Luther Davis: 1916-2008

August 2, 2008

Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29.  Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003. 

The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable.  Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others.  Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living. 

But I think Davis did his finest work for television.  The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop.  Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously.  (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.)  During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family.  He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation.  (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating.  Does anyone out there have a copy?)

Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force.  But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre.  “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident.  “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column.  Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.

Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him.  I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87.  For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey.  Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his.  He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his “longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005.  I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.

Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.

Lonny Chapman died on October 12.  He was a very good character actor with dark hair, beady eyes, and heavy jowls – he looked a lot like Richard Nixon.  But because he had a strong Oklahoma drawl, Chapman became typecast not as a shifty politician, but as a curmudgeonly hick.  His resume is full of ignorant, overall-clad farmers and crooked cracker sheriffs. 

You wouldn’t guess, from the unimaginative way Hollywood used him after he moved to L.A. in 1968, that Chapman had been a stalwart New York theater actor with an astonishing list of credentials.  A member of the legendary Actors Studio since its second year, Chapman performed in plays by William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote.  Lee Strasberg, Daniel Mann, and Harold Clurman directed him on Broadway.  He made two films for Elia Kazan, East of Eden and Baby Doll, the latter in a part tailored specifically for him by Tennessee Williams. 

During the same time he began appearing on live television, starring in a short-lived series called The Investigator and later becoming a favorite of producer Herbert Brodkin and his staff, who cast Chapman often on The Defenders, The Nurses, and For the People (on which he was a regular, as a detective working for prosecutor William Shatner).  He estimated his final tally of television roles at over 300.

I didn’t know Lonny well.  But when I realized that he lived in the same Studio City neighborhood where I had an apartment briefly in 1999, I asked him to have lunch with me and brought along a tape recorder.  It got off to a bad start, because he thought we were meeting at Art’s Deli and I thought it was Jerry’s, and by the time we ended up at the same place I didn’t have much time to spend with Chapman. 

I never published the results of our hurried conversation, partly because Lonny was so taciturn that I didn’t think there was much meat to it.  (When I asked about his World War II  service, he said just one word, “Guadalcanal,” and changed the subject.)  But as I reread it this week, I found more substance there than I had remembered, and I’m doubly glad I had the chance to record some of Chapman’s memories.  Here are some of the highlights.

When did you begin acting?

At the University of Oklahoma, I got into drama.  That’s where I got the bug.  I was going to be in athletics.  I was going to be maybe a coach.  I was a track man.  Then I answered an ad in the Liberal Arts building for some tryouts, auditions, because they didn’t have that many men in the drama department.  I went over and auditioned, and they gave me the leading role! 

In ’48, I got my first Equity job in Mister Roberts.  It was the Chicago company.  It had opened on Broadway already, and they formed a Chicago company.  I was in that for a year.  John Forsythe played Mister Roberts.  I was one of the sailors.  I was the guy that looks through the glasses [binoculars] and sees the girls and gets into a fight and all that.

Not long after you went to New York, you joined the Actors Studio.

I was in the Actors Studio the year after it was formed.  I didn’t get in the first time.  Elia Kazan saw the audition and said, “I think you’re a little green.”  He said, “I like you.  You go down to this other off-Broadway group,” and he gave me their name and I went down and I got into this little off-Broadway group that was full of Actors Studio people.  Then I auditioned again, and I got in.  That was even before Lee Strasberg was there.

What impact did Strasberg’s teachings have on you?

Well, I think I learned a lot from Strasberg.  I didn’t care too much for him on a personal level, but he was very good.  Strasberg had a sense of . . . a theory of acting, all of the aspects of relaxing actors and using themselves, from his knowledge of the theatre.  He’d rather talk about acting, great acting, and it rubbed off.  I learned a lot from him.  Because I was there all through the 50s.  I was doing scenes, boy, I was up there almost every week doing a scene.  In fact, he got tired of seeing me.  He said once, “You again?”

Do you consider yourself a “Method” actor?

