teleplay by Eliot Asinof and Paul Monash; Story by Irving Elman and Paul Monash.”  I had assumed, because this series falls after the worst of the blacklisting period, that this was an authentic Asinof script.  Now I’m not so sure.

Cain’s Hundred was produced by Charles Russell, the legendary figure who had endangered his job with CBS by hiring Bernstein, Arnold Manoff, Abe Polonsky, and other blacklistees to write in secret for Danger and You Are There.  Russell essentially created the front system.  Asinof would have known him from New York too.  But there’s a passage in Inside Out (on pages 242-243) in which Bernstein recounts a trip to Los Angeles with Manoff to help out their old friend Russell, who had moved west to produce an “adventure show” and was struggling with the assignment.  Russell was drinking heavily, in conflict with his bosses, and saddled with crummy scripts.  Inside Out doesn’t give the name of the show in question, but Bernstein writes that the “lead actor was a stiff.”  That certainly describes Mark Richman, who played Nicholas Cain, but it could also apply to Gardner McKay, the star of Adventures in Paradise, which Russell produced briefly during the preceding TV season.  Was Asinof another New York writer scooped up by Russell to patch up weak teleplays, or was he lending his name to cover Bernstein’s involvement as late as 1961?

The task of mapping Asinof’s blacklist-era credits gets even thornier.  In the obituaries, Asinof’s son mentioned the westerns Wagon Train and Maverick as series for which Asinof wrote.  I can’t be certain about Wagon Train, but Ed Robertson’s reliable Maverick: Legend of the West indicates that Asinof never received screen credit on an episode of Maverick.  Are the obits in error?  Did Asinof write for Maverick under a pseudonym?  There are a handful of names among the Maverick credits that I can’t verify as real people, but it’s also possible Asinof sold the show an outline or a script that was never produced.  Asinof was able to get some work, for himself and for Bernstein, under his own name throughout the height of the blacklist in television in the late fifties.  But many lesser-known writers and actors were the victims of an incomplete blacklisting – they could get work at some networks and from some producers, but not others – and this may have been the case with Asinof.

One teleplay not mentioned in Asinof’s obituaries is almost certainly his own work, and deserves comment.  It’s a 1964 episode of the college drama Channing entitled “Swing For the Moon” – a baseball story.  Asinof’s dialogue is a little clunky, but the story of a promising young athlete (Charles Robinson) and the overbearing older brother (Ralph Meeker) who tries to quash his dreams of a ballplaying career has an emotional resonance.

An addendum: Various online sources indicate that Martin Balsam played inherited John Garfield’s Charlie Davis role in the Play of the Month version of “Body and Soul.”  But after some checking I found evidence to support my conviction that it had to be Gazzara – Martin Balsam as a boxing champ is a bit of stretch, even by the sometimes imprecise standards of live TV.  Gazzara may also have mentioned it in his autobiography In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, but if so I’ve already forgotten.

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