Well . . . . Not in quotes – the “Method.”  I think I was brought up, once I got to New York, in the so-called “Method.”  But I do other things.  I don’t follow any rules like that.

It’s instinctive?

Yeah, a lot of it.  Although I taught acting at my own school for eight years in New York, and it was that way of working.  Sense memory – using yourself.  But sometimes you have to bring in other things.  Whatever works for the actor, that’s what I believe in.

Your first big break on Broadway was in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, as Turk, in 1950.

Yeah, I knew Bill quite well.  We drifted apart once we were out here.  I liked him a lot.  He was a very closed-in person.  Very sad, a very sad person, yet very likeable.  But he had a sadness about him.

I played that for almost a year.  From then on, I was in twelve more Broadway shows.

Tell me about some of the highlights.

I was in two Broadway shows with Kim Stanley, written by Horton Foote.  One was Traveling Lady; I played her drunken husband.  The other one was The Chase, which they later made a movie of.  A great actress.  Being on stage with her was the greatest experience I ever had.  She was so giving, so alive, on stage.  I don’t know of any other actor in this business I that I enjoyed working with more.  Of the moment, everything was of the moment.  She didn’t change blocking, but every night the nuances were different from the night before.  Not that she was making up different things; it would just come out different, because she was so great.

I was in the first Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, with James Daly, Lois Smith, and Helen Hayes.  I played the Gentleman Caller.  I did the first revival of The Time of Your Life in New York, with Franchot Tone.  He gave the prop guy money to give him real champagne.  He’d sit there and sip it throughout the show.  Never missed a line. 

The last Broadway show I did was a flop, General Seeger, by Ira Levin, with George C. Scott.  He directed it and played the lead, and I had a fight with him.  William Bendix played General Seeger, but he couldn’t get along with George.  But George was directing this.  The reason I didn’t think he was a good director was because he would act out the parts.  He’d get up and act it out and play the whole scene.  He never did it to me except once, when I was on the witness stand.  It was in this courtroom scene, and I’m on the witness stand, and he got up there and delivered my lines.  I walked out and walked to my dressing room.  He didn’t see me, and he went through the whole thing, my part.  But I wasn’t there to see it!  I came walking back in, and he realized I hadn’t seen it, and he looked at me and he says, “You son of a bitch.”  And that’s all he ever said about it.  But he was one hell of an actor.  He fired William Bendix, and took over the part.

Do you remember the first live TV show you did?

The first one was a series called Captain Video.  That was my very first live TV show, in late 1949.  They didn’t even have a regular union at that time – that was before AFTRA took over.  Then I was in The Gabby Hayes Show, which was very early TV.  Then all the big ones started – Studio One, Philco.  I made the rounds – all of them. 

Did any of those famous on-air mistakes happen to you?

Oh, yeah.  Actors went up on their lines in the middle of a scene.  I went up a couple of times.  I’ll never forget this time on a show that was in three acts.  The second act and the third act started similar.  So I started it, and I realized I had started the third act [instead of the second], and if I continued we would skip a whole act.  So the other actor looked at me [with wide eyes] and stiffened up, and I realized, so he asked me the question again and I got back on track.

When did you first come to Los Angeles?

For East of Eden.  It was my first trip.  I knew James Dean quite well.  He was a fascinating kid.  He was really talented, he had just a knack.  He had the best relaxation of any actor I’ve ever seen.  You didn’t even know for sure if he knew his lines or not. 

Personally, what did you think of him?

I liked him.  A lot of people didn’t care for him.  I helped him discover Woody Guthrie.  I was a big Woody Guthrie fan.  He [Dean] never even knew who he was, and I had all his records.  I introduced him to who Guthrie was.  He wanted to do shoot a film, a movie [about] Woody Guthrie.  He said, “I’ll go to Kazan first, and ask him.”  I was standing there when he went up and asked him, “Lonny and I got this idea to shoot a movie about Woody Guthrie.”  James Dean would have been a very good Woody Guthrie.  Kazan was at that time, busy with his [House] Un-American Activities [Committee testimony].  I don’t think he wanted to touch a guy who’d been accused of being a communist, Woody Guthrie, a left-wing kind of guy!

Kazan was a great director.  The best one I ever worked with. 

Why?

Because he was so good with actors.  He just had a way with actors.  He wanted you to try things.  He’d say, “What do you wanna do?  Let’s see it.  Don’t talk about it, don’t tell me what you’re gonna do, I want to see it.  Go ahead.”  And we’d rehearse it.  If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you try this this time?”  He wouldn’t say, “I didn’t like it.”

What about Hitchcock?  How long did you work on The Birds?

I was on the film for four weeks.  They had several times they went back to that restaurant; it wasn’t just one scene, and they didn’t shoot them all at one time.  He’d go back, and then he’d go back there again.

Hitchcock was not an Actors Studio type of director.

Oh, no.  He was very precise.  He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot.  He knew exactly what he wanted you to do, and he’d tell you.  He was great – very sharp.

Who was your favorite of the television directors you worked with?

Leo Penn was probably the about best relationship I had, of the TV directors, because I knew him in New York, I knew him when he was an actor.  He and I had been friends for years, and he was very easy to work with.  Gives you a lot of leeway.  I did a couple of Andy Griffith’s series with him, Matlocks, and some other things too.  I directed Leo in a show in summer stock, when I had my stock theatre.

Were the parts as good in television?

I got some pretty good parts in television.  I did a big guest-star thing on Bonanza one time, playing a drunken poet.  I did a couple of Gunsmokes.  The Big Valley, I used to do, and that Chuck Connors thing – The Rifleman

Do you think your accent influenced the way you’ve been cast over the years?

Well, yeah, for a while, because I did some Okie-type parts, talking like Dennis Weaver did in Gunsmoke.  That’s why I got cast in those kinds of things.  Although, in stock, I played all kinds of stuff – Shakespeare, and everything.  But in business . . . I don’t think there was a western, maybe a couple or three, [that I wasn't in.]  I made the rounds of all of them.  I always played outlaws, or sometimes a sheriff. 

That must have been less interesting than what you were doing in the theatre.

Yeah, it was.  Although anything is interesting – I give myself to everything I do, whatever it is, if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world.

When you moved out to Los Angeles for good, did you do so reluctantly?

I was twenty-one years in New York, from the first time I had my first job, Mister Roberts.  So, yeah, reluctantly.  About 1967, I realized I hadn’t worked in New York, had a New York job, in three years.  Every job I had was out here.  I was a commuter. 

Do you consider yourself fulfilled, or are there things about your career you would change?

Well, in films and television, I never got into that area where you could pick and choose.  I never got to that.  I would like to have got to that.  I don’t mean becoming a big star, not that, but at least having a sort of a clout in the business.  I never really got to that.  I’m just an actor who worked a lot, in the ’60s and on into the ’70s.

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Later this month I’ll compile a roundup of the important early TV people who died over the course of 2007.  In the meantime, I’m going to post some reminiscences this week concerning a few of them who I was fortunate enough to have known personally.

David Shaw, who died on July 27, was one of the last of the live television playwrights, specifically, one of the last survivors from the group of young writers nurtured by Fred Coe at the Philco Television Playhouse.  (Only Horton Foote and Tad Mosel remain.)  Shaw was one of the older and less celebrated writers among the illustrious group that came to include Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Sumner Locke Elliott, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Gore Vidal.  He was often tapped by biographers and rarely written about himself.  During the 1970s, he turned his back on writing and took up his first love, painting.  Shaw received better writeups than I expected in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but I don’t think anyone quite grasped that he was essentially a comedy writer.  Nowadays everyone thinks of the live anthologies of the fifties as dramas, but in fact they were porous enough to accomodate many genres, and most of David’s originals (like “Nothing to Sneeze At,” based on his misadventures at a Catskills resort) were comedic in tone.  Shaw could thrive quite well writing for legal dramas (The Defenders) or westerns (the TV version of Shane, which he produced), but he also made contributions to Coe’s Mister Peepers, and both of his Broadway credits were musical comedies.

Speaking of light comedy, my own relationship with Shaw began with a meet-cute.  Given his historical significance I had wanted to interview him for years, but my letters through the Writers Guild went unanswered.  I knew that he was married to the actress Maxine Stuart, and that author Jon Krampner had interviewed him at length for his Fred Coe biography, so I did have some rather labyrinthine alternatives for tracking Shaw down that I hadn’t pursued. 

In the meantime, though, I ran into him at the mall.  One day in 2004 I was killing time at the Century City shopping center while I waited to meet someone when I spotted Stuart’s unmistakable face – she’s the landlady in the famous Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” among other things – and I was sure that the elderly gentleman with her had to be Shaw.  So I followed them into a drugstore and, while a bemused David collected their prescriptions, introduced myself to Maxine (who couldn’t have been nicer), got their phone number, and made arrangements to vist them during my next trip to L.A.  I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve walked past a writer or director on the street, someone whom I’d like to meet, and not recognized him because only the name, not the face, was known to me.  Here was a instance which suggested that it might be happening all the time, exposed in this case only because the writer in question happened to be married to a recognizable actress.

David was a tough interview.  He was a very nice man, but as I anticipated from someone who had sworn off his television career long ago, he wasn’t falling over himself to engage with my questions.  If I asked him anything speculative or too detailed, he’d just say he didn’t remember and wait for my next pitch.  I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting.  Jon Krampner, asking mainly about Fred Coe, got much more vivid material from Shaw, and I think it’s both because Shaw was essentially modest – more willing to talk about others than himself – and because Coe’s genius was one of the subjects that got him fired up.

When Shaw died, the Archive of American Television posted its oral history with him online, so I got the chance to see how their interview compared to mine.  It turned out that the two interviews were only done about a month apart, and that the Archive had roughly the same amount of time with David that I did, so it made for a good case study in comparing techniques.  On the whole I’d say that we came out about even.   I was a little relieved to see the Archive’s interviewer, Gary Rutkowski, get a lot of the same disinterested one-word answers that I got, although I think by the end Gary persevered and elicited a few more good stories out of Shaw than I did.  But both of us should have asked David about a show that I hadn’t seen then, but now think is his magnum opus, a Defenders script called “Ordeal.” 

“Ordeal” is the story of an adulterous couple, genuinely in love, who turn on each other after they’re arrested for the murder of the man’s wife and pursue the ill-advised strategy of a joint defense.  Shaw shows us the actual crime in the prolog: it’s actually a hit that the unhinged wife takes out on herself, although no one but the audience ever gets to know that.  It’s a neat structural trick that clears the way for Shaw to focus not on plot but on the nature of love, namely, whether its essence is selfish or selfless when the chips are really down. 

Most of what’s good about “Ordeal” speaks for itself, but one thing nags at me now: Shaw’s decision to make the protagonist, who’s basically a self-involved heel (or at least the performance by Robert Webber, who specialized in such characters, tips him that way), a television writer by profession.  Boy, is that on the nose – a television writer penning a television script about a television writer.  But I can’t quite get the message: Was Shaw inscribing something autobiographical in the generally sensitive treatment of adultery (then a fairly rare topic on television), which comes across as not unreasonable behavior for people mired in loveless relationships?  Or was he just blowing a big raspberry to his chosen profession in making this spineless, cheating sleaze a TV writer?  Or am I reading too much into Shaw’s cynicism, and the television milieu was just a way to slip in a few clever in-jokes (especially about the onerous New York-to-L.A. commute)?   

Of course, it’s possible that if I had asked David all of that, he would’ve looked at me skeptically and said he didn’t remember – but the point is, I missed my chance, and now we’ll never know.

